Carol writes: As I was writing the last blog on our first chateau visit at Chenonceau, Al was grinning a little too much (at my expense) when he heard me say that I was having trouble limiting the number of chateau pictures for my blog. We got wild and crazy and took about a hundred pictures at each of the four chateaux we visited, so you can see my dilemma…I will try to be a little more reasonable in this second chateau post.
Some might think that one French chateau looks much like another, but we found that each one seemed to have its own character, and certainly its own history and setting, so the fascination did not lag.
CHAMBORD: What set off Château de Chambord was its immense size and its setting in Europe’s largest enclosed forest park. Historically, Chambord was built to be used as a hunting lodge and a winter palace for young King Francis I, necessitating hundreds of fireplaces for its autumn contingent of hunters. It boasted over 400 rooms—80 of them open to the public. Chambord was designed symmetrically in the shape of a Greek cross (a cross with arms of equal length) and was laid out with four wings of rooms with a tower at the end of each arm of the cross around the central keep. As we viewed Chambord from the central lane, we couldn’t believe its size or that it was real—it resembled a fake Disney façade!
From an architectural standpoint, one of Chambord’s most fanciful features was the double-helix stone staircase just inside the front door. Visitors going up could see those coming down, but they would never meet! The ingeniousness of this design suggests that Leonardo da Vinci, who had come to France at the request of Francis I in 1516, shortly before construction was begun on Chambord, may have had a hand in designing the staircase.
Most of the rooms were not furnished and instead had museum-like exhibits, labeled mostly in French but with enough English tidbits thrown in. Some of the most interesting displays were the knife that was used to kill King Henry IV,
a giant clock and its equally massive gears that kept time at the chateau for over 300 years,
a stunning collection of refurbished royal coaches,
and the wonderfully cleaned and preserved second floor vaulted ceiling that was designed with repetitions of the salamander, the personal emblem of Francis I, and the letter ‘F’ (monogram for Francis).
One of the neatest parts of the chateau was the rooftop viewing terrace which had a nice close-up view of the high, intricately carved exterior Gothic stonework.
Often there is a neat wartime story connected with the largest and most famous French chateaux, and Chambord was no exception. During WW II, its spacious chapel was used temporarily to store some of the priceless art collections of the Louve and the Château de Versailles. The “Mona Lisa” was stored at Chambord to keep it safe in the event Paris was bombed by the Germans.
CHAUMONT-SUR-LOIRE: A castle has been located on the site of Chaumont-sur-Loire since the 11th century, and the chateau you see today was built in the 15th and 16th centuries. It has been restored and furnished in 19th century style which, nevertheless, was very pleasing to the eye.
I found the 19th century dining room and the library especially lovely and welcoming,
But it was the living room at the end of the tour which caused us to stop and spend extra time imagining after-dinner conversations and relaxation in this cozy salon.
The stables, horse kitchen, and tack room were magnificently built in 1880s style.
VILLANDRY: Without a doubt, the best chateau gardens in the Loire valley are found at Villandry. The chateau itself
actually takes second seat to its incredible well-manicured gardens. There was a 10-acre Italian Renaissance love garden impeccably maintained with symbolic hedge designs that denoted the various kinds of love.
The kitchen garden was filled with edible vegetables with little “rosebush trees” as a unifying theme.
Al particularly liked the herb garden with its lavender in full bloom.
My favorite was the sun garden, the most recent garden and the one with some species of perennials that were surprisingly familiar to me.
With each chateau we visited, more than once Al and I said to each other, “No wonder there was a French revolution.” The over-the-top palaces and extravagant lifestyle of French royalty had certainly gone into the stratosphere. As we left the Loire valley and headed north to Brittany and Normandy, we felt satisfied we had seen some of the best of the French chateau scene.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller