16th-century Timber-framed houses, Tours.
Traditional capital of the Touraine, Tours (pop. 135,000, urban area 398,000) is the largest city in the Centre region of France and the main hub for exploring the Loire Valley castles.
Sprightly university town, Tours was voted three times France's most 'flowery' city (ville fleurie) in recent years (2000, 2003 and 2006).
Famous natives of the Touraine region include François Rabelais, René Descartes, and Honoré de Balzac.
Built on the ancient land of the Turones, the Celtic tribe that gave the city its name, Tours was founded by the Romans soon after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. It was originally known as Caesarodunum, or Caesar's hill fort. Renamed Civitas Turonorum ('capital of the Turones') in the 4th century, the city grew into the third largest in Gaul and had one of the five largest amphitheatres in the Roman Empire.
In 732, Frankish leader Charles Martel crushed the army of Muslim horsemen from Al-Andalus at the so-called Battle of Tours (which actually took place 20km northeast of Poitiers), putting an end to the expansion of Islam in Europe.
In the 9th century, Tours was at the heart of the Carolingian Renaissance, thanks especially to the English scholar Alcuin, invited by Charlemagne to the Carolingian court in Aachen, then nominated Abbot of Saint Martin's of Tours in 796.
From the 10th century, a second city centre emerged around the Abbey of Saint Martin, west of the old Roman 'castrum', creating a "double city". Vineyards and fields separated these two centres until they eventually merged into each others in the 14th century.
The County of Tours, inherited by the Counts of Blois in 941, passed into the hands of the the Counts of Anjou in 1044 after a bitter struggle between the two. The County of Anjou passes to the House of Valois in 1290, and is elevated to the rank of duchy in 1360. The title of Duke of Anjou is inherited by a cadet branch of the Kings of France until 1551, when it becomes directly attached to the crown.
From 1450, King Charles VII elects Tours as one of his royal residences. His son Louis XI would rule mostly from Tours, as did his successors until Francis I. This explains why so many of France's royal castles from the Renaissance are to be found around Tours (Amboise, Blois, Langeais, Chenonceau, Chambord), and why the Touraine dialect of French became the reference for standard French pronunciation.
Tours is a pleasant city of wide boulevards, hôtels particuliers and monuments from various centuries.
Saint Gatien's Cathedral soars proudly above the lot. It is one of the most architecturally complete Gothic cathedrals in the country, although its lesser historical importance does not make of it one of the great cathedrals of France like Chartres or Reims.
The cathedral was built from 1170 to 1547 and is particularly renowned for its 13th-century stained glas windows, among the most complete, elaborate and colourful from that period in all Europe.
Fine Arts Museum
Opposite the cathedral is the Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts) housed in the 18th-century episcopal palace. Founded in 1795, it is one of the oldest, finest and most diversified provincial art museums in France, sporting among others works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Boucher, Ingres, Delacroix, Monet and Degas.
The museum is open every day except Tuesdays, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. Annual closing days are 1st January, 1st May, 14th July, 1st and 11th November and 25th December.
Admission is 4 € for adults, 2 € for concessions (students, seniors, groups of over 10 people), and is free for children under 13 years old and job seekers. Admission is free for everybody the first Sunday of the month.
Musée du Compagnonnage
Housed in 13th-century St Julian's Abbey on Rue Nationale, the Musée du Compagnonnage celebrates France's craftsmen through the ages.
Listed by the UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Compagnonnage is a fraternity of French craftsmen including such professions as blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, coopers, loclsmiths, weavers, tanners, or even chefs. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages and enjoyed a revival in the 19th century.
The museum displays some of the most stunning individual and collective works from most of these trades.
The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 12:30 pm and from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Tuesday in the low season (from 16 September to 15 June). Annual closing days are 1st January, 1st May, 14th July, 1st and 11th November and 25th December.
Admission is 5.3 € for adults, 3.5 € for concessions (students, seniors, groups of over 10 people), and is free for children under 13 years old and job seekers.
St. Martin's Basilica
St. Martin's Basilica was founded in 437 to accommodate the tomb of Martin of Tours (316-397), the famous third Bishop of Tours. It became an important pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages. King Louis XI was its abbot in the 15th century.
Ravaged once by the Protestants in 1562, the old basilica was almost completely destroyed during the French Revolution, and reconstructed from 1886 to 1924. Only the 11th-century Tour Charlemagne survives from the original building.
One of the loveliest buildings in town is the 15th-century Hôtel Goüin, a little jewel of the Early Renaissance.
Dating from the 11th century, Tours Castle was the possession of the Counts of Anjou. It now houses the Musée Grévin, a regional history museum, and also holds temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.
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