Author Archives: Claudia Suzan Carley

Chateau de Chenonceau: Magnifique!

The first requirement for going to Chenonceau is a good alarm clock.  It is infinitely more beautiful when you have it to yourself. You want your approach to look as much as possible like the photo above. Even a little later in the day, this walkway is crammed. It’s easy to buy tickets from the machines outside the gates, so you can politely hover right beside the gate and wait for it to open. Tickets are also sold online but I had the luxury of waiting for a sunny day in May, so I waited until the last minute. (The previous day, I had tried arriving late in the afternoon and found the parking lots and walkways jammed).

The tower to the right of the chateau dates from around 1230, the only part remaining of the original manor. It was later gussied up in Renaissance style, especially the window and door decorations.

You’re at the doorway, the same door used by Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and Francois I. Mary Queen of Scots married the Dauphin of France at Chenonceau in 1558. He died as Francois II in 1560, leaving her a teenaged widow.

Louis XIV, the Sun King himself, walked through this door in July of 1650. He left a portrait of himself in a pretty nice frame, regally carved from wood and gilded. His portrait is by Hyacinthe Rigaud. The list of illustrious visitors and owners goes on and on. Of all the chateaux in the Loire Valley, I think this one has the most fascinating history. And I certainly think it’s the most beautiful.

You’re in! Is that a mop and pail in the hallway? You really must be early.

No matter. You have the place almost to yourself for awhile, before tour buses arrive. Visitors meander quietly through the rooms. In every single room, flowers from the garden are freshly arranged. One of my favorite rooms is a small, fairly humble one: Thomas Bohier’s study.

It has windows overlooking the River Cher on three sides, and an Italian-style coffered ceiling.

Hung almost casually over the doorway is a masterpiece by Andrea Del Sarto, “Holy Family,” early 1500s.

A very lucky full-time florist gets to arrange flowers every single day. He’s a true artist.

Diane de Poitiers, beloved mistress of Henri II, received the chateau in 1547. Primaticcio painted her as Diana, goddess of the hunt.

She added the iconic bridge across the River Cher. (It was still only a beautiful arched bridge in her time). Diane was twenty years older than the king, but she kept her beauty and charm.

Part of her beauty ritual was a daily dip in the chilly waters of the Cher underneath her chateau. She probably used the landing where supplies were delivered to her kitchen by boat. She was also said to drink a beauty potion made with gold dust.

Diane’s bedroom, with Renaissance furniture and decoration added in the renovation of the chateau that began in the 1950s, is lovely and evocative.

After Henri II died from a jousting mishap in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, immediately banished Diane from Chenonceau. She was given Chateau Chaumont instead: a very nice place, but Diane didn’t think so. Today, a later portrait of Diane’s nemesis hangs in Diane’s bedroom. I believe it is by an artist named Sauvage.

Catherine de Medici looks stern–even nun-like. But actually she knew how to have fun.

Once she was free to do as she pleased, Catherine extended the chateau right across the River Cher, building two stories of galleries on top of Diane’s graceful arched bridge.

Catherine began hosting fabulous parties at Chenonceau. One of them was for the marriage of her son and Mary Stuart, known as Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was the “It” girl in France during her brief marriage to the Dauphin, who became Francois II for such a short time. In fact, Mary was celebrated as the “new Diane,” her features recognizable in the seated nymph in Francois Clouet’s 1550 painting, now in the Musee Des Beaux-Arts in Rouen (Public Domain).

But I digress. Back to beautiful Chenonceau and Catherine’s galleries stretching over the river. I can imagine glowing candles, glittering jewels, and rustling silks at many a ball here.

In World War I, the Grand Gallery became a hospital for injured soldiers.

During World War II, the chateau became one of the few points of access to the Free Zone. The Menier family actively worked to smuggle people across the river and out of danger.

But chateau life was not all fun and games all the time. Every chateau has a chapel. Chenonceau’s is beautiful.

