Romantically set in a little island in the Indre-et-Loire département and hidden by a screen of trees, the Renaissance chateau of Azay-le-Rideau is one of the most beautiful castles in the Loire Valley with an enchanting blend of pinnacles, mullioned windows and sharp turrets.
Azay-le-Rideau: a bit of History
The chateau is considered one of the earliest edifices built in French Renaissance style and features elements of Italian Renaissance.
It was built on the site of a former medieval castle from the 12th century.
In 1518 the domain was bought by Gilles Berthelot, Mayor of Tours and the King’s financier who wished to build in the damp ground of an island in the Indre River a residence to reflect his wealth and status. His castle would incorporate the medieval past of the site to the fashionable Italian Renaissance. He commissioned architect Étienne Rousseau to build the chateau whilst Berthelot’s wife, Philippa Lesbahy, oversaw its design and construction. However construction of the chateau took a long time and it was still incomplete in 1527 when Berthelot was forced to go into exile. The interruption in construction explained why the chateau forms today an L shape. King François I confiscated the chateau and gave it to Antoine Raffin, one of his knights-at-arms in 1535.
The monument passed through many hands in the centuries to come before being purchased in 1905 by the French State for the sum of 200,000 francs. Listed as a Historical Monument, the monument is now managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. Since 2000, Azay-le-Rideau has been included in the Loire Valley area listed as a World Heritage by Unesco.
Exterior of Azay-le-Rideau
French author Balzac who spent much time near the village once described the chateau as resembling “a many faceted diamond, set in the Indre“. It is elegantly set on an island in the middle of the Indre River.
Although it is one of the most famous chateaux in the Loire Valley, Azay-le-Rideau resembles more a small gem. It is formed of two sections: the main central body (or logis) and a right-angled wing.
In the 19th century, the turrets were added at the corners of the chateau to create the illusion of a completed castle. It has a steep slate roof which gives the monument a definite French appearance. The castle was built with tuffeau, the area’s limestone which is soft and easily quarried.
The grand central staircase (escalier d’honneur) is the most remarkable feature of the chateau. It is thought to have been inspired by that of Châteaudun Castle. The magnificent staircase consists of straight flights and serves the three floors of the castle. It is ornate with Italian Renaissance features: pillars, pilasters, carved shells and medallions.
Interior of Azay-le-Rideau
The interior of the chateau features several drawing rooms and stately apartments richly decorated in the neo-Renaissance style. They display an extensive collection of Flemish tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries, including the famous “Scenes from the Old Testament” woven in Oudenaarde (now in the Netherlands) and the “Story of Psyche” designed in Brussels.
Park of Azay-le-Rideau
The English-style park that surrounds the chateau of Azay-le-Rideau covers 8 hectares. It was designed from 1810 by the Marquis of Biencourt who planted sequoias, Atlas cedars, bald cypresses, and ginkgos from Asia. A small reflecting lake reveals the beautiful reflection of the white chateau.
The façade of the chateau of Azay-le-Rideau is currently under restoration and renovation work should be completed in 2017.