Nestled in the heart of the Turenna, the marvellous château of Azay le Rideau is one of the best examples of harmony and elegance of form. In fact, it was built on an island in the middle of the river and Honoré de Balzac himself described it as ‘a facetted diamond set on the Indre’.
Built between 1518 and 1523 by King François I’s treasurer, Gilles Berthelot, and his wife Philippa Lesbahy, it is one of the greatest masterpieces of the early French Renaissance and owes its extraordinary beauty to its L-shape full of turrets, reflected in the waters surrounded by an idyllic park.
The picture you will admire is also called The Enchanted Mirror and offers visitors a unique spectacle, which becomes exceptional during the Sound and Light night projections that take place in the summer months.
Built during the reign of François I by Gilles Berthelot (treasurer of France and former adviser to King Louis XII), the Château d’Azay le Rideau offers all the charms of the Early Renaissance, combining French architectural tradition and Italian art influence in the decoration and layout of its façades.
This 16th-century masterpiece is surrounded by a romantic park and sits on an island designed by the Indre, the river that feeds a reflecting pool just below the castle walls.
The façade, completely renovated in 2016, appears to be a veritable lacework in stone. Above the entrance, we find the salamander, emblem of François I, and his most recurrent motto “Nutrisco et extinguo”, i.e. I feed (the good fire) and put out (the bad one).
As a whole, including the west wing, the castle forms an ‘L‘, with each corner of the building featuring a significant tower. The predominant architectural style is based on influences from the Italian Renaissance, although the roof and conical turrets are more in the French style.
The interior of the castle of Azay le Rideau is very impressive, with several luxuriously furnished rooms, much larger than the most famous chateaux in the Loire Valley. You can admire fireplaces, paintings and original furnishings, spanning four centuries of French history, with sumptuous collections of objects, tapestries and furniture.
On the ground floor are fabulous decorations and you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the 19th century by visiting the Marquis de Biencourt’s salon, kitchen, dining room and library.
On the first floor you will find the king’s flat, the Renaissance hall, the oratory. One of the most interesting components is the grand staircase, built within the castle walls and with a façade richly decorated with intricate Gothic motifs.
But the truly exceptional part of the château is the under-roof: a masterpiece of carpentry hidden in the attic, a large open space made from wood cut in the Chinon forest in 1517. It resembles the upturned keel of a large ship and served as servants’ quarters.
When he bought the château in 1791, Charles de Biencourt, a botany enthusiast, wanted to transform the classic garden into a landscaped park. The so-called ‘English’ gardens, with their irregular lines, free forms of plants and movements of the soil, reflect a natural and uncontrolled conception of nature. The topography of the Azay le Rideau site and the abundance of water lent themselves perfectly to such a project.
Revolutionary events postponed the creation of the garden, the work on which would be in progress when Charles de Biencourt died in 1824. His son, who inherited the property, continued them. Trees of exotic species for the time such as redwood, cedar and tulip trees were planted in the park, and winding paths were created to offer pleasant and surprising views of the castle.
But the real wonder of the park is its water mirror, an invention of the 20th century. In the previous century, a terrace ran along the south wing. It was only in 1950 that the river arm was widened so that the water bordered the foundations of the castle: this work had the consequence of slowing down the current and since then, the castle has been reflected in a sheet of water.
If you are lucky enough to visit the château of Azay le Rideau during the summer, you can witness one of the most fascinating sound and light shows in the entire Loire Valley. During Les Nuits Fantastiques, the park is transformed as if by magic and becomes the setting for an enchanted world, where one encounters marvellous animals, chimeric creatures and imaginative plants, as well as Renaissance treasures and jewellery. A dreamlike atmosphere is created with fairytale characters, artificial fog, light installations and melodious sounds that leave spectators enraptured and speechless.
At the end of a walk lasting about one and a half hours, the audience reaches the highlight of the evening: a show of images that tell the story of the castle, projecting them onto the walls of the building. With skilful use of colours and reflections on the water, the projection (which is repeated in a continuous cycle for the staggered flow of tourists) enchants visitors in all its magic.
The castle is open all year round except 1 January, 1 May and 25 December. Times vary according to the seasons.
Admission is free for under-18s.
The tiny village of Azay le Rideau is located in the heart of Turenne, an ancient French province with Tours as its capital, crossed by the Loire and its tributaries, the Cher, Indre and Vienne rivers.
The castle of Azay le Rideau is located 270 km from Paris and can be reached in about 3 hours by car: you must take the A10 motorway, exit 24 Joué les Tours, then continue in the direction of Chinon, Azay le Rideau.
The fastest way to reach Azay le Rideau by train is to take a TGV from Paris Montparnasse station to Tours. From there it is necessary to change to a TER train to the village of Azay le Rideau: the journey time is about 2 hours in total.
The village of Azay le Rideau is a tiny hamlet: the accommodation scene is obviously limited, although of high quality, as is the evening life and opportunities to go out for dinner or to a few clubs. Accommodations are scattered throughout the enchanting French countryside, rich in vineyards and bucolic landscapes, and are often housed in old buildings, elegantly restored and charmingly furnished.
A good alternative is to stay in nearby Tours, which is only a 25-minute drive away. Here you can enjoy a lively, young evening life, with a historic centre full of cafés, bistros and gourmet restaurants.
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The castle of Azay le Rideau is located in the small town of Azay-le-Rideau, in the department of Indre-et-Loire, in the Centre-Valley of the Loire region.