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Once upon a Château - visit the beautiful town of Richelieu

Once upon a Château - visit the beautiful town of Richelieu

A fortified town created during the 17th century once possessed the crowning glory of French châteaux. The Revolution claimed the château, but much of the landscaped parkland remains, along with the remarkable town of Richelieu...


richelieu-chateau-gardensTo the north of the region, where today la Vienne meets Indre-et-Loire, lie the ancient borders of Poitou with both Anjou and Touraine, and where you’ll discover a small town which is unique in all France. If you’ve ever visited the medieval southern bastide towns of Aquitaine, Gascony and the Languedoc then the geometrical street-plan will feel very familiar, but Richelieu was constructed centuries later, much further north and with an altogether different ambition.

Earliest records from the 12th century refer to a ‘Château de Richeloc’, constructed by the Ducs de Mauson. By 1201 the description had evolved into the moated ‘Hostel de Richelieu’, which had also acquired a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicolas de Lyre. The site was fortified by order of Charles VII in 1407 and substantially rebuilt during the 16th century. This gradual evolution was as nothing, however, to what Armand du Plessis (born here in 1585) had in mind when he acquired the village and his family’s former seat in 1621. By 1624 he had risen to become Cardinal de Richelieu, Prime Minister to Louis XIII, who was sympathetic to the notion of creating something more appropriate to his faithful servant’s new political power and status. 

From the outset Royal architect Jacques Lemercier (whose grand projects in the capital included la Sorbonne and le Palais-Royal) had as his brief the challenge of creating the grandest, most sumptuous château in all pre-Versailles France, set within a walled 475ha estate, whose formal landscaping would employ canals, bridges, gardens and an orangery. Perhaps even more remarkable was the fact that the Cardinal’s vision would be fully realised before his death in 1642. This feat of construction which had been achieved by having around 2000 men working on the site, and by dismantling substantial portions of nearby Chinon’s Château Royal, acquired for its near-limitless reserves of fine limestone. Sadly, pressures of State affairs (not least the Thirty Years War, which threw Central Europe into turmoil from 1618-1648) kept the Cardinal occupied elsewhere, so he never got to see his creation completed. If the visual effects of the château’s vast exteriors (four-storeys for the main body and wings, three for the stables and two for other outbuildings) weren’t already impressive enough, we can only wonder how visitors must have reacted upon stepping inside. The Cardinal had specified that Richelieu’s interiors (particularly rooms specifically intended for visiting Royalty) be exquisitely decorated by the period’s most prestigious artists and furnished with ancient treasures and Renaissance works of art. These included masterpieces by Mantegna, Perugino and Michelangelo, transported here from Rome to Marseille, then along the rivers Rhône and Loire.

Chateau de Richelieu engraving 17th century

The Cardinal’s descendants enjoyed their palatial surroundings for 150 years or so, until Revolution ary forces ejected them and confiscated their possessions to be sold off , some more important items later joining the collections of the Louvre, the Musées des Beaux-Arts of Tours and Orléans, etc. After standing abandoned and forlorn the château was eventually purchased in 1805 by Alexandre Bontron, a dealer in materials who set about demolishing it and selling the stone for reuse elsewhere. It was a cruel irony. 

richelieu-town-centreFortunately, time has been kinder to the town, which was begun alongside the château in 1631 while the latter was still rising from its own huge construction site. At the Cardinal’s request, Louis XIII sanctioned the creation of a complete new town, set within broad moats and fortified further by mighty ramparts, access being controlled via three imposing gatehouses. Again the whole design was entrusted to the King’s architect, and virtually everything he created survives intact to this day. Around the broad place du Marché, for example, you’ll discover a monumentally-proportioned market hall, the huge Baroque Eglise Notre-Dame and the showpiece Grande Rue, lined with 28 hôtels particuliers – elegant townhouses designed for wealthy merchants and their families. At the far end of this unique thoroughfare lies another large square, the place de Réligieuses, bounded by more gracious townhouses, and eventually a 17th century gatehouse, complete with its original heavy timber doors and moated exit. Explore Richelieu further and you’ll discover that the town is not only a miraculous survivor, but an attractive and efficient testament to its visionary creators. While you’re here be sure to spend some time in the Hôtel de Ville’s fascinating Musée de Richelieu, which among other things, recounts the full history of both the man and his creation. Contemporary engravings have been reproduced to show the full magnificence of the château and its landscaped estate.

Today the serenely beautiful parkland is open to the public, and is perfect for a shaded stroll beneath avenues of mature trees, an idle punt on the canals or some peaceful contemplation among fragrant rose gardens. Entry is via tall, imposing wrought-iron gates set between similarly ornate stone gatehouses, beyond which you can enjoy the challenge of piecing together in your mind the various clues around you as to how things would once have looked. The survivors include caves, the orangerie and ‘le dôme’ – a beautifully restored three-story Renaissance inspired building surmounted by a Baroque style domed slate roof. Meanwhile, outside the gates the Cardinal’s statue gazes across at the remarkable town he created.

Parc du Domaine de Richelieu

5 place du Cardinal, Tel: 02 47 58 10 09. www.ville-richelieu.fr

For CGI reconstruction videos see www.youtube.com

Open daily 8am-8pm except 25 Dec and 1 Jan (9am-6pm Oct-Mar). Free admission, cycles and boats for hire from the shop just inside the entrance.