The Loire Valley is hosting hundreds of events to celebrate the momentous occasion but would be visitors may be hard pressed to find a room in Amboise. Hotels, filled to bursting, some with camera crews from lands far away including South Korea report full house well into October. When the visitors have gone home, the old Château will still be presiding over the picturesque town and the mighty Loire as it has for a thousand years.Read More
His parents, who have been happily munching bamboo in Beauval for the last seven years, are the only Giant Pandas in France. Huan Huan was born in 2008 in China. Huan means joy. Her cub Mini Yuan Zi, is named after his father Yuan Zi who was also born in 2008 in China. Zi means son of. His mother was Yuan Yuan. Her name means very round head.Read More
The Gare de Tours is quite simply wonderful.
It was built between 1896 and 1898 during what is now known nostalgically as La Belle Époque, a time of peace and prosperity when France was the cultural centre of the world.
The Loire Valley has many common or garden châteaux but Loches is a Royal Château which means it was owned and lived in by French Royalty.
One of the most important, historically speaking, in France, it still has the feel of what it was, a mighty fortress.Read More
There are model villages and then there are model villages and then there’s model châteaux, thirty-three of them in one park, the perfect introduction to the Loire Valley especially for those poor souls who visited in the summer of 2016 which saw the worst flooding seen in a century. Unable to visit the real châteaux because many had water lapping at their doors, tourists came here instead to see what they missed.
On show in the Park are all the big hitters. Among them are Amboise, Blois, Chambord, Chaumont, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chinon, Langeais, Loches, Ussé, Valençay and Villandry, the most prestigious, the most beautiful or the most important.
Faithfully reproduced in 1/ 25 scale, here are some of the architectural treasures of the region although the models represent just a fraction of the hundred or more châteaux open to the general public. There used to be over a thousand on or near the Loire. Why so many? Anyone who was anyone wanted to be near the King and his Court. As the royal châteaux could not accommodate them all, the aristocracy built their own nearby.
Even when the centre of administrative power shifted to Paris, the Loire remained the place where Royalty and camp followers chose to spend their leisure time. The climate was better. The wealthy continued to renovate their châteaux or build lavish new ones to use as summer homes.
Revolutionaries ransacked and destroyed many chateaux when their owners lost their heads on the guillotine. Some were left to rot, some were used as military headquarters during both World Wars.
Today, some privately owned châteaux operate as hotels or bed and breakfasts, some, like Loches, have been taken over by local authorities, some, like Chambord are owned and operated by the government as major tourist sites, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The Loire, France’s longest river at 1013 km, has its spring in the Ardèche. The Loire Valley, with its historic towns and villages, great architectural monuments and the river Loire itself has been designated by UNESCO as an outstanding cultural landscape of great beauty
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Off to Loches to look at some art. The first exhibition was in the wonderful Lansyer Museum.
To go there is to go back to the 1830s. The lovely old house still has its original parquet floors, fireplaces and many other period features.
The museum is dedicated to Emmanuel Lansyer, architect turned artist who inherited the house from his mother. Loches in turn inherited it from him. Lansyer’s will was made in 1891. The museum opened in 1902.
“I hereby devise and bequeath to the Town of Loches all my paintings and drawings existing on the day of my death, in my house in Rue Charles VII [of which my mother is currently occupying a part] and in my apartment in Paris […]. In the aforesaid house, a museum will be created under the name Musée Lansyer”.
He left the town six thousand artefacts including valuable paintings by Piranesi, Canaletto and Delacroix, drawings, sketchbooks, engravings, prints, photographs, books and furniture.
Lansyer worked for the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who was derided for his restorations of ancient buildings. When the fortress of Carcassonne sprouted pointed roofs le Duc was strongly criticised on the grounds that only what was there originally should be reconstructed.
In 1861, Lansyer swapped architecture for painting and went to study under Gustave Courbet. In the exhibition was a reconstruction of Courbet’s teaching studio in rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in Paris. The life size papier mâché cow on show was not there on a whim. Courbet, who painted only what he could see, often took live animals into the studio for his students to draw. The curator’s brainwave in the exhibition was to set up easels to make visitors feel that they were his art students. Some, not us, made brave attempts to draw the cow.
The exhibition showed works by Lansyer side by side with those of Courbet to show the influence he had on his pupil but Courbet could have learned a thing or two from Lansyer. Although Courbet, who visited Lansyer in Loches, is the more famous, Lansyer’s paintings do not in any way suffer by comparison. Those of Loches show his architectural training. One of the Château is especially stunning.
Courbet and fellow artist Millet painted the lives of peasants and manual workers to draw attention to their terrible working conditions. Because they did not idealise or romanticise peasants, they were considered vulgar. Courbet wanted to depict the harshness of life, critics accused him of depicting its ugliness. Their style of painting and their choice of subject matter became known as Realism.
