Being in Château country (The Loire Valley) one must visit châteaux for a glimpse into the past life of the French elite. The former inhabitants not only influenced the design but were influential players in history. From beautiful sprawling gardens, to guards quarters, chapels, studies, music rooms, bedrooms, galleries, drawing rooms, kitchens, halls, grand staircases, exhibition rooms, the art, the furniture, the decor, it all brings history to life!
Château de Chenonceau
Nicknamed The Ladies Château, this was my favorite for its sheer beautiful landscape. A forest of tree’s surrounds the long path up to the property. Midway, the trees open up to reveal two beautifully manicured gardens. The walk to the front door continues to the River Cher. A river runs through the underside of the Château! Ok, can we dock our boat here, and where do I sign up to be queen?
Inside rooms are decorated with themes as closely related to how the famous figures who lived here might have arranged them. Some of the items in the rooms are their items, while others are simply objects found to help decorate the rooms that are of the same time era. The residence itself also has quite the interesting history.
The original château was rebuilt by Jean Marques after the 100 years war, one tower remains. His heir sold the château to Thomas Bohier the chamberlain of King Charles VIII of France in 1513. Thomas Bohier and his wife built an entirely new residence between 1515 and 1521. They delighted in hosting French nobility including King François I. Year’s later the home was seized from the Bohier’s son after unpaid taxes to the French crown.
In 1547 King Henri II gifted the château to his “favorite lady” Diane de Poitiers. After all, one can never have too many empty châteaux to give out as presents. After his death Diane was kicked off the estate by his widow Catherine de’ Medici. Can you imagine how that conversation went?
Diane had a bit of money and had actually tried to buy the home legally, but I don’t think that mattered. She ended up leaving and bought another Château (Château Cheverny) about 45 min away from her previous abode. For her, Cheverny was only temporarily housing, while she supervised the renovation of her own castle at Chaumont sur Loire.
Back at Chenonceau, Catherine de’ Medici was thrust into the limelight governing France as regent for three other kings (her sons, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III) from the Green Room, and hosted elite parties in the Gallery (ballroom). Catherine de’ Medici and King Henri III both passed away the same year in 1589. Next up, Henri III’s widow Louise of Lorraine retreated to the Château and went into mourning there for 12 years. Her death in 1601 marked the end of the royal presence at the Château. On second thought, I’ve decided becoming queen is not for me.
How about a private owner? During the French revolution new owner Louise Dupin managed to save the Chenonceau from destruction by convincing the revolutionaries that the residence was no longer part of royal property and now privately owned. She saved the chapel by converting it into a temporary woodshed hiding any religious references. She also pointed out that the château was essential to travel and commerce being the only bridge to cross the river for many miles.
In 1913, the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, bought the château and still own it to this day. During WWI Simone Menier and her family transformed two of the galleries into a hospital where up to 2,000 wounded were looked after. Chenonceau straddled the line of demarcation during the second world war. The gallery was used as a means of escape for refugees fleeing from the Nazi-occupied France over the River Cher into the “free zone” on the opposite bank.
As we digest all that history we head back out to the gardens for a relaxing stroll. Two full time florists are employed with the sole purpose of creating fresh flower arrangements daily for each room in the château. A team of 10 gardeners tend to the 100 or so different plant and flower varieties needed on the property to create the flower arrangements. In the brochure it says that birds, animals and donkeys are free to roam about the property. We left our donkeys in Mexico but it is good to know they are always welcome at Chenonceau. Maybe next time we’ll bring them along.
This was Grant’s favorite strictly for the hounds. This château has been owned by the same family for six centuries, except for two times in history. One I mentioned above, and the second time was when the heir did not want what was gifted to them. So, they sold it to someone else.
Cheverny is a popular hunting venue. The kennels on property house about seventy French hounds, half English foxhound and half French poitou. The trainers, who claim to know each one by name, feed the dogs twice daily and show off their strict training regimen.
First the dogs line up in the rooftop kennel. They wait patiently as they watch the trainers prepare a mixture of raw meat and dog food. Once they are completely quiet, and patiently awaiting the trainers signal to approach the food, the door is open. The dogs run wildly about the food, yelping and barking inches away but still, they wait for the signal as if held back by an invisible fence.
Trainer gives a stern signal to eat and a mob of dogs lunge toward the food. They can hardly contain themselves with contentment. Their gratitude is given by dancing, jumping, barking, and peeing happily as they devour their gourmet meal.
This beautiful beast is surrounded by Europe’s largest enclosed forest park and game preserve. It is six times the size of your average Loire Valley château with 440 rooms, and 365 fire places. Four floors are separated by 46 stairs. A winter palace and hunting lodge, the highlight is a double helix staircase in the middle that allows people to climb up or down and never meet!
The inside houses a labyrinth of apartments with items from Louis XIV, his wife Maria Theresa, and François I to name a few. Only one floor and a few rooms are decorated leaving the rest of this mansion looking cold and miserable.
In fact, this is how most of the châteaux in the Loire valley would sit for the majority of the year. Empty until the arrival of the royal court, traveling ahead of the king with everything the royal family would need packed nicely in huge trunks. The court and servants would prepare the house, setting up furniture, hanging wall items and unpacking dishes. After all, being an effective ruler does require travel.
How to get there?
There is no shortage of châteaux in the Loire Valley, with over 1,000 ranging from well put together residences to crumbling ruins. Approximately 100 are open to the public. We poked our heads into the Tourist Information center in Amboise and they hooked us up with two separate private taxis. The cost was comparable to renting a car but instead we got a local guide included. Both dropped us off at the front of each châteaux and gave us a time line for how long to spend roaming before meeting them back at the car. Cost to enter the châteaux range between $10 – $12 per person. Take your pick, but watch out for château fatigue, this is unlike no other parade of homes.