Category Archives: Explore Europe

Chawton, Jane Austen’s Great House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Jane was born on December 16, 1775. She lived the last eight years of her too-short life in the famous cottage on the grounds of Chawton House, where she wrote and polished four of her six surviving novels. Jane’s clergyman father had died, leaving his family dependent on the kindness of relatives. But thanks to a quirk in the family’s fortunes, Jane’s brother was able to provide a home for his impoverished mother and his two spinster sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

The cottage is a pilgrimage site for Jane’s admirers (including me). But until 2015, we could not visit the “great house” where Jane and her family were grateful guests.

From the cottage in Chawton Village, Jane often walked up the country lane, past the village church, on her way to visit her brother.

Chawton House must have seemed imposing. How did all this come about?

Wonder of wonders, Jane’s brother Edward had won the 18th-century version of the lottery by being adopted out of the Austen family as a child. This was a great stroke of luck, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned. As Jane would be the first to explain, people with any wealth to speak of really wanted a male heir to inherit their property and keep it in the family name. Edward fit the bill for the Knight family.

Above is Edward’s silk suit, which he wore as a very lucky adopted teenager, around 1782.

By adoption, Edward acquired the wealthy ancestors above, Jane and Thomas Knight, parents of his adoptive father Thomas. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own. So Edward Austen, son of a cleric of modest means, became Edward Knight and eventually inherited several grand homes and a lot of valuable property.

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years after Edward’s time, the house had various owners and proceeded to fall apart, as neglected houses do.

In 1992 the American businesswoman and philanthropist Sandra Lerner bought the lease and began pouring money into restoration.

In 2003, the house opened as a center for the study of early women’s writing. The house is still a study center and hosts exhibits.

Finally, in 2015, the house opened to tourists like me. (Weddings are also held there, no doubt tempting a lot of Jane-admiring brides).

Today, the house is charmingly old-fashioned, with a bewildering floor plan, creaky old floors, and cozy corners perfect for settling in with a good book.

It’s easy to imagine Jane, her mother and sisters at the dining table.

The house reminds me of my very favorite Jane Austen movie, the 1995 version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The novel is set eight years after Anne Elliot has been persuaded by a well-meaning friend to break her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth because he has no money or connections. Anne also refuses the proposal of a perfectly nice but uninspiring young squire who then marries her sister. Anne is destined to be a sad spinster.

But Captain Wentworth suddenly reappears as a now-rich man looking for a wife. Of course his pride has been hurt, so Anne is out of the question. Until this and this and this happens, and we’re off into the story. Much of the action takes place in a manor house very much like Chawton House, where Anne is often a guest, just as Jane was at Chawton. I think Anne Elliot has a lot in common with her creator, Jane Austen.

As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, there’s sharp satire of the British class system, the precarious financial position of most women, and the unavoidable importance of marrying wisely. There’s unbearable suspense hinging on the timely arrival of a secret love letter. There’s the tremulous joy of a long-awaited kiss. There’s true love at last for the intelligent woman who stubbornly waits for it, willing to be poor rather than suffer through a loveless marriage.It’s a fine, fine movie.

And Chawton House is a fine place to imagine Jane’s life as a spinster with a whole semi-secret life as a writer of genius.

https://chawtonhouse.org/

Paris Snapshots, November 2018

Paris is always old and always new. The real sight is just the city itself, where there’s stunning architecture and art at every turn. Medieval Notre Dame Cathedral? It never fails to thrill.

In November, it’s not crowded inside the cathedral. The present structure was built between 1163 and 1345. It still feels deeply spiritual.

A Paris Museum Pass is the best bargain. For one thing, there’s no waiting in ticket lines. For about $15-20 per day, depending on number of days chosen, we take our heavy-duty culture in small doses. The Louvre is not intimidating (or exhausting) if we duck in for only an hour or two a day.

“La Nymphe au Scorpion,” Lorenzo Bartolini, 1777

The statue above? That’s me, checking my sore feet while looking out at I. M. Pei’s spectacular pyramid in the courtyard. (But we never stand in the horrendous lines at the pyramid entrance. It’s much better to go in through the underground shopping center, the Carousel du Louvre).

Goddess Nemesis, Egyptian, 2nd Century B. C.

We see way more by making just short forays into the Louvre. I especially liked the statue of a goddess, only about two feet high, in a little hallway alcove. She is Nemesis. The caption explains (I think) that she punished any kind of excess with an implacable reversal of fortune. She’s casually holding a little Wheel of Fortune. I can think of people who could use a reminder not to do anything to excess. Of course after eating excessive French pastries, I could use a reminder myself.

