Category Archives: France

Paris in November 2018: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I just returned from a week and a half in Paris, and I have to say that Charles Dickens had it right in his opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” He wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Dickens was writing about the time of the French Revolution. The parallels to our own time are hard to ignore.

There’s beauty and history at every turn. But it’s a living city, and even its venerable monuments are subject to the winds of history. I was thrilled to arrive on Le Bus Direct from the airport and find the Arc de Triomphe right across the street. I was even more thrilled to locate the affordable apartment I had rented a block and a half away.

Our first day, a Friday, was foggy. We went to the Concorde and had a look at the art in the Orangerie.

On Saturday, many metro stations in central Paris were closed due to protests. No matter! We walked. We used our Museum Passes to pop into the Louvre and the Orsay, just making short stops to get our bearings.

In the evening, we strolled through the Christmas Market in the Tuileries. By about 8 pm, we started walking home. That didn’t work. Streets around the Champs Elysees were cordoned off, but rows of cheerful, confident police gave people directions while front-loaders moved in behind them to clean up the debris from the day’s protests. We treated ourselves to a taxi back to our apartment. By the next morning, everything was back to normal. Paris was Paris.

The following Saturday was our last full day in Paris. It was December 1. We knew there would be some protests, but we hoped we could pretty much ignore them as we had the week before. Little did we know…

The day began with peaceful marchers on the Champs Elysees. This banner said, more or less, “Macron, stop treating as though we are stupid.” What began a few weeks earlier as a protest against high fuel prices had become a movement against the government. It appears that a large majority is angry about a government that heavily favors the rich over the poor.

“Storming of the Bastille,” Jean-Pierre Houël, Public Domain

Protests in France are a way of life, but this one feels like it could be historic. We all know what happened after about a thousand angry men overran a prison in Paris on July 14, 1789.

Early in the day on December 1, demonstrators broke through police lines and gathered around the flame of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe (I kept a live stream going on TV). Ominously, many of them wore gas masks, and many faces were covered. Soon they were chased out. All day, a game of cat-and-mouse went on. Police would rush to one location, and protestors would be overturning cars, smashing shop windows, and building barricades in another.

All this seemed leaderless. On the streets, people in gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) were constantly on their smartphones and gathering in small groups to decide where to go next. It was hard to tell who was violent and who was peaceful. At one point when we ventured out toward a local cafe, the five women above warned us to change direction. They were walking away from an incident, but they also had gas masks.

Things were peaceful in the small branch of Starbucks around the corner from our apartment. In fact, hardly anybody was there. People in yellow jackets were allowed in, but they took off their jackets and the French flags that many had draped around their shoulders. They might have been asked to take off the jackets and flags–it’s hard to know what’s going on in a foreign language, and my rudimentary French was not serving me very well in the fast-moving events.

We tried walking out of the protest area.

Maybe we could just enjoy local shop windows?

But it soon became impossible to go outside without catching choking whiffs of tear gas and hearing the boom of stun grenades. On TV, we could see protesters daring the police to attack, and being knocked over by water cannons.

Early in the afternoon, we bought some groceries and decided to hole up in our apartment until we left Paris in the morning. We felt safe because police had completely evacuated the Place Charles de Gaulle, the huge traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. Police vans by the dozen were parked on a nearby street, and we were on a smaller street, in an apartment inside a courtyard with a locked door to the quiet little rue de l’Etoile outside.

We settled in and turned on live TV. Suddenly, the entire Place Charles de Gaulle was overrun again. Small bands of police were retreating behind their shields, obviously in danger of being surrounded.

Each officer had his hand on another officer’s shoulder and they slowly retreated in orderly lines. I half expected somebody to shout “Shield Wall!” But the police retreated to their nearby vans. The plaza filled with a swirling mass of humanity. Then, men in yellow jackets suddenly appeared ON TOP OF the Arc de Triomphe.

Later, we saw footage showing them breaking into the monument, looting, and destroying statues.

We surrendered. If the French can’t defend the Arc de Triomphe, anything can happen. We packed our stuff and reserved a room at the airport hotel, not sure we could even get there. A few doors down our little street, we walked into a Best Western Hotel and asked the front desk clerk to call a taxi. She refused! She said no taxi would even drive into the area. She practically threw us out.

We walked around the corner and into a fancier hotel, where people seemed to be coming and going (and paying rates way above our price range). The very kind concierge called us a taxi and made sure it arrived. With great relief, we piled in.

The driver spoke very good English and played soft jazz. After a few minutes, he had driven us out of the destruction. He said he was against the violence, but the protest was necessary because the government was not listening to the people. Yup, I get that now. (News reports say that 70 to 80% of the people support the current protests). The Sheraton at CDG was a haven of tranquility and people spoke excellent English. It was fully booked.

