Category Archives: Castles and Palaces

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

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

If It’s Tuesday, That Must Be Talleyrand

Or, Why You Might Not Want to Travel With Me. I’m nearing the end of a 9-day trip to France, and for sure I know I married the right guy all those years ago. He cheerfully drives anywhere, this time from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Loire Valley and back, with at least two or three stops at sights every day. If you don’t like a slightly hectic travel pace, you might not want to tag along with us.

We based ourselves in tiny Chenonceaux, pretty central for the Loire Valley. (The town’s name ends with an X but the chateau’s name is Chenonceau).

And Chenonceau has the most beautiful and fascinating chateau anywhere, if you ask me. Plus Chenonceau always smells wonderful. Every single room always has fresh flowers, as no doubt they did in the days that Diane de Poitiers and later Catherine de Medici gazed out the leaded-glass windows at the River Cher.

Thanks to the wonders of our Garmin GPS to find places, and my trusty iPhone cellular data to double-check opening times, we covered a lot of ground on this trip. Also, we were seeing some of these places for the second or even the third time. (For us, history never gets old. It just gets more interesting).

Here are a few of my other favorite things from this trip:

Claude Monet’s Gardens and Home in Giverny.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau: a jewel of a Renaissance castle, recently renovated and sparkling on its own pretty little island.

Chateau de Cheverny: owned by the same family for hundreds of years, plus they have about one hundred happy hunting dogs.

Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest medieval pilgrimage sites, always spectacular (even though I don’t understand why the interior was recently whitewashed. I have mixed feelings about the very controversial recent “renovation”). I really love the mismatched towers, pretty unique in cathedrals. What were the builders thinking, as the second tower went up? Who gave them permission? Well, it works for me.

Chateau de Blois, layers of history plus a generous serving of murder and mayhem.

Talleyrand? He was the right-hand diplomat of Napoleon Bonaparte, among many other things in his gleefully scandalous life. He pretty much did as he pleased and had a wonderful time. His Chateau de Valencay is lovely in a faded-elegance way, and very entertaining.

Just above, the fairy-tale towers and turrets of Chateau d’Usse.

I have lots more just to list, but I still have a couple of days to see as much as possible. Time to plan what else to see. I’ll finish my trip list later. Naturally, I took a ton of photos and picked up a ton of guidebooks. I’ll post much more about each of these sights and all the rest after I catch my breath. To be continued!

Penrhyn Castle: A Neo-Norman Victorian Fantasy

I can’t believe I even have a “least favorite” castle, but right now Penrhyn is it. Why would that be? Penrhyn is spectacular in every way. It was built to impress: a fabulous Victorian gingerbread castle in Wales.

Penrhyn is in the very northern part of Wales overlooking Snowdonia. Originally, there was a medieval fortified house on the property. In 1438 the house was expanded into a stone castle and tower. Between 1822 and 1837, the architect Thomas Hopper expanded the building into a “neo-Norman” castle–in other words, a castle like the ones built by William the Conqueror after 1066, in order to show his new British subjects who was in charge.

That’s William above, in the Bayeux Tapestry, lifting his helm to show that he’s still alive during the Battle of Hastings (public domain).

The Tower of London is the best-known example of a Norman castle in Britain. William began the White Tower as a timber fortification almost as soon as he left the battlefield, and work in stone continued until about 1100. It still dominates the Tower complex. (The photo is by Bernard Gagnon, licensed under Creative Commons).

The owner of Penrhyn was the fabulously wealthy George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and a whole lot of money from his second cousin, Richard Pennant. The money came from Welsh slate mining, from Jamaican sugar, and from Jamaican slavery. (I do realize that a lot of British wealth came from slavery and other ills of the colonial era).

Starting at the entrance, everything about Penrhyn seems overbearing.

The cavernous entrance hall is meant to impress. It does. I found myself wondering whether I was all that welcome, even with my National Trust Pass.

Everything looks somehow overdone. The huge stained glass windows seem like they belong in a cathedral, plus they block the light from outside.

I know the huge entrance hall is meant to be welcoming, but I felt like menacing faces were looming high above me in the arched ceilings.

