For me, the most romantic image of a castle had always been that of Chenonceau with its gallery/bridge spanning across the Cher river. Surely, it was not as fanciful as the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, nor as grandiose as Versailles and nor as meticulous as Vaux Le Vicomte but its singular broadswept gesture across the river put it on top of my list. It was that arched bridge structure that prompted my urge to visit the Loire Valley and its castles. The other castles didn’t disappoint but broadened my appreciation of castle art. Each of the castles I visited had something unique to impart on my novice eyes. I wished I had seen more castles so I could make more comprehensive notes but alas, I only had three and a half days for visits. I knew I missed out on many other castles but a vacation cut short was invitation for a return. A feast would only be better enjoyed if there was room for more. I certainly had room for more of the Loire Valley …
I was so anxious to see Chenonceau that it was the first one we went to as soon as we set foot in the Loire Valley. As well photographed and documented as it was, it had a few surprises in its offerings.
The most popular view of the chateau seemed to be the west approach with its bridge on the right side of the castle. I discovered that there was an inlet for boat landings, a little quay so to speak, to the left of the main building. It was nested between the main walk to the main entrance and Catherine de Medici’s garden. Its meandering wall served to lessen the formality of a castle and made it even more endearing by its form following function rather than a need for grand symmetry.
The view from the east was no less beautiful but what was missing from photographs was the Diane de Poitiers garden.
The bridge itself showed a clever trick to make it seem even longer and more gracious. It had two main stories between the steep roof with dormer windows and the closed spandrel arched bridge with its cutwater piers. The main floor gallery received less ornaments than the Medici Gallery (second floor) enclosure complete with identical arched pediments over each well cased window accentuated by even more molding patterns between the windows. The result were emphasized horizontal bands of seemingly different treatments for each floor which stretched the building longer. This was probably due to the fact that Catherine de Medici had the gallery built over Diane de Poitiers’ bridge. The Italian Renaissance building generally had more horizontal emphasis while French Castles dwelled on verticality by the alignnent of windows.
One couldn’t disclaim the Cher itself being very much part of the attraction. Its languidness flanked by a dense forest invited further exploration. The bridge reflection on the water made the piers seem longer and elegant while the cutwater sharp angles lessened the piers’ girth.
The view of the exterior was breathtaking from all angles whether from far away or from inside looking out.
The interior was just as tastefully furnished and detailed. The two galleries were spectacular in their pristine white walls, checker board floors and the repetitiveness in their arched window openings. The stone carvings were abundant and deliberate in the stair wells, the ceilings, and the fireplaces. The most remarkable room was the Louise de Lorraine bedroom where the walls were painted black with white designs of symbols of mourning. How befitting that a castle began its illustrious career as a gift from a king to his beloved mistress and ended with the last queen to reside at the castle mourning the love of her life, King Henry III and painted her bedroom walls black with symbols of mourning, tears, feathers, bones and gravediggers’ tool. Diane de Poitiers might have had her signature black dresses but Louise de Lorraine gave us more a lasting impression with her black room.
Once we had our fill of Chenonceau, we visited Francois I’s main home at Amboise. Here was the King who had catapulted the Renaissance era castle business in the Loire Valley. Amboise first fell into royal hands in 1434 and quickly became many kings’ favorite homes. The castle had more High Gothic styling than most castles and received some of the earliest Renaissance motifs in French architecture.
The chateau was built against a tall embankment. One could look down and see the town of Amboise with its uniform slate roofs.
I was most intrigued by the stone carvings inside and outside the building. The figureheads in the gargoyles, column capitals and various corbels were quite expressive with a slight humorous naivete’.
The garden that we saw was not the original lattice enclosed garden but the twentieth century parterre and bosquet was quite intriguing in its modern minimalism.
Francois I who was raised there had brought the castle to its pinnacle. He brought Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise, built an underground tunnel to Da Vinci’s home to visit him on a daily basis and enjoyed bringing French Renaissance to its peak. The chapel Saint Hubert where Leonardo Da Vinci was buried was a beautiful gem of carved stones and arches.