Puzzlement: Nemesis doesn’t look Egyptian. And did the Egyptians even have a concept of a wheel of fortune? I’ll always have things to learn. (Most of the captions in the Louvre are in French only, which means I probably get a lot of things wrong).

In November, even the crowd-stopping biggies have very few people standing around them, especially on the Wednesday and Friday evenings that the museum is open late. Here’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, standing in her very own grand gallery–and without people jostling to take selfies.

I’ve never before seen the Mona Lisa with a crowd only two or three deep in front of her. Usually the entire room is a jostling mass of humanity, and nobody is even looking at all the other fine paintings on its walls.

The Louvre now has nifty and free glass lockers for visitors to stash their stuff. In high season, I imagine these fill up. But we had our pick.

The Orsay also takes the Museum Pass. And special exhibits are always included. This trip, we had a couple of leisurely looks at Picasso’s Blue and Pink periods. I’m not the biggest fan of Picasso, but I liked this exhibit. That’s a detail from the exhibit’s centerpiece, “La Vie,” 1900.

Detail from “La Balancoire,” Pierre-August Renoir, 1876

I do mostly like Renoir, although I think he was terrible at painting hands, and some of his women look like they were painted by someone way more nearsighted even than I am.

There was a nice exhibit about Renoir and Jean Renoir, his film-making son. Jean took inspiration from the joyous life his dad portrayed in his paintings. It was fun to watch old film clips next to the paintings.

The regular galleries of the Orsay were wonderfully uncrowded, even the Impressionist rooms.

Femmes au Jardin, Claude Monet, 1866

After trudging through some of the Louvre’s rooms of correct-but-boring earlier French painting, it’s easy to see why the Impressionists were first ridiculed, then finally embraced for bringing in more light and color and joie de vivre.

La Famille Bellilli, Edgar Degas, between 1858 and 1869

When the Orsay is uncrowded, it’s possible to stand in front of paintings and ponder things like family dysfunction, as well as masterful technique. In the family above, I’d choose the girl on the left as my friend. The other people look too standoffish, even to each other. And the dad looks pretty much absent.

Time to escape museums and wander the streets of the Left Bank. Shop windows are as artful as anything. Yes, I’ll have that bird.

Florist shops are enchanting, and they spill out onto the street even in November. It’s not that cold, with highs of 45-50 in the daytime. Of course it helps to have a sunny day–which I’ll admit might be rare.

Help! My bike broke down. No worries, there’s a mobile bike repair shop to call: L’Atelier Velo Sur Votre Route.

At almost any time of the day or night, I’m up for crepes. I especially like Creperie des Arts in the Latin Quarter. All right, I’ll admit the resident cat is a big part of the attraction. He knows me now.

So this is November 2018 in Paris, sadly marred by violent Saturday protests.

By the time I left, Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe was looted and smeared with rude graffiti.

But Paris has weathered worse. When the dust settles, I’m sure I’ll be back. I still expect to see a little repair scaffolding at Notre Dame. After all, the building has stood through eight centuries of ups and downs in Paris.

I Love Paris in the Winter…When It Sizzles?

It was a thrill to get off the airport bus right in front of the Arc de Triomphe, even though in the evening a light drizzle turned into a downpour that lasted all night.

By morning, the rain had cleared. But our temporary neighborhood was rapidly turning into a battle scene and we wondered whether to even leave our room. We could see on TV what was happening a block away.

“Les Gilets Jaunes” are the yellow vests all French drivers have to keep in their vehicles and wear in case of breakdown. For a couple of weeks, protesters have worn them while trying to get the government to reverse high taxes on fuel. Now it seems the protests have turned against President Macron and his policies.

Quite a few people believe he cares only about rich people, and a small number of people get richer while the poor get poorer. (Americans, can you imagine that?) Macron’s administration raised fuel taxes, which impact people who have to drive to work. I don’t understand the details, but apparently they also eliminated a “wealth” tax.

Storming of the Bastille, unknown artist, Public Domain

Of course France has a long history of protest. On July 14, 1789 the French Revolution began in earnest with the storming of the Bastille prison.

The current grass-roots movement seems to have no real leaders. Will it grow or die out? Nobody knows yet. The demonstrations this week were smaller than the week before, but there are protests all over the country. About 5000 to 8000 people gathered on the Champs Elysees for a peaceful “manifestation,” but these things do tend to get out of control. We watched it all unfold from the safety of our room. All the TV stations were in French, but there was constant live video.

