Road Trip, The Royal Route
Follow the traces of France’s royal history, from the Saint-jean-de-luz of Louis XIV to Bordeaux’s 18th century architecture to Abbaye de Fontevraud and the great châteaux of the Loire Valley
‘take versailles, add antwerp and You have Bordeaux’, said the great French novelist, poet and dramatist Victor Hugo. Hugo was referring to Bordeaux’s majestic 18th century architecture and its great river and commercial port. Bordeaux’s golden age was the 18th century, in the period before the French Revolution, when merchants remodeled the city, bequeathing us the architecture we admire today. Royal architects were commissioned to design châteaux and buildings like the Grand Theatre, the city’s sumptuous opera house. In recent years, the city has scrubbed the building façades of their soot, created pedestrian zones, and now her outstanding architecture blends smoothly into contemporary life. Bordeaux is the ideal setting off point for a trip to explore France’s royal architecture and history. To the south, the Saint-jean-de-luz of Louis XIV, and to the north, Tours, Abbaye Notre-dame de Fontevraud and the great châteaux of the Loire.
Bordeaux’s Saint-andré Cathedral has served as the location for two special events in history, separated by almost five centuries! Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future King Louis VII of France here in 1137, while Louis XIII was betrothed to the Spanish Infanta, Anne of Austria, in 1615. The cathedral became a historical monument in 1862, then in 1998 it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as part of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela.
When Paris and Versailles were the centers of power in France, the royals traveled with their entourages, signed alliances and owned palatial estates throughout the country. Heading south from Bordeaux towards the border with Spain is the Basque Country. The charming seaside town on the border, Saintjean-de-luz, was once prime-pickings for privateers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The formidable Basque sailors were given permission to seize enemy ships, then shared the booty with king, the admiralty and his crew. One privateer named Johannès de Suhigaraychipi commandeered more than 100 ships himself. It was in this town that King Louis XIV decided to marry Maria Theresa of Austria, Infanta of Spain. Both royals arrived with considerable entourages, and festivities ensued. Today you can visit the church where they were married and the house Louis XIV stayed in while in Saint-jean-de-luz.
Heading north from Bordeaux towards the Loire, stop in Tours, the gateway to the famous châteaux of the Loire Valley and once the seat of royal power. It was the capital of France during the time of Louis XI in the 15th century, who enjoyed his residence at Château de Plessis-lèz-tours. In the 16th century the French nobility relocated to the Loire Valley and the building spree began, drawing the most talented architects
and artists. Charles IX came through Tours in the 1560s, with his court in tow. Today Tours is a lovely walking city for history and architecture buffs. One of the hallmarks of the city is the Place Plumereau with its half-timbered houses and Romanesque and Renaissance façades. You can walk down the rue Nationale, once the ‘Royal Street’ linking Paris to Spain, north to south. From here, head to the Museum of Fine Arts, housed in the magnificent former Palais des Archevêques (Bishop’s Palace). It has one of the finest and most extensive collections of early Italian works in France. It’s fitting that Tours would have such a lovely art collection, given its history of wealthy patrons. In the 16th century, Leonardo de Vinci arrived in the Loire Valley under the royal patronage of King Francois I.
This golden age in the Loire gradually faded with the War of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, followed by The Plague. The King and his court returned first to Paris, then to Versailles. But the castles and parks remain today.
Châteaux of the Loire
Setting off from Tours, the châteaux of the Loire are all within an easy drive: Amboise, Azay-le-rideau, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chinon, Chambord, de Gizeux, de l’islette, du Clos Lucé, Jallanges, Marcilly-sur-maulne, Amboise, Blois, Valençay, Villandry… Impossible to list them all! Only on arrival in the region do you begin to realize the concentration of magnificent châteaux in this area. It seems fitting to end this royal tour at the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud (Royal Abbey of Fontevraud), the final resting place of the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard the Lionheart. The Abbey is set in 13 hectares of parkland. It was founded nearly a thousand years ago, and over many centuries it was beloved of Kings and Queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine — which brings us back to Bordeaux. Eleanor married Henri Plantagenet (the future King of England) in Bordeaux in 1189. Eleanor outlived her younger husband, and eventually retired to Fontevraud, running the affairs of the kingdom from the Abbey. After a long life of political intrigue as Queen of England, she died here in 1204. Her husband, King Henri was also buried here, along with her son, King Richard the Lionheart, all three in tombs in the royal abbey. Fontevraud continued for centuries as a place of worship, contemplation and art. At the time of the French Revolution, the last abbess was evicted and Napoleon turned it into a prison. In 1963 the prison closed and restoration began on Fontevraud. After 900 years of being closed to the public, it opened its doors 1975. Today, it remains a serene and beautiful place, and there’s a hotel and restaurant making it an unmissable stop on your royal journey.
Place Plumereau in Tours.
Saint-jean-baptiste Church in Saint-jean-de-luz.