I kept the TV live stream on and looked at it once in awhile all night. It appeared that the violence and destruction were pretty much over by about 3 in the morning. Cleanup was beginning, and President Macron, who had been out of the country meeting other world leaders, was flying home to survey the damage. Cleanup began. I’m afraid the real cleanup will take a long time.

Paris is always the same, and always different. We’ll be back, hopefully in more peaceful times.

Paris in November: I’m Sold!

One of my favorite paintings on this trip is Kees Van Dongen’s dancing girl at the Musee Marmottan. He painted it in 1905 when he was one of the leaders of the Fauves (aka the Wild Beasts). The title should be “Jumping for Joy” or something like that, don’t you think? But noooo…the title is “Le Boniment,” which means something like “a lie to please” or “a sales pitch.” The subject was a circus performer. Oh, well, it still looks like pure joy to me.

Of course the best reason for trekking out to the Marmottan on the edge of the city is Claude Monet. The Marmottan has the biggest collection of his work, including the little painting that started an art movement: “Impression, sol levant.” (Impression, sun rising,) painted in 1872.

Detail from Gustave Caillebotte’s “Rue de Paris, temps de pluie,” 1877

They also have masterpieces by Gustave Caillebotte, the rich boy who chose to hang out with the artists who were having such a good time. He was a wonderful painter, but after some years he gave it up and became a patron of artists he considered his betters. The painting above was on the cover of the phone book in my hometown years before I’d ever heard about Caillebotte. (Anyone remember phone books?) Actually this was a study for the actual painting, which is at the Art Institute in Chicago. But I’m glad enough to see this one. Claude Monet was given this “sketch” painting as a gift and kept it in his bedroom until he died.

As for Paris in winter, it rains. Quite a bit.

And it gets dark early. And there are no live flowers in the Tuileries or anywhere else, except in gorgeous shop windows.

But there are plenty of seasonal compensations. The Musee d’Orsay is blessedly uncrowded.

And there are flowers at Orsay. Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” receives plenty of bouquets but is more interested in challenging the viewer, as shockingly now as in 1865 when she was the talk of all Paris.

In the same room at the Orsay, Manet’s parents studiously look the other way. He painted them in 1861. I wonder what they thought of Ms. Olympia and their son’s raffish friends.

The Orsay features a wonderful Picasso exhibit that I’ve now seen twice, without waiting in line. Above is a detail from his “La Soupe,” 1902-1903.

Outside, I mostly take buses and the Metro, but it’s pretty easy to hail a cab. Wait, that’s not me! That’s a detail from Picasso’s “Lady with a Fan,” 1905.

Free and cheap concerts abound, at places like the American Church along the Seine.

Maybe I could take a painting class at the Louvre?

I won’t be renting one of the perfectly-silent scooters that people run along sidewalks everywhere. I value life and limb too much.

But if I do somehow fall into the Seine, one of these friendly guys in wetsuits will rescue me. They were practicing by somersaulting into the water and then reeling each other in.

Along the Seine, the Conciergerie, Marie Antoinette’s final sad prison, looks as forbidding as ever.

Inside the complex, which still holds the courts, St-Chapelle sits like a crown jewel with its fantastic medieval stained glass.

At every turn, there’s some iconic sight.

Paris in November? No worries. I’m sold!

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.

Fontevraud l’Abbaye

If I didn’t already believe in ghosts, I’d be positive they exist after visiting Fontevraud Abbey in France. I was looking forward to seeing it again on my last trip to France. I last saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least not for me.

The Abbey was begun in the 1100s and for centuries was the home of generations of nuns.

Many of them were noblewomen who either chose monastic life or retreated to the convent when they were widowed or retired from public life. Also, quite often women who were in disgrace were packed off to convents so that everybody else could feel better about them. An exhibit in the cloisters earnestly uses this fact to argue that monastic life was similar to prison life. Much is made of uniforms and hierarchies. I don’t buy the argument.

There were actually four different orders of religious people at Fontevraud, one of them made up of male monks under the authority of the nuns. Fontevraud was very unusual in that respect. It was set up as a kind of utopian community run by women. I’m all for that! But there’s very little information posted about the history of the Abbey.

Eleanor of Aquitaine retreated to Fontevraud in her old age and died there. Eventually, her husband, Henry II of England, was buried alongside her in Fontevraud Abbey. Life in the convent was dignified and refined. Eleanor’s effigy shows her peacefully reading a book, probably Scripture (but I like to think it was something racy).

Eleanor and Henry’s son, King Richard the Lionheart, was buried in the same place, along with his sister-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême. Life went on placidly in the convent for centuries.

Then came the French Revolution. The Abbey was deconsecrated and the nuns were unceremoniously turned out.

Sacred images were smashed. Treasures were hauled off. Gold crosses were melted down. Only a few religious images remained, high up on walls.

