Back in early December I mentioned that we’d taken a day and went to Azay-le-Rideau castle, one of the smallest castles in the Loire Valley, but also one of my personal favourites.
I love it because unlike some of the others that impress by their sheer size and sumptuousness, this one is very human-sized (In other words… I could easily see myself living there! 😉).
Today, I’m going to take you on a pictoral walk through the castle, but from a particular point of view. The main ‘theme’ for Christmas decorations this year was ‘papier-mâché’ which many of you will remember from school, growing up. With shredded newsprint and wallpaper paste, you can create all kinds of things. Once dry, they hold their share remarkably well, stiffened by the dried paste.
These decorations are a far cry from anything you made in school, I guarantee you!
Pour yourself a healthy mug of coffee and let’s get started!
A Day Away
My work responsibilities normally have me away from home on the second Saturday each month. Exceptionally though, that wasn’t the case for December, so we decided to take advantage of an extra & unexpected day together and do a day trip in the area.
Since most of the publicly accessible castles do themselves up really nicely for Christmas, that’s what we opted to do. Azay-le-Rideau is a nice little castle and only about 45 minutes away by car, so it made for a good option.
Upon arrival the kids found Santa’s sleigh in a little square and the rest, as you can see, is history.
Start at the Top
We began our tour by climbing the Renaissance staircase. It was novel at the time of it’s creation for not only dissecting the main building (as opposed to being housed in a tower at the end of the building) but also for being open on the courtyard side of the logis, turning the landings into little loggias or balconies on each floor. These openings not only allowed inhabitants to see, but to be seen, part of the ‘art de paraître’ that inspired the many internal balconies in Charles Garniers Paris opera house. Being seen was, in essence, part of the spectacle.
Below, you can see one of the main towers, ceiling detail in the grand staircase, and Christmas decorations in the main attic. Note what looks like a tall wooden skeleton above the cross-beams and Christmas trees. Those vertical beams support horizontal planks into which are nailed the thousands of slate shingles that make up the roof. Several of these beams date back to 1517.
(The concept is similar in most of the period buildings in Europe. When you think of the devastating fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, you can easily understand why, once the fire began, it spread so quickly through the tinder-dry wooden support structure holding up the roof.)
Note: photos are clickable for larger versions
I’ve been to Azay-le-Rideau a number of times but this was my first time being able to access the attic area. What a lovely Christmas display… lit trees and lots of vintage items. Kind of like your grandma’s attic, only… more trees and… less clutter perhaps.
We took a purely utilitarian stairway back down to the uppermost inhabited floor of the castle and arrived in this Renaissance bedroom. Here you will get your first glimpse at some of the papier-mâché work that was commissioned by the castle for their 2021 Christmas decorations. A bowl of deep purple figs and a tall display of fruit.
(Looks NOTHING like any of the papier-mâché I remember doing in school! Well done!)
The bed itself is the main centerpiece of the room but during the Renaissance, the bedroom wasn’t just a place to sleep. People also ate, worked and received guests there… it was a multipurpose living space in its own right.
We also loved the Christmas wreath in the fireplace. Ideas…. ideas…
Chambre de Psyché
Psyché (Psyche) was the goddess of the soul according to Greek mythology and there were several grand tapestries in this bedroom depicting scenes from the story of her mythological life.
What’s of more interest to us, however, is the papier-mâché display on the grand chest at the foot of the bed. There is a cherry-topped brioche as well as a pair of gingerbread cookies, clementines and a few more cherries.
Remember folks… papier-mâché!
The Great Hall
From here, you enter the Great Hall which boasted a pair of tall Christmas trees, interspersed with a few smaller ones and an abundance of brightly coloured packages, all ready to be opened by Christmas morning revelers.
The salamander on the grand chimney was the symbol of François I, King of France from 1515 until 1547. It’s prominent place makes sense since one of the earliest owners, Gilles Berthelot, occupied a role that combined the responsibilities of notary, secretary and financial advisor. As a highly placed officer of court, it would be both entirely expected and appropriate for him to so prominently honour his king.
As for papier-mâché in the Grand Hall, it can be seen in the large gingerbread cookies hung from the Christmas trees.
…and can I just say that it was rather refreshing to see that even a national monument sometimes has to resort to visible extension cords to make the magic happen. You don’t always see the ‘behind the scenes’ bit…
This room is the antechamber leading to the King’s bedroom. It was able to be designated as a Royal bedroom thanks to Louis XIII who stayed there in 1619 and was known to have had a glass of water, flavoured with cherry syrup before retiring to bed for the evening.
Even before the king’s visit, it was nonetheless the main bedroom for the lord of the manor. Recalling that the bedroom was a working and a living space, the antechamber is where guests hoping to be received by the lord would wait. Some would’ve been received others would likely have waited in vain.
No papier-mâché here, but you are already able to get a sense of the rich decor as one inched closer and closer to nobility. Christmas decorations are composed of a myriad of red balls and pinecones, accented with red foxtail and plumes of white pampas grass.
