Category Archives: Why I Love France

Heartbreak at Notre Dame in Paris

I’m shocked to see the images of Norte Dame burning today. I was just there in December, and I took it for granted that it would always be there whenever I was lucky enough to return to Paris. I would not dream of visiting Paris without going inside to be awed once again by the majesty of Notre Dame.

But it appears that a fire started under the spire and spread rapidly. When I visited, I could see scaffolding around the spire; I understand major repairs were going on. The image above is a picture of a TV picture.

Now the news is that the entire roof has collapsed.

It is just unthinkable that a place of such beauty and spirituality is on fire. After all, the Cathedral of Our Lady was built between 1160 and 1260, and has stood through all the centuries of tumultuous French history since then.

I always think of Gothic churches as sort of fireproof because they seem to be made of stone. But actually much of the structure is wood.

Who knows whether Notre Dame can be rebuilt, or even whether the fire can be put out before it’s reduced to a pile of rubble. We can only hope the cathedral has guardian angels watching over it.

Azay-le-Rideau: Island Dreaminess and Bats in the Belfry

Once upon a time a beautiful chateau rose up on an island in the middle of the River Indre…well, not really.

Actually the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau began as a 12th-century fortress built to protect the road between Chinon and Tours, where it had to cross the River Indre. The site saw a lot of violence over the next few centuries, including an episode in the Hundred Years’ War when 350 soldiers occupying it were executed and the existing building was burned to the ground.

Finally, in 1518, one Gilles Berthelot acquired the property and set about building himself a grand Renaissance chateau. Gilles was the Treasurer of King Francois I, and the King allowed him to cut timber from the nearby Forest of Chinon. A lot of trees were needed to build on the swampy ground. As in the city of Venice, timbers had to be driven vertically into the ground to keep the stone chateau from sinking.

Naturally, Gilles featured his King and Queen prominently in his facade. That’s the fire-breathing salamander of Francois I and the meek ermine of his Queen, Claude.

The central stairway is one of the main architectural features.

I’m a big fan of stone corbels, like this dog guarding his bone from another dog.

Other stone figures are more fantastical.

Sometimes it’s all just a bit much, though. Time for a nap?

The chateau fell into decline in the eighteenth century. All the furniture and art was sold off. Since it became the property of the French government, it’s been refurnished in grand fashion.

I especially liked a bedroom lined with handwoven rushes–very cozy on those chilly evenings.

I have no idea who this lady is, but she’s lovely.

So what’s under that steep oh-so-French roof?

The attic is where the King’s forest timbers really shine.

The roof is a real feat of engineering, sixteenth century style. The original workmen’s marks survive. Everything had to fit together perfectly. It still does.

The colony of about fifty protected bats must enjoy the airy spaces.

Down on the ground, the thing to do is to circle the chateau, admiring the Renaissance grandeur reflected in the water.

And to make plans to come back.

Chateau de Fontainebleau, Favorite Digs of Napoleon Bonaparte

Of the many facades of Fontainebleau, the grand double stairway where the defeated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said goodby to his loyal troops is the most famous.

But on my visit a few months ago, a temporary fence stood maddeningly in the exact spot I’d need for a good photo with the French national flag flying above it. Maybe someone was tired of tourists taking selfies there.

Inside and out, renovation at Fontainebleau goes on constantly. It’s impossible to see everything on one visit.

Invariably, parts of the chateau are closed. It’s not particularly visitor-friendly, either. English is used very sparingly inside. There’s an audio guide at the ticket window, but on one visit a request for one was met with a Gallic shrug. All the used audio guides were piled up at the exit and there seemed to be no plan to haul them to the entrance. So I had to wing it with my marginal French to read placards. (I generally figure that I can read about one word out of three. I’m way worse at understanding spoken French). Still, I’d go to Fontainebleau any time.

In early spring, people lounge around Diana’s fountain. (When it’s turned on, her hunting hounds pee big arching streams into the basin).

Napoleon 1er, painting by Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaise, 1812

For me, the most interesting part of the huge chateau is the wing devoted to Napoleon, his family, and his exploits. It’s hard to get good photos of the portraits without glare in the long family gallery, but the effect is very grand.

Napoleon placed his nearest and dearest on thrones all over Europe.

Pauline, duchesse de Guastalla et princesse Borghese, Marie-Guillemine Benoiste, 1808

They all had a fine time while it lasted. I think Napoleon’s sister Pauline had the best time of all.

Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious, photo by Architas, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Pauline married a Borghese and as a princess, was sculpted by Antonio Canova between 1805-1808. When asked if she was uncomfortable posing nude, she replied that it was fine: there was a stove in the studio. Also, it was reportedly her idea to pose nude; she liked being talked about. (The exquisite statue is in the Villa Borghese in Rome, where tourists are not allowed to take photos).

