The Loire Valley – Saumur, Town & Castle

Halfway through our sojourn in the valley, I got sick and couldn’t participate in touring the sights for a couple of days. To ease back into activities without venturing too far from my bed, we decided to take a leisurely walk through the Old Town of Saumur. Our B&B, the charming Chambres d’hôtes Casanova was located in a quiet lane at the very edge of the historic town center. To get an impression what a lovely place it is, have a look at the secret gardens surrounding the house.

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Upstairs, one can step out onto this cozy guest terrace. If you look down over the railing on the right,
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you discover the rear courtyard garden. Looking up instead,
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the beautiful roof of the house one lane over reveals itself, which also sports a fantastic front portal. But you have to take a few steps through an alley to see it!
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The oval golden plaque identifies this as Notary offices.
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From our bedroom, the “Ex Libris”, we overlooked both the terrace and this garden.

Around the corner from the splendid red gate, we came across this unusual ancient stone wall separating modern townhouses. It might have been a section of former town ramparts.

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I love the sweet little bench in the shadow of the towering wall.

Near there, we noticed this menacing emblem mounted high on a façade. Clearly, it represents some fierce and powerful superhero. Not being familiar with the term huissier, I had to google it. It means bailiff. French bailiffs, I learned, have a vastly larger scope of responsibilities than American court officers, superheroes indeed.

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Isn’t the contiguity of her sharp folds and lines, and her pointed halo with the anti-pigeon-spikes along the gutter ever so apropos?

Past the bailiff’s office, we meandered through the historical town center, admiring buildings representing the changes of styles and customs over the centuries.

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16th-century half-timbered house with many carved wooden details.
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19th-century building with posh stone carvings and decorative wrought iron banister.
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A partial view of and into the parish church of Saint-Pierre-du-Marais. Surmounting the entry arch is the crest of Cardinal Girolamo Grimaldi-Cavalleroni [*1597 in Genoa, Italy +1685 in Aix, France] AKA Jérôme Grimaldi, commendatory abbot of Saint-Florent near Saumur. He made funds available for needed repairs of the church.

As a commendatory abbot, our clever cardinal would have had the use of two-thirds of the income generated by the monastery. Girolamo, son of a Genoan Senator, had an extra-ordinary ecclesiastical career. Returning from the 30-Year’s-War after fighting on the side of the Holy Roman Emperor, Girolamo entered The Church at around age 20 to receive an education under the tutelage of his uncle, the archbishop of Avignon. After a couple of postings in the provinces, he was appointed Governor of Rome, then Papal Nuncio first to Austria, later to France. In between his nuncal duties, he served as the governor of Perugia and then the province of Urbino. An elevation to cardinal followed soon and the lucrative Archbishoptrice in Aix-en-Provence, where he built himself an episcopal palace the front of which allegedly sported 365 windows. As he was also the Titular Archbishop of Seleucia, we are not surprised. Everyone knows about the excesses under Seleucus’ rule following Alexander’s death! Anyway, back to contemporary France.

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A sign for a shoe repair shop

Just a few steps further down this street, we inadvertently stumbled across the rear façade of the City Hall of Saumur.

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Being nosy, I walked right into their courtyard to find this architecturally unassuming but cute elevated outhouse. It made me smile because it reminded me so strongly of the stone outhouses with their machicolation-type “plumbing” we encountered in the Castle of Beynac in the Périgord Noir earlier this year.

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There also was a horse.

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This chimæra is certainly not the only horse in town. Roughly since the middle of the 18th century, Saumur has been a cavalry training center, becoming the sole home of French mounted troops from 1830 onward. After WWII, the few remaining French cavalry units were combined with modern armored units into the Arme Blindée et Cavalerie or ‘ABC’ and the existing facilities in Saumur became the headquarter for their training. Parallel to these military duties, Saumur also hosts l’Ecole National d’Equitation, the National Riding School, as well as the Cadre Noir, the school’s famous Riding Masters.

To continue our little walk, we passed through a gateway from the rear of Saumur’s town hall to the riverfront plaza in front of City Hall with posh Hotels and other touristic attractions.

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Looking back through the porte cochère at Chimère III
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The River Loire with a view of the large river island, Île d’Offard, positioned in front of the City of Saumur which occupies the left bank.

On our way back to Place Saint-Pierre, we passed this charming building.

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Notice the lovely stone carvings decorating the façade – even the modern curtains are pretty!

Reading the carvings on the wooden lintels, the Droguerie Gebhard, a hardware store from bygone times, offered window glass, paints, and varnishes, while the stone rosettes announce the sale of oils [lubricants like engine grease], ices [ice blocks for cold storage], acids and extracts [chemicals for stone- and wood etching, painting, and other decorative building works and carpentry].

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Chimère III appears as a reflection.

Being on our way to visit the castle, as we were, we had to kick it up a notch and put out our best effort. The castle is a mere 600 m from the town center, but the footpath toward it is mighty steep!

Along the way, we encountered an intriguing complex of buildings.

