Not his writing and not his philosophies; just his name – when printed on Loire Valley tourism brochures and websites.
The Loire likes to celebrate its literary connections, and often it seems valid. Rabelais regularly teased his home town of Chinon in his books, and Honoré de Balzac wrote many novels and swaths of La Comédie humaine at the Château in Saché.
But Descartes, though born in the Loire, didn’t hang around long, leaving forever while still a child. He never wrote or said much that betrayed his Valley roots and wasn’t even all that firmly French. He spent much of his productive thinking and scribbling life in the Netherlands.
These facts have not deterred the promoters of Loire literary links. In fact, La Haye en Touraine, the town where Descartes was born, changed its name to emphasize the association for all time. It is now known simply as the Village of Descartes.
For this reason, I smiled when we checked into our hotel in Azay-le-Rideau. Just off the dining room, a closet or storage room has been dedicated to and duly named in honour of René Descartes. As far as I can tell, he never set foot in the closet or the town.
I thought it was funny.
I thought it was funny.
But after crossing the courtyard to our room, I found another door and another name - La Fontaine - another French writer and another one not really associated to this region. At this point, I noticed other decorations – an old student desk, bookcases, and a display of rulers, inkwells, and drawing tools.
The Hotel de Biencourt, it turns out, housed a school for centuries, and the décor and the literary room names honour these times.
But the history that draws guests to the hotel and to the town revolves around the 16th century Château a few blocks away. The Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is a typical Renaissance castle and popular because it seems to rise up magically in the middle of the river and because of its sketchy backstory.
The extravagance of the castle was kicked off about five hundred years ago by a character named Gilles Berthelot, the Mayor of Tours and Treasurer-General of the King's finances. Berthelot didn’t finish the project. He had to flee into exile when his family came under suspicion for financial indiscretions – indiscretions of the kind that carried the death penalty.
Walking back to my room, I imagined the 19th schoolmasters pointing to the castle and reciting this cautionary tale.
Hey - Maybe celebration of Descartes isn’t to attract tourists to the great things in the Loire, but rather to tell the youth that they can achieve great things if they leave.