I have always been fascinated by the lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, and always picture them as Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, from the movie "The Lion in Winter." I would like to see some of the places they and their son Richard the Lion-Hearted lived, fought, loved and died. Any suggestions?
Fly to Paris, rent a car or take a train, and head southwest.
Henry was duke of Anjou as well as king of England, and he lived mostly in France, so you'll find connections with the 12th-century couple in Anjou province in the western Loire River Valley.
Eleanor had been the wife of King Louis VII of France for more than 10 years before that marriage was annulled on the convenient grounds that the two were kin, both descended from Robert the Pious. If those grounds applied today, there would be a lot of royal annulments.
The beautiful Eleanor soon married Henry Plantagenet, grandson of William the Conqueror. Eleanor's dowry was a big chunk of southwestern France.
Henry, who ruled England as Henry II, died at Chinon, one of his favorite chateaux, as did Richard the Lion-Hearted, son of Henry and Eleanor. All three are entombed at Fontevraud Abbey, the largest collection of monastic buildings in France. Both places are in Anjou and can be visited.
Chinon today is a grandiose ruin, partially dismantled. The royal apartments can be visited; they contain tapestries and maps that record an event two centuries after Henry Plantagenet died: Joan of Arc's first meeting with the future Charles VII, at the place where she equipped her army. John Lackland, younger brother and successor of Richard the Lion-Hearted (the nasty one of the Robin Hood legend, who was forced to sign the Magna Carta), lost all his French territories after he kidnapped and married another nobleman's fiancee at Chinon.
At Fontevraud, the crypts of 15 Plantagenets are on display in the abbey church. This vast collection of buildings was populated with priests, lay brothers, monks, contemplative nuns, lepers, invalids and lay sisters. In later centuries, buildings were desecrated, destroyed and used as a prison. Restoration is under way.
The city of Angers is a good place to spend the first night if you drive out of Paris' Orly Airport after a flight from the United States. Angers is a must-see, rating three Michelin stars -- a rare "worth a special trip" top honor.
Angers has a spectacular chateau that was the seat of the dukes of Anjou, surrounded by over half a mile of high stone walls studded with 17 round watchtowers. The moat that once surrounded it is now a garden, filled with formal flower beds. The famous Apocalypse Tapestry, in a building within the walls, is the world's oldest and largest surviving tapestry. The 76 panels, each 13 feet high, depict the Book of Revelation's story of the victory of Christ in the form of prophetic visions.
The tapestry, finished in 1382, looks good considering the treatment it has suffered. In the early 19th century, when it was discarded as a work of no value, it was cut up and used as horse blankets, thrown over plants on cold nights and so on. Now it has been mostly reassembled in the original order.
The Loire meanders, feeds marshes and creates small islands. It flows through a land with red tiled roofs, white stone walls and green fields. The people seem more friendly than Parisians.
The food is wonderful. Muscadet, saumur and Anjou wines are pleasant; Cointreau is an Anjou product; the Angers area is famous for pears, apples and cheeses. Seafood is wonderful.
Roads are excellent, and fast train service connects the western Loire with Paris.
For a guidebook, call the French Government Tourist Office at 900-990-0040 (cost is 50 cents a minute).
Pub Date: 3/01/98