Today Boris and I are going to tour two of the loveliest castles in the Loire Valley, near Paris. We will also have the opportunity for lunch and a wine tasting at one of the smaller chateaus. We had planned a river cruise through this region for October, but schedules and finances do not permit it, so we are taking this tour based out of Paris.
Yesterday, we left behind Italy and our lovely villa, malapino’s tower in Concamarise. After a return drive to Venice, returning the rental car, and a flight to Paris, we checked into our Parisian hotel in the Marais 123 Sebastapol on the Avenue of the same name. The theme is French movies and the check-in desk looks like a movie house concession stand. The theme is followed throughout the hotel. Each floor has its own movie-related concept. The theme for our room is music from the movies with a desk that looks like a small piano and nightstands made from snare drums. It is all very clever.
Our tour leaves at 7:30 am and we have a 7:15 check-in south of the Seine, so we thought we would miss the 7 am breakfast at the hotel, but things were out early. What a spread with hot and cold foods and multiple beverage options. The room set up as a bar last night now is in full breakfast mode.
Our hotel is just one and half blocks from the metro stop on the same line as the tour pickup location just outside the catacombs. After breakfast, we figured out the tickets and waited for the metro, but we had spent a little too much time at breakfast. Our exit point may have been on the same line, but was 9 stops away and it just took more time than we anticipated to get there. No way we would make the 7:15 check-in; we were just hoping to be there by 7:30.
We bolted out of the metro station and saw our group just across the street. Boris took off to check us in; I actually waited for the walk signal. I was about 7:25 or a little later. Only after we started to breathe again did we wonder why the bus wasn’t already there and loaded. It ended up we had quite a while to wait. The original bus and driver were no shows and they had to call someone in from their day off. We didn’t leave until 9 am, a hour and a half late. We were not a happy crowd.
(Just a tip for your future Paris touring…I can tell you, since we were there to see it develop, that people line up very early to see the catacombs.) Of course the delay was not our guides’ fault and they did their best to get us refocused on the special activities of the day. They gave us their own background-both young. One was an American student who had followed her French boyfriend to Paris and was getting her master’s degree (Kate) and the other had lived in many European cities and worked as a tour guide (Dan). Dan had grown up in Ireland with an Irish mother and an American father and had both accents in his speech.
The ride out included beautiful views of the French countryside. We made a convenience stop and checked out all the interesting snack options available. We won’t have lunch until early afternoon, perhaps made even later by our delayed departure, so Boris and I got a few things. The Loire valley is a prime growing region for many different types of produce, including those wonderful grapes used in wine making.
The French king Francois I did not have a permanent home for his court when he left Paris. His preferred destination was the Loire Valley, Val de Loire, with more than 100 chateaux. He would take his entire entourage and all his furnishings-clothing, furniture, rugs, dishes, etc. you get the idea-as he moved from place to place. Sometimes he imposed on the owners hospitality, sometimes he found a way to bring a particular location into the holdings of the crown. Francois I also dreamed of erecting his own new palaces to perpetuate the glory of his reign. From 1515-1575, the last five Valois kings lived in this fashion.
Our first destination was Chambord. (Yes, that wonderful raspberry liquor that is such a fabulous addition to champagne, is named for this castle. It is made nearby, but not at this estate.) The castle sits on the site of the hunting lodge of the Counts of Blois. Francois annexed the well stocked hunting grounds, knocked down the residence there, and built this extraordinary structure our guides affectionately referred to as “the bachelor pad”.
Work began on Chambord in 1518 and was not complete until 1543. In total, Francois I spent only 17 days here. The main structure is designed to the identical plan of St. Peter’s in Rome. Chambord has 440 rooms, 365 chimneys, 800 cornices, and 15 staircases, far outshining in size and grandeur the other castles of the Loire. It was here at Chambord that Francois entertained his former enemy, Charles V of Spain.
It was an incredibly hot day. From the estate parking lot we made the 10-15 minute walk to the castle, colossal in size. Inside things were cooler. Our guides told us that many visitors are surprised that the castle is not furnished (except for a few rooms), but this is the way Francois would have left it after all this furnishings were packed up and moved to the next location.
Upon entering, the first thing you notice is the double winding staircase. Looking up, you see Francois’ mark is everywhere, the “F” in the ceiling and the salamander, his symbol. (In the folklore of the Renaissance, the salamander had an association with fire and was considered a source of protection during a time when many structures were lost to fire.) Francois was a enthusiastic supporter of the arts, including Leonardo di Vinci who brought the Mona Lisa to France where it was known as La Joconde. Many speculate that Leonardo da Vinci was the architect of Chambord.
Our guides gave us a tour of particular rooms of the castle and then time to wander around on our own. I found the chapel, Francois’ original apartments, a trophy hall, and fabulous circular staircases in my private touring. There was a guide dressed as a monk preforming a children’s play in French. Essentially he was guiding the families through parts of the castle with a presentation geared to entertaining the young. I met up with them in several rooms. The children were enjoying themselves immensely and I found myself wishing I spoke French so I could join in the fun.
Boris wasn’t up to some of the climbing I did, so we split up. I left no time for snacks (apparently there are some wonderful free cookie samples) or gift shops. Chambord is a photographer’s dream.
