Château d’Ussé, also referred to as the Castle of Sleeping Beauty and the Castle of Dreams, owes its popularity to a couple of alleged historical events. Firstly, legend has it that Charles Perrault, while staying at Ussé as a guest of the Count of Saumur, was inspired to portray the Château as the castle in his 17th century tale of Sleeping Beauty. Secondly, it is believed that Walt Disney selected Ussé as one of his models for the Cinderella Castle (1971).
Having those sort of rumours hovering over your château, who wouldn’t exploit them for all their worth?
The Château attic has been set up with various rooms depicting scenes of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Access to the fairy tale is via a narrow, spiral staircase located in a corner tower, through a dusty claustrophobic attic and out onto a rampart. Visitors can walk along the rampart and look through windows, some open and some enclosed, at the different views of mannequins dressed in period costumes depicting the various scenes in the story. Exit is via another narrow, spiral staircase.
However, Disneyland it is not. Unlike many of the famous Loire châteaux, Ussé is not a commercial enterprise. Nor does it aspire to be one. It has neither Royal history nor National Monument status. It is still private property and home to the same family since the early 19th century.
The current owner, Count Blacas, opened the Château to the public in 1975 out of necessity. The Count is passionate about maintaining the Château as close as possible to its original design. The use of traditional methods is not cheap, but the Château is entirely self-funded with no government subsidy. The Count can often be seen working around the Château with the help of only a few employees.
Compared to other Loire châteaux, Ussé has a very tranquil history. Scandal, conspiracy, intrigue, and Royal confiscation seem to have bypassed Ussé. It even managed to avoid destruction during the French Revolution.
The first known owner was a Viking, Gelduin I, who erected a wooden fortress around 1004. In the 15th century, Jean V of Bueil (Charles VII’s captain) built a fortified castle on the foundations of this early fortress, which makes up part of the present building.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, various owners added their own personal touches. The Chapel, to the east of the Château, marks the passage from Gothic to Renaissance architecture. Constructed between 1523 to 1535 by Charles d’Espinay and his wife, Lucrèce de Pons, the outside and inside are very Gothic. Much of the ornamentation, however, some of which displays the initials C and L (after the owners), marks the Renaissance trend.
Only in the 17th century did Ussé become the stately home that you see today, with its majestic view of the Indre river and Loire Valley. In 1659, the land was bought by the Marquis Bernan de Valentinay. With France enjoying a relative peaceful period, the Château’s enclosed quadrangle was considered an unnecessary defensive requirement. In order to open out the Château onto the valley, the Marquis de Valentinay, had the north wing eliminated.
In 1664, the Marquis de Valentinay commissioned André Le Notre, the architect of the Versailles Gardens, to develop the terraced garden that we see today. The ornate design is typical of Le Notre’s passsion for form and symmetry. It is richly planted with colourful flowers and orange trees in tubs, some of which date back to 1789.
The Château later belonged to the Duke of Montbazon, Monsieur de Challabre, the Duchess de Duras and the Countess de la Rochejacquelin, who passed it onto her nephew, Count de Blacas, whose descendants still own Ussë.
Nearby the Chapel are two magnificent cedars of Lebanon, a gift from the author, Chateaubriand, to the Duchess of Duras. The Duchess, herself a writer, had met Chateaubriand while in exile in London during the French Revolution in 1789. On her return to France, she maintained a literary salon in Paris and continued her relationship (some say as mistress) with Chateaubriand. He visited her every morning, but when he took another mistress, the Duchess is said to have stopped all the clocks in the house, so as never to expect his visit.
What is a romantic castle without a love affair?
Inside the Château
The many rooms and halls of Ussé contain magnificent period antiques and furnishings installed by the different owners.
The Central Gallery displays the Château’s exquisite collection of Flemish tapestries (Brussels), woven in the 18th century from drawings by David Teniers (17th-century painter).
The optical illusion created by the ceiling in the Guard Room dates back to the 17th century. The collection of weaponry and oriental objects were brought back in the 19th century from a world trip made by Count Stanislas de Blacas.
The Vauban’s lounge room was originally the chapel at the time of the fortified castle. The walls are adorned with 16th-century Flemish tapestries (Brussels) and tell the story of ‘David and Goliath’. The 16th-century Italian cabinet, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, contains 49 hidden drawers.
Château d’Ussé has the required King’s room, just in case a king happened to visit. The silks on the wall, with their Chinese patterns, were woven in the 18th century in the factories of Tours. The floor is the original 17th-century oak parquet.
Nearly all the rooms contain wax models in period costumes. This display is unique among Loire châteaux, and while changes are made to the costumes every year, I found them to be quite distracting. Because of their presence, most rooms are roped off, preventing a closer examination of the room’s contents.
Château d’Ussé is a 20 minute drive from Azay-le-Rideau along the D17/D7. This route approaches Ussé from the east and takes you through the small village of Rigny-Ussé. Alternatively, you can take the D57/D16 from Azay along the Loire and approach Ussé from the north, giving you a beautiful frontal view of the Château.
There is no train station, and without a car or bicycle, Ussé can be difficult to reach. We visited in May, and there were very few tourists.
We took the east approach, but, unfortunately, roadworks in the village made the road unpassable, So, we parked at the Town Hall and walked the short distance through Rigny-Ussé to the Château.
Like most small villages during the lunch hour (or two), Rigny is as ‘dead as a door nail’. Even the road workers were nowhere to be seen, but their gaping hole in the middle of the road was still evident. We did manage to find a small shop and rouse the shopkeeper from her slumber to get a cool drink.
A cafe and a couple of boutiques were open nearer to the Château. The boutique that got our attention was the Saveurs de Loire. Primarily selling regional wines, it also sells some local delicacies, like poires tapees, pomme tapees, and terrines.
Ussé is a much larger château than Azay-le-Rideau but without the same patronage. This is possibly due to its relative isolation, but it’s that isolation that contributes much to its charm. Standing in a leafy setting on the edge of the Chinon Forest and looking down on the Lore Valley, it is not hard to see why Ussé portrays a fairy tale image.
However, there is much more to the Château d’Ussé than provided by a fairy tale. Dig behind the mythology, and you will find rich stories in its owners, visitors, furnishings, tapestries, antiques and paintings.
+33 2 4795 5405
Open mid-Feb-Mar: 10 am to 6 pm; Apr–Sep: 10 am to 7 pm; October–mid-Nov: 10 am to 6 pm;
From Azay-le-Rideau: east on D17/D7 or north on D57/D16; From Paris: train to Tours then to Azay-le-Rideau;