Mar 262012

 Chinon stands on the banks of the River Vienne, the largest tributary of the Loire, about fifteen kilometres from its confluence with that great river. The medieval town is located on the north side of the river, squeezed into a narrow strip of land below the steep hillside on which the castle stands. Now it is bypassed by the D751 which strides across the river on a new bridge a couple of kilometres to the west. But in past times the road used to wind down the hill around the foot of the castle and along the river bank to a point where a small island in the river provided an easy crossing point onto the flat plains to the south.

On top of the hill are the remains of the ancient fortress, setting for a number of important events in France’s history. Now only the remains of the protecting fortified walls and a few other structures are left, the tallest of which is the clock tower above the main gate from which a bell strikes the time every hour of the day and night. There is also what is left of the Cowdray Keep where some of the Templars were lodged after their arrest by Phillipe the Fair on Friday 13th October 1308. They left behind some famous graffiti.

The old town below the castle contains many beautiful medieval houses, some of them half-timbered and some with magnificent circular outside staircases. It is a pleasure to walk round this area, along the narrow streets and passing through the little squares, with the castle looming overhead. This is the setting for the annual Medieval Market about which I shall tell you more in a later blog. It is also the setting for a large part of The Eighth Child.

The hill on which the castle stands is honeycombed with underground caves and passageways. These are now used for the storage of the full wine casks (Chinon produces a famous red wine) and other goods. In recent years the caverns have been put to many other uses including social and sports clubs. There is even a small theatre approached by a wide, sloping passageway from the town. In the last war they were used for hiding escaping allied airmen and various articles of war used by the Résistance. They form an important part of the setting for my novel.

It can be seen that the town and its environs are a romantic location where you can imagine all kinds of things happening, as well as a splendid base from which to plan a touring holiday in the area.


Next week I will tell you more about the annual Medieval Marché which takes place in the town every year on the first weekend in August.



Mar 042012

The Loire Valley is known as the garden of France. It is a green, smiling land of verdant pastures and orchards growing on the rich alluvial soils of the flood plains. On the limestone plateau large areas of vines struggle to obtain the moisture they need to produce their precious fruit. There are also great stretches of woodland, some of it suitable for hunting. In other places the forest is so dense that it is difficult to penetrate. It is in area like this that the duel takes place in The Eighth Child.

In the vineyards the vines have sometimes been found to have tap-roots more than 50 metres (165 feet) long as they fight through the fissured rock in search of water. The visitor to the caves will see roots trailing out of the ceilings even though they are 20/30 metres below the surface of the plateau. It is this battle for moisture which gives the wine its treasured flavour.

Several centuries ago the French royalty and nobility recognised the advantages of owning properties in this favoured area. The result was they acquired estates and built splendid country houses in the region. The high period for this development was the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. As a result there are about twenty grand chateaux within a hundred kilometre (60 mile) radius of the city of Tours in addition to several dozen minor castles and fortified manor houses.

Many of these lovely buildings have been located on cliff edges above the rivers or in the middle of lakes. The most beautiful is claimed to be Chenonceau which bridges the River Cher on seven arches (see photo). Nearly as fine is Azay-le-Rideau which stands on an island in the River Indre, partly surrounded by a lake formed out of one of the side channels. Ussé chateau, as well as being the fabled setting of the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, has been used as the back-drop for many films and television series (the latest as Camelot in Merlin).

One of the oldest castles is perched above the town of Chinon. The remains which can still be seen were mainly built by Henry Plantagenet who became king of England in 1154. At that time a substantial part of modern France was in English hands. Much was lost by King John (nicknamed ‘lackland’). The Angevin lands, including Chinon, were taken from him in 1214. In 1420 the castle at Chinon was the setting for Joan of Arc’s meeting with the Dauphin Charles VII when the young shepherdess persuaded him to appoint her to lead an army which finally drove the English out of nearly all of France in 1453.

To walk round these ancient buildings is to rub shoulders with history.


Next week I will be telling you more about the layout of the medieval town of Chinon.