A later chateau owner, Madame Louise Dupin, saved the chapel when a rampaging mob arrived at the beginning of the French Revolution, with orders to smash all religious symbols. She had filled the chapel with firewood and claimed it was a storeroom. Actually, the people in town knew and liked her, so they may just have needed a convenient excuse to go easy on her home. Jean-Marc Nattier painted her shortly before the Revolution.

There are not all that many rooms in the chateau, but every single one is exquisite.

I’d sleep well in this bed with my window open to hear the gentle flow of the river.

I might even settle for being a lowly scullery maid if I could work in the prettiest kitchen I ever saw. It must have stayed fairly cool, positioned right above the flowing river. (OK, I do realize the working kitchen would not be full of fresh flower arrangements. But still).

By the time I made it to the kitchen, crowds had arrived.

Time to head out to the dueling gardens: Catherine de Medici’s on one side and Diane de Poiters’s on the other.

The outbuildings are charming too, set in real working flower and vegetable gardens. The florist has an entire building to himself. He was being filmed so I only got a brief glimpse inside at The Best Job in the Entire World. (Actually I was told, in rather rude French, to buzz off when I peeked inside, so I took a picture of another building instead).

The gracious chateau restoration that visitors see today was begun in the 1950s by the Menier family of chocolate fame. (Gaston Menier had also covered all the expenses of the military hospital during World War I). Like so many historic sites, Chenonceau had begun sliding into ruin before it was rescued by people who cared about history and beauty.

Sources: placards in the chateau, and a guidebook written by Alain Decaux of the Academie Francaise.

Join me next time for more details about sublime Chenonceau!

Francois I at Chambord: Builder, Hunter and Salamander King

Francois I, after Jean Clouet, Public Domain

King Francois I was twenty-five years old when he inherited the French throne in 1515. He was more than ready, having sat in on royal councils for several years beforehand. After a military victory in which he claimed the Duchy of Milan, there was a brief period of peace between 1517 and 1520.

What was a young king to do? Tour France with his mother, of course. He and his mom, Louise de Savoie, were enjoying their tour when Francois received word that his wife, Queen Claude, had given birth to their first son in Amboise. Susan Abernethy has a very interesting post about Queen Claude’s trying royal life on her blog

thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/10/02/claude…

Detail from “Field of the Cloth of Gold,” unknown painter circa 1545, my photo taken at Hampton Court Palace

Francois was a contemporary of King Henry VIII of England, who of course was unable to produce a legitimate male heir. The two kings met twice, once at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, and again in 1532 when Francois tried to help Henry VIII get permission from Rome to marry Ann Boleyn.

There was already a lodge on the royal hunting grounds at Chambord. But Francois dreamed of a really grand hunting lodge, and as a wealthy and energetic young king he had the wherewithal to make it happen.

“Francois I Kills a Wild Boar,” Alexandre Menjaud, 1827, my photo of Chambord painting

Early in his reign, Francois amused himself and the court by setting a wild boar loose in the courtyard of Chateau Amboise during a birthday celebration. Naturally the beast furiously tried to escape. The young king dispatched it with “un coup d’epee” (one stroke of his sword.) Everybody applauded. Three centuries later, in 1827, Charles X commissioned a painting to commemorate the feat of his ancestor. (To a modern eye, that feat looks like shooting fish in a barrel, but clearly Francois’s subjects loved it–especially the ladies).

Francois naturally made his mark with changes to existing chateaux like Amboise and Blois, but he wanted to build his own, from the ground up. And he took on a real challenge. The hunting grounds he chose were swampy and far from any road. He had no intention of actually living there–he just wanted to design his own chateau as a place to get away from it all. (He most likely spent only about 70 days at Chambord in all the years he owned the place). He (and subsequent kings) constantly expanded the hunting grounds until the estate was about the size of the inner city of Paris.

The castle itself ended up with over four hundred rooms and over two hundred fireplaces–way more than Francois I and his “little band” of hunting buddies needed for their getaways. But Francois always intended magnificence. In fact, placards and the guidebook explain that the very building–which Francois had a hand in designing–was intended as a sort of heavenly vision of what monarchy ought to be.