There seemed to be a lull in early afternoon, so we ventured out. Metro stations in our neighborhood were closed, so we walked–away from the “manifestations.” It looked like the protesters had called a general coffee break. The people above had spread out their clothes to dry on a heat grate on the sidewalk. They had been sprayed with water cannons. There was a lot of tear gas in the air, too, although we never got near enough to actually feel its effects.

Protesters had been busy piling up materials for bonfires–which firefighters put out all day. Could we climb the Arc de Triomphe to get an overview? No way.

Just a block off the Champs Elysees, everything seemed normal except for less traffic. But all day long and into the evening, we could see pillars of smoke. Police helicopters hovered above.

We walked along the Seine, where life was going on as usual.

We made a quick stop at the Palais de Tokyo for the modern art. Then we made our way to the Orsay to see the current Picasso exhibit.

Picasso was astounding as always. Was there anything the man couldn’t do? That’s an early self-portrait.

I love his Child with Pigeon, 1901. We have museum passes, so we pop in and out of the great-but-exhausting museums of Paris.

After catching dinner, we started walking back home for the night, and came upon a Christmas market in the Tuileries.

By 9:30 pm, the demonstrators had all gone home, but the Metro we would have taken was closed and police had the whole area cordoned off for cleanup. The police were friendly and as helpful as they could be in the situation.

We gave up on walking and took a taxi because we had to circle way around the protest area.

I asked Santa for a more peaceful day tomorrow. But after all, protest is part of the French history I came to see.

The next day: it was interesting to read press coverage from outlets such as the Daily Mail

https://dailym.ai/2DJVJMQ

Even after my high school and college French, and obsessively studying on Duolingo daily for six months, my French leaves a lot to be desired. I’m lucky to catch about one out of every four or five words on French TV news. The images pretty much speak for themselves, though.

Vaux-le-Vicomte: Fouquet’s Rise and Fall

Louis XIV traveled to this newly-built chateau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, on August 17, 1661. The owner, Nicolas Fouquet, was throwing a spectacular blowout party for the Sun King.

There was music, dancing, banks of flowers, and the premier performance of the Moliere play “Les Facheux” on the slightly elevated dias of the salon pictured above. (Translation of the title: The Unfortunate, The Regrettable. Yes, the whole evening certainly was all that).

And that’s Moliere, quietly observing the follies of men from his place on the mantle.

Back in 1641, Nicolas Fouquet was a young man on the make in France. At age 26, he was a member of the Parlement of Paris. This was not a debating or advising body; instead it was a sort of appeals court with great powers. It put him in position to get very rich.

Fouquet’s family emblem was the squirrel. His family motto was “Quo Non Ascendet” or “What heights will he not scale.” Heights, indeed. Fouquet climbed relentlessly from his Parlement position until in 1656 he landed the real plum job: Minister of Finance for the Sun King. A squirrel with better judgment than Fouquet might have settled down in a comfy hole and enjoyed the bounty of nuts he had already gathered. But Fouquet was a man of taste and refinement. He liked nice things and he could afford them, so why not have the best?

Fouquet was a patron of the arts and a great friend of artists. Jean de la Fontaine, the brilliant writer of the “Fables,” was a close friend who stayed regularly with Fouquet. He had very nice rooms to live and work in at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

When he landed the ministerial job, Fouquet bought and demolished three villages to make room for his chateau and grounds. Then he relocated the villagers and put them to work hauling, pounding and digging. It was said that he employed a virtual army of 18,000 people in his project.

For his grand chateau, Fouquet hired Louis le Vau as architect, Andre le Notre as landscape designer, and Charles le Brun as painter/decorator. Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first of their many celebrated projects together.

Everybody knew that King Louis XIV was not a man who liked to be upstaged. Fouquet’s chateau looked nicer than anything the king had for himself at the time.

King Louis XIV, painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701, Public Domain

During the fateful party on August 17, 1661, Louis was shown into the obligatory King’s Chambers that Fouquet had carefully prepared for him, but the envious king was fuming.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, painting by Philippe de Champaign, Public Domain

Somebody else saw opportunity in the situation. For some time, Jean-Baptiste Colbert had been insinuating to the king that Fouquet had embezzled funds. The king was only too happy to listen. Some historians suggest that he had already decided to oust Fouquet long before the royal carriage rolled up to the chateau doors on August 17.

Fouquet was arrested three weeks later and put on trial. The painting above, by an unknown artist, shows the grim courtroom scene. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The court sentenced him to exile, but the king overruled the court. Fouquet was sent to prison for the rest of his life. Naturally, everything he owned became the property of the Crown. And Colbert took his place as Minister of Finance, a post he held for many years afterward.

