Tag Archives: Chateau de Chenonceau

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!

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If It’s Tuesday, That Must Be Talleyrand

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

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

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

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

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

Claude Monet’s Gardens and Home in Giverny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici

Diane de Poitiers, unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, unknown artist, Public Domain

When Diane de Poitiers arrived at Chenonceau in 1547, things were going her way. At around age 35, she was already a widow left wealthy when her much older husband conveniently died and left her a fortune. She moved easily in court circles and soon became the mistress of the 16-year-old King Henri II, who gave her Chenonceau as a residence.  Diane loved Chenonceau. She was the undisputed occupant, but it took her a number of years to persuade the King to give it to her outright. In the meantime, she called in the best architects and builders. Money was no problem. First off, she greatly expanded the beautiful pleasure gardens.

Photo by Luke van Grieben, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

Photo by Luke van Grieben, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

The gardens were just gardens like many others, but Diane had a truly brilliant idea: she expanded her living space by building an arched bridge, with rooms, that crossed the River Cher. Later additions, some by Diane and some by others, expanded on that idea and created the chateau we see today.

Henri II, after Francois Clouet, Public Domain

Henri II, after Francois Clouet, Public Domain

I think Henri looks very suave in this portrait. Where have I seen that sly, knowing look?  Of course!

Connery

The very worldly James Bond, played by Sean Connery, had the same expression. Just saying. Anyway, Henri certainly knew what he liked, and as King he had the wherewithal to get it. Diane de Poitiers was famous as one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her age, and the King depended on her advice throughout his life. She had rivals; naturally the King took other mistresses, but she was his closest and most trusted companion throughout his life.  She became the most powerful woman in France.

Catherine-de-medici (1)

This did not sit well with Catherine de Medici, Henri’s wife and the mother of his three sons who became subsequent kings. (She also had several daughters). The stern portrait above was painted when Catherine was still a comparatively young wife. Once she became a widow, she draped herself in black at all times and looked even more forbidding. I would not care to tangle with her.

Lady in Bath, Diane de Poitiers, Francois Clouet, c. 1555, Public Domain

Lady in Bath, Diane de Poitiers, Francois Clouet, c. 1555, Public Domain

Henri lavished favors and property on Diane de Poitiers.  She was clearly quite the babe, as well as being smart and witty. She retained her beauty all through her long life, too.

During his lifetime, Henri expected his dutiful wife Catherine to stay at home and keep quiet. She really had no choice while he was alive. But things changed suddenly.

Desmond Llewelyn as

Desmond Llewelyn as “Q,” 1983, Towpilot, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

Since I’ve brought up James Bond, I can’t resist:  what Henri needed was a guy like “Q,” who in the movies patiently explained weapons and prudent tactics to an impatient James Bond. Maybe nobody like “Q” had Henri’s back. In 1559, when he was just 40, poor Henri got knocked in the head in a jousting accident.  His wound became infected and he died 10 days later. His heir the Dauphin was a sickly young son, age 15. The Dauphin was already married to Mary Queen of Scots. But he died 18 months later and Mary Queen of Scots was sent back to Scotland, never becoming Mary Queen of France. The two remaining sons were not good King material, but they were all that Catherine as Regent had to work with. Of course she was not allowed to become Queen in her own right. It was quite an accomplishment to even keep her sons on the throne.

Things went from bad to worse. France was torn apart by civil and religious struggle all through Catherine’s life.  Although she made valiant efforts to govern the country, she made a lot of mistakes and her weak sons were not much help. The French Wars of Religion continued, causing massive carnage as Protestants and Catholics fought each other bitterly.

Chenonceau3

Catherine’s life was not easy.  But there was great consolation in one thing: once Henri was in the ground, she lost no time in booting her chief rival, Diane de Poitiers, out of Chenonceau. Catherine took over the place, made extensive additions, threw spectacular parties, and relished her time there. Who wouldn’t?

Chaumont

Chaumont

As a consolation prize, Catherine grudgingly gave Diane another chateau, Chaumont. It’s a very nice place–I’d cheerfully live there. But it’s high above a river, not draped like an exquisite necklace right across a river. Diane had plenty of other properties, too.  She lived in comfort for the rest of her life. But she must have missed her glory days at Chenonceau.

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

If I Had to Choose a French Chateau: Chenonceau

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Rumbling up the drive in a carriage, here is what the long-ago aristocratic visitor would have seen.  I suppose a line of nicely-turned-out servants would have stood at the ready, to haul in trunks. From this angle, Chenonceau  looks like a hundred other chateaux all across France.

IMG_3907

But wait, there’s more! Chenonceau is the only chateau I know of that was actually built spanning an entire river. It stops just a short hop from the opposite bank. (During World War II, the River Cher was the border between Nazi-occupied and Vichy France. Prisoner exchanges and who knows what else took place here).  Back in 1514-1522 when the present chateau was built, I don’t know why everyone else didn’t run out and build one like it. I guess not everyone owned access to a river, or had the means to accomplish this feat of engineering.

The visitor enters Chenonceau the same way royalty did in days long gone: through a supremely French-looking courtyard and facade. As always, I find the details of Chenonceau every bit as enchanting as the overall dreamy effect of this pleasure palace built over a serene river.

ChenonceauManDoor

The grand entry door has a person-sized smaller door within it, for visitors who don’t need to make a grand entrance. I didn’t have a sweeping ball gown, so the small door worked for me.

ChenonceauStudy

Fresh flowers from the gardens outside decorate all the rooms.  This was a study, overlooking the gently flowing river.  I’m not sure I’d get much work done here.

ChenonceauCeiling

This stairway was reportedly one of the first that was not a cramped spiral.  Guests must have enjoyed sweeping grandly up and down this staircase.

ChenonceauGarden2

The entire chateau is wonderfully light and airy.  And outside, gardens await, just as they did when Diane de Poitiers reigned here.

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Chenonceau’s most illustrious occupant was Diane de Poitiers, a beautiful and cultured noblewoman who was the longtime mistress of King Henri II of France.  In the portrait above, she is pictured as Diana, goddess of the hunt.

 

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