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Loches, the oldest château on the Loire river, painting by Emmanuel Lansyer (1891)
Birth of a Royal river
Our story begins in the southeast of France in the haut Ardèche, at the foot of a very old volcano called the Mont Gerbier du Jonc. Three pristine springs flow out of the lava rock and down into the valley below. A little over a mile downstream the adventure builds with 48 tributaries in all before the mighty “fleuve” – terme in French for a river that empties into the sea – completes its journey with its arrival in the estuary at the port of Nantes.
When we think of the Loire, we usually think of the 118 mile stretch between Orléans and Angers, the famous Loire Valley, home to the twenty fabulous châteaux including Chambord, Chenonceau or Blois, though most are actually built on the river’s tributaries. But the “Val de Loire” actually stretches on for some 630 miles in all. In comparison with, say, the Missouri River’s 2,341 miles, those 630 miles may not seem very impressive; still, the Loire remains the longest river in France and the longest untamed river in Europe. It’s thought that the river once, long ago, continued north and joined the Seine, until the “Seine connection” disappeared, leaving only one Loire. Because of its constantly moving sandbanks, the river is virtually unnavigable beyond Orleans, making its beauty all the more untouchable as you progress upstream.
The present day course of the Loire
Unpredictable and untamed
Just how wild the Loire really is is revealed in the devastating floods throughout its history especially in the 17th and 19th centuries. From the Middle Ages on, French king after French king tried desperately to manage the river’s uncontrollable flow with dikes that gave away one after another, spilling both rich top soil and disastrous surges of sand onto adjoining lands and villages. Louis XIII finally gave up any hope of containing the Loire’s inconsistent behaviour and recommended opening holes in the barriers to prevent their collapsing under the river’s angry winter surges.
Charles Colbert, Louis XIV’s eminence grise, set out a program in 1668 that built up the embankments until they couldn’t be suffused. But now the river’s magnificent roman bridges, in no way built to support a Loire that stayed put, simply crumbled one after another under the pressure. The only bridge that eventually resisted was in Beaugency where the barriers were at their lowest level. Of course if the Loire can go from 10 cubic meters to 2,000 cubic meters between August and January, it isn’t really all its fault. Blame for its misdeeds can also be laid on all of the rivers that feed its powerful flow, draining much of France’s rainfall beginning with the Auvergne mountain chain back to the sea.
Beaugency bridge in the Loiret, the only roman bridge still spanning the Loire
Navigating the Loire
Until the arrival of the railroad in the mid 19th-century, the Loire was a major waterway, at least from its Atlantic Ocean estuary to the city of Orléans. The ease of navigating as far as Orleans also explains why the French châteaux are all located in that part of the river. As for navigation beyond Orléans , flat river boats starting upstream beyond Orléans were usually discarded as firewood when they arrived at their destination or were pulled back home by the boatman armed with a harness, patience and, doubtlessly, superhuman strength. One boat, the “gabare” or, in its smaller version, the “toue”, was, on the contrary, built to last. Though somewhat difficult to steer, this flat bottom boat, especially conceived for river use, was able to navigate in shallow water and return upstream thanks to its sail, prevailing westerly winds and the direction of the river.
A unique way of discovering the Loire River, on board du Thoueil
In search of a unique and not too expensive experience? France’s channel 3 recently recorded an excursion one of these small, historically reconstructed toues belonging to an artisanal company called Rêves de Loire. Even if your French isn’t all that good, take a peek. It’s actually possible to ride in one of these historical boats and get a taste of the Loire during its peaceful summer moments. Rêves de Loire, or “Loire Dreams” offers visitors to the châteaux country from one to ten hour excursions starting from a small village near the city of Angers for anything from an hour and a half (16€) to a seven hour day trip (45€). For 70€ this small, family-run company also offers a package deal which includes an overnight bivouac or B ‘n B for two (an additional 60€), dinner in a typical Renoir style “guinguette,” a sort of popular cabaret on the banks of the Loire (moderately priced menu), and a 3 hour return trip home the next morning. You’ll find their website in English here. Besides their boat trips, they also offer a 1½ hour walking discovery trip in English and combined boat and cycling visits. A neat choice for a honeymoon, but if, like me, you’re past that stage, note that they also offer discounts for both children under 160 and young people under 13.
The Loire’s sandbanks come and go, changing both place and shape, with each turn of the seasons
While we’re talking about things to do, if you plan to be in the Touraine region next year during the late Spring, besides visiting châteaux and inevitably taking on a kilo or two due to the region’s notoriously famous cuisine, be advised that, in the category “ freebees”, each year since 1992 a musical event takes place during the last week of Ma built on songs and stories of the Loire. Following a predetermined program beginning in Saumur, an itinerate boat docks each day from city to city until it reaches Tours, bringing a high quality, free of cost, show to the delight of local populations. You’ll find a potpourri video from the 2010 festival here.
Of course it’s up to each one to choose his or her châteaux to visit according to both time and affinities, but one of the all too often neglected gems, in the category, is to be found in Loches, whose 10th century fortress and geographical location made it subject to fierce battles for domination throughout its history. One pertinent example is that of King Philippe August and Richard the Lionhearted. After setting out together, under the Pope’s coercion, to reconquer Jerusalem by way of the second crusade in 1147, a conniving Philippe would take advantage of Richard’s arrest and detention in Austria, on their way home, to convince Richard’s brother into handing over Loches to the French. Just in passing, Philippe also snatched back all of Normandy from his friend Richard, at that time. As soon as he was released, Richard reclaimed his due and won, but 10 years later, after a siege of over a year, Philippe proved the stronger of the two kings and Loches would become first a Royal Domain, then a dastardly prison in the ensuing years.
I’ve spent many an hour, fishing pole in hand, cold water to my knees and toes tickled by the Loire’s gudgeon at my feet. I’ve watched the Loire change to a multitude of colors beneath storm clouds at dusk and marvelled at its shimmer with a million sparks of light under an early morning sun. I’ve envied the Loire for its adventurous history and its unconquerable past and cursed its rude and inconsiderate presumption of self as I watched it spilling its wrath over road and bridge, isolating me from classroom and work, all the time I could see the school, scarcely a stone’s throw away, looming on its opposite bank. I’ve hugged the Loire and hated the Loire, and the Loire has always impartibly replied, “Though humble of birth, I am what I am. Be I devil or demon, fairy or nymph, morality matters little, my valor remains. Indomitable I am and my name will ensue. Royal road from the past, I’ll continue to rein, one and inseparable, when your kingdoms are long gone.”
Special thanks to the Emmanuel Lanyser Museum in Loches for the reproduction of the town and château of Loches
Loire map from Wikipédia communs
Thanks also to Rêves de Loire for the photo of their toue and to Françoise Boittier (Regards photos) for the photo of the Loire’s sandbanks.