Louis XIV confiscated all the fine furniture and art. He also famously dug up all the plants in the gardens. Most importantly, he took the architect Le Vau, the landscaper Le Notre, and the decorator Le Brun straight to Versailles to work on his own supersized chateau.

Vaux le Vicomte languished for centuries under many owners. It’s now been much restored and refurnished. Three brothers of the de Vogue family are the present owners.

They’ve made the chateau really user-friendly, with very detailed placards in both French and English. The chateau information is my main source for Fouquet’s story. For example, a display shows some of the silver Fouquet would have owned:

A placard explains that Fouquet was never allowed to produce an inventory of his possessions, which would have proven that his expenditures were well within his legitimate income.

It’s easy to imagine Louis XIV entering Vaux-le-Vicomte and pausing under its airy dome.

Louis must have gazed out over Le Notre’s gardens and wondered why he couldn’t have the same thing–or something even better–for himself.

Voltaire later wrote, “On 17 August, at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France; at two in the morning he was nobody.”

I wonder why Fouquet’s tragic story has not yet had the full-fledged Hollywood or HBO or BBC treatment. It’s certainly dramatic enough. Maybe there are programs I don’t know about. A visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte tells a remarkable story of hubris, treachery, greed and the absolute power of a king.

Join me next time for more about the famous chateaux of France.

Chateau de Cheverny

Some families are lucky. The Hurault family of financiers and officials serving a succession of French kings has owned Cheverny for six centuries, with only a couple of short breaks.

The entire castle was built in one go, as the Brits would say, from 1604 to 1634. So it has a rare unity of architecture and decoration. Works for me!

The royal mistress Diane de Poitiers bought it as a place to make do while she had her consolation prize of Chaumont renovated. (Most of us would rent an apartment nearby. But after all, Diane was one of the great royal favorites, and only ended up with Chaumont after Catherine de Medici booted her from Chenonceau when the king died. Diane could afford to live in style no matter what happened).

Beautiful Renaissance details abound.

The architect was Jacques Bougier, who also worked on the chateaux of Blois and Chambord. He used a soft stone from Bourre, which is harder than the very soft tufa used elsewhere in the Loire. It has the advantage of actually lightening with age.

The Hurault family lost the chateau again in the 18th century, but then Anne-Victor Hurault, the Marquis de Vibraye, bought it back once and for all in 1825.

Here’s Anne-Victor as a young man in his robes as a Chevalier of France. Among other things, he was aide-de-camp to Charles X. I’m not sure of the artist.

He had a lot of titles and honors. Very impressive!

Upkeep on a place like this is never cheap. The chateau was one of the first to open to the paying public (like me) in 1922. When I visited, the formal dining room was decorated for Easter.

The dining room and hallway are decorated with 34 wooden panels depicting the story of Don Quixote.

The panels were painted by Jean Monier, who was also responsible for the ceilings and other wall decorations.

Every self-respecting chateau was built with a King’s Room, reserved at all times for the monarch. No monarch actually slept in this room as it stands today.

However, King Henri II reportedly slept in this bed, although not in this room. At the time of his visit, there was an older castle on the property.

Of course there’s a chapel, decorated in Louis XIII style (like most of the chateau).

The Grand Salon is grand indeed. The lovely lady above the fireplace is an early Comtesse who married into the family. She was painted by Mignard, whose day job was to be Queen Anne of Austria’s personal artist.

I believe the lady just above is Jeanne of Aragon, painted in the workshops of Raphael.

There are Aubusson tapestries not only on the walls, but also upholstering the furniture. Unlike many chateaux, Cheverny was never emptied of its treasures. The Hurault family is proud that although objects have been added over the years, almost none have been taken away.

Some of the most interesting rooms are in the family’s “private” quarters. (Since the chateau is open every day of the year, I have to assume the family retreats to the really private quarters during the day at least).

How about a nice cup of tea?

When I visited, each room had a Lego display illustrating one of the tables of Jean de la Fontaine, after the illustrations by Gustave Dore. Here’s “The Lion and the Rat.”

And “The Hare and the Tortoise.”

I think Gustave Dore appears in a Legos portrait. I confess I don’t exactly see the point, but I can understand that an old chateau needs to have new tricks up its sleeve. Presumably the Legos keep kids interested.

The nursery is stuffed with antique family toys.

Two Legos hound dogs stand guard. More on the hounds of Cheverny in a minute.

One room holds the wedding gown of the wife of the current Marquis.

And now for the hounds: the present Marquis and his friends hunt several times a week from around October to March, culling about 25 deer from the acres and acres of woodland.

Now, where I come from, hunting involves men in camouflage gear, camping out and most likely drinking a lot of beer.

