Renowned for its gorgeous Château – the relics of royal days gone by – the beautiful Loire valley is rich in both history and architecture. Chinon, a small and captivating town, has always been at the center of the historical and cultural life in the area and was an important center since medieval times. As the Loire River runs through the heart of France, so the region captures the essence of the French way of life. Its sophisticated cities, exquisite landscape, and, of course, excellent food and wine, add up to a modern paradise for the visitor.
Chinon’s historical importance derived mainly from its highly strategic position on the bank of the river Vienne, just before it joins the Loire. Since prehistoric times these rivers formed the major trade routes in central France, allowing easy access to the sea at the port of Nantes on the western coast and to the Ile-de-France in the east. Chinon offered a natural crossing point using a central Island in the Vienne, making it an essential trading stop for passing merchants.
Small wonder then that the Romans, sensing its potential established a base here in the 1st century AD. The rocks dominating the shore of Chinon provided not only a natural fort against invaders but also protection against the annual flooding of the river. Chinon thrived as a Roman army garrison made the village their home, living in the protected fort and benefiting from passing trade. Unfortunately, even this was not enough to prevent the fort falling to invaders, and the Romans lost control in 4th century AD.
One of the first monasteries was built in the 4th century AD. The monastery flourished throughout the Middle Ages, being rebuilt and extended four times; the eventual complex contained a large and highly decorated church, a cloister, and a square of canons’ residences. The town’s importance grew as Chinon was fortified as a stronghold by Theobald I, the Count of Blois, in 954. The best times, however, were yet to come.
A new golden age dawned in the middle ages while Henry II was King of England. During this time, Henry constructed a massive and awe-inspiring Château on the site of the Roman base, encompassing an area over 500 meters long. It became one of the King’s favorite residences, and Chinon castle and the entire region received constant attention, always looking as beautiful as possible. Trade increased, and Chinon prospered.
Appropriately, Henry II was buried in his beloved castle after being defeated by his sons Richard and John. Chinon played host to a variety of famous visitors in the 13th century, not least three senior offices of the Knights Templar, including the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. The Knights Templar were responsible for protecting the truth of the Holy Grail and were incarcerated in the castle before their execution in Paris!
Hundred year’s war
The 13th century saw Chinon’s profile continue to rise as it became part of the Royal Estates, which belonged to the French crown. The town played a crucial role in the hundred year’s war between England and France when the French ruler Charles VII would spend significant amounts of time there. Charles and his royal court made Chinon very famous within the region, attracting visitors regularly. In the 15th century, Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who rose up against the English, could often be seen among the visitors to Chinon, paying a visit to Charles VII. It was in the Castle at Chinon that Joan of Arc urged Charles to rise up against the English and paved the way for her campaign against France’s oppressors. Trade increased and the region became increasingly known for the quality of its fine wines.
As is so often the case, Chinon’s good fortune would end, and during the 16th century, the town lost its last royal inhabitants. Then, in 1562 the Château of Chinon came into the possession of the Huguenots, who took refuge during the years of persecution from the Catholic Church. The Château was subsequently abandoned until 1793 when, during the beginning of the French Revolution, it was temporarily occupied by the Vendeans, a group that opposed the French Revolution and tried to restore the status quo. Their base was just south of the River Loire, and they fought hard to reclaim France as their own.
After the Revolution, the Châteaux was left to decay, with many of the Chinon nobility meeting a sticky end at the guillotine. It was not until the reign of Emperor Napoleon III that the castle was partly restored, supervised by no other than the author of Carmen! Chinon enjoyed a relatively stable existence until the onslaught of World War I. The town was relatively unaffected by the Two World Wars of the 20th century and enjoyed a stable post-war history as a center for tourism and wine.
Today, Chinon continues to attract visitors far and wide as wine lovers journey on their pilgrimage through the Loire Valley. An essential port of call with its superb restaurants, inviting streets and squares, and fascinating history, Chinon charms all those who visit. It is astonishing how much history this relatively small town has been privy to over the centuries. No other town in France has witnessed so many historical events and could offer such a rich cultural legacy – the perfect base from which to explore the majestic Châteaux of the Loire.
Gastronomy & Wine
Chinon, like every French town, has its share of typical Bistros and enjoys a rich and varied gastronomy thanks to its riverside location. Local cuisine is mostly based around fresh fish in addition to wild game and lamb, all perfectly matched by the local wines. High-quality goat’s cheeses are to be found in abundance, try them with a Sancerre wine for gastronomic heaven! The old quarter of Chinon has many good restaurants; Chapeau Rouge is one of our favorites.
The town is surrounded by some of the best vineyards in the Loire valley, with the Chinon appellation home to several famous properties. Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc are the two dominant grape varieties here; complex dry whites, delicious sweet whites, and elegant light reds to satisfy even the most demanding of wine lovers. We can organize private tours of the best vineyards, contact us for information. Santé!
The city’s most famous monument is the magnificent Château De Chinon. Built-in 945 by Theobald I, Comte De Blois, the castle served as a mighty fortress and protector of the town of Chinon. Henry II was notable for making the Château his residence. Divided into three enclosures, each separated by a deep dry moat and has remained mostly unchanged over the centuries since its restoration by Emperor Napoleon III. A highlight for the visitor is the clock tower, over 115 feet high!
One of the most spectacular and enchanting Château in the region, Château Durivau, is easily accessible from Chinon. Visitors to this delightful property love strolling around the fairytale gardens, the perfect spot to enjoy a long lunch in the shade. Bliss!
Museum of Art and History
The museum in Chinon is notable for housing the supposed remains of Joan of Arc, later exposed to be the remains of an Egyptian Mummy. It houses an impressive collection of artwork where tourists can explore the history of the region and its most famous heroine, Joan of Arc.
Couly Duteil Vineyard tour
Last but by no means least, every tourist should visit at least one of the great wine estates in the region. Domaine Couly Duteil would be top of our list, not least because of its friendly owners. We can organize private tours in English with an overview of the vineyards and the history of this beautiful estate, not to mention a stellar wine tasting!