Even the chairs looked uncomfortable.

Oh, well, I thought, maybe it’s just my silly reaction. I looked at one of the framed photos, which showed a visit by Albert, Prince of Wales, in June 1894. Bertie is the portly fellow in the hat. He was a regular–he obviously liked the place. Maybe I could learn to like it.

Guests would have proceeded into the library for some aristocratic R & R.

There’s the dinner gong! I wonder if I would even hear it, if I was still upstairs checking the mirror in my evening dress and trying to remember which fork to use for which course.

And so to dinner, admiring the fine paintings on all the walls…

…and then coffee and conversation and cards in the drawing room. So what’s not to like? I don’t know exactly. It all seems dark and heavy and confining, without feeling very Norman.

Especially in the stairwells, there are acres of fine stonework and plasterwork. It’s beautiful, but it seems to me that actual Norman architecture is a lot more elegantly austere.

In the family and guest bedrooms, there’s fine wood carving and canopied beds galore.

At least one person found the decor too heavy for her taste: Queen Victoria. The photo above was taken in 1860 by J. J. E. Mayall, public domain.

A one-ton bed was carved from local slate especially for a royal visit. Victoria took one look and refused to sleep in it; she said the slate headboard and footboard looked like tombstones.

Maybe she ended up in the very pretty Lower Indian bedroom instead. That’s beautiful handpainted wallpaper from around 1800. The last Lord Penrhyn chose this as his bedroom. I would have, too.

I’m sure Victoria enjoyed a world-class bathroom–essential for any vacation, especially if it’s tended by an army of discreet servants. I liked the more modest bedrooms and bathrooms better than any of the grander rooms.

I hope the many carved stone faces in the hallways didn’t scare Victoria if she wandered around in the middle of the night.

Maybe she wandered all the way down to the kitchens, and maybe the French chef was still awake, cooking and baking goodies for the royal visit.

Family members lived in the castle until 1951, when the dreaded British “death duty” taxes plus the staggering costs of upkeep, drove them to more modest digs. Penrhyn is now owned and run by the National Trust.

There’s a very entertaining little railroad museum, trains having been important to the family slate business. The photo above shows the open bench car that slate mine workers rode in.

The shiny red car towering over the workers’ car was for mine owners and other bigwigs. They got cushy swivel chairs and stained glass. Sorry, that’s me being judgmental. But if I’m honest, I should admit that I’m very privileged myself. I’m a budget traveler. But I know how fortunate I am to be able to hop on a plane and go pretty much anywhere I want, even if it’s in a too-narrow seat with no legroom. So I really have no business turning up my nose at Victorian luxury.

I’ll visit Penrhyn again if I happen to be nearby. Maybe I’ll be in a better mood and I’ll like the place better. I do love castles, but I like them to be authentic. For my taste, Penrhyn is not–at least not authentically Norman. On the other hand, it’s a reflection of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. In Penrhyn’s heyday, British business tycoons were Masters of the Universe. That’s about as authentically Victorian as anything gets.

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

First Day of Spring

I think spring is coming late to England this year. I’ll be there soon, and I’m thinking there might still be snow in the ground. Or flooded spring rivers. Still, I’m hoping for tulips. They were spectacular a couple of years ago.

These were in the gardens of Ann Hathaway’s thatched-roof cottage near Stratford-on-Avon.

The tulips and daffodils were in bloom at Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, where Richard III’s banqueting hall lies in picturesque ruins, sheltering a Tudor Knot Garden (planted much later, using Tudor designs).

Fruit trees blossomed overhead…

…and in St. Mary’s Church on the castle grounds, angels hovered over the Victorian tomb of Queen Catherine Parr, the last wife of King Henry VIII. (Her coffin was lost for a few centuries following the English Civil War, when the castle was “slighted” by Cromwell’s troops).

I was on the lookout for bluebells in all the woodsy places.

We should have been on the lookout for hidden springtime potholes too. This one caused not one but two flat tires on our rental car. Country roads are narrow, we’re driving on the “wrong side,” and sometimes we have to swerve.

