No holiday would be complete for me without at least one trip around a castle. There are so many to explore. Fighting forts emerge battle-scarred and gaunt, from the hard rock that bears them. Royal palaces hinting of romance and mystery, are spun out of light and crystal-white stone. Some seem to float on air whilst others are clearly designed to shelter a sleeping beauty.
Then there are the iceberg castles, serene and beautiful on the surface with a whole world lurking underneath.
One hot and stormy August day Pork Belly and I drove towards Brézé, just a few miles south of Saumur to visit for the second time one of the most intriguing castles in the Western Loire region of France.
The château, set among its own vineyards, stands elegant and proud just outside the village it grew up to protect. Built over the years from the 11th to the 19th century its turrets, courtyards and deep, dry moat speak of battles long gone and families at war.
Inside the rooms are furnished in Renaissance and neo-gothic styles, reflecting the whims and fashions of when the Maillé Brézé family held court for more than 300 years.
But descend the steep and narrow staircase to one side of the gatehouse and you enter a completely different world.
Deeper and deeper you go, exploring over half a mile of underground tunnels, dug into the soft limestone to provide shelter in time of need for the whole village. There are animal stalls and mangers hewn from the rock face, communal meeting chambers, a room for worship and guard points with narrow slit windows giving the defenders a clear view if the outer-walls were breached.
Ironically, the castle itself was never attacked, but would no doubt have withstood all but the most determined assault.
On our first visit we had young children with us and it was a delight to turn them loose while we enjoyed a leisurely stroll in the welcome coolth. Once they were done exhausting themselves rushing about, slipping on slimy slabs, hooting to get echoes, running hands over slime covered walls and pretending to fire arrows or rain down boiling oil on imaginary intruders, we wandered out into the light again finding ourselves in one of the deepest moats in Europe. Never designed to be flooded its scale is awesome.
The moat walls house yet more troglodytic delights – stables, an ice house, wine press and ancient bakery with wood-fired ovens. In high season they fire them up and give demonstrations of the regional bread speciality “fouaces”, oven-baked dough balls which you open up and fill with whatever takes your fancy. Traditionally this would have been something savoury like mushrooms, sausage or roasted meats but we tourists are are offered jam, peanut butter and chocolate spread.
Our second visit free of the now-grown children, meant we could spend much longer absorbing the local history, marvelling at the feats of engineering that kept the wheels of life underground turning, pottering around the formal courtyard above ground and, of course sipping a few local wines, encouraged by knowledgeable and helpful staff, in the château’s own wine tasting room.
It was one of those occasions when we didn’t follow our own advice for wine-tasting in France so next time (and there will always be a next time for us where the Loire is concerned) we will have to pop along to the château’s own vineyard a few yards up the road.
More information about Château de Brézé
The château is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, later in July and August
If your French is okay it is worth taking the guided tour. There is a leaflet in English to help you and you are free to wander around on your own.
It’s pretty chilly in the caverns so bring something warm to wear even on a hot day and going underground might be difficult if you have physical disabilities or suffer from claustrophobia.
Château de Brézé website
Interested in other Loire chateaux? Check out the Lonely Planet Road Trip guide,