Château-Musée de Gien: Visit the ‘valley of the kings’
Text: Katie Turner
A trip to the Loire is not complete without a visit to at least one of the area’s famed châteaux, and the Loiret region has no less than three gems within a 45 mile radius of Sully-sur-Loire. Each with something very different to offer.
Dominating the River Loire and the landscape south-east of Orleans is the Château de Sully “It’s incredibly beautiful and very imposing. The castle sees you long before you see it,” Sophie Pirou says. Pirou manages the Château de Sully and the Château de Chamerolles, of which more later.
You will find layer upon layer of French history at the Château de Sully which began its existence as a fort in the 13th century. The duke, whose name it bears, was a childhood friend of Henry IV and he eventually rose through the ranks at court to become the King’s right-hand-man.
If you are looking for the ‘wow factor’, the Château de Sully certainly has it. The keep has one of the finest examples of medieval carpentry anywhere, with the ceiling rising to 16 metres “The dimensions, the sheer quality of the work and incredibly rare technique just blows you away,” says Pirou.
The Château de Sully is open year-round and has activities for visitors young and old, in English as well as French. “Christmas is really a very special time at the Château. We bring in 14 Christmas trees and the main hall is chock-full of presents. The children who come obviously love it.” Pirou continues, “But it’s also a place where we mark moments of national importance, such as the recent Navy memorial we hosted. Events can be small and intimate or really large-scale and impressive in these historic surroundings.”
20 miles upstream you will find the château at Gien, marking the entry of what is known locally as the ‘Valley of the Kings’ and was built on the orders of Anne of France in 1482.
It is now the Château-Musee de Gien and opened after a complete overhaul in 2017 as the Museum of the Hunt, home to one of the most significant collections of hunting art and artefacts in Europe.
The vast 17th-century tapestry that adorns the first of the rooms leading to the permanent exhibition is one of the highlights. “It really sets up your visit,” explains Muriel Oghard who looks after guided tours and exhibits at the Chateau.
“You can get a real insight into hunting during the Renaissance. It’s all about the animals.”
The museum is not just for adults, however. Part of Muriel’s job is to make things interesting for a younger audience. Not least with an impressive collection of stuffed animals “The kids get totally into it. The wild boar is a particular favourite because it’s definitely not an animal you can see up close when it’s roaming in the wild,” she explains.
There are temporary exhibitions throughout the year but these ramp up in the summer months. “Having live birds of prey on site is a great example of one the events we’ve hosted since we reopened,” says Muriel “You could really see that these creatures have unique characteristics and personalities which make them so good at hunting.”
In the summer, the château which towers above Gien opens its terraces, giving visitors stunning views across the rooftops and the River Loire below.
For a complete change of pace and a roam around beautifully-maintained gardens, including an elaborate maze, the Château de Chamerolles is the perfect contrast.
Whilst the Château-Musee de Gien and Château de Sully hug the banks of the River Loire, the Château de Chamerolles sits amidst rolling countryside. Acquired by the Du Lac family in 1440, it also has close links to the French kings; from Francis I right through to Louis XVI.
Sophie Pirou says: “While it might be a little off the beaten track by comparison to Sully or Gien, when you drive past, it’s so pretty, it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in.”
The château is home to a permanent exhibition on cleanliness and perfume through the ages. It might seem like an unusual theme but it all makes sense once you realise the surrounding area is France’s ‘Cosmetic Valley’, dedicated to the development of the country’s vast perfume and cosmetics industry.
Another key attraction at Chamerolles are the frescos, believed to be some of the oldest in France. Dating back to the early 1500s when the site was a Protestant temple, they were discovered in the chapel by a team doing restoration work in 1992.
Pirou recommends late spring as the ideal time to visit. “Late April into May is just magnificent and the gardens really come into their own,” she says. “It not only looks fabulous but all the flowers in bloom smell absolutely incredible too.”
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