Autumn in Sologne

Autumn in Sologne

When a stroll through Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens on a crisp fall morning brings to mind the damp smells of the forest and the rusty hues of a Ralph Lauren photo shoot, I know it is time for an escapade in Sologne—the largest forested area in France and the stag’s last French bastion.

With more than 3,000 ponds and pools, the Sologne region is also a choice habitat for some 200 species of migrating birds and 38 species of dragonflies. Heather-covered heaths and stretches of sand alternate with marshes and bogs, adding further wealth to this region teeming with wildlife. The country’s largest nature reserve, it is a hunter’s and angler’s paradise and a perfect retreat for the nature lover.

Bounded by a loop of the Loire River to the north and by the river Cher to the south, Sologne is situated on the eastern fringe of the Loire château country and includes Chambord and Cheverny. Yet despite these major landmarks, most of Sologne is bypassed by tourists and has preserved a lingering flavor of pre-World War I France, when the newly rich bourgeoisie turned it into a hunting playground filled with some 350 châteaux, as splendidly portrayed in Jean Renoir’s film masterpiece La Règle du Jeu.

But not before Napoleon III reclaimed its malaria-infested swamps. In 1852 he bought the 16th-century domain of Saint-Maurice at Lamotte-Beuvron, following in the footsteps of his ancestor François de Beauharnais, who had built the château at La Ferté Beauharnais a century earlier.

The first hunting estate here was François I’s Chambord, completed in 1519. This is the largest of the Loire châteaux, with a parkland as vast as Paris, some 13,500 acres. The king spent little more than three weeks a year here, arriving with all his preferred furniture and favorite tapestries, and the rest of the time it stood stripped and empty, as it does today. He nonetheless intended it as a showpiece to impress fellow monarchs. The double-helix grand staircase leading to the royal hunting exhibits is believed to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. (François I invited Da Vinci to France in 1516—the artist lived in a royal manor house in Amboise, the Clos Lucé, and died there in 1519.) Don’t leave the château without climbing to the top terrace for a Disney-like roofscape of turrets and chimneys and the spectacular panorama of the grounds.

Chambord is now state-owned and, by extension, the presidential hunting estate. Presidents Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing hunted here; others didn’t but opened it to official guests. Ordinary visitors can tour the domain aboard a four wheel-drive vehicle—allow 90 minutes and choose an evening tour to better your chances of glimpsing some wild game. There are also tours available by bike and horse-drawn carriage, and for walkers 1,700 acres are open, with observation posts from which to watch the game.

Privately owned, jewel-like Cheverny also boasts beautiful grounds. It was the first of the Loire châteaux to open to the public, in 1922, which is how the Belgian illustrator Hergé, the creator of Tintin, got to see it and then model after it Captain Haddock’s Château de Moulinsart (Marlinspike Hall). Today there’s a Tintin museum on the grounds.

During World War II several state-owned paintings were sheltered here, including the Mona Lisa. Built at the time of Louis XIII, Cheverny has always been occupied by its owners and, unlike Chambord, conserves its lived-in atmosphere. La Chambre du Roy is the most sumptuous of its rooms, kept ready on the off chance His Majesty might spend a night here, but it is the Salle des Trophées that highlights Cheverny’s hunting vocation, with a display of 2,000 pairs of antlers collected over the past 150 years.

The traditional opening of the hunting season in late September is a colorful sight, with participants in full livery set against the château’s celebrated wrought-iron gates, but the ferocious barking of the pack of hunting dogs that welcomes you to the property can’t fail to evoke the darker side of nature.

A visit to the Maison du Cerf at Villeny is a less disturbing alternative. In addition to its great permanent exhibit about deer life, during the rutting season (September 15 to October 15) you can take part in an outing that follows the stag into its mating grounds. You will be struck by the scent emitted to mark his territory and by the formidable brame, the braying call resounding throughout the forest to ward off rivals. A failure to heed that warning will lead to a ferocious locking of antlers. (If you go, be sure to dress in dark colors to blend into the forest, and don’t wear any fragrance.) A buffet meal featuring game dishes is included, to be washed down by Cheverny wines.

Le Faucon Solognot, at Les Chaises near Ligny-le-Ribault, was the first modern falconry school to open beyond the British Isles, in 1995. Pioneering owners Francis and Brigitte Cohu (who speaks English) will show you their fabulous collection of raptors—they have had great success breeding in captivity—and initiate you to the age-old complicity between man and bird, going back either to central Asia or ancient Egypt, it is thought, but brought to Europe from the Muslim world by the Crusaders.

Le Grand Fauconnier du Roi was a highly respected position, and falcons were valued as a great trading asset—the Knights of the Order of Jerusalem, for instance, paid the Pope two peregrine falcons a year as their rent for the island of Malta. François I had as many as 300 falconers, and Louis XIII was himself a falconer and practiced his art in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens. The decline of falconry set in with the French Revolution, but modern times have found new uses for the birds of prey, namely in aviation—they chase off other birds and thus prevent plane collisions with large flocks—and as a deterrent against polluting pests in urban zones.

Tourists seldom see the many châteaux built in Sologne during the Belle Epoque, since they are well hidden from the road, but the typical Solognot red brick and half-timbered villages are there for all to enjoy. The delightful Souvigny-en-Sologne is my favorite. Note the characteristic wooden gallery around its church, known as the caquetoir, because that’s where the cackling village gossip followed up after Mass.

You’ll need a sizable appetite during the months of the hunting season, October to February, when life in Sologne centers around gourmet game dishes—wild boar and roe deer rival with hare stews and wild duck—along with pike and pike perch, all accompanied by local Touraine and Sancerre wines. The hotel-restaurant L’Auberge du Cheval Blanc in Yvoy-le-Marron, for instance, boasts lovely regional architecture, a cozy dining room with an open fire and game dishes including hare à la royale, partridge with cabbage compote, and wild mallard with figs.

Delicious, thick apple tarte Tatin is the region’s famous signature dessert—invented accidentally at the turn of the 20th century, it’s said, by one of the two sisters, Stéphanie or Caroline Tatin, at the hôtel-restaurant Tatin, located opposite the railway station in Lamotte-Beuvron, where the bourgeoisie of Belle Epoque Paris liked to alight. The place looks much the same as it must have then, providing an opportunity for a journey back in time to the delightfully dated and provincial Sologne, so conveniently close to Paris, yet light years away.

From the France Today archives

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