In the overwhelming magnificence of the place, the floor plan is not readily apparent. But the floor plan was important, and was never changed by subsequent kings even as they added their own ideas. The central keep is in the form of a Greek cross, with a spectacular skylit staircase at the center: a sort of new Jerusalem, a vision of what divine kingship should be.

The staircase is the first thing a visitor sees inside the chateau on the ground floor.

It’s a double helix, and legend (plus some documentation) has it that Leonardo da Vinci designed it. Francois did bring the aging genius to Amboise to live out his last years at Clos Luce, a mansion just down the road from one of Francois’s main homes, Chateau d’Amboise.

From the ground floor, a central open shaft rises all the way to the rooftop tower.

Way up on the rooftop, big windows form a “lantern” that lets daylight flood the space.

Two courtiers could start at the bottom of the staircase and go all the way to the top without seeing each other. (One can imagine the potential for aristocratic hijinks).

Courtiers could play peekaboo, which no visitor today can resist doing.

Francois I took the salamander as his personal emblem, and it’s impossible to walk through any of his castles without seeing salamanders everywhere. But wait, that salamander is breathing fire like a dragon!

Photo by Scott Camazine, English Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

It doesn’t look like the humble little garden animal I’m familiar with. And the garden animal is not what Francois had in mind. In a delightful blog post, Julianne Douglas explains why Francois chose this little amphibian. Dating back to ancient times, the salamander was believed to be able to live in flames and to put out fires by the coldness of its body.

Francois added the motto “Nutrisco et extinguo,” a Harry Potter-esque way of saying “I nourish and I extinguish.” Fire destroys, but it also lights and warms. So Francois, Renaissance man that he was, aimed to be the king who could conquer fire itself: thriving on the good things and stamping out the bad.

Julianne’s post is at http://writingren.blogspot.com/2009/10/salamander-in-chief.html

Guess what Francois’s favorite letter was? “F,” of course.

Chambord has endless ceilings with Francois’s favorite decor. In fact, every building that he occupied was soon plastered with the letter “F” and salamanders on every imaginable surface.

When nobles built their own chateaux during Francois’s time, they added salamanders in his honor. The fireplace above, at the enchanting chateau of Azay-le-Rideau, is an example.

The rooftop of Chambord is like a regal mini- city in itself–a fantastical collection of towers and turrets and whatnot.

The rooftop must have been Party Central back in the day, a place where courtiers could watch the progress of the hunt while playing hide-and-seek with each other. Then as now, a visitor could get lost in the magnificence. Notice the tiny people peering over the edge of the railing?

Chambord has plenty of luxurious furnished rooms, but somehow it has a much more outdoorsy feel than other chateaux. It feels breezy and open in spring (and no doubt drafty and chilly in winter).

Today, people enjoy themselves in the vast grounds: boats, bikes and golf carts stand at the ready. Sporty King Francois I would probably be pleased.

Sources for this article are the guidebook above and various placards in the chateau, many of which are in French. One more reason to improve my language skills! There’s also an excellent video presentation in one of the first chateau rooms, fortunately with decent English subtitles on one screen.

Anne of Brittany at Langeais: A Secret Royal Bride

At daybreak on the morning of December 6, 1491, the fourteen-year-old Duchess Anne of Brittany married the 21-year-old King Charles VIII of France in somewhat-rushed ceremony that had to be kept secret until the ink on the wedding contract was dry. And when the provisions of the wedding contract were revealed, there was general shock and awe. The wedding changed the map and the history of France.

The dramatic tableau of life-sized figures in the Great Hall of Langeais Chateau is one good reason to make a stop there, but it’s not the only reason.

The late medieval chateau of Langeais towers above its pretty town on the banks of the Loire. The location has been in the thick of French history since around 992, when Foulque Nerra, Count of Anjou, built a wood-and-stone keep.

The keep is now a ruin in a pretty park above the medieval chateau.

The elevated ground overlooking the River Loire, where the smaller River Roumer feeds into it, was a prime defensive spot because from its heights, whoever held it could fend off any intruders. And there were plenty of intruders.

The Counts of Anjou and Blois were constantly trying to grab chunks of each other’s lands.

