Remember the skies on your summer evenings as a child. Pale blue, pale gold, the light ran clear as water. The day, and your freedom, would never end. Somewhere in your mind there was a knowing that you would be called in to bed. But tomorrow there would be another evening like this.
I spent my last day, and evening, in la Touraine in the small town of Richelieu, population approximately 2200. After a casual dinner on a restaurant terrasse, I strolled. The sunlight on west-facing walls, the sounds of birds echoing along the walls of quiet streets, occasional dog barks in the distance – a Proustian moment, or hour, it was.
Richelieu was founded as one of the world’s first, if not the first, planned cities or towns by Louis XIII’s “First Minister,” Cardinal Richelieu. He became a Cardinal in 1622 and First Minister in 1624. With the King, he ran France; historians usually credit them with having created the modern nation-state of France.
Richelieu was from the town of Richelieu, and then the King gave it to him! And a lot of the surrounding countryside and other towns. In the 1630s, Richelieu had the top architects of the day (Jacques Lemercier, whose atelier was also responsible for the renovation of the Sorbonne, and for its famous chapel) create a new town called Richelieu. They also designed and built in Richelieu a magnificent château there for the Cardinal/First Minister.
This was in addition to the palace he had built for himself in Paris, now known as the Palais Royal. The château in Richeleu no longer exists (no, it wasn’t destroyed in the Revolution; it was sold off, stone by stone, by a nouveau-riche real estate speculator in the early 1800s). The enormous “parc” that surrounded the château still exists and is a wonderful place to walk, bicycle, and fish.
The town is laid out in a symmetrical and rational fashion. It was the neo-classical period. For example, there are virtually identically-proportioned squares at the north and south ends of town, with straight streets running north-south and east-west. The river was diverted to flow around the town in a moat-like way. It is a walled town, with handsome entrance gates.
The town’s main business, from the17th century on, has mostly been government, e.g., courts and tax collection functions, trade and commerce (local and regional markets and “foires”). There was a textile industry of sorts, and of course local agriculture. But the town never really took off despite all the privileges that Richelieu threw its way, probably because he didn’t spend much time there before he died in 1642.
Then there was the Revolution, followed by one new regime after another.
Today the town of Richelieu is peaceful, pretty, and not particularly well known, even in France. Richelieu accumulated a splendid art collection and kept it at the château, but it’s now all at the Louvre or in other national museums.
Here are some more pictures taken on my last evening there, in different locations as far as the position of the sun was concerned, and remembering that the sun wasn’t setting till about 9:30. I was especially fascinated with windows and doors.