In mid-December, we spent a week in the Loire valley touring just a few of the scads of chateaus littering the region. We made stops at Blois, Chambord, Ambois, Chaumont and the granddaddy of them all, Chenonceau. Despite the primarily gloomy, misty, moisty weather, this is one of my favorite trips that we've taken. I am a huge sucker for castles, even after so many years of living amongst them, and these chateaus are basically the Platonic ideal of the castle.
Our home away from home for the week was the beautiful, and historic, Chateau de la Noue, built in the 1600s and passed down through the same family for the last 200 years. We stayed in the two story wing of the chateau off to the left by the cars in the photo above, and the rest of the chateau is used for events and single room rentals. But the week we were there, we had it to ourselves. It made for an excellent base in the midst of the chateaus, and we enjoyed our evenings spent by the roaring fire, even attempting to roast chestnuts one afternoon!
Our first stop was at the Chateau de Blois, constructed in four very distinct segments over the course of five centuries, from the 1200s to the 1600s. It consists of over 564 rooms, and in case that doesn't seem ridiculous enough, out of those 564 rooms, only 23 were used on a regular basis. Its big moment in history came in 1429 when a little French girl named Jean d'Arc came riding through on a mission from God and was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims. It was also one of the many residences of the French kings and the infamous Catherine de Medici--she got around, more on her later. My favorite part of the chateau was this beautiful exterior round staircase dating from the Renaissance.
We had lunch in the center of Blois, as the chateau is situated conveniently in the center of town, then headed over to the spiky Chateau de Chambord. This chateau had my favorite exterior by far, and though the interior was overwhelmingly massive in scale, it didn't contain much in the way of furniture or decor. Chambord is the largest of the Loire valley chateaus, with a fireplace for every day of the year--and we were grateful that a couple of them were lit on the day we visited! Construction was begun in 1519 by Francis I, who seemed to spend most of his reign bebopping around France starting construction on chateaus that he would live in for a hot minute before moving on to the next one. We were lucky enough to get a little splash of sunshine and a striking sunset just as we were exiting the chateau.
The next way we made our way to the Chateau d'Amboise, which is situated at the widest spot of the Loire river. It was not built as a royal residence, but was confiscated by the monarchy in the 15th century. Then in a satisfying display of karma, King Charles died when he ran into a door lintel jerky, entitled royal head first. Much of the chateau was destroyed after it fell into disuse in the 16th century, but not before Leonardo da Vinci came for a visit and was subsequently buried in the chapel on the grounds. This was also the chateau where Henry II and Catherine Medici raised their children, along with a certain ward you may have heard of--one Mary Queen of Scots.
We had lunch in Amboise and visited a delicious chocolate shop, Bigot (they would have trouble franchising in America with that name...), then moved on to our next stop, Chateau Chaumont. The most fortress-like of all the chateaus we visited, Chaumont is where Catherine de Medici banished Henry's most favored and powerful mistress, Diane de Poitiers, upon his death so that Catherine could move into the luxurious Chateau de Chenonceau. It was hard to feel toooooo bad for Diane upon seeing how charming the grounds were and how comfortable the interior was. Diane was something of a self-styled interior decorator and landscaper, so she made the best of her situation and turned Chaumont from a 10th century fortress into a palace fit for an adulterer.
The most unique aspect of Chaumont is the unfinished attics, which have been renovated just to the point of making them safe, and then opened for visitors to see the bones of the house, the numerous storage rooms housing various artifacts, pieces of furniture, and art from the property that don't fit into the current downstairs displays. It is also a gallery for modern artists who come from around the world to work and display their art. My favorite artist on display was Gabriel Orozco, who took inspiration from the many layers of peeling wallpaper in the attic to paint the moody floral and patterned canvases above. Displayed in the half-light of the attic at dusk, the paintings took on a spectacularly haunting, evocative affect.
Finally... the most famous chateau of all the Loire valley chateaus. Seen on placemats, mousepads, and coffee cups around the world--Chateau de Chenonceau. Strikingly built to bridge the Cher River, Chenonceau has its humble roots in an 11th century mill. In the early 1500s, the current chateau was begun, and when Diane de Poitiers was gifted with it in 1547, she added the arched bridge across the river. Not to be outdone, HBIC, Catherine de Medici, extended the gallery of the chateau across the bridge and in 1559 shot the first fireworks there to celebrate her son, Francis II's, ascension to the throne. Chenonceau's exterior is graceful and majestic as it sweeps across the water, but what really blew me away was the interior which was gorgeously furnished and stunningly decorated for Christmas. I was glad we saved this one for last, as I'm not sure how any other experience could have quite measured up.
While in the Loire valley we also took a day to go ancestor hunting and went into Paris for a Christmas market and a macaron class, but I'll save that for a separate post.