Back on the bus we quickly realized why this bus was originally not scheduled to be in service. The air was blowing only faintly and it was not cool. Strike two for this tour company.
Our next stop was a small chateaux on a wine-producing estate. Here we had a wonderful lunch with roasted chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, cheese, bread, salad, and warm apple tart. We got to try several of their wine varieties. I usually gravitate to the red (if there is no sparkling), but on this hot day the cool white was particularly refreshing. Most of the other bus patrons were American. We even sat next to two couples from Pearland, near Houston. Other countries represented included India, Brazil, and Scotland.
After lunch we moved on to the more fairytale-like castle of Chenonceau. On the grounds, we stopped first to see the donkeys who were all huddled in the shade structure out of the sun and then went on to the wine cellar. The company had instructed the guides to offer this second wine tasting to appease us for the late start. The wine was good and the cellar cool, but I think most of us were anxious to see the castle.
We passed by the formally laid gardens before crossing two bridges to enter the castle. I suspect these were both originally drawbridges. Of course there was a moat, but the castle sits right on the river Cher. In fact, the long, more narrow back section was added later and spans the river connecting the two sides of the Cher. There is a small draw bridge on that side of the Cher as well.
Viewing this extraordinary castle was made even more interesting by the stories of the major players who had lived here and how their lives were intertwined. Our guides filled us in during the tour and during our time of the bus. Construction of the property began in 1512 and Francois gave permission for a bridge to be built over the Cher. The chapel was consecrated in 1521. In 1533, the property came into the possession of the crown.
Francois I had been imprisoned in Spain and in exchange for his release, his two young sons were sent in exchange. When finally released, the boys came home much changed, no longer speaking French, but the crude Spanish of their jailers. The dauphin (the eldest son and heir presumptive) adjusted to the return, but the younger brother Henry struggled. A young widow of the court, Diane de Poitiers, took young Henry under her wing. As he grew older, Henry fell in love with Diane. Although she was 19 years his senior, Diane eventually became his mistress. Henry had also become the dauphin upon the death of his older brother.
In 1547, Francois I died, with his son Henry taking the crown. Henry’s wife was Catherine de Medicis of the wealthy Florentine banking family. But it was to his mistress Diane that Henry II gave Chenonceau. As government property, Chenonceau could not be given way, but Henry got around this by stating in the donation deed that the property was granted to the widow for the services of her late husband Louis de Breze. In addition to the Chenonceau, Henry gave Diane diamonds and crown pearls, and large sums of money. Catherine hated Diane, her husband’s mistress, and coveted Chenonceau.
It was Diane who established the lavish gardens and commissioned the (earlier approved) bridge linking the lavish home with the opposite bank of the Cher. To maintain her beauty Diane rose early and swam daily in the freezing cold water; she followed this with a horse ride. She then returned to bed and slept until noon. In addition to exercise (unusual for women of this time) she ate what we would consider today a very healthy diet including lots of fruit and vegetables (unlike most members of the court who ate mostly fat and starch). When she died at the age of 66, she was said to be “as beautiful as ever”.
In 1559, Henry II died as a result of a jousting accident, receiving a lance through his eye. Upon his death, Catherine took over as regent for her young son. From Diane, Catherine demanded the return of the crown jewels and the surrender of Chenonceau to the crown under the threat of armed forces. Diane was given Chaumont in exchange, but she preferred to retire to her castle at Anet where she later died.
It was Catherine who commissioned the two-floor gallery built over the arches of the bridge spanning the Cher. It was Queen Catherine who ruled on behalf of her sons Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. Before Catherine’s death, she entrusted Chenonceau to Louise of Vaudemont, her daughter-in-law as wife of her youngest son Henry III. Shortly thereafter, Henry was murdered.
Six months after her husband’s death, the pious widow Queen Catherine shut herself away at Chenonceau rarely leaving her room. Her chamber at the castle is painted in all black with silver tears adorning the ceiling and woodwork. There is little there except for her bed, kneeler for prayer, and a portrait of her beloved Henry. She was know to be generous to the poor and it have mourned in white. She is known today as The “White Lady of Chenonceau”.
Like the other chateau, our guides took us to particular rooms and pointed out the significant details before giving us time to walk around on our own. One of the most interesting details about the castle was the different flooring as you moved from room to room. At one time it was even more richly decorated than it appears today.
After Chenonceau, we made our way back to the hot bus. Our guides once again felt very bad for the heat we were experiencing. They too had a day that lasted a hour and a half longer than they had bargained for were experiencing the heat in the bus. At the comfort stop, they purchased everyone on the bus the drink of their choice. Sparking water, the big bottle, worked for me.
Arriving back in Paris, Boris and I chose to have dinner near the drop off point since it was already after 9 pm. The restaurant specialized in escargot, one of our favorites. I am used to having it served outside the shells so had to work with the pinchers in hold it steady to draw out the snail. Our guide had told us that they needed to offer some resistance or they were not Burgundy snails, but a cheaper variety that had been placed in the Burgundy shells. We got the real deal. After dinner we made our way back on the metro. It was hot and longer day than we anticipated, but enjoyed three good meals and three fabulous chateaux. Merci.