In addition to views out the window and a portrait of François I, you can also see a pair of clowns re-enacting the painting of (I believe) Louis XIII. Timo features prominently as the king, while Dominic assumes the ‘supporting role’ of … the king’s staff. (see what I did there?).
The King’s Bedroom
For Christmas… three lovely trees decorate the corner of this bedroom along with a generous bowl of fruit (the papier-mâché decorations here). You can see a stylized pineapple, some coconut, mangoes, dates, oranges and cherries.
The black cabinet is made of pearwood and inlaid with ivory and bone plates, depicting both a galant scene by a French artist as well as scenes from the 30-year war which ravaged Europe during the time of Louis XIII.
From the King’s bedroom we took what would’ve been a servants’ stairway down to the ground floor where we entered the Biencourt living room.
Le Salon Biencourt
While most of nobility’s day-to-day activities would’ve taken place on the second floor during the 16th and 17th centuries, things had changed by the 19th century when the Marquis of Biencourt was owner of Azay-le-Rideau.
Of note is the beautiful fireplace where, once again, the salamander of François I is prominently displayed. Note too the elaborately embroidered festoon-like hanging just beneath the mantle.
This is an eminently cozy, if elaborate, room which looks out eastward over the surrounding reflecting pool and walkway through the garden. You really get the feel of a modern living room or parlor.
The Christmas papier-mâché decorations depict a scrumptious looking tea set out for guests. You can see a cake, decorated with orange slices and cherries, a plate of decorated gingerbread cookies and an ornate brioche, complete with what look to be meringue-like pearls winding their way up and crowned by cream-puffs encircling the final brioche top.
The Billards Room
The only papier-mâché in the billiards room can be seen on the billiards table itself. A scrumptious looking stack of chocolate-dipped cigar cookies.
Yet another magnificent fireplace is well decked-out for Christmas with a pair of lit trees and a cascade of fairy lights coming down from within the chimney.
Food, Food, and More Food…
From here we make our way to a succession of three rooms which all have to do with food. (a) the storeroom, (b) the kitchen and (c) the dining room.
If, up to this point, we’ve had glimpses of Véronique Chauvet’s talent… these three rooms is where her skill is taken to a whole new level, merely by the abundance of pieces.
Upon entering, you’re greeting by a very kitchen-y looking tree where tiny cake moulds, rolling pins and wooden spoons comprise the main ornaments.
From there, as you look around you see a selection of cheeses, a fried egg, salt pork various vegetables (chard, butternut squash, onions, eggs, melons, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, meat and bread).
As we move into the kitchen, you can see food in the midst of being prepared as well as food ready to be taken out to the dining room.
The detail is amazing, from the papier-mâché candles and napkins to the mushrooms and cakes, the platter of turkey surrounded by figs, and the plate of fish.
Not only that… when you look down into the fire pit, you can see a papier-mâché pig on the spit as well as fish frying in a skillet.
The Dining Room
Yet more papier-mâché on display in the dining room… a large dessert display on a sideboard against the wall, fish and lemon wedges, a full fish, length-wise encircled by shellfish and lemon slices, as well as a brioche and an extravagant pièce montée.
The pièce montée is a decorative centerpiece made up traditionally of cream-puffs in an architectural form and held together with confectioners’ paste and/or spun sugar.
We’re almost done…
During the 16th century, this vaulted-ceiling area was a passageway that transversed the castle and allow passage from the inner courtyard to a garden on the other side of the castle. That garden is no longer present and was replaced by a pond used to keep fresh fish for the kitchens. The passageway too has been walled up and only allows passage through the ground floor of the castle from the dining room to the library.
Chauvet (the paper artist) used the size of this room as well as its relative emptiness to make a statement piece entirely out of recycled materials, including cup lids, packaging, etc. You can see a large bowl of oranges atop a pillar of chocolate and wheat.
Our final stop inside the castle itself is the library, featuring a few gifts and desserts to help pass the time spent reading the day away.
I don’t know if it was done on purpose, but the candy cane furniture was an especially festive touch!
This little castle is surrounded by a reflecting pool, meant to enhance the silhouette of the building itself by setting it against the sky both above and ‘below’.
In the first picture, you can see, in the center, a wider set of windows. This is the grand staircase. Where its windows are open on the side facing the inner courtyard, they are closed on this side, which makes sense as the other side is less exposed and the doors into the various rooms off the staircase are on this side of the building… so it also meant fewer drafts in those rooms.
A Word About the Artist: Véronique Chauvet
By now you’ve gotten a good taste of her talent. Chauvet is a paper artist who lives on the Isle of Ré, which we visited in 2017. You can find out more about her via her website or her Instagram feed.
Thanks for visiting Azay-le-Rideau with us.
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On New Year’s Day
I’ll post about our 2nd Christmas Castle visit: