There are few places in France of greater historic importance than Chinon. You wouldn’t know that by what you see when you drive into it today as it seems a small sleepy rural town. You’ll see little evidence of it’s past prominence except for the ruins of a fortress on a hill, only partially restored. Between the fortress and pretty Vienne River is sandwiched a small medieval village within which you’ll find dozens of beautifully restored buildings and — best of all — a place in France that is virtually free of tourists. The newer portions of the Chinon have grown beyond this, mostly to the riverbank opposite the historic district. And beyond the town lies the vineyards and greater Loire Valley that now make the region famous.
A brief history of Chinon:
The town’s most historic feature is Chateau Chinon, a medieval castle which long ago served as the residence of the kings of France and England (a thousand years ago the French Kings were also the monarchs of England). It was during the reign of the Plantagenets (especially Henry II, King of England, Count of Anjou) that the castle was revised, expanded and made suitable for Royalty. Chinon becoming the favorite residence of Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Royal Treasury was housed in Chinon and in about 1150 A.D. Henry II frequently held court here during the Angevin Empire. Richard the Lion-Heart, one of Henry II’s and Eleanor’s eight children and future King of England, was born in the Chateau. If you want a feel for this historic time, I’d encourage you to watch the film “Lion in Winter“, starring Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins and Peter O’Toole. The film highlights Chinon during Henry II’s reign.
Several hundred years later, an important visitor arrived. It was to Chateau Chinon that Joan of Arc came to see King Charles VII who had taken refuge at the fortress to hide and rest from the strain of war. Joan inspired the King to reinvigorate French’s efforts in the Hundred Years War with England, which he did. After the sixteenth century, Chinon was no longer a royal residence, the nobility having move north to Paris and later Versailles. The chateau fell into ruin.
Chinon is the birthplace of France’s greatest writers, Francois Rabelais, a 16th century writer, satirist and physician. Rabelais used his home town as the center of his Picrocholine War in his book about the gigantic heros, Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Things to see and do in Chinon:
1) Visit the fortress. The strategic location of the fortress is readily apparent. Today it is mostly in ruin and only parts of it have been restored. Still, it is worth seeing because it is the oldest castle in the Loire Valley (and unlike most of the rest, there’s not a hint of it being a pleasure palace) and it doesn’t take long to see the layout of the place or get a feeling for it’s important history. The exhibits in the castle focus on Joan of Arc’s visit as she’s still a popular French heroine. Most memorable are the great views of the medieval town, the fort’s impressive ramparts, the Vienne River and vineyards of the Loire Valley.
2) Walk the old town – la vielle ville. What a great place for a stroll! The town is small and tightly nestled between the chateau on top of the hill and the Vienne River. In medieval times, the River provided access for ships traveling up and down the Vienne from as far as the Atlantic Ocean. The town’s tourist information can provide you with a fine self-guided tour. A good place to start is on the riverbank by the statue of Francois Rabelais. Rabelais is a famous author born here in the 15th century and is considered France’s first great writer. From the statue make your way towards the hill into the center of Chinon, as did Joan of Arc so long ago. The most interesting street in town is rue Voltaire, cobbled and lined with beautifully restored old houses, cafes, shops and restaurants, many of which date back to the fifteenth century.
3) Chinon is rightly famous for it’s fine red wines, especially Cabernet Franc. Consider a visit to a vineyard.
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