Courbet had a huge influence on the Impressionists. Monet included a portrait of him in Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. Vincent Van Gogh copied his paintings especially Self-Portrait with a Pipe. Van Gogh painted many pictures of men with pipes.
Courbet, like his grandfather who fought in the French Revolution, was a political animal. He seems to have had a self-destructive side. At the peak of his success, he wrote to the Government proposing that Napoleon’s Column in the Place Vendôme be taken down. When the Communards destroyed it, Courbet was ordered to pay the cost of putting it back and was put in prison. When he was discharged he went into self-imposed exile in Switzerland to avoid bankruptcy.
Lansyer on the other hand seems to have died in peace of old age.
The second exhibition was in the Galerie Saint-Antoine. Unlike the Lansyer/Courbet this one is permanent. It is also jaw dropping. Is it for real? It is. Why the amazement? Because on display are two paintings by Caravaggio. Yes. That Caravaggio. How on earth did they end up in Loches?
When St. Anthony’s Church was being restored, the two paintings La Cène à Emmaüs (Supper at Emmaus) and L’Incrédulité de Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas) were discovered. Paintings by Jean Boucher, court painter to Louis XIII, were also found. They were kept under the organ loft until 1999 when someone became interested in a coat of arms on the works. It turned out to belong to Philippe de Bethune, minister of Henry IV, diplomat and art collector who befriended Caravaggio in Rome.
Count Philippe de Bethune was born and died in nearby Selles-sur-Cher. He was France’s Ambassador to Rome between 1601 and 1605. He met Caravaggio through Cardinal Del Monte, one of Caravaggio’s patrons and bought four of his paintings. They are in an inventory of 1608 which lists his collection. These were the first Caravaggios to be seen in France
Art historians who were, to put it mildly, taken aback took seven years to authenticate them. Scientific tests proved the canvasses and pigments are identical to those used by Caravaggio.
Caravaggio was a popular, commercial artist in his own lifetime. His work was much copied but these have been certified as originals. Analysis proved that these are two of the four paintings Bethune bought.
Not long after Bethune left Rome, Caravaggio, full name Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, fled the city. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment and had a death sentence pronounced against him by the Pope after killing a young man. He was found dead on a beach in 1610.
We left home excited by the thought of seeing original paintings by Courbet. We returned almost shell shocked by seeing original Caravaggios. Life is full of surprises.
Thank you Loches.
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Thanks to the sterling efforts of Monsieur Paul Metadier and his son Bernard-Paul, even those who have never heard of Balzac will enjoy Saché. This delightful, homely, house is almost as the novelist left it after his last visit in 1848.
In 1926, Paul Métadier, Professor at the Faculty of Medicine of Tours, bought the nearby Château de Valesne estate (not open to the public) which included the abandoned chateau Saché.
In 1951, Metadier’s son, Bernard-Paul, a devoted fan of Balzac, persuaded his father to turn the house into a museum to pay homage to his hero. Bernard-Paul, who devoted his life to the museum, was the curator here from 1958 to 2001.
Balzac’s equally devoted followers, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens (often called the English Balzac) Jack Kerouac, Henry James, Friedrich Engels and Fyodor Dostoevsky would have been delighted.
Saché was looted by Germans during WWII but luckily the wonderful trompe-l’oeil wallpaper survived. In the dining room, a fragment of the original wallpaper was used to create its replica. The wonderful frieze appears in Le Père Goriot which Balzac wrote at Saché. The wallpaper in the hall was recreated from a fragment found in George Sand’s bedroom at Nohant in the Indre, where Balzac often visited her. The writers admired each other but did not share political views.
It would be a cold heart that did not warm to Honoré Balzac. His life was more tragic than that of the characters in his novels. He is one of those you would love to sit next to at dinner although, as we shall see, that would be difficult.
Saché is where Honoré came when life got too much for him, when he needed to go for long walks and breathe fresh county air, where he hid from his creditors in Paris. With a twenty-three hour coach ride to Tours (where he was born) and (if there was no-one to meet him) a fifteen mile walk to Saché when he got off, it was not a journey to be taken lightly. He must have been pretty desperate.
He came to Saché to find quiet but often didn’t. He said:
There’s no peace living in a château. People come to visit and you have to dress at a particular time. Provincial people think it very odd that anyone should want to miss dinner to pursue an idea.
And there you have the words of a non-provincial, a non-conformist, in short a writer. Writers like staying in their pyjamas until at least till lunch time, all day if they can get away with it. They resent spending time away from their desks to wash, clean their teeth, get dressed or go to bed. As for venturing out the reason must be pressing.
On his desk at Saché is the pot for the coffee that might have helped kill him at just fifty-one. Very particular about his coffee, Balzac had it delivered from Paris and let it brew as he worked from two or three in the morning to five in the evening when the bell, which still hangs at the entrance, called him for dinner.