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, it’s still winter. The moose are finding tender branches to chomp, though.

In the dead of winter, I admired a painting by Fritz Syberg, from 1892. It’s called simply “Spring.”

Birds sing, rivers flow, and trees bud.

The young girl’s face is oddly melancholy. Or maybe she is just thoughtful.

Art should make us think. Travel makes us think too, about the past, about being present in the moment (even if the moment involves flat tires), and about the future. I’m anxious to be off again!

British Hall Chairs: Putting Visitors in Their Place

If you turned up at the entrance to a grand home in Britain without an invitation, you’d likely be told to go around to the servants’ entrance. If you were obviously respectable and had a convincing story, you might be shown into the drawing room to wait for the master or mistress. But if the maid or butler was not sure whether you were fish or fowl, you’d be told to cool your heels on a hall chair. The one above is at Attingham, a Georgian mansion near Shrewsbury.

Hall chairs were often custom-made for grand homes, the style carefully considered to reflect the wealth and taste of the owner. The one above is from Penrhyn, an over-the-top 19th-century stone pile built to resemble a medieval Norman castle. It’s in North Wales, and in its heyday it was a favorite haunt of Bertie, Prince of Wales.

At Plas Newydd, also in North Wales, hall chairs boast the family’s coat of arms.

This chair, at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, looks like a spot to squirm in discomfort. But then comfort is not the point in hall chairs. They almost never have arms. This one barely has a seat.

Hall chairs are almost never padded or upholstered. A docent explained to me that a visitor relegated to a hall chair might have fleas. Hall chairs had to be easy to sanitize.

If you were lucky enough to be invited into a drawing room and dared to sit down, you might feel comfy on an upholstered chair, like one of these at Attingham. But if you were kept in the entry hall, you might have a long wait perched on a hard chair. I suspect that often a servant would be delegated to watch you as well, to be sure you didn’t make off with a silver candlestick.

At Sandringham House, the private home of the Royal Family in Norfolk, paying visitors are welcome to see a few rooms when the Queen is not in residence.

Everybody enters through this door. But photographs inside are strictly forbidden.

It seemed all right to take a picture of one of the Queen’s very elegant hall chairs just inside. But I didn’t quite dare to sit down.

In refreshing contrast to aristocratic chair rules, stately and historic homes run by the National Trust often have special non-historic chairs set aside for weary visitors to take a load off. This one, at Standen near East Grinstead, even has an inviting pillow. Standen is entirely done up in William Morris style, which was all about beauty, comfort and practicality. Sit down? Thank you! I don’t mind if I do.

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

Topiaries and the Hound of Hades at Hever Castle

Apparently the art of topiary began under the Romans. Did Julius Caesar ever order up a topiary pig? This one lives on the grounds at Hever Castle, in Edenbridge. It’s about 30 miles south of London.

How about a reindeer?

Or a nice songbird.

I’m pretty sure this is a giant snail.

Hever Castle was the childhood home of the unfortunate Queen Anne Boleyn. The castle was the family seat of the Boleyns from 1462 to 1539.

Tour guides in period costume roam the creaky hallways and courtyard today. Photos are not allowed inside, much to my disappointment.

Visitors wait in the courtyard to be let in by timed ticket. There’s not much to see while waiting, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse of how the house was constructed centuries ago. I think the walls were made with a “wattle and daub” method.

No doubt there were fine Tudor gardens during the heyday of the Boleyns, but I doubt they would compare to the gardens planted by William Waldorf Astor when he bought the derelict castle in 1903.

He had become the richest man in America on the death of his father in 1890, but after failing at politics and having a falling-out with some of his relatives, he took his vast fortune to England and became a British subject in 1899.

Hever Castle was more or less abandoned and falling into ruin until Mr. Astor made it one of his family homes. He needed a country place to entertain his famous friends, like Sir Winston Churchill and his family.

Mr. Astor poured money into the house and grounds. He began planting yew and box hedges, which his small army of gardeners carved into topiary figures for the amusement of his guests. There are about 100 figures altogether. There’s a maze and water garden, too.

