Château Gaillard (Les Andelys)
A medieval military masterpiece, Château Gaillard went up for Richard the Lionheart on chalk cliffs dominating a great meander in the Seine. The castle may be in ruins now, but the two fine villages below have developed down the centuries, merging into one to form Les Andelys.
This splendid Seine-side site has long drawn attention. Prehistoric and Dark Ages vestiges have been discovered around here. There was even a religious sanctuary in these parts back in Gallo-Roman times. And fishermen have long appreciated the river’s abundant pickings. Royal connections go back as far as the 6th century, when Clotilde, wife of Frankish King Clovis, ordered one of the very first abbeys in Normandy, back in 511.
In the late 12th century, Richard the Lionheart, King of England, but also, thanks to his Plantagenet roots, Duke of Normandy, ordered the construction of a massive new castle here, to guard his Norman possessions and the nearby Norman capital of Rouen, from the powerful king of France, Philippe Auguste. Richard and Philippe had earlier set out on crusade to the Holy Land together, but had fallen out on the expedition.
Begun in 1196, Château Gaillard went up at staggering speed, being completed by 1198, although the story goes that it was built in just one year. It certainly contained the very latest military elements. Richard died in 1199, however, and his hapless brother and successor, King John, would see the castle taken from him by Philippe Auguste. During the Hundred Years War, Château Gaillard would be occupied by English troops for some time, but after that period, the fort was no longer suitable for new warfare.
Down below the castle, the two villages of Le Grand Andely and Le Petit Andely grew and merged into one. France’s most famous 17th-century artist, Nicolas Poussin, was born in these parts. He was taught by an itinerant artist, Quentin Varin, but Poussin would find his greatest inspiration by heading off to Italy. That said, the area around Les Andelys is quite beautiful and has been declared a Zone Natura 2000 to protect its special environment.
Worth a visit
- Château Gaillard: although long in ruins, the great castle that Richard the Lionheart had built to guard the Seine and Rouen remains a tremendous sight. You can visit many of the exteriors free of charge, but you need to get a ticket to see inside the central portion of the fort.
- Le Petit Andely: this is the Seine-side part of town. As well as enjoying a riverside walk here, you can admire two religious establishments. The grandiose Hospice Saint-Jacques was built to receive pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, but is now an old people’s home. The Gothic Saint-Sauveur church houses some interesting paintings as well as a particularly fine organ.
- Le Grand-Andely: now joined to Le Petit Andely by Rue de la République, this part of town is set a bit back from the Seine, but attracts visitors with its grand church, its bell tower, its fountain and its history museum.
- Nicolas Poussin museum: named after the local genius of an artist born in a hamlet beside Les Andelys in 1594, this museum, set in a fine 17th century townhouse, in fact covers the history of Les Andelys from prehistoric times to the present. The museum does hold one work by Poussin, who was famed for his brilliant works in Italian Classical style.
- Notre Dame Collegiate Church: the first Norman abbey was founded on the site of this church in 511 by Queen Clotilde, wife of Clovis, king of the Franks. The present church was erected between the 13th and 17th centuries. Inside, admire several works by Quentin Varin, an artist who inspired the young local Nicolas Poussin when he stopped to work here. There is also some splendid stained glass and some finely carved church furniture, including the organ.
- Sainte-Clotilde Fountain: according to legend, while digging the foundations for the monastery ordered by the wife of Clovis, the workmen complained of having nothing to quench their thirst in the heat. The queen’s prayers apparently changed the water from an adjacent fountain into wine. Sadly, the miracle has not been repeated.
- Saint-Sauveur Church: erected for the workers building the Château-Gaillard, the church houses one of the finest organs in France.
- Normandie-Niemen Memorial: it recounts the story of the squadron created by General de Gaulle in September 1942 to represent France on the Eastern front.
Not to be missed