He loved the view from his bedroom window but closed the curtains when he wrote. Writers write to escape from Life, not embrace it. It can provide relief, although in Balzac’s case, it was counter-productive. His obsession resulted in health problems.
The Marquis de Biencourt, owner of the nearby Château Azay-le-Rideau, was a frequent guest at dinner. Balzac was not impressed by titles. He said:
The aristocracy and authority of talent are more substantial than the aristocracy of names and material power.
Of the after dinner entertainment – a deck of cards on the table in the drawing room at Saché – he said: This is how one kills time!
Despite annoying hosts wanting to show him off to their other guests, Balzac did manage to write at Saché. By the time he died he had completed ninety-one novels. You can’t do that if you stop for dinner or go to sleep. Talking about dinner, he raved about Saché’s wine cellar, especially the twenty-five year old Vouvray but it’s doubtful he got to drink much. He despised his rich host’s ‘stinginess’ and his ‘intolerant, bigoted, hunchbacked and hardly spiritual’ wife.
His hosts were Monsieur and Madame Jean de Margonne, friends of Balzac’s parents which is strange because Jean de Margonne was his mother’s lover. He was the father of Balzac’s half-brother, Henry.
Balzac’s relationship with his family was strained. His father, one of eleven children, was aspirational, inspirational. In 1760 he left home for Paris with no money and no support. By 1776 he was Secretary to the King’s Council. After the Reign of Terror he was posted to Tours to coordinate army supplies.
Balzac’s mother, who came from a wealthy family, was just eighteen when she married François Balzac. He was fifty. It was not a love match. She didn’t like children either. As soon as Honoré was born she sent him away to a wet nurse, didn’t see him again until he was four and even then kept her distance. At ten he was sent away to school. Although his parents were very well off he was kept short of money and bullied, just one of the many reasons he hated it there and spent most of his time in the naughty corner. Not that he minded. An avid devourer of books, he read till his eyes watered and until the day he became so ill he was removed from school.
When he moved with his family back to Paris, Balzac was so unhappy he jumped in the river. After three boring years at the Sorbonne he spent a further three miserable years in a law office. In his novel Le Notaire, his character despises:
The hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold. He hated being a clerk, a machine, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours…that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again… I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.
What he really wanted to do was write. His disapproving, furious, parents gave him a starvation allowance to rent the proverbial writer’s garret and starve he did. In the naughty corner again, Balzac felt at home. He considered toil and effort a mark of nobility.
When his father died, Balzac, age 30, wrote a story about a 30 year-old man who kills his father. This was the first time he did not use a pseudonym. He signed it Honoré de Balzac adding the aristocratic de in an attempt to fit into respected society.
One day Balzac had the inspiration to write La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy) a series of books reflecting French society. Considering his own life, La Tragedie Humaine would be more apt. The moment the idea came to him, Balzac raced to tell his sister. He said I am about to become a genius! He did. Edison said genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine perspiration.
Balzac nurtured political ambitions. He failed. He said a mediator between the King and insurgents needed a young, vigorous man. Planning to be that man he addressed the upper classes in Chinon. After a near-fatal accident in 1832 when he slipped and cracked his head on the street Balzac decided not to stand for election.
In 1836 Balzac became editor of Chronique de Paris, a weekly magazine. The magazine failed. In 1840 he founded Revue Parisienne. It also failed. He tried his hand at publishing French classics but failed. The books were sold as waste paper.
He then borrowed money to try his hand at printing. He failed. The wonderful 19th century printing shop in Saché reminds visitors of the trade Balzac practised from 1826 to 1828. It ended in bankruptcy.
Balzac wasn’t cut out for business. His genius which lay elsewhere. His spirit was captured by Auguste Rodin in his Monument to Balzac which the visitor will also find in Saché in a room which tells the story of the statue. It caused outrage when it was unveiled in 1891.
All Balzac’s early works which were published under pseudonyms are here as are almost all the first editions of his novels alongside his corrected proofs. He revised obsessively, covering proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He repeated this process during publication causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher.
In 1832 Balzac received an anonymous letter from the Ukraine with no return address signed L’Étrangère (The Foreigner). It began a fifteen year correspondence between Balzac and Lady Eveline Hańska the object of [his] sweetest dreams. Each had found their soul mate.
Lady Eveline was Polish. As a teenager she was married off to an aristocrat twenty years her senior. When her husband died in 1841, overcoming every obstacle put in her way by those who disapproved of Balzac, she married Honoré in 1850. They arrived in Paris on his fifty-first birthday but Balzac tragically died five months after his wedding.
Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
At his funeral, Victor Hugo, who was a pall bearer said the nation was in mourning for a man of genius.
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