Madame Mere de l’Empereur et Roi, Francois Gerard, after 1805

Here’s Napoleon’s mother. What mom could be more proud of her boy?

Napoleon knew how to dress for an occasion. This was one of his many dressing-up outfits.

He liked his help to look sharp, too. This was a coat worn by one of his household staff.

But by all accounts, Napoleon was happiest on military campaign, in his campaign gear.

Of course, the great man was not about to rough it while conquering Europe. He traveled with several wagons full of what he needed for the style to which he was accustomed. His personal tent had a comfy folding canopied bed and a separate work area.

Even on campaign, Napoleon had everything he needed to look good at all times.

Empress Josephine in Coronation Robes, Francois Gerard, 1804

Napoleon attributed a lot of his good fortune to his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais. Sadly, she could not produce the desired heir, so he reluctantly divorced her.

Napoleon himself announced that he was “looking for a belly.” He replaced Josephine with the Habsburg Princess Marie-Louise in 1810. (I think this portrait was painted by Gerard).

King of Rome, painted by Francois Gerard, wearing the ribbon of the Legion of Honor

Cradle of the King of Rome (one of several)

Marie-Louise did produce a male baby, duly named the King of Rome, but his life was short and sad. Things were going downhill for the Emperor.

In his heyday, Napoleon received visitors in his Fontainebleau throne room. His throne featured his emblem, the honeybee. He chose it for its virtues of being constantly at work, constantly producing (honey), diligence, and orderliness.

But military defeats ended it all. On April 13, 1814, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau at this very table. Then he was off to exile on the island of Elba.

The rest of Fontainebleau is a strenuous trek through previous centuries of French history.

Above, that’s Francois I, his fire-breathing salamander, and a nice Diana the hunter that he commissioned.

The grandeur is actually a bit much to take in. And a lot of rooms are either closed or full of scaffolding.

I can see why even the royals of the past needed a little breathing room, as in the spacious balcony where they attended Mass in a chateau chapel. I read somewhere that the congregation of nobles below them were seated facing the royal balcony, their backs to the altar. It seems their job was to watch their betters watch the Mass.

I can see why Napoleon’s Roman-inspired Empire style was a breath of fresh air in his time. Above, that’s a daybed and working desk in Napoleon’s private study.

Fontainebleau is one of the best places to wander through French history, coming face to face with the personalities that shaped it. The town is fun and lively, too. I’d go back anytime!

Chateau Gaillard in Amboise: A Smiling Monk and Oranges from Italy

There’s a new chateau in town, complementing the touristic big guns of Chateau d’Amboise and Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, Clos Luce. (It’s not to be confused with the medieval Chateau Gaillard in Normandy, which was the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart).

It’s a smallish chateau. But it’s an interesting stop because it’s possible to imagine actually living there.

Gaillard is a respite from the main tourist track. The gardens are a work in progress, but they’re peaceful and green. And there are already oranges.

Dom Pacello da Mercogliano was a Benedictine monk with a genius for making things grow. He was also something of a hydraulic engineer; growing things always need water.

King Charles VIII brought Dom Pacello from Italy to Amboise in the late 1400s and installed him in this house a short hike from the king’s grand riverbank chateau. Pacello’s mission was to design beautiful gardens like the ones Charles remembered from Italy. Charles especially wanted oranges, which had never been grown in France.

An important part of Dom Pacello’s work was to figure out how to get water from the Loire all the way up to the chateau gardens high above the river. I gather that was no mean feat, and didn’t work out so well.

After Charles’ untimely death, the monk continued to work for his successor, Louis XII. It appears that Dom Pacello lived in France for the rest of his long life, dying at age 87 in 1534.

Once again after centuries of neglect, the estate has oranges in a lot of varieties. Charles would be pleased.

A family (whose name I don’t know) bought the property a few years ago. They’ve been working hard on restoring it and making it a tourist attraction. Other visitors report they’ve met the family and found them charming. I thought the admission price, comparable to major sights in the Loire Valley, was a little steep. But there are a lot of very positive Tripadvisor reviews. Quite a few visitors felt it was money well spent for the tranquility. People really appreciate a place for kids to run around and adults to relax.

There’s a colorful brochure in English, and apparently one English tour a day. We were in a bit of a rush and probably should have allowed more time to let the place grow on us. I did not see even a French tour going on, but there was a colorful little film (in French) running in a pretty garden shed.

It’s especially interesting to see how the mansion was built directly up against and even had rooms tunneled into the sheer rock wall behind it.

The local stone is tufa, and there are a lot of more humble “cave houses” in town.

About nine rooms of the house are open to visitors. The rooms are pretty and atmospheric. It appears that the family actually lives in the house.

They serve orange juice and orange cake on a pleasant terrace.