At Cheverny, it’s a whole different kind of hunting. It’s way more elegant, don’t you think?

The Marquis maintains between 70 and 100 specially bred hounds. At five in the afternoon on most days, they gather for La Soupe des Chiens: a buffet of raw meat served on the spanking-clean kennel floor.

It’s a sight to behold. “Please do not excite the dogs.” Full disclosure: I don’t eat meat, and the thought of hunting wild animals makes me shake in my boots. I’d never have made it as a royal wife or mistress, expected to participate in the Sport of Kings. But I understand that wildlife must be managed and kept in balance.

The writer/artist Herve took Cheverny as the inspiration for his many TinTin books. There’s a separate exhibit about TinTin.

Cheverny is efficiently run, very user-friendly. Admission includes a very detailed little brochure about the chateau’s history and treasures.

I wouldn’t mind being there right now!

Chateau de Chaumont: A Royal Consolation Prize

Photo by Manfred Heyde, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Chaumont is most famous for being a consolation prize for Diane de Poitiers, the favorite of King Henri II of France. When he was killed in a jousting mishap in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, immediately turned Diane out of exquisite Chenonceau and sent her packing to Chaumont. The photo above is from Wikipedia; it’s difficult to get the view of the chateau from across the River Loire with any camera easy and light enough for me (aka my trusty iPhone).

It seems like a perfectly fine chateau to those of us who will never own a chateau.

But Diane was not pleased. In fact, she barely lived there at all. But she was shrewd enough to develop and profit by the Chaumont lands for the rest of her long life.

The original defensive medieval chateau was pulled down and the present building was begun around 1465. It was built with some medieval features such as the serious drawbridge.

I’m not sure exactly how the drawbridge works. I would not want to get in its way.

I know people were shorter in stature in the past. I do wonder if the low doorway also had some defensive use. “Attention de Votre Tete!”

There are many other medieval-looking details in the chateau, like this stone corbel.

But the overall effect is of a gracious Renaissance castle.

Before she sent Diane to Chaumont, Catherine de Medici owned it beginning in 1550. She entertained her friends there, including the astrologer Nostradamus.

I find Catherine’s rooms and furniture pretty dreary. I can see why she jumped at the chance to move into magical, light-filled Chenonceau.

Catherine had very nice views of the Loire from Chaumont, which is perceived high on the riverbank above the town.

But who can blame her for wanting to live on top of the River Cher at Chenonceau?

So Diane had to make do with Chaumont (and its very profitable lands).

After Diane’s time, the chateau passed through various aristocratic hands.

Germain de Stael, portrait by Francois Gérard, 1810, Public Domaine

Madame de Stael, the indomitable French intellectual and champion of freedom, owned Chaumont beginning in 1810. She survived the French Revolution and had the great honor of having one of her books banned as Napoleon was showing his true colors as a tyrant. (No specific reference for that opinion, just my general knowledge of her from reading her work).

The heiress to a sugar fortune, Marie-Charlotte Say, acquired the chateau in 1875. Soon after, she married Amedee de Broglie and they began an enthusiastic renovation.

Monsieur de Broglie liked horses. A lot.

He built stables much nicer than the houses most people lived in.

They also entertained a lot. An elephant in the garden? Sure! This was the Belle Époque!

In the heyday of empires, a maharajah from India was an elegant houseguest.

The actress and artist Sarah Bernhardt visited often.

So did the novelist Marcel Proust.

Did he write a few pages of his masterpiece, “Remembrance of Things Past,” in these elegant rooms?

Maybe he heard a bit of scandalous gossip during a three-way teatime?

What do aristocrats do when a priceless antique develops huge cracks and threatens to fall apart?

Call in the goldsmiths to fill in the cracks, of course! This commode was once the property of Louis XV, so it was worth fixing.

The family owned many other treasures, like this lovely portrait of Queen Anne of Brittany. She united the kingdoms of France and Brittany by her marriage to King Louis XIV, so she has the coats of arms of both kingdoms in the corner. The artist seems to be unknown.

A grand fireplace features the emblem of King Louis XII, the porcupine.

I particularly liked the chapel, which was resplendent with an art installation.

The grounds of the chateau host a huge garden show every year, and master gardeners create nature-themed displays. Filling up the chapel with branches, flowers and quirky found objects was a stroke of genius, if you ask me.

Back outside in the courtyard, I admire the towers and turrets and the view over the Loire. I was recently in a discussion group where the leader asked how many of us would like to be a king or queen. Nobody raised a hand.

But I wouldn’t mind being a carefree aristocrat in the Belle Époque, eating dinner with Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Proust across the table.

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.