According to the chateau guidebook (written by Jean Favier of the Institut de France), whoever held Langeais controlled the middle part of the Loire. Langeais changed hands several times in the years before Foulque died in 1040. His son had to defend it against Blois, just as his father had before him. The Counts of Anjou and Blois were far more rich and powerful than the King of France at the time.

In the 1200s, the Counts of Anjou expanded their territories through judicious marriage (maybe they learned something from the Hapsburgs, who were past masters of this handy skill). Geoffroi Plantagenet extended his territories northward into Normandy. His son, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine and became King of England.

Beginning in the early 1200s, Langeais became less a military stronghold and more a prize given by the French Crown to various noblemen. The Loire Valley was “discovered” as prime second-home property–which it still is today. Nobles began building bigger and grander chateaux, far beyond the time when they were needed for defense.

Starting in 1495, Louis XI built the castle we see today. By this time, everybody who wanted to do battle had gunpowder and long-range cannons, so high walls with places for archers to hide were of no use against a determined enemy. There were no such enemies, but still, a new castle had to look a certain way. No self-respecting chateau would lack an intimidating drawbridge.

Elegant doorways were required inside the courtyard.

Round towers with pointy roofs grandly topped things off.

Inside, though, the castle deteriorated as centuries went by. It was abandoned during the Revolution. Then it went though a succession of owners who found it a bit much to maintain. In 1838, the town came close to buying it, to house a school, the town hall, and a jail. But it went instead to first one and then another rich owner.

Finally, in 1886, Jacques Siegfried bought it. He was a fabulously wealthy businessman who had already explored the world. He was ready to settle in Langeais and restore the chateau to a Victorian/Romantic idea of a princely late-medieval home. Monsieur Siegfried consulted the best historical experts, so most likely his ideas were pretty accurate.

He commissioned beautiful glazed tile floors based on old designs.

He located beautiful old tapestries for the walls.

Monsieur Siegfried filled the rooms with authentic furniture–most of it portable, as furniture was in the days when nobles and royalty traveled from castle to castle.

I think some of the furniture was built from old illustrations, like this high chair and baby walker.

Medieval castles were drafty; the rich had elevated beds draped with cozy textiles. They also had big bolster-like pillows on which they slept nearly sitting up. There was a belief that lying down all night might cause death. (Presumably the servants and poor folks were too exhausted at the end of the day to have this worry).

The bride on that cold winter morning in 1491 was the “It” girl of her time: Anne of Brittany, heiress of the vast and wealthy lands of Brittany. The groom was the young King of France, Charles VIII. All over Europe, princes and nobles wanted to marry Anne. She was actually married already, by proxy, to Maximilian of Hapsburg, who was in line to become Holy Roman Emperor. But he was busy dealing with revolts in his lands; he dragged his feet in getting together with his bride, and the political winds shifted. Charles VIII did not want to be encircled by his enemies. He was already betrothed to Margaret, the daughter of Maximilian. But Charles’ people talked to Anne’s people, and a deal was struck.

The prize was Brittany, and the French Crown needed it–permanently. So the marriage contract stated that if Charles died without male heirs, Anne would marry his successor–who was also present at the wedding, looking eagle-eyed at the contract. And well he might. He was Duke Louis d’Orleans, who would actually become King Louis XII and marry Anne within a few years.

Of course Anne’s proxy marriage and Charles’s betrothal had to conveniently disappear, and the dispensations had not yet arrived from Rome. But the deed was done once the marriage contract was signed. (Nobody talked about the fact that the bride’s magnificent wedding gown of cloth of gold, trimmed with sable, had been a gift from Maximilian).

A few years after the wedding, Charles was rushing to a tennis match in the Chateau d’Amboise: he whacked his head on the lintel of a door and died. He had no heir. His cousin, the Duke d’Orleans, was already married, but he readily obtained an annulment so that he could marry Anne, as spelled out in her wedding contract. (I have to wonder whether Anne might have secretly thought she was off the hook on the agreement to marry her husband’s cousin. But political needs were stronger than anyone’s personal needs. The inconvenient wife was sent packing in short order, and the new royal wedding took place).