The town of Amboise was a very lively town with its shop at the foot of the castle. The Sunday market brought all types of food stalls to town. We found fresh mushrooms, piping hot paellas, artisan breads, succulent charcuterie, all manners of goat cheeses and the Pave Royal (nougat cake from Tours).
Clos de Luce’
Clos de Luce’, Leonardo Da Vinci’s last home was nearby and proved to be a worthwhile visit. The castle had a great exhibit of models of the Renaissance man’s engineering designs, his garden and a park showing larger scale models.
Cheverny, known for its interior, was quite enjoyable. While the other castles were royal castles complete with stately throne rooms and bedrooms, Cheverny was a castle for an aristocrat family who might have lead a more “normal” life without too much pageantry. Even Herge’ thought that Captain Haddock could have lived in such a residence. Herge’ removed the two outer wings and renamed it Chateau de Moulinsart. Alas, I didn’t find any treasures in any cellar when I toured Cheverny though I made a point to re read Les Bijoux de la Castafiore to see if any of the illustrated interiors and castle grounds would look familiar.
I liked that there were a kitchen conveniently located next to a family dining nook, a very usable living room, a decently sized but not too large formal dining room, children’s room, and bedrooms with adjacent baths. The castle was completely livable as a very large mansion.
The grounds had a modern garden, a stable, the hound house for 70 hounds, and a very nice vegetable garden.
Chambord, with its beautiful rooftops and spires and famous double helix stairs, was breathtaking as a unique blend of medieval castle forms and Renaissance details. I was quite drawn to the funnel shaped roofs, the multitude of dormers and circular building shapes interspersed between rectangular wings.
The climb to the rooftop was worth it for it gave me so many vantage points to see the play between the roof forms, the dormer details and the intricacies in the stone carving.
The interior of the castle, besides the famous stairs credited to Leonardo Da Vinci, boasted an extensive series of exhibit showing the history of the French Bourbon kings down to Henri, Comte de Chambord, the last Bourbon claimant of the French Crown.
Though known for its beautiful gardens, Villandry castle itself was a marvel. The courtyard plan was spared from monotony in symmetry when the wings are not quite equal, the windows alignment didn’t really center on the facade, the angles were not quite 90 degrees and the widened moat on the left side gave quite a reflection.
One of the loveliest dining room graced the castle in its entirely pink color. The rustic kitchen could easily be inserted in a home in the Bay Area, The staircase was simple but beautifully detailed in its limestone and wrought iron handrail. A Moorish ceiling was imported from Spain to decorate the Oriental drawing room.
No wonder the gardens were a Unesco Heritage Site. The knot garden had four patterns for the many aspects of love.
The vegetable garden was a clever display of edibles among cutting flowers.
The water garden was unassuming but generous and serene in its layout. The fountain that connected the water garden to the moat was in the form of stairs under a bridge producing a lovely the cascading effect.
There were many castles I would have liked to have seen. Blois and Chateau d’ Usse’ came to mind. I saw Azay le Rideau but it was covered with scaffolding so I didn’t list it in this post. The one thing that stood out was that when I was at the castles and looked out on their surrounding, there were not a modern building in sight. The view from the castles were practically the same view the castle owners had. If there was a view ordinance in effect, the effort was worth it. I couldn’t imagine seeing anything modern that would destroy the magic of the Loire Valley. When I was on top of those castles, I could see forever just as it should be – happily forever after.
I came home not a wearied traveler and was already thinking of another trip. When we travel, separated from all comforts of a home, having to navigate a foreign language, and to plan a bit more carefully where to take our meals, we face a strange mixture of uncertainty and spontaneity. In that wonderful state of being, we are rendered more aware of the people, the surrounding environment and the culture of the place we visit. We stop taking things for granted, we ask more questions, we question lots of answers and we re-engineer our way of living. We should