Category Archives: Castles and Palaces

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…

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!

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 is 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.

And as for 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!