Anne dutifully spent her life trying to produce a male heir, first with one royal husband, then with another. She never succeeded. One report says that she was pregnant about every 14 months, but only two daughters survived to adulthood. (One daughter was Queen Claude, wife of King Francois I. If anything, her royal life was even more trying than her mother’s, and she died at age 24). A touching 19th century enamel, above, depicts one of Anne’s sons, who died as a small child from measles. Anne died of a kidney stone attack at age 36, worn out from constant pregnancies.

Langais was given to the Institut de France in 1904. The dramatic figures of the wedding tableau were made by sculptor Daniel Druet and costume designer Daniel Ogier. I’m not sure when they were made, but I first saw them about ten years ago. Now, the display seems even more impressive.

Four times an hour, the Great Hall darkens, images are projected on the wall, and a narrator tells the dramatic story. It’s in English once every hour. Hopeless Francophile that I am, I went back and listened again, to the French version. Somehow it seems even more dramatic in French.

Langeais is a very pretty town with nice shops and restaurants, plus the beautiful Church of St. John the Baptist.

The church was founded in the fourth century by St. Martin of Tours–the soldier who famously cut his warm cloak in half to give to a naked beggar. The present building was begun in the 900s and modified over the next few hundred years. It still functions as a parish church, and I think it hosts concerts as well.

Langeais would be a good base for another trip to the Loire Valley! Hmmm…

Learning Languages: Do You Duolingo?

One of my proudest travel memories is the time in Paris that a local asked me, in French, for directions. I directed her! In French! With words as well as flailing hand gestures! It was to a place I had just been, and I summoned up the words from somewhere in my high school memory (thank you, Madame Newton!)

Another time, I was walking along a Parisian street and fell instantly in love with a dog that looked very much like a fox (my favorite animal, the animal I’m happiest to see outside my house, my spirit animal). Was there possibly a French breed of dog that looked just like a fox? I had a long conversation with the woman on the other end of the dog’s leash. Her English as about as good as my very-elementary French, but we concluded that her lovely little dog was a mutt, one-of-a-kind, “particuliere.”

On my most recent trip to France, I rented a house in Chenonceaux from a lovely man who wrote me perfect emails in answer to all my questions. But when I finally met him, it turned out he knew way less English than I knew French. He carried a smartphone, and asked me to type my questions into his Google Translate app. He was very nice, and I’d love to have had some real conversations with him.

I can read French much better than I can speak it. But the nuances of newspaper articles and even museum captions escape me. And life is too short to be typing every foreign word into Google Translate.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a collection of French study books and CDs, which mostly gathered dust. (Just to show how long I’ve had good intentions, I even have some “Learn in Your Car” audio cassette tapes. I no longer have a car that will even play them).

After my most recent trips to France, I finally heard of the language-learning app Duolingo, launched for public use in 2012. As of 2018, it features 28 languages for English speakers, plus many more for native speakers of other languages. It’s a free app, with paid options ranging from about $6-8 per month to go ad-free. I decided to spring for the 6-month option to see just how much French I could learn in that time.

My grandchildren use the free version for both French and Spanish. They love it. (And I think it’s way better for them than video games). After a month, I’ve passed 16 of the available units; that leaves me another 80 to go. Will I be fluent if and when I finish the course? I doubt it. But I’ll know a whole lot more French than what I can remember from high school.

What’s good about Duolingo:

  • It’s right on my phone, and it’s addictive. There’s a cheerful little bell tone for every correct answer, and a little musical fanfare for every level and unit passed. The rewards come around pretty quickly. Plus I earn “Gems” at various milestones, which turn into rewards like bonus lessons. I could also buy Gems, but that’s not happening.
  • It’s repetitive, mostly in a good way. It forces me to actually learn tedious things like verb tenses and demonstrative pronouns, which I have always just skimmed over. I’ve always gone straight for the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs, and winged it from there.
  • There’s a free companion app called Tinycards, fun digital flash cards for those times when I’m kicked out of class on Duolingo (more on that below).
  • Every French word and phrase is spoken. There’s also a feature where I could speak into the microphone, but so far I haven’t been able to get that to work on my phone. (If I actually repeated the words and phrases as they come around, I’d get much better at speaking).