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Since the 16th century, les Compagnons du Devoir du Tour de France, which roughly translates to “the Companions of Duty who travel through France”, have been members of societies or guilds for the protection of artisans, like stone masons or roofers, etc. This includes pensions and life insurance, as well as the support of widows and orphans. Above all, this society was and is about the proper integration of apprentices into the artisanal life, especially the education of apprentices by the masters of their trades. Qualified apprentices travel through the country for three to five years in a job program that allows them to gain skills and experiences under the tutelage of different masters. This is called Le Tour de France and it’s not done on bicycles! The apprentices must prove their worth through special pieces they create to demonstrate the growth of their skill levels. If they pass muster, they are awarded a symbolic walking stick of honor that you can see in the carved stone plaque above. On the other hand, this being France, heavy emphasis has always been put on everyday communal life and cultural exchange, which created a system of Maisons de Compagnons. These residences provide a home for the apprentices – some as young as 15 – where they live, receive instructions, and share meals and companionship with their fellow students.

The Maison des Compagnons in Saumur goes back many centuries, but it was only recently restored – by their resident stonemason apprentices, who else?

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When I read the two plaques shown above, I wasn’t quite sure that I entirely understood their meaning. Although I am familiar with the journeymen system of craftspeople in Germany, I was afraid to have missed the intricacies of the French version. I had noticed another couple reading the plaques, so I asked them if they could explain it to me. They confirmed my understanding and added some details. What the gentleman said, in conclusion, proved how well integrated into our contemporary society the Compagnons de Devoir still are. “The house will be empty now”, he said, “they will all be on their way to Paris to rebuild Notre Dame”. After all, the motto of these dutiful companions has always been neither to enslave, nor to use, but to serve.

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After this interesting lesson in civic duty, we continued to walk uphill toward our destination, le Château de Saumur.

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Along the way, a look back toward town.
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Finally, almost there!!

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Crossing the castle estate past the outbuildings, we approached the fortification proper.

And that’s pretty much how close we got to the Château de Saumur, home of the Counts of Anjou. As it was Monday, all facilities on the castle hill were closed, the museums, the gift shop & ticket office, the restaurant, and the castle itself. In provincial towns, Monday is a sacred cow, the commercial Day of Rest. Since most everyone works on Saturdays, merchants and other professionals take Mondays off – one might as well get used to it! Having lived in France for a while now, we are indeed used to it, nevertheless, it was a bit of a surprise to find an extensive tourism enterprise completely shuttered.

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Like the majority of Loire Valley Châteaux, the Saumur castle started out as a fortification. In 1026 the infamous Foulque Nerra, also known as Fulk “the Black” Count of Anjou, ca. 970 – 1040 CE, took over an existing fort and enlarged and improved it. The Black Fulk possessed a rather bellicose nature, constantly waging wars against his neighbors in Brittany, Blois, Poitou, and Aquitaine. Historians believe Fulque Nerra may have built as many as one hundred strongholds, in an effort to hamper his enemies’ movements. Ever so restless, in between his wars, the devout Catholic undertook four pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Even though he was illiterate, he believed in education and endowed schools to educate the poor. He was quite a multi-faceted character. Eventually, through Geoffrey V of Anjou and his wife Empress Maude, the castle of Saumur became a Plantagenet possession.

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Even from afar one immediately notices the gilded fleur-de-lys weathervane.

Looking more closely, the ornament looks more like a lily-of-the-valley with blossoms rather than the stylized fleur-de-lys. Such over-the-top decorations always seem like misguided modern additions to me. I dismiss them as Disney style. This time, though, I had to eat humble pie! In Wikipedia, I came across a page in an illuminated prayer book called Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:

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The illuminated miniature for September in the Book of Hours for Duke Jean Ier de Berry shows the southern aspect of the Saumur castle, with grape harvest activities in the foreground. Musée Condé, Ms.65, f.9v. 

The design of the illuminated prayerbook was begun in 1411 by three brothers, Paul, Herman & Johan from Lymborch in the Netherlands, who were celebrated painters and illuminators. The work was commissioned by the duke for whom the brothers worked exclusively. Five years later, all four of them were dead, most likely through a severe black plague epidemic raging around Paris about then. The book of hours was not only unfinished but it disappeared from view for decades, until Duke René d’Anjou commissioned his favorite illuminator Barthélemy d’Eyck to continue the work on the prayer book in the 1440s. Art historians agree that the September folio was created by two different artisans, the harvest scene being attributed to Jean Colombe, painted in the 1480s. However, the castle portion is indeed attributed to d’Eyck. Aside from style and techniques typical for him, one particular aspect supports that theory. At the right edge of the miniature, we see a white columnar arrangement. This structure was used during the Pas de Saumur, a knightly tournament organized in honor of the French king by duke René in 1446.

Returning to my hubris regarding gaudy decorations, and this is after all the reason why we are even talking about this folio, we focus on the image of the Saumur castle painted in the 1440s. As you can see quite clearly in my enlargement below, in addition to a silly profusion of stone fleurs-de-lys along crenelations and such, every one of the towers of the castle of Saumur was capped with a gilded weathervane. Frills and painted lilies were apparently all the rage in 15th-century Anjou! In support of my dislike of fanciful chichi, I quote the Earl of Salisbury from Shakespeare’s drama “King John”:

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Château de Saumur

We continued our walk around the circumference of the castle, admiring its formidable appearance, as well as the magnificent views over the town and the Loire river.

 

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View through an arrow slit into the former moat.

 

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View upriver with l’Île d’Offard on the left and a nuclear power plant on the horizon.

 

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View downriver over the town center and, again, Offard island.

 

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It’s a fortress alright!

 

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We had an extensive conversation with this vocal fellow on his stone perch.

Goodbye Château de Saumur, although we couldn’t see the interior, we were quite impressed by the stout presence of this remarkable edifice.

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