I would have to admit that it's quite a while since I studied French at high school. One of our books was called 'La Belle France' and one of the few things I can recall from it was a photo of Chenonceau. I'm not sure if it was the lilting name or the fairy-tale appearance, but for some reason it stuck with me over the years. In early February 1997, Pauline and I finally visited and, despite the bleak wintery conditions, we were delighted to find that the chateau was as stylish as my schoolbook had suggested.
The general story of the chateau is well known. It was owned and developed by a series of notable women, starting with Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II. She developed the garden you see in the first photo. After Henri II died, Catherine de Medici sent Diane to Chaumont (see previous tip) and took over, creating her own garden on the other side of the chateau (second photo) and adding the famous wing of the chateau on the bridge (third photo).
You won't read much about it in the guidebooks, but the room which impressed us most was the one used by a subsequent owner, following the death of her husband. She apparently went into deep mourning for some years, wandering around in white outfits (the funeral colour in those days) and sitting in this room which was painted matt black with stencilled white funeral motifs on the walls. One of the spookiest places I have ever seen!
Another chateau we visited during our (northern) winter trip in 1997. Chaumont probably would have to rank as one of the less spectacular chateaux, its original purpose of being a defensive fortress showing through in its rather forbidding walls and towers. Originally a four sided building enclosing a courtyard, the side nearest the Loire, which it overlooks from high banks, was removed in the 18th century to improve the views. Yes, a visit is well justified, despite the relatively plain appearance.
You would have to feel for Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II : after the King died his wife, the poisonous Catherine de Medicis (see the film ‘Queen Margot’ for a brilliant portrayal of her by Virna Lisi), relocated the said Diane from Chenonceau to here. Not that I’d mind if anyone offered to give me Chaumont in exchange for my house!
It is some years since we visited, but from memory we had a pleasant lunch in the little village nearby. The chateau is open year round.
During our visit in 1997, we stayed in a pleasant B&B outside and across the Loire from Amboise, so we had a view of the chateau from this bridge leading from the Île d’Or (midstream Loire) whenever we travelled (main photo). Unfortunately, because it was winter, everything tended to be grey.
The current Amboise was built by Charles VIII, when chateaux were developing from being fortresses into luxury residences, and sits upon earlier massive defensive walls. Back in 1560, the Catholic Guises accused the Protestant Huguenots of conspiracy, then hung about 1200 from the walls of the Chateau and anywhere else convenient. It seems that, because of the resulting smell, the French Royalty decamped afterwards. Much of the chateau has been dismantled, partly following the Revolution and partly in Napoleon’s time because it was unsound. Quite honestly, the interior of the residual building contains relatively little of interest apart from good views.
But Francois 1 had brought Leonardo da Vinci to France to enhance the Renaissance. When Leonardo died at Amboise in 1519, he was originally interred in a cloister within the chateau. Following the demolitions, his remains were relocated to the St Hubert Chapel (right of photo 2), within the chateau area – and this does provide real justification for a visit (photos 3,4). While in Amboise, you might also care to look at the nearby Close Luce, Leonardo’s former residence (closed in winter when we were there).
Amboise chateau is open daily except Christmas and New Year.
On our way to Azay-le-Rideau, the coach driver told the salutory story of the original chateau on this site. It seems that, in 1470, one of the chateau’s guards made some derogatory comment to the future King Charles VII about his big nose, during a royal visit. Chuck lacked a sense of humour, so he sent in his private army who wiped out everyone they could find in the area then trashed the chateau and adjoining village. It didn’t pay to upset French royalty, even when they were not yet King!
The current chateau was built in the 16th century. It is now owned by the Government and, unlike many chateaux, actually has some reasonably furnished rooms and interesting tapestries. (photos 2,3) The best though, is what you see from the outside: here, in the landscaped grounds, the little river forms a moat around the chateau, which seems to be floating. The small village outside the grounds (photo 4) is full of shops hoping to sell everything from wine to trinkets to the tourists.
Our previous visit to France was in winter and, much as we wished to see Villandry and its gardens, it was closed for the season. Getting there was a high priority on this trip and, I’m glad to say, the effort was very worthwhile. The chateau was built in about 1536 by Jean le Breton, but the gardens date from as recently as the early 1900s.
I took a minibus tour from the Office de Tourisme in Tours, probably the easiest way if you are not driving. On the 17km drive, the tour guide briefed us that the gardens are the main point of interest, the interior apparently is not overly impressive. I should also add that visiting time on the trips is somewhat limited, as the tour buses visit two chateaux in their half-day trips.
It is an understatement to say that the formal gardens are amazing, probably it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves. There even are formal gardens of vegetables such as lettuces and cabbages! To keep everything looking right, a team of 30 gardeners is employed in the summer and 15 in the winter!
It seems the gardens are now open year round for unguided visits. The hours vary, but typically are 0900 – 1700 in the winter and 0900 – 1900 in summer. The chateau is open from 4 February to 12 November, typically from 0900, but the times and dates are complex, so I would suggest you check the chateau’s website.
When King Francois the 1st wanted to develop a ‘hunting lodge’, he was not interested in doing things by halves. So he had erected the simple little weekender you see here. It is believed that Leonardo Da Vinci was involved in the design of the very impressive double helix spiral staircase in photo 2. Actually, the whole place is rather impressive, with a great many fancy points of detail – especially on the roofs (photo 3). Being an excessively modest fellow, Francois also made sure that everything was heavily encrusted with his initial ‘F’ and salamanders, his personal emblem (see photo 4). Despite all that, in total Francois spent only seven weeks in this Chateau!
We visited during February of 1997, still deep in winter, when the monumental pile probably was not looking its best. Certainly it was distinctly chilly, showing that the (reported, I didn’t count them) 365 fireplaces would have been necessary for any degree of comfort. It also is worth noting that, for the most part, the 440 room building is empty of furnishings.