What’s annoying about Duolingo:

  • Nothing is ever explained. I’m way too impatient to learn everything by trial and error. Fortunately I have the aforementioned resources that have been gathering dust for so long. Instead of making a ton of mistakes on a subject, I study up on it before I tackle a unit. I also cheat by looking things up on Google Translate.
  • If I knew nothing about the language, I’m not at all sure I’d have the patience to keep going.
  • The farther along I get, the fewer mistakes I’m allowed. After about two mistakes in a session, or at most three, I’m shut out. I have to wait a certain amount of time, sometimes hours, before I “regain health” so I can continue. This feature is to prevent binging (did I mention the app is addictive?) I can bypass this restriction by using a bunch of my earned Gems. After a certain amount of time, I can also bypass the restriction by doing about 20 “practice” review items. But still, I resent being thrown out of the classroom when there’s not even a teacher to answer a question.
  • A mistake can be just one letter, a typo.
  • It’s very time-consuming. (And did I mention it’s addictive?) The company claims that 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to a semester of college study in a language. I don’t really want to know how many hours I’ve invested in it so far–I suspect it’s already more than 34. I feel like I should be farther along.
  • Update about three weeks later: everything changed! After I had doggedly studied Duolingo daily for about 42 consecutive days, I was offered the chance to spend some of my hard-earned “gems” for the privilege of “learning at my own pace.” Magically, I was no longer kicked out of class for a mistake. Instead, the exercise was presented again, several times if I didn’t get the concept at first. Then it was repeated again, later in the session.
  • I poked around online to try to find out how it really works. It seems there have been many versions of Duolingo carrot/stick tactics over time. Whatever! I like it much better now and I’m very happy I didn’t quit in disgust (which I felt like doing many times).
  • I seem to be about a third of the way through the French curriculum. Will it make me fluent? No way. I think that would really take years. But I’ll be way better.

Some years ago I wanted to learn Italian, which is supposed to be one of the easiest languages to learn. I bought a very expensive set of Rosetta Stone CDs. I just couldn’t get into it, for the same annoying reasons listed above for Duolingo. Even the Idiot’s Guide and Living Language resources I optimistically bought didn’t help very much. Now I’ve read that Duolingo is much more efficient than Rosetta Stone. Aha! I wasn’t the only impatient person!

I did study “Reading German” in college, enough to actually read some Goethe and get an A in the course. So I can muddle along in the language, and I find it easier to pronounce than French. And German speakers are much more tolerant of a beginner’s attempts to communicate. (French natives are not at all shy about correcting a hapless tourist’s pronunciation or usage). I could study both German and Italian on the app at the same time as French, but I think that would be asking for trouble.

I’m off to France again in November. I’m going to force myself pull up my socks and use my hard-earned French. Wish me luck!

Talleyrand’s Chateau de Valencay

“We need grand houses for people who occupy grand positions.” This remark, by Napoleon Bonaparte, was aimed straight at his Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord in 1803.

When Napoleon told his people to jump, they asked “How high?” Also, Napoleon, at the time First Consul of France, was ready to help finance the purchase of a suitable chateau. So the Renaissance chateau of Valencay became Talleyrand’s new home in short order. A bust of Napoleon graces a mantel in the chateau.

The “Seated Portrait of Talleyrand” was painted by Francois Gerard in 1808.

The original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but a very good copy presides over the Blue Salon in the chateau.

Talleyrand was an irrepressible ladies’ man, but his position required respectability, so Napoleon leaned on him to marry his mistress (who had once been a courtesan, but no matter). Catherine Verlée Grand had her portrait painted in 1783 by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun. The chateau displays a copy; the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The couple drifted apart by 1816, but Talleyrand gave her enough money to live comfortably in London for the rest of her life. I’m not sure what’s going on in the portrait. Is Catherine rolling her eyes because the letter she is holding just informed her of some new exploit of her husband? It’s tempting to think so.