The website for the chateau is at

http://www.chateau-gaillard-amboise.fr/pacello-de-mercoliano-eng.html

St. Hubert’s Chapel at Amboise: A Resting Place for Leonardo da Vinci

The Gothic Chapel of Saint-Hubert was built between 1491 and 1496 during the reign of Charles VIII.

It’s perched right at the edge of the wall surrounding Chateau d’Amboise, towering over the town far below.

The chapel is tiny but exquisite. The facade tells the story of St. Hubert. He seems to have been an actual person, born around 656 to 658 in Toulouse. By the time he died on May 30, 727, he had become the first Bishop of Liege.

Hubert was a courtier living the good life of feasting, wearing fine clothes, and hunting in the vast royal forests of various parts of France. But when his wife died in childbirth, it seems he had a sort of midlife crisis. He chucked his royal duties and turned his back on religion. Instead he spent all his time hunting, all by himself.

On Good Friday, while everybody else was in church, he was out hunting alone as usual when he had a miraculous vision. A magnificent stag appeared with a crucifix in its antlers. A voice told him to mend his ways and get back to religious life, which he did. He became known as the “Apostle of the Ardennes,” devoted himself to all manner of good works, and died peacefully in old age.

Hubert became the patron saint of hunters (of course). He was much venerated in the Middle Ages for being able to cure rabies. The cure involved using St. Hubert’s Key, a fearsome metal nail-like brand that was heated red-hot and applied to the spot where an unfortunate person was bitten by a rabid animal. I suppose it worked at times, but I’m betting Leonardo da Vinci could have improved on the method if he’d set his mind to it.

St. Hubert has his very own club today in the UK. It’s dedicated to deer and wild boar management.

https://www.sainthubertclub.co.uk/who-was-st-hubert/

St. Hubert’s story is very similar to that of St. Eustace, but it does seem they were different people who had the same vision. I first encountered the crucifix-in-antlers story on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and wrote about it. Eustace did not fare as well as Hubert, though. Legend has it that Eustace, his wife and children were eventually roasted alive by the Emperor Hadrian.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2016/04/29/st-eustace-in-canterbury-cathedral/

St. Hubert’s chapel is lovely and peaceful inside even when there are a lot of tourists visiting Amboise. People duck in to see Leonardo’s tomb, but they don’t linger.

The chapel is a nice resting place for Leonardo, who died just up the street in his last house, Clos Luce, in 1519. And I’m sure he appreciates the visitors from all over the world.

Leonardo and Francois I at Clos Luce

In 1516, King Francois I imported his very own personal resident genius from Italy to his home in Amboise. He installed Leonardo da Vinci in a fine mansion just down the road, Clos Luce. It was close enough to the royal chateau to be connected by a short tunnel.

Leonardo was nearing the end of his life, but he still had plenty of ideas and plenty of energy. He lived and worked for three years at Clos Luce.

The house has lovingly recreated Leonardo’s workspaces.

It’s easy to think of the equally energetic Francois I escaping his royal duties for nice chats in Leonardo’s man-cave.

Francois’s long-suffering wife, Queen Claude, often visited Clos Luce to pray in the tiny chapel. Francois was reportedly kind to her, but he was away much of the time, building and fighting and spending time with his mistresses. Claude married at age 15 and dutifully went through constant pregnancies until she died at age 24.

Queen Claude of France, Public Domain

I’d like to think that Leonardo was a friend to Claude as well as Francois.

Today, visitors see the rooms where Leonardo lived and died.

The basement and grounds contain models of Leonardo’s inventions. Ball bearings? Check. A bicycle? Check.

He brought a few of his favorite paintings to Amboise, including the Mona Lisa.

The gift shop is well stocked with the famous lady’s visage.

Leonardo da Vinci by Francesco Melzi, Public Domain

Although the house and grounds are usually full of tourists and school groups, it’s not too hard to imagine that Leonardo just popped over to the chateau to see his good buddy Francois. Leonardo and Francois: a fine bromance.

On to lunch, with dessert, of course.

In honor of my visit to Leonardo’s home, here’s a first for me: a video. I can’t resist. My favorite place in Amboise, Patisserie Bigot, has a unique toilet.

The seat is perfectly round. Every time it flushes, the seat does a complete self-cleaning rotation.

If I were traveling with little kids, I would never get them away from this fascinating toilet. Maybe Leonardo invented it!

Chateau d’Amboise

What if your job was to guard a strategic section of the important River Loire? And this was in medieval times when rival nobles considered themselves mini-monarchs with a duty to become maxi-monarchs by grabbing the lands and strongholds of their neighbors?

