A year abroad is not all about studying…Holly Wain escapes for a weekend of Renaissance architecture in the Loire Valley

During my year abroad in Poitiers I have been taken back by the friendliness towards international students. This has ranged from Poitevins, who have offered all sorts of help to navigate the often tricky French systems, to a real willingness to share French culture and welcome me into Poitiers’s traditions. An example of this is the organisation named ‘Poit’étrangers’ which is managed by the town council and the university.

Poitiers 1

The aim of the organisation is to put international students in touch with French families in the region who want to share culture and interests and to start new friendships. In November of last year the town hall organised a reception of international students where I met a very lovely couple who live in a tiny village in the countryside surrounding Poitiers. Edith and Jean-Pierre have been part of the organisation for some years and love to show students around the region. I was thrilled to hear about their idyllic French stone cottage overlooking the fields of Poitou-Charentes, and after talking about my studies in art history, Edith proposed a weekend to the famous royal Loire Châteaux.

The weekend of 9th March I took the train and found myself in tranquil countryside where I was very well looked after and was able to sample some delicious homemade French classics. Bright and early on Saturday morning we took to the road to travel to Blois situated on the river Loire and home to Francis I’s lavish château. Comprising of four distinct wings around a single courtyard, the chateau of Blois showcases varying styles from different periods of French architecture: the 13th century medieval fortress which includes the largest gothic hall in France; the Louis XII wing dating from 1501 which shows Italian influence; the Francis I wing from 1520 with a Renaissance spiral staircase; and finally the Gaston d’Orléans wing from 1638. This last wing illustrates the work of 17th century architect François Mansart, an architect that I am currently studying in the art history department of the University of Poitiers. It was therefore extremely interesting as I was able to get a real sense of the monumental effect created by Mansart’s use of architectural orders.

The famous ‘Francis I’ staircase at Blois.
The famous ‘Francis I’ staircase at Blois.
The Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois, Mansart’s perfect mastery of the orders.
The Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois, Mansart’s perfect mastery of the orders.

On entering the château we found all sorts of art forms acquired and commissioned by Francis I who acted as a ‘protector of the arts’. We also saw the lavish decoration of the king’s bedchamber including details that I had never known of before, such as the tradition of painted and gilded beams.

Pondering sculpture and tapestries at Blois.
Pondering sculpture and tapestries at Blois.

In the afternoon we travelled further down the Loire valley to arrive at Azay-le-Rideau which was announced in the brochure as ‘a jewel of Renaissance architecture’, and I was not disappointed!

The rear elevation of château Azay-le-rideau, surrounded by a moat and gardens ‘à l’anglaise’.
Holly Loire

We followed a guided tour around the 16th century château which took us up into the great attic and to sumptuous royal apartments. The tour gave a sense of the way of life led by one of the château’s original owners, Gilles Berthelot (financier to Francis I), and even details on the very interesting sleeping arrangements! Apparently, due to the difficulties with heating such large rooms all the guests would sleep top and tails in the beds together… so not as glamorous as you might imagine!

Azay-le-Rideau is not the largest and maybe not the most spectacular château in the Loire Valley but I found the 16th architectural details fascinating and the gardens were of particular interest. They demonstrate the growing taste during this period in France for the garden ‘à l’anglaise’ as opposed to the French model where symmetry reigned, reflecting the absolute reign of Louis XIV. The English garden, a reflection of a more liberal political system, was comprised of meandering paths and an impression of nature left in its original and wild state. Who would have thought that gardens and politics could have such links!

Holly and her Poitevan host on the staircase at Blois
Holly and her Poitevan host on the staircase at Blois

Through the organisation Poit’étrangers, my ‘welcome’ family and I had a great weekend discovering the heritage of the Loire Valley. I am very grateful for their kindness and willingness to engage with students from all over the world.

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