Talleyrand was born into an aristocratic but not wealthy family. It appears he had a club foot, most likely congenital (although Talleyrand blamed it on a childhood injury). The foot brace he used as an adult is on display in the chateau. It seems that his limp never slowed him down for a minute.

Talleyrand carried himself with great dignity throughout his life. Today, we’d call it “attitude. The bust above is by the sculptor Despres, 1838.

And what a life he lived. His parents sent him to seminary, hoping he would have a church career as illustrious and lucrative as that of his uncle, the very wealthy and powerful Archbishop of Reims. He was ordained at age 25 and might have risen quickly through the ranks of the Catholic Church. In fact, he became a Bishop four years later. But the French Revolution changed everything. As a Bishop, Talleyrand represented the clergy, known as the First Estate, in the Estates-General of 1789. Soon he was an enthusiastic revolutionary, stopped practicing Catholicism, and was “laicized” by the Pope in 1801. (This seems pretty close to being excommunicated, but he had lost interest in Catholic distinctions by this time anyway).

Talleyrand somehow escaped the deadly twists and turns of the Revolution, even when there was a price on his head. He spent some time in America, a guest of Aaron Burr. Eventually, when the dust settled, he returned to France and settled on diplomacy as a career.

He soon made himself indispensable to Napoleon Bonaparte, holding high offices and cheerfully accepting the financial “diplomatic sweeteners” that came with power. He loved the perks of power, like fine ceremonial outfits. The blue-ribboned badge above is the emblem of the French Legion of Honor, the dove denoting the Holy Spirit.

The magnificent document case above went everywhere with the charming and wily diplomat. The bees were Napoleon’s emblem, and the sun hearkened back to the glory days of the Sun King himself.

As Napoleon lost power, Talleyrand nimbly shifted loyalties. He represented France at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and came home with a good deal for France and a fine table for his chateau.

By this time, Talleyrand had accumulated titles: Prince of Talleyrand and Prince of Benevento. He was still called back to public life at times, serving France’s restored monarchy. But he had plenty of time and money to lavish on the young woman who was probably the love of his life: his niece Dorothee, Duchess of Dino, who had divorced his nephew. Dorothee was devoted to Talleyrand, and he called her “my little porpoise.” Their relationship was scandalously “modern;” it seems they both had other lovers, but somehow it worked. The portrait above is by Francois Gerard, Public Domain.

The couple hosted legendary dinners at their table, which could seat 36.

Talleyrand reportedly spent at least an hour a day with his chef.

The rooms of the chateau have the faded elegance of a beloved home, meant to be lived in. Floors are creaky and some of the well-used upholstery is tattered.

In his old age, Talleyrand puttered around his vast estate and spent quality time reading and writing in his comfy study chair.

In spite of their sketchy living arrangement, Dorothee worked to persuade Talleyrand to return to the Church. On his deathbed, he summoned a priest to give him the last rites. When the priest tried to anoint his palms, he insisted on having the backs of his hands anointed instead: the prerogative of his long-ago rank as a Bishop. He also signed a statement admitting his error in leaving the Church, so all was forgiven.

Valencay is off the beaten path of the more famous Loire chateaux. In early spring, it was downright peaceful.

Just down the road, there’s a fascinating motor museum, entertaining even for people without much interest in cars.

Admission to the chateau includes a fine audioguide, which tells entertaining stories about the Prince.

But I always buy the little guidebooks too, for the details that escape me when I’m trying to lose myself in the history of a place.

Valencay is a fine place to spend even a rainy day. In sunshine, it would be even better.

Join me next time for more explorations–I’m just catching up on all the chateaux I was lucky enough to see a couple of months ago!

The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

A Royal Wedding Dress, Remodeled? How Princess Alexandra of Denmark Got It Right

When Princess Alexandra of Denmark married the Prince of Wales, in 1863, to judge from the photograph, she looked a bit like a wedding cake. The silk satin dress was festooned with tulle and specially made Honiton lace which featured English roses, Irish shamrocks and Scottish thistles. It was all very fitting for the 18-year-old who was marrying the son and heir of Queen Victoria. The dress’s train was 21 feet long and required eight bridesmaids to carry it. The photo above, Public Domain, was taken by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. Alexandra was the first royal bride to be photographed wearing her wedding dress.