You’d probably build yourself a sturdy fort high on the riverbank and post lookouts in both directions. This happened all over Europe, and it happened in Amboise, on the River Loire in France. The exact history is hazy, but by the 900s the powerful Angevin counts had a fortress at Amboise. From the top of their sheer stone walls they could see everything happening below them in the town and on the river. Over the next few centuries, the nobles began owing their allegiance to actual kings of France.

In 1431, Louis d’Amboise, Viscount of Thours, was convicted of plotting against King Louis XI and sentenced to death. But instead he languished in prison until 1434 when the new king, Charles VIII, pardoned him. That was the good news. The bad news was that the king confiscated the chateau and it became the permanent property of the Crown.

Charles VIII grew up at Amboise. As an adult, he decided to extensively rebuild his childhood home.

Possibly he should have paid more attention to the details. Or possibly he just should have watched where he was going. At the age of 27, he knocked his head against a low door lintel and died. He left his young widow, Anne of Brittany, with the ironclad obligation of marrying his cousin, who became King Louis XII. Anne was still Queen.

Louis XII, Workshop of Jean Perréal, 1514, Public Domain

All this had been carefully written into the marriage contract, in order to assure that wealthy Brittany remained part of France.

However, after all that careful planning, Louis XII died without a male heir. So his cousin Francois became King Francois I. The young King Francois was raised at Amboise and lived there as an adult. He brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy to Amboise to live out his golden years.

Le Mort de Leonardo da Vinci, Francois-Guillaume Menageot, 1781

There’s a famous painting depicting Francois tenderly nursing the dying Leonardo, but actually Francois was not present at the time, in 1519. However, the King did install Leonardo in a very nice mansion, Clos Lucé, just up the street. There was a tunnel connecting the mansion and the chateau so the two men could visit each other. It’s just a guess, but I think Francois did most of the visiting, glad to get away from the pressures of his court.

And Leonardo was buried in the chapel on the chateau grounds.

In 1560, France was embroiled in the Wars of Religion. A Protestant conspiracy was discovered and dealt with harshly. Over a period of about a month, as many as 1200 people were executed and many were hung from the castle ramparts, where they remained for a long time. This was not pleasant for anyone, including the chateau residents. The royals and courtiers departed, and Amboise began to fall into decline. The stained glass panel above is a modern depiction of the grisly situation.

Today, the approach to the castle is from the lively town of Amboise nestled below the formidable castle walls. That’s the royal chapel on top, where Leonardo rests.

The architecture is still forbidding. Nobody would wander in without an invitation.

The townside tower has a ramp big enough for several horsemen to ascend together. The ancient stonework is meant to impress and intimidate.

The castle itself, much restored and added to over the years, looks inviting, at least on a sunny day.

For me, the royal Chapel of St. Hubert is the best part of the whole chateau complex. It deserves its own post.

Inside the castle itself, though, there’s a lot to admire. The main hall is impressive.

I especially loved the stone corbels at the bases of the arches. I think the castle walls really did have ears. This fellow seems like a reminder to be careful of the intrigues of court life.

Anybody’s secrets could be trumpeted far and wide.

Does this fellow want out?

Of course the pleasures of nature were close at hand in the royal hunting grounds.

Are those the thistles of Scotland? Mary Stuart, who later became Queen of Scots, lived here as a child, then returned as a very young bride after marrying the Dauphin Francis in 1558. (He died young and she returned to Scotland).

There’s Francois I, supported by his symbol the flame-breathing salamander.

I don’t think any of the furnishings or even the rooms are in their original state–the chateau is too old for that, and too many lives have been lived there. But the rooms have the flavor of various historical periods. Above are fine Renaissance pieces.

Then there are rooms with a more Napoleonic flavor–although after the Revolution the damage was so great that Napoleon ordered large parts of the chateau demolished.

In fact, the chateau is not very well explained. There are placards, some in English as well as French. But even the French information seems pretty cursory. I know, for instance, that residents included Nicholas Fouquet after his arrest for angering Louis XIV by building a lavish chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Henri II and Catherine de Medici raised their family here. But I couldn’t find any information about any of these people. Possibly some rooms were closed, or I missed some rooms.

Amboise is not my very favorite chateau, but it’s well worth a wander. And the pretty town of Amboise is a fine base for the Loire Valley.

Just walking the back streets is fun. It’s a real town, not a tourist trap. People live in pretty houses set in leafy yards.

In small houses that open onto the meandering main road, I admired one pretty doorway after another.

Some people live in ancient cave houses tunneled into the tufa stone bluffs, and a few of these cave homes are available to rent.

Right down the street from the chateau, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home is a big attraction. There’s also a new attraction called Château Gaillard–more on that in another post. Yet just down a narrow alley from these world-class attractions, I stopped to admire these feathery beauties just hanging out in their unfenced yard.

Amboise is a fine town where it’s still possible to get away from the tourist crush. Nobody here but us chickens!