Wednesday, April 29, 2009
We capped off our week of vacances with 3 days in the Loire Valley. In 1996, when we were last in France, Rick and I toured the Château de Chambord, a magnificent example of Renaissance architecture that Francois I had built as a hunting lodge. While the outside of this castle is scrumptious, the inside doesn't hold much interest, except for the double helix central staircase. This escalier was designed so that lovers could go up or down a floor and not be seen by passersby, including their spouses. Ribald!
There are dozens of châteaux still standing, many restored thanks to becoming patrimoine heritage sites, others kept safe, through wars and revolutions, by the families who inherited them. I was always amazed there were so many châteaux in the Loire Valley--if there was only one royal family, why have so many homes? Well, this trip I learned that the royal court was enormous. Thousands of people hung out with the royal family--relatives, religious powers and others of whatever import. These thousands would traipse about the countryside amongst "the court" and all needed a place to stay.
We chose to stay in the little town of Amboise (our pics), centrally located just east of Tours. I found an apartment online, across the street from the Château d'Amboise, with magnificent views of it.
This apartment, with some of its wood paneling dating back to the 16th century has been newly renovated and is completely modern. We were only the second tenants. Its 2 bedrooms felt very spacious compared to the cramped quarters of our Paris hotel. The town of Amboise is charming--set on the bank of the Loire with the lovely gothic and flamboyant facade of the chateau overlooking the little streets.
The Château d'Amboise is called a "château royal" because it indeed housed several kings. In fact Charles VIII was born there and also died there, after bumping his head on a doorway after viewing a tennis match. Once the court moved closer to Paris, however, the château fell into ruin. Only 1/5 of the original remains, the rest of it was sacrificed to rebuild what stands today, under orders of Napolean. The chapel on the grounds houses the tomb of Leonardo de Vinci, who lent his talents to French kings interested in Renaissance style and spent his last years in Amboise.
This château also served as a house arrest for an Arab emir and his retinue who were captured when France decided to colonize Algeria. He was released after 4 years but several of his household died while living here and they have their own burial plot on the manicured grounds.
After pouring over websites of the other châteaux to visit, we selected Chenonceau for its uniform rave reviews and its close proximity to Amboise. After seeing this delicacy we've decided Chenonceau is the gold standard of Loire Valley châteaux. It has everything: a sugary façade, formal manicured French gardens, and exquisite furnishings. In addition to period furniture this château houses original tapestries and paintings. The attention to detail with each room went from the monogrammed ceilings to to the fresh flower arrangements. As this castle was built over the Cher river, supplies could come via river and be deposited right to the kitchens, which seemed so well equipped it was like the staff only had the day off. This château is not huge and so most of the rooms were available for viewing. During WWI the entire château was used as a hospital. It was a beautiful day, the only thing to mar it being the ubiquitous scaffolding. Here's our photo gallery.
Château de Chenonceau is called le Château des Dames because it is known for the women who lived there. Diane de Poitiers was given the château by Henri II, her lover, and she is responsible for the grand place that it is. But when he died his widow Catherine de Médicis kicked Diane out and moved in. She made a few changes including building a gallery over Diane's bridge, and designing her own rival garden. Other queens, daughters and daughters-in-law lived in Chenanceau as well, all leaving their mark, but the creepiest of all was the room dedicated to Louise de Lorraine. After her husband Henri III was assassinated she withdrew to Chenonceau and spent the rest of her life in prayer. Her room is a veritable house of mourning.
Our whirlwind trip up north ended with taking the TGV back home. We were whisked south in a bit over 4 hours from Paris. We went to get Maggie from Chez Katell, where she spent a happy week getting spoiled with several walks per day, including some marathon balades in the Esterels. Today, a week later, we found a juicy tick--her souvenir from her vacances.