CHÂTEAUX OF THE LOIRE VALLEY – PART III
Today is our last day in the Loire Valley and we wanted to end our château sight-seeing with something special, so we set out to visit Château de Chenonceau and Château d’Amboise today – two of the regions best known castles with the most fascinating histories. Like many in the region, both castles were ransacked during the French Revolution, after their noble owners were deposed. Fortunately both were then bought by wealthy citizens and rescued, their beauty restored for castle-buffs like us to enjoy.
First stop today was Château de Chenonceau, the most popular castle in the Loire Valley and the second-most visited château in France (after Versailles). This château is often referred to as “The Ladies Castle”, because its history is inextricably linked with that of 5 women, all of whom loved the castle and left their mark on it. The end result is a château that is beautiful and graceful, and more than a little feminine in design.
The castle was built in 1522 on the foundations of an old mill which once sat astride the River Cher. The castle was built by Thomas Bohier, Chamberlain to King Charles VIII of France. As his courtly duties often meant Thomas Bohier was away, the building of the château was primarily overseen by his wife Katherine Briçonnet. It was Katherine who had the building’s first graceful arches installed, ensuring the modest castle was beautiful as well as functional.
In 1535 the château was seized from Bohier’s son for unpaid debts to the Crown, passing into the possession of King Henry II of France. King Henry II offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diana de Poitiers, who became the second lady to intertwine her life with that of Château de Chenonceau.
Diana de Poitiers became fervently attached to the château and, in 1555, she commissioned the building of an arched bridge joining the château to the opposite bank of the river. Diana also oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens, which are still there today and known as Diana’s Gardens.
After King Henry II died in 1559, his strong-willed widow, and regent, Catherine de Medici forced Diana out of Chenonceau and moved into the palace herself. Catherine de Medici was the third mistress of Chenonceau; she added a new series of gardens to the estate and had the arched bridge covered over, turning it into a beautiful 2-storey gallery.
Catherine de Medici spent a fortune on the château, ensuring its kitchens were expanded and that the castle was luxurious enough to play host to spectacular royal parties. In 1560, the first ever fireworks display seen in France took place at Chenonceau during the celebrations marking the ascension to the throne of Francois II, Catherine’s son.
On Catherine’s death in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine. Louise was at Chenonceau when she was told of her husband’s assassination in 1589. Having been deeply in love with her husband, when Louise heard of his death, she fell into a state of depression and refused to leave Chenonceau again. So profound was Louise’s grief that she wore mourning clothes for the rest of her days and even had her bedroom decorated in black, covered in motifs of death. Thus Louise de Lorraine became the château’s fourth mistress.
The château was sold to a wealthy squire named Claude Dupin in 1733; his wife, Louise Dupin, became the fifth mistress of Chenonceau. She oversaw restoration works and saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution by arguing that the castle was “…essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.”
In 1913 the château was acquired by Henri Menier, a member of the Menier family who are famous in France for their chocolates. The Menier family still own it to this day and maintain the castle in beautiful condition, paying homage to each of Chenonceau’s mistresses in the displays and decorations arrayed throughout the château. The castle’s history is beautifully told through these displays and really helped bring its story to life for us.
The gardens around Château de Chenonceau are just as beautiful as the interior, and we happily spent hours strolling through it, enjoying the sounds of the birds around us and views of the River Cher. What a stunning castle!
From Château de Chenonceau we went to the village of Amboise, a small market town, that was once home of the French royal court. Here we went to see our final Loire Valley castle: Château d’Amboise.
Château d’Amboise was built on a rocky outcropping above the River Loire, atop a much older Gallic fortress. The strategic advantages of the site, some 500m above the Loire River, are obvious, and explain why the French royal family lived there for almost 100 years. Even today the views from the castle are incredible, both across the river and across the town of Amboise which has grown at its feet.
When the royal family moved its court away from Amboise in the second half of the 16th century, the château fell into decline. The majority of the interior buildings were later demolished, but a few survived as have the outer defensive circuit of towers and walls.
The pinnacled gables and grey-coned towers overlooking the Loire of Château d’Amboise are certainly grand, and the interior gives a good impression of the life of the time. Drawings inside the castle show, however, that the château is a shadow of what it once was – 80% of the palace was been destroyed over the years.
Even though much of the castle is gone, there were still interesting things to see. Our favourite parts was the spiral ramp built through the hill, up to the castle, to allow horsemen to arrive at the castle on horseback; and the 19th century royal apartments where King Louis Phillippe lived with his family for a time.
The gardens were quite extraordinary as well, though quite compact as they sit entirely within the original defensive walls that encircle the castle.
By far the most extraordinary part of Château d’Amboise, however, is the tiny flamboyant Gothic chapel of St Hubert. Perched on the edge of the hilltop, this lovely church is beautiful and serene. It is also believed to be the burial place for Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Amboise for the last 3 years of his life as a guest of King Francois I* (after riding across the Alps on a donkey, no less!).
*It was during this time that da Vinci is believed to have designed the double helical staircase that King Francois I had installed at his immense hunting castle, Château Chambord.
After an afternoon exploring Château d’Amboise we descended into the town of Amboise and stopped for a coffee, admiring the view up to the castle from our street-side vantage point.
From Amboise it was easy trip home, back to Tours. We’re back here now, exhausted but content after an extraordinary day of exploring châteaux here in the Loire Valley. Having seen just 6 of the 300 castles in this area, we’re feeling completely besotted and overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. What a lovely part of the world this is, and what a great way to end our stay in France!