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Published: April 12th 2018
Under cloudy skies and intermittent rainfall, today we enjoyed a full-day, semi-guided tour of three famous châteaux in the Loire Valley. We met our driver/guide, a very pleasant and knowledgeable young French lady, and a retired couple from, Vancouver Canada, in front of the tourism office at 9:00AM. In a matter of 20 minutes or less, we'd reached our first destination, the Château de Villandry.
The Loire Valley, often referred to as the "Garden of France”, is studded with over a thousand châteaux, each with distinct architectural embellishments, from the early medieval to the late Renaissance periods. The châteaux were originally created as feudal strongholds, over the course of centuries past, during the power struggle between southern and northern France. Initially built for defensive purposes during the upheavals of the Middle Ages, the Loire châteaux gradually abandoned their rugged ramparts and drawbridges in favor of a style inspired by the Italian Renaissance. It was at this time that the tradition of gardens, considered as ‘outdoor salons’, came into being in the Loire Valley.
The French Renaissance, under heavy Italian influence, lasted from the 15th- through the 16th-centuries. The Kings of France, beginning with François I, were determined to make
France an important world power, and it was during this period that the royal court and nobility established themselves in the Loire Valley. The Loire River, which flows over 600 miles, from east-to-west, through lush, scenic countryside, was of strategic geographical and economic importance. Thus, it inspired royal ambitions to build a succession of estates that became the sumptuous palaces we see today.
During the French Revolution, a number of the great châteaux were destroyed and many ransacked, their treasures confiscated. The sudden impoverishment of many of the deposed nobility, usually after one of its members lost his or her head to the guillotine, saw many châteaux demolished. During World War I and World War II, some châteaux were commandeered as military headquarters.
Today, many privately owned châteaux serve as homes, a few open their doors to tourist visits, while others are operated as hotels or B&Bs. Some have been taken over by a local government authority. Others, like the giant properties at Chambord, which we visited today, are owned and operated by the national government as major tourist sites.
Despite the rainy conditions today, the routes we drove to reach Villandry, and our other destinations, were
very scenic. Many rapeseed fields were awash in bright yellow, set against lush, green fields in the background; and the quaint, rural villages through which we passed still showed traces of their medieval past. The landscapes in the Loire Valley are so striking, it would be nice to spend a week or two with a rental car, driving from village to village, and stopping overnight when the spirit moved one to do so! But I digress.....
Villandry is the last of the great châteaux of the Loire built during the Renaissance. The elegance of its architecture, combined with the charm of its outstanding gardens, make it one of the jewels of the Loire Valley. Located just 10 miles to the west of Tours, Château de Villandry
is a Renaissance estate and castle best known for its beautiful formal gardens. At this time of year, the gardens are by no means in their full glory, but we were impressed nonetheless.
This particular château was taken over at the beginning of the 20th-century by the Carvallo family, who saved it from being demolished, and who also contributed a significant collection of Spanish paintings. Today, the great-grandson of the first owner
carries on the tradition, and the château continues to be privately owned and managed. It also has the distinction of being the residence of neither a king nor a courtesan, but of Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I, who put to good use his interests in architecture and the art of gardening.
We toured the interior of the château for about an hour, admiring the furnishings, paintings and carefully restored rooms and salons. Many of the areas open for public viewing had beautiful flower arrangements on display, while the view from the the tower keep affords a bird's-eye view of the gardens, as well as a magnificent panorama of the surrounding countryside.
From Villandry, we drove 30 miles east to reach our next destination, the Château de Chenonceau
, a Renaissance masterpiece. The current château was built in 1514–1522 on the foundations of an old mill and was later extended to span the Cher river.
Designed and owned by women only, Chenonceau is also known as the "Château des Dames - Ladies' Château". Its architecture makes it a superb example of the French Renaissance architectural style. Two of the more notable “Ladies” who resided in
the château over the years were Diane de Potiers, mistress to François I's son, Henri II; and Henri II's widow, Catherine de' Medici, who spitefully evicted Potiers after her husband's untimely death.
Before entering the interior of the château, we decided to have lunch at a cafeteria-style restaurant on the property. The food turned out to be surprisingly good. In fact, the steak I ordered was the best cut of meat I've had on our entire trip; while Dee raved about the baked ham she ordered! Only in France could cafeteria food taste this good!
