The Loire is the longest river in France. It exceeds 1,000 kilometers and crosses the country from east to west, from the Massif Central to the Atlantic. In its middle section, it bathes the Loire Valley, which is more than a geographical accident but a heroic imaginary.

They apply the pharaonic epithet of Valley of the Kings. Dozens of monarchs have made history here in hundreds of castles, pooled like leaves on the banks of the river. Only the Association Chateaux de la Loire groups 83 castles, but there are three or four times as many here, who knows. Some of them are well known, not in vain the valley has been a Unesco world heritage site since the year 2000. However, there are other less frequented, almost secret fortresses, and no less surprising for that. 

The Chateau de Breze is one of them, in the section of the Loire that goes from Saumur to Angers. They call it the castle under the castle. And it is that what can be seen from the park that surrounds it is just the tip of the iceberg: a shell built between the 11th and 19th centuries, surrounded by the deepest dry moats in Europe, about twenty meters deep. Windows and cavities drilled in the rock open into that abyss. And it is that under the castle and on the edges of the moat an underground city is hidden. With corridors and rooms, mills and barns, wine presses, stables. Everything you need to experience a dystopian movie.

Troglodyteism is not an exclusive attribute of this castle. The tuff of the hills that border the Loire Valley here favors what has become a tourist attraction. In nearby Turquant, an entire village, the Village des Metiers d’Art, infiltrates the wormholes of the marl cornice: craft workshops, shops, restaurants and troglodyte hotels. In Doue-la-Fontaine, Le Caveau restaurant occupies a centuries-old cave and serves almost prehistoric dishes such as  fouaces (stuffed mushrooms) and galipettes(wood-oven buns with shredded meat). Everything in huge portions: we must remember that near here, in a country house next to Chinon, La Deviniere, lived Francois Rabelais in the 16th century, author of five books focused on the voracious giants Gargantua and his son Pantagruel; still today we apply the adjective gargantuan to a gigantic agape.

The pious lords of Breze—Cardinal Richelieu had his own chamber in the castle—greatly protected the nearby royal abbey of Fontevraud; one of the largest in Europe. A monastic city with four double communities, that is, of men and women. Founded in the 12th century, the polychrome tombs of various sovereigns of the Plantagenet dynasty are found in its cathedral-like Romanesque church. Among them, that of Leonor of Aquitaine and that of her son, Ricardo Corazon de Leon. That medieval community was in a certain way a precursor of the agricultural or industrial colonies that would emerge in the utopian dreams of the 19th century. In that century, Napoleon turned the abbey into a penal colony, and that was until 1963. Today, magnificently restored, it is a first-class tourist center, with an ecological hotel, a restaurant with a Michelin star whose chef is governed by the lunar phases and a recreation area that is worth half the province. In addition, in May 2021 (with more than a year delay due to the covid) a unique museum of modern art was opened to the public in the old tanneries of the monastic complex.

Also very close to Breze, on the banks of the Thouet river, lies a castle that is actually a citadel: Montreuil-Bellay. A belt of walls of more than half a kilometer, with 15 towers, protects a medieval fortress converted into a palace in the 15th century, when the Gothic collegiate church and some apartments for canons were added in top form —or they could not have passed the process of its treacherous spiral staircases. Visitors can purchase bottles of a highly prized wine that is grown on the castle grounds.

A few kilometers away is Brissac, another castle with a renowned wine, the Rose d’Anjou, which grows in its domains. This is called “the giant” of the Loire castles, since it is the highest: seven floors. As in other cases, the medieval fortress was transformed into a palace in the 15th century by Pierre de Breze, minister of King Charles VII. His son, Jacques, had the misfortune to surprise his wife with a lover, so she threw her sword and killed them both. They say that the ghost of the lady wanders through the palace on stormy nights. In the belle époque , the owner on duty, a viscountess fond of lyric, since she could not sing before a commoner public due to her aristocratic condition, had a theater built inside the castle that many cities wanted.

On the opposite bank of the river, isolated in the roughness of the countryside, hides another of the Loire’s most exciting castles, that of Plessis-Bourre. Films have been shot here taking advantage of the aspect that has been kept intact since the 15th century, its towers, moat and drawbridges in perfect use; neither the wars of religion nor the Revolution damaged their estancias, still inhabited today. Its builder, Jean Bourre, treasurer of Louis XI, had his reasons for avoiding prying eyes: he was addicted to alchemy, which could have caused him problems. In the magnificent Salle des Gardes you can see hermetic paintings and winks that only those who, as we would say now, were in the ointment could capture. A stone’s throw from there, the castle of Noirieux is currently a stately hotel, surrounded by an immense domain irrigated by the Loire, inhabited only by sheep, mists and silence. A royal way to finally be the protagonists of our own adventure.

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