Then in 1804, after all that was over, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the creation of a high-security prison which soon held as many as 2000 unfortunate men at a time. (I think the prisoners were all men). It became one of the harshest prisons in France, and remained so for over 150 years. The cavernous spaces were filled with cells and workrooms.

Guards patrolled the cloisters where generations of nuns once walked.

Today, an exhibit explains prison life. I think the photo above shows prison authorities. There were some photos of prisoners, but I could hardly bear to look at them. During World War II, resistance fighters were imprisoned at Fontevraud. Ten of them were shot on the grounds.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence, never allowed to speak even to each other. They were subject to terrible abuse. They worked day and night with very little food or rest. Life expectancy was 8 months.

I felt chilled and fearful the entire time I was in the Abbey. I felt certain that the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there. The prison finally closed in 1963.

Today, there is very little visible information about the royal tombs. Actually, what is visible is probably just the effigies. The tombs are very likely elsewhere.

The huge nave is cold, empty, and unconsecrated. Only a few fragments of wall paintings remain. There’s nothing much to look at except a kind of desk off to one side, where one person can sit and look at computer images. A small group was huddled over it and I could not even get close. And the building was really cold, even on a sunny day in May. It felt like more than just a physical coldness.

I’d have to be a much bigger fan of Romanesque architecture to venture through the Abbey doors again. But I won’t make it that far anytime soon. Entry to the Abbey is through a modern annex that somehow feels prison-like, with automatic sliding air-lock-type glass doors. I didn’t see any free guide brochures, and for once I didn’t feel like springing for a guidebook. Entry fees are stiff, too, and nobody is especially welcoming. Signs directing visitors are few and far between, and confusing.

I know there are other buildings in the complex that I missed. But most of the buildings seem to be closed.

Parts of the complex still seem to be under renovation or off-limits for other reasons. Back in the entry/exit/bookshop, I paged through a guidebook. I couldn’t find anything that tempted me to go back inside.

Maybe I lack imagination when I look at empty ancient spaces. Maybe I just wasn’t persistent enough. But I couldn’t wait to escape Fontevraud. I blame the ghosts.

I left and rushed to the nearest chateau, Usse, where I got in just before it closed for the day. If there are ghosts at Chateau d’Usse, they are friendly, welcoming ones. I know that a lot of people love Fontevraud. But it left me cold. And I don’t think a warm coat would have helped much.

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.

Chateau de Chenonceau: A Closer Look

I’d cheerfully spend an early-morning hour or two at Chenonceau every day for a week or two (maybe they have season passes?) For me, as for most visitors, I think the exquisite details get lost in the jaw-dropping gorgeousness of the architecture.

But I love the details, like this musical mermaid in stone. I think this architectural detail is called a corbel, a stone carving appearing here at the base of one of the basement ceiling arches. Very appropriate for a party chateau spanning a river!

How about this friendly stone face? Maybe he’s a monk? Or a baker? Or a baker monk?

How about an angel? These three figures are all in the kitchen, decorating and supporting its vaulted ceiling. I don’t know how many of them are original and how many were part of the great renovation that began in the 1950s. I love them all.

I’d cheerfully spend a few hours in Diane de Poitiers’ kitchen whipping up a meal fit for a royal favorite.

Maybe I’d even figure out how to use the turn-the-spit contraption over the fire.

It has a counterweight outside a window, just above the surface of the river.

But wait, I don’t eat any meat. I wouldn’t be great at roasting a boar. Kings and queens and nobles had a grand time hunting in the nearby woods–which still exist.

I’d probably do better as the pastry chef.

Wait, Madame is ringing for somebody!

Up the stairs! Is there a servants’ stairway for the likes of me? I can’t find one. I guess I’ll have to head up the main staircase.

It has just one turn, an innovation at the time. And excellent for showing off one of Diane’s exquisite gowns, no doubt with a well-shaped ankle showing off on each step. She kept her beauty well into what most of us think of as the beginning of old age.

Well, now that I’m upstairs, I’ll just wander, admiring the beautiful details, like the lady in this tapestry.

The hallway ceilings are arched like those in the kitchen.

In the rooms to either side, the ceilings are elaborately beamed and painted.

Many ceilings are paneled in geometric sections.

What meal wouldn’t taste wonderful at this dining table?

There’s beautiful and evocative furniture in every room.

Diane de Poitiers never had to haul a dresser home from Ikea and figure out how to put it together, that’s for sure. And even her floors are beautiful.

Fireplaces were not only spectacular, but no doubt well tended in Diane’s day.

Today, Catherine de Medici’s gallery holds a fascinating series of displays about the chateau’s history, starting in medieval times and going all the way up to the present.

I’m always a fan of doorways, from the simplest one in the kitchen…

…to the grander ones above stairs.

Well, I’m heading out to the gardens on a sunny day, with one last look up at the original medieval tower on the riverbank.

I’ll say hello to the Sphinx on my way out.

Chenonceau: magnifique!

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.