I recently saw that very dress in a special exhibit at the Costume Museum in Bath, England. But wait, what happened? According to the placard, the original dress was designed by Mrs. James of London for the wedding, then remodeled that same year by Madame Elise, also of London. If I had rented the audioguide, I would probably know more about why and how this happened.

I assume that even a princess in those days might be practical and frugal enough to remake a fancy dress so as to get more use out of it. To a modern eye, the remodeled dress is much more elegant. The skirt must have been made more sleek, and some of the royal crinolines packed away for another time. (I’d cheerfully wear this dress if I were invited to a grand enough occasion. Go ahead, invite me!) This will definitely not happen with Meghan Markle’s dress after her marriage to Prince Harry. Royal wedding dresses these days cost several hundred thousand dollars, and they go straight to preservation and later display.

Princess Alexandra was known for her elegance and style. (In fact, she was so avidly followed that when an illness left her with a limp, all the stylish ladies hobbled around with the Alexandra Limp). She reportedly favored slimmer, simpler silhouettes than her new mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. That’s Alexandra above, in a portrait now in Fredericksburg Castle in Denmark. It’s by Edward Hughes, 1904. (This would be after her husband, Prince Albert Edward, became King Edward VII, and she became Queen and also Empress of the British Empire).

Here’s another of Alexandra’s dresses, elegant in its comparative simplicity.

This gown was most likely made and worn for a visit to Holyrood, the royal residence in Edinburgh.

Then as now, royals dressed carefully for visits. If I were invited to a formal dinner in Scotland, I’d cheerfully wear tartan taffeta.

After she became Queen, Alexandra added more sparkle to her gowns with elaborate beading. But the silhouette became even more sleek.

The arrival of Alexandra for her wedding was a grand occasion, painted by Henry Nelson O’Neil: “The Landing of H.R.H. the Princess Alexandra at Gravesend,” March 7 1863, Public Domain.

The marriage seemed to be a happy one, although even after he became King, Alexandra’s husband enjoyed the company of a string of mistresses. They had six children.

In her homeland of Denmark, Alexandra sponsored the building of a very English-looking church for British residents, 1885-7. It’s St. Alban’s Anglican in Copenhagen, pictured above. (Photo is by Blake Handley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0).

I was lucky enough to take in a Christmas concert at St. Alban’s last December, and admired a memorial plaque honoring Alexandra.

Alexandra’s wedding took place in St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle. It’s one of the most beautiful and evocative churches I’ve ever been in, but photos are not allowed inside. I’m sure the excitement ahead of the royal wedding is intense, but then again this is a real parish church with everyday business to attend to.

As on most evenings, Evensong is probably happening–a small, intimate service which I highly recommend. (Many Anglican churches have either Evensong or Evening Prayer–a restful end to a tourist’s day). The evening I attended at Windsor, I was disappointed that I missed the Boys’ Choir. But a choir of girls had been invited instead. No photos were allowed inside, but excited girls in blue dresses, and their parents, had a once-in-a-lifetime experience–and the girls sang beautifully.

Will I be watching the royal wedding on May 19? Oh, yes! I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the pomp and pageantry. I’ll be with two of my granddaughters, explaining to them why Britain still has royalty and why this marriage is significant. To honor the occasion properly, I stopped at the local Dollar Store to get tiaras for us all to wear, plus crepe paper and such to decorate the living room. We’ll be wishing Harry and Meghan a long and happy life together. (And drinking tea and eating scones warm from the oven, of course–the wedding is at 6:00 am where I am in the USA).

Postscript, post-wedding: Meghan Markle was a breathtaking bride in a classically sleek wedding gown by Claire Waight Keller of Givenchy.

Here are some more of my excited screenshots. It sounds as though this royal bride will make social consciousness and public service her life’s work now. In my opinion, this is what makes all the pomp and pageantry of royalty worthwhile in today’s world. I wish her the best.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, culture and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!