France's Loire Valley is home to some of the most magnificent buildings in the world. One of the most interesting is the Château de Cheverny. Originally a fortified castle, the present building shows no signs of military architecture. As France became more stabilized after the 30 Years War, nobles tended to focus more on opulence than security.
The current château was built in the style of Louis XIII, and features symmetrical architecture, with lavishly decorated rooms, the obligatory suits of armor, and, of course, 70-odd hunting dogs which battle for a meal every day.
La soupe des chiens - the feeding of the dogs - is one of the more entertaining sights I have seen. As the time for the feeding drew near, I joined the huddle of tourists at the dog pen, enclosed by sturdy iron bars and a gate at the base of a ramp to a secondary enclosure.
The dogs knew what was happening. A few of the more eager ones ran laps in front of the assembled tourists, while others didn't seem to want to get their hopes up just yet. When a man in a blue lab coat carrying a whip came out, followed by two others who started to hose off the ground of the otherwise-empty enclosure, the dogs went nuts. They barked, bayed and howled as they jumped and pushed against each other to get close to the gate.
After hosing the ground clean, the two men opened an old wood door and began shoveling out the feast the dogs were about to consume. A layer of meat was covered by shovels full of standard dog food. The pile looked like someone had dumped a trough out and left all the food.
"Release the hounds!" the labcoated trainer called. (OK, so I don't know what the exact French words were, but that's what I imagined he said).
One of the assistants opened the gate, and a flood of canines charged through the opening, the only thing between them and the food being a few yards of wet ground.
Then they stopped when the trainer flicked his wrist. Every single one of them stood a foot or so back from the food. They whined and jostled for position, awaiting the trainer's command. Some even tried to climb on the backs of those in front. Once the trainer determined there had been sufficient anticipation, he gave a sharp command and stepped out of the way.
As one, the hounds leaped, charged, dove and scrambled for the feast. Some dug in only to be jumped on and pushed aside by others. Wagging tails waved in the air as the food was devoured faster than any of us watching probably imagined it could be.
It was over in a couple of minutes. A few scattered pieces of food lay at the far reaches of the pen before the dogs sniffed them out and ate them. Several of the hounds were cut and bloodied from the fray.
I started to walk away, then turned around and watched them a while longer. I wondered what the point was. Yes, the dogs were well-trained, and that was impressive, but other than it being a spectacle for tourists, I couldn't imagine a practical purpose for keeping them all from the food. Then again, I don't hunt, and I imagine keeping your dogs from tearing your food to ribbons is probably a concern.
The whole spectacle fit in perfectly with the surroundings. Standing on immaculately tended lawns looking at a building that served a nobleman as a palace, it makes sense that there should be an army of hunting dogs on the grounds. After all, the nobility of all European nations loved to hunt, and la soupe des chiens is an interesting way to bring the past to life.