My favorite part of the estate is the Italian Garden, with statuary from Mr. Astor’s travels organized into little floral rooms.

There’s an Italian colonnade leading to a lake.

It’s a popular wedding venue.

Cherubs frolic in the colonnade on the lakeshore.

Mythical beasts keep watch. Just above, that’s Cerberus, the fierce three-headed Hound of Hades.

The nearby village church is a little melancholy. Several Astors are buried there.

It also holds the tomb of Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne. The Boleyns seized the main chance under King Henry VIII, but their line died out when Thomas died in 1538. If I understand it correctly, Thomas sat in judgment for at least part of the trial of his son George and daughter Anne when they were convicted on trumped-up charges of incest. George and Anne were both executed, but Thomas survived.

Here’s a right-side-up view of the image on Thomas’s tomb. Through the murderous reign of Henry VIII, Thomas had managed to hold on to his head and his castle at Hever, but he must have felt his family was pursued by the Hound of Hades. Did he regret the part he played in the fates of his son and daughter? I’m thinking his last days at Hever must have been sad and lonely.

After Thomas died, his castle passed to Henry VIII, who later gave it to Anne of Cleves as part of their dissolution-of-marriage settlement. Henry is known to have visited here. Inside the castle, not very much remains of the rooms these long-ago people walked in. But the stone walls and windows and doorways look about the same as they did during those turbulent Tudor times.

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

The Ha-Ha at Chirk Castle

I’ll be the first to admit that it rains in England. So when visiting castles and stately homes, I often scurry through the gardens and take refuge inside. But the day I made it to Chirk Castle was gloriously sunny, so I got the full effect of the gardens.

The views across the Ceiriog Valley in Wales are spectacular. I’m sure the herd of 500 deer, established by the 1500s, enjoy the views as much as their ancestors did (when they’re not being hunted by their owners). But deer and cattle are not allowed inside the 5 manicured acres of the garden. They’re kept out by the Ha-Ha, built in 1764 by landscape architect William Emes.

What’s a Ha-Ha? It’s a deep ditch with a stone or brick wall set into one side. Presumably the name comes from the reaction of a person who stumbles into it, although I’d expect to hear some choice words beyond “Ha ha!” Anyway, it works as well as a fence, but preserves the views. I’ve always wanted one, but I would probably get sued if someone stumbled in.

Generations of the Myddelton family lovingly tended the gardens. I visited in springtime.

The yew-tree topiaries are about 130 years old. These days, there are only three gardeners. It takes them 6 to 8 weeks every year just to trim the topiaries.

The grandest topiary is the Crown on the Cushion.

In 1901, it was not that much taller than a Victorian lady.

Now, it’s big enough to pitch a tent under.

I like this bird topiary, perched in a shady spot among the ferns.

In recent years a beloved tree was felled by a storm.

The Myddelton family had its trunk carved into a garden bench.

If I were more of a gardener myself, I’d know exactly what I’m looking at. Rhododendrons? I like the wildness of the grassy bordered walks, after the formality of the manicured gardens.

Inside the castle, there was a special exhibit of embroidery based on the grounds and gardens. The piece above, “Across the Fields,” is by Janet Vance of the Embroiderers’ Guild.

Sue Sercombe made “Snowdrops in the Woods.”

Sheila Foggin used her sewing machine in ways I would not dream of, to create “Through the Gate.”

I always think that needlework is under-appreciated as an art form. I have trouble appreciating the gardener’s art too, because I know so little about it.

Well, I’ll head back into the castle for one last look at the grand Drawing Room.

It has an 18th-century look to it. In a 700-year-old castle, each succeeding generation makes its mark.

And there’s that famous Red Hand again! It’s the subject of all kinds of entertainingly bloody legends, but really it just represents the title of Baronet which the Myddelton family bought themselves a few centuries ago.

So many faces have come and gone at Chirk. We know a bit about those who made it into the history books. The more humble “below stairs” stories would be just as fascinating.

On my way out, I’ll admire this cottage perched on the edge of the Ha-Ha. Maybe it was once the home of the chief gardener. I’d cheerfully move right in! Just show me how to use those garden shears.

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