To many a nineteenth-century English traveller, Berry and Touraine offered a vision of French art and culture that was not only exemplary, but unrivalled outside Paris – as central to the identity of France as is Tuscany to Italy. While this view has been modified by more recent commentators, who criticise its relative stagnation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it remains the case that Berry and Touraine were responsible for some of the most significant cultural initiatives to grace mediaeval and Renaissance Europe.
One might see this at a number of levels: in the early development of the feudal system, for instance, in Thibaud le Tricheur and Foulques Nerra, feudalism found its pioneers along the banks of the Loire. The most visible symbol of this, the castle, also has its roots in the region, and was developed here from donjon and domicilium into the vast integrated structures one finds at Chinon. Its subsequent emergence as a fortified chivalric palace, the stuff of the calendrical illustrations to Jean, Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures, finds its most complete expression here, in buildings such as the Logis Royal at Loches and Gilles Betholot’s château at Azay-le-Rideau.
The frame of the church was subject to equally inventive shifts of form and identity. The fundamental Romanesque research was probably conducted at St-Benoît-sur-Loire, and in its nave and choir one might see the monumental strategies of twelfth-century Europe mapped out. Even the smaller churches of the region took up the call to make the Christian message vivid and, falling back on simpler and cheaper methods, invested in breathtakingly lucid cycles of wall paintings, as at Brinay-sur-Cher and Vicq.
In the west, at centres such as Loches, an extraordinarily distinctive version of twelfth-century architecture was developed, adjusting domes, rib vaults and pyramidal roofs to fit aisleless church frames. Gothic thus arrived early and in two different forms, sparking off a second wave of experimentation, tentative at first but blossoming at Bourges cathedral into one of the finest essays on the possibilities of architecture the western world has produced.
Take the Eurostar at c. 10.30am from London St Pancras to Paris and then continue by coach to Tours. First of four nights in Tours.
Tours, Loches. The morning is spent in Tours, visiting the superb, largely 13th-century cathedral, with its virtually complete programme of choir glass, and the Tour Charlemagne, a mournful relic of the mighty pilgrimage church of St-Martin. Afternoon excursion to Loches, a stunning mediaeval hill-town punctuated by the rising accents of the Logis Royal, St-Ours and the Donjon. Overnight Tours.
Azay-le-Rideau, Chinon, L’Île Bouchard. Gilles Berthelot’s château at Azay-le-Rideau is one of the great Renaissance buildings of France. Continue to Chinon, home to the recently excavated St-Mexme as well as Henry II’s beloved ‘castle in the middle of France’. Return to Tours via Cravant-les-Coteaux and the 11th-century ruins of St-Léonard in l’Île Bouchard. Overnight Tours.
Vendôme, Loir Valley. La Trinité in Vendôme has a flamboyant west front, 11th-century chapter house painting, 14th-century stained glass and early 16th-century choir stalls; all in all one of the most complete and heterogeneous ensembles of mediaeval work still to be found in a French monastic complex. Drive along the Loir Valley, with stops in Montoire (St-Gilles), Lavardin (St-Genest) and St-Jacques-des-Guerets. Overnight Tours.
Blois, Selles-sur-Cher, Brinay-sur-Cher, Bourges. In the morning visit Blois for the former abbey church of St Nicolas and the royal château, residence of several French kings. Drive along the Cher valley to Selles and Brinay, site of one of two truly great cycles of Romanesque wall paintings in Berry. First of four nights in Bourges.
Bourges. In the morning, visit Bourges cathedral, a building it is inappropriate to eulogize here, save to suggest that as an architectural experience it rests in a very select league indeed. Free afternoon and overnight in Bourges.
Noirlac, Nohant-Vic, Issoudun. This is a varied and fundamentally rural day measured out among the smaller centres of southern Berry. Noirlac has an unusually intact Cistercian monastery (church, cloister, refectory, storerooms). St-Martin in Nohant-Vic displays the other magnificently orchestrated cycle of Romanesque wall paintings. Overnight Bourges.
Nevers, La Charité-sur-Loire, Donzy-le-Pré. The cathedral of Nevers is a national monument to Saints Cyricus and Julitta, the present building a combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles. In the afternoon drive to La Charité-sur-Loire to visit the UNESCO listed church of Sainte-Croix-Notre-Dame and the almost entirely ruined Benedictine priory of Donzy-le-Pré. Overnight Bourges.
The major Benedictine abbey in St-Benoît-sur-Loire houses the relics of St Benedict, with work ranging from the celebrated capitals of its early tower-porch to the sublime columnar arcade of its Romanesque choir. Take the Eurostar from Paris arriving at London St Pancras c. 6.30pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,730 or £2,540 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £3,150 or £2,960 without Eurostar
Train travel by Eurostar (first class, Standard Premier); travel by private coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts and 5 dinners with wine or beer, soft drinks, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hôtel Oceania L’Univers, Tours: centrally located 4-star hotel opposite the town hall. Hôtel de Bourbon Mercure Bourges: recently renovated 4-star hotel in a 17th-century abbey. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
A considerable amount of walking and standing around is involved. You will need to lift your own luggage on and off the train and wheel it within stations. Average distance by coach per day: 98 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.