Tours, student joy in the heart of the Loire

Only those who have spent an evening on the banks of the Loire, catching the joy of its guingets, will be able to confirm the well-deserved fame of Tours as a young, open and free city.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 September 2023 Monday 10:33
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Tours, student joy in the heart of the Loire

Only those who have spent an evening on the banks of the Loire, catching the joy of its guingets, will be able to confirm the well-deserved fame of Tours as a young, open and free city. Suddenly the garlands light up, the music raises the volume and the mirror of the river returns a parade of people eager to have fun. This is how the Impressionists portrayed these kinds of river picnic areas, these points of youth congregation where they could indulge in such simple pleasures as eating, drinking and dancing.

Today, much later, this afternoon party survives in Tours only when the weather is good. And if not, the atmosphere moves to its medieval-style squares and alleys, where entertainment is also guaranteed. This is what this city is like, located in the heart of the Loire Valley and also lying on the Chere River: pure vitality.

The university, of course, contributes to such energy. We are talking about 135,000 inhabitants, of which about 30,000 are students, just as was the illustrious writer Honoré de Balzac, born in this town. Considered the father of the modern novel, a sculpture in the garden of Françoise Sicard recalls the figure of who is considered the father of the modern novel.

Beyond the student joy, in Tours, considered a world heritage site by UNESCO, the weight of history is felt at every step. A history that led it to be the capital of France under the reign of Louis XI, when the silk manufacturing business covered the city with splendor. The town was filled with merchants and the architecture of Renaissance mansions like the one now occupied by the Goüin Hotel, which miraculously escaped the barbarism of the Second World War.

A city, then, royal and of pilgrimage (the Camino de Santiago passes through here), Tours is also familiar to us because it is also the birthplace of Saint Martin, whom even El Greco portrayed cutting his cloak with his sword to alleviate the cold of a beggar. This saint not only has his tomb in a neo-Byzantine style basilica similar to the Sacré Coeur in Paris, but also gives its name to the most famous neighborhood in the city.

Saint Martin, which houses the Faculty of Letters and History, is the bohemian district par excellence, whose epicenter is divided into two squares: Du Grand Marché and Plumereau, where there are bars and restaurants with terraces, always packed with people. In the latter, which was the heart of the Middle Ages and today is the heart of university students, we find a beautiful group of half-timbered houses.

Parallel to the Loire River, what was once Main Street and is now Rue Colbert unites the Saint Martin neighborhood with that of the Cathedral, presided over by the great temple, one of the most beautiful in France. A true display of power and wealth, which began in flamboyant Gothic and concluded in Renaissance style under the preponderance of light. This is why the rose window is like a large window through which the sun's rays are scattered.

Next to the cathedral, it is worth entering the garden of the Museum of Fine Arts to marvel at a cedar of Lebanon planted in 1804 and whose height (no less than 31 meters) exceeds that of the nave itself. And in this line of religious buildings, you should also not miss the Abbey of San Julián, an imposing Romanesque church classified as a historical monument.

Walking through Tours there comes a moment when, suddenly, you abandon the Middle Ages and enter fully into the 19th century. It is the legacy of that event that brought with it a new vision of urban planning: the arrival of the train, in 1838. With it, the Loire ceased to be the commercial axis and the foundations of the industrial revolution were laid.

It is to the local architect Victor Laloux to whom much of this other face of the city is owed. The man who was the author of the current Orsay Museum in Paris left jewels in his native Tours such as the Town Hall, with an impressive façade that proves that times have changed: a civil building can be (almost) as big as the cathedral.

Laloux's work is also the train station, located right in front of the congress palace, designed by Jean Nouvel (responsible for the expansion of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid and the Agbar tower in Barcelona). The curious thing is, as in many other corners of the city, there is a century between the two buildings in Tours that look directly into each other's eyes.