10 locations from Shakespeare's plays in France and Spain

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Considering the English wars with the French during the Hundred Years' War, France was bound to end up in some of Shakespeare's historical plays but other locations may be more surprising. So where should you go to find the plays of the Bard in France and Spain? Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...

Normandy

Rouen (Henry VI, part 1)

Where best to start than the capital of Normandy, a place that features some of the best preserved medieval civil architecture in all of France? The city has some wonderfully preserved half-timber houses in the old town around the Gothic cathedral and has been an important player in English and French history since the time of William the Conqueror.

One of the city's most famous visitors was Joan of Arc, who appears in Henry VI part 1 as a prominent antagonistic character (in the play she is called Joan la Pucelle). Joan was captured and imprisoned in Rouen's chateau of which now only the keep, known as the tower of Joan of Arc, exists.

Joan of Arc was tried and executed in Rouen and a monument exists in the Place de Vieux Marché where she was burnt at the stake. Rouen has however created something quite beautiful in her honour - the stunning Eglise Jeanne d'Arc, a modern church with spectacular stained glass windows. You can also find out more about her at the interactive Historial Jeanne d'Arc museum.

Harfleur (Henry V)

Now little known, in Henry V's time Harfleur was one of the most popular seaports in northwest France and had been for centuries. This all changed when Le Havre was built a few kilometers downstream but Harfleur retains its place in the history books for the Siege of Harfleur when Henry V laid siege to the town for over a month before it finally surrendered and he could continue inland.

The siege is a vital part of Shakespeare's play, which depicts Henry V's campaign that culminated in the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. It is at Harfleur that Henry cries the immortal line, 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!'. Today, there is no evidence of the siege but Harfleur does have some medieval charm in its half-timber houses and the Church of St Martin.

Around 20 minutes drive from Le Havre, it is an easy place to visit on your way to or from the port for a little slice of Anglo-Norman history. You'll also find Graville Abbey on the outskirts of Le Havre, a Romanesque building holding a national museum of medieval art and also over 150 models of historic houses.

Loire and Loire Valley

Angers and Anjou (King John and Henry VI, part 1)

The imposing chateau at Angers is an impressive backdrop to any story and the town of Angers is featured in Shakespeare's plays as the landscape for several dramatic scenes. Whether the town is denying King John and King Phillip entry or Joan of Arc is being captured outside its walls, Angers is a place in Shakespeare's plays where big events happen.

The chateau is undoubtedly the most famous aspect of Angers and was the childhood home of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's wife. Today it hosts the Apocalypse Tapestry, one of the oldest tapestries in the world (it dates from the mid-14th century) that stretches for just over 100m and depicts the biblical tale of the Apocalypse.

Historically, the duchy of Anjou also encompassed the towns of Saumur to the southeast, Cholet to the southwest and stretched as far as Pouancé to the north. The area is a beautiful section of the Loire Valley and is home to some splendidly varied chateaux including the turretted, fairy tale Chateau de Saumur and the many-towered fortress at Pouancé.

Orléans (Henry VI, part 1)

Much of the first and second acts of Henry VI part 1 are set at the besieged Orléans as Joan la Pucelle comes to the aid of the French prince, Charles, and his army. The famous Battle of Orléans follows with a French victory. Joan of Arc aka the Maid of Orléans is celebrated in the town with a statue in her honour at the Place du Martroi and a museum of her life in a house reconstructed to look like one she would have stayed in during her time in Orléans.

Besides its links to Joan of Arc, Orléans is also known for its stunning Gothic cathedral - although you'll find her here too with some wonderful stained glass windows depicting her story. Damaged, burned and rebuilt several times, the cathedral has a turbulent history in line with France's own as various wars over the centuries ravaged the town.

If you're interested in religious buildings then don't miss the crypt of St Aignan. More than just your regular crypt, it is an underground church with five radiating chapels that was consecrated in 1029. The relics of St Aignan were kept here in the martyrium.

North and Central France

Agincourt and Picardy (Henry V)

We've all heard of the Battle of Agincourt but how many people know exactly where it is? The village of Azincourt is in historical Picardy, now part of the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, and the sloping battlefield is located just outside the village. You can walk around the battlefield, although not on it as it is farmland, but there is a memorial and you can visit the small museum in Azincourt for some background - and the chance to fire a longbow.

The area that was Picardy is a pretty part of the French countryside with lush green fields and forests, and a lovely coastline that includes the Bay of the Somme, considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world and a great spot for birdwatchers. The Somme, of course, conjures up an image of a far less tranquil time in this area and it was here that the fierce battles of the Western Front in WW1 were fought.

However, it's not all about battlefields in this area and Picardy's capital, Amiens, is famous for its magnificent cathedral, a World Heritage Site, that is one of the largest Gothic buildings ever constructed. Inside is a wealth of medieval statues and on the outside it was discovered that the striking western facade was once painted in colours that are now reproduced with a light show projection at night.

Paris (All's Well That Ends Well and Henry VI, part 1)

Paris only features in Shakespeare's plays as the location of the King's palace but the Louvre continues to be one of the capital's biggest attractions. The royal residence from 1528 onwards, the Louvre is now home to one of the world's largest art museums and has been the world's most visited museum for several years.

Containing such masterpieces as Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo's Rebellious Slave, the Louvre is an exquisite setting for some of the most incredible artworks ever produced. When Shakespeare was alive, sadly, the palace was more famous for a bloodbath on its doorstep - the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. Protestant nobles were slaughtered inside the palace and bodies piled up outside as violence against Protestant Huguenots swept through the city. 

Other sites that would have been familiar in Shakespeare's time include Notre Dame cathedral, which would have looked as distinctive as it does today, and St Eustace's church at the entrance to Le Halles - a striking church that is almost as large as Notre Dame itself.

Southern France

Bordeaux and Gascony (Henry VI, part 1)

'Have we no wine here?' We certainly do! Welcome to red wine country. Bordeaux's most famous export is the lifeblood of this area and wine tourism is huge business here today. But there is more to see than just vineyards amongst the rolling green hills of Gascony, the land of the musketeer d'Artagnan.

Gascony has a heritage as part of the Basque Country and the Basque language is still spoken by a large number of its inhabitants. Now largely in the department of the Pyrenées-Atlantiques, Gascony is covered in bastides - medieval fortified towns built by a single founder at one time to help boost trade and living standards amongst the people.

Whilst in Henry VI part 1, the English army are destroyed on the battlefield outside Bordeaux, Gascony today retains its more peacable charms and is known for the sweetness of life here, the 'douceur de vivre'. Sit back and relax with a glass of Bordeaux or some Armagnac brandy and enjoy the landscapes of this romantic country.

Marseille (All's Well That Ends Well)

Marseille may only feature in one scene of All's Well That Ends Well but it is an important scene to the plot as Helena tries to reach the king with her petition but, finding he has left, meets a gentleman who agrees to courier it for her. Now the second largest city in France, Marseille has long been a vibrant and popular port city on France's south coast.

However, it's another work of literature that has made Marseille famous - Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. The count audaciously escapes from the Château d'If, a medieval fortress built on an island just off the coast of the city in the early 16th century. The chateau quickly became a prison for political and religious prisoners due to the difficulty of escape from the island and you can take a boat trip out to visit this impressive chateau with a grisly past.

In the old town, known as La Panier, you'll find the Hotel de Cabre, one of the oldest buildings in the city and one which survived the German occupation of Marseille in WW2 relatively unscathed compared to most of the old town. Built in 1535, the whole building was rotated on wheels in the 1950s to fit in with urban planning changes.

Roussillon (All's Well That Ends Well)

One of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays and often categorised as one of his 'problem plays' for not neatly falling into a genre, All's Well That End's Well takes place largely in the historic region of Roussillon that roughly corresponds to the department of Pyrenées-Orientales at the Spanish border of Languedoc Roussillon.

Roussillon only came under French rule in the mid-17th century and was previously part of Catalunya, lending much of the area's heritage a distinctly Spanish and Catalonian flavour. From the architecture of its forts and abbeys to the cuisine, there is a very clear Spanish influence that continues today and you'll often find street signs in both French and Catalan.

Unmissable sights in the region include Roussillon's capital, Perpignan where you'll find the red brick Castillet, a 14th century fortified gate; the Palace of the Kings of Majorca and a wonderful Gothic cathedral. Salvador Dali also painted his La Gare de Perpignan after spending time at the train station here, which he called the 'centre of the universe'.

Northern Spain

Navarra (Love's Labour's Lost)

'Navarre shall be the wonder of the world'. So proclaims King Ferdinand at the beginning of Love's Labour's Lost. With its hugely varied landscapes from lush vineyards to rocky caves and oak forest to semidesert, there is a little bit of everything thrown into Navarra's melting pot of sensational scenery. In fact, nearly half of the territory in Navarra has some kind of nature conservation classification.

Looking like a backdrop to a Spaghetti Western and, at times, more like a lunar landscape, the semidesert of the Bardenas Reales is a real spectacle. To the north, you'll discover mysterious caves with tales of witchcraft and magic, and to the south are great sierras filled with idyllic meadows, quiet beech woods and hidden valleys. The deep oak forests of Orgi and Irati and the dramatic Arbaiun and Lumbier gorges are breathtaking.

But Shakespeare's royal characters don't head out to enjoy the landscape (more fool them), they are at the King of Navarre's park and Navarra has some incredible palaces. Imagine the characters wandering the gardens of the luxurious Royal Palace at Olite or admiring the facade at the Romanesque Palace of the Kings of Navarre in Estella whilst engaging in their battle of wits.

 

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