We hadn’t planned to visit the Château d’Ussé. Instead we’d headed to the more famous and picturesque Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, only to find that it was undergoing major restoration work – always check the website before setting off. In this part of the Loire you need never worry about finding an alternative château to visit though, there seems to be one every few kilometres.
We hopped back into the car, looked at the map, and decided the Château d’Ussé ticked all the right boxes: it was nearby and was generally in the same direction as the Netherlands. We drove down quiet country lanes through beautiful Loire landscapes following the course of the Indre River, until we reached the tiny hamlet of Rigny-Ussé, above which towers the fantastical looking Château d’Ussé.
The château sits on the edge of the Forest of Chinon on a terrace that overlooks the vast sweep of the Indre Valley below. It makes a dramatic sight, white Gothic towers built in the 15th century rising into the blue sky. This is the ultimate fairytale castle, and is credited with inspiring Charles Perrault’s classic tale of La Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty as it’s better known in English.
It’s also one of several château that lays claim to being the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s ‘Cinderella Castle’, an actual fairytale castle which has become an iconic global brand. We could see the resemblance as we waited with a large group of leather clad bikers for the château to open – providing a nice juxtaposition between the home of Sleeping Beauty and the modern world.
Our guidebook was a bit ‘sniffy’ about the château, going as far as to imply it wasn’t really worth visiting. In the wrong mood you might think it was a bit kitsch, but we loved it for that very reason. Walking through the main house the rooms are populated with wax mannequins in period dress from La Belle Époque. I can imagine that it’s a little creepy at night.
The route through the château ends in The King’s Chambers, a fabulous room where the Sun King, Louis XIV stayed. Other luminaries to have stayed here include, Haile Selassie, the Last Emperor of Ethiopia. To be honest we were a bit disappointed, for a €14 entry fee not much of the château is open to the public. We found ourselves back outside in the courtyard with only one more thing to visit … the Sleeping Beauty tower.
It’s difficult to imagine the level of kitsch on display in the Sleeping Beauty rooms, in fact, I think only Disney have managed more kitsch. There are rooms with dubious looking wax figures representing the most famous scenes from the story. My favourite was the scene when the wicked witch curses Sleeping Beauty while the great and the good look on helpless.
At first it was just a normal scene, but then the room darkened and was bathed in flashing red lights for added drama. Blood curdling.
The kitsch didn’t stop there though, after we visited the beautiful small church in the grounds, we went to the wine caves where there were yet more mannequins depicting typical scenes of country life. This included a rather debauched looking group of drunks in one of the cellars. Truly wonderful. After all that excitement we got back in the car and headed north east, our destination … Arras.