The interior decorations and furnishings are as elegant as the outside of the château, which is now in private hands. We began our tour in the so-called 'guard room', where a roaring fire in the 16th-century fireplace felt good on this chilly, wet day. The adjacent chapel’s stained glass windows are replacements for the originals destroyed during World War II.
We walked from room-to-room, on several floors, admiring the tapestries and other decorations in the various bedchambers and salons, where museum-quality paintings and sculpture are on display. The Grande Galeries—the 180-foot-long, two-story galleries that span the Cher river—are especially impressive, with many
masterpieces and objets d'art on display. These galleries were converted into a hospital during WWI, and then used as the symbolic boundary between Free France and Occupied France during WWII.
Despite running short on time, we did manage to see a section of the château's gardens (while clutching our umbrellas). Although not nearly as extensive as those at Château Villandry, for example, they certainly reflect and accentuate the elegance of this little jewel of a château.
It took us an hour to reach our final destination of the day, the Château de Chambord
, located 40 miles northeast of Chenonceau. This massive, 440-room château is surrounded by the largest enclosed forest in Europe. The château and surrounding areas, some 13,400 acres (or 21 sq. mi.), have belonged to the French state since 1930. It is the largest château in the Loire Valley, and was built to serve as a hunting lodge for François I (reigned from 1515-1547), who maintained his royal residences at the nearby châteaux de Blois and Amboise. To this day, hunting on the grounds is permitted at certain times of the year.
Châteaux in the 16th-century departed from earlier castle architecture. While they were off-shoots
of castles, with some similar features, they did not have serious defenses. Extensive gardens and water features (such as a moat) were common, and Chambord is no exception to this pattern. The layout is reminiscent of a typical castle with a keep, corner towers, and defended by a moat. Begun in 1519, but never fully completed, it was modeled after an Italian church of the Renaissance period.
By this time of the day, Dee and I (as well as the other couple on the tour with us) were running out of steam. Our guide estimated that typical participants on this tour walk 3 to 5 miles, including the long treks just to reach the entrances to the various châteaux. So we had little energy to explore the many rooms open for viewing. In addition, we all commented on how poor the lighting conditions were in some sections of the châteaux (many rooms were dark and dingy).
Still, many of the furnished apartments from the 16th-to-18th-centuries were interesting, and the celebrated double-helix staircase was worth the price of admission. On the second floor, the sculpted ceiling vaults bearing the initial and salamander-emblem of François I were magnificent. Unfortunately, since
time and energy were running short, we did not climb the stairs to reach the rooftop terrace, which affords commanding views of the prickly spires and turrets of the château and its surrounding grounds.
It was almost 4PM when we departed Chambord, and began the 45-mile-drive back to Tours. Our guide drove on both sides of the Loire river, pointing out different towns and other châteaux along the way. As we passed Amboise, on the south bank of the river, we could see the Château d'Amboise, another of François I's haunts, where he hosted the elderly Leonardo da Vinci (and his Mona Lisa
) for the last few years of his life. We hope to pay a visit to Amboise before we leave Tours.
We returned to the tourist office in Tours at 6:45PM, where we caught our bus back to the villa. It was a very long day, but a very interesting and entertaining one. In hindsight, we concluded that visiting three châteaux was too much for one day (two sites would have been more manageable).
Dee's comments: Up early at 5AM for our châteaux tour; caught our bus to the tourist office with plenty of time
to spare. Our tour guide, a lovely woman who spoke four languages, was a great help in explaining the history of the châteaux and the Loire Valley. There was also a couple from Vancouver on board our 6-passenger minibus.
The stories of the king and all of his mistresses is not so different than today; seems that none of them were satisfied with just one lady! I think I would have had a problem being a queen or mistress. First, I couldn't stand the formal clothes and the hours spent dressing each day. Second, I could not put up with a philandering king! But then what has changed since the 16th-century? Third, how could I tolerate taking baths in a tub (probably with cold or lukewarm water), and attendants' hands pawing all over my body. I would go nuts! And let's not forget peeing in a pot (God knows where it went?).
LOL, after visiting three châteaux and learning a bit of their history, I was kind of done with castles for one day! It was great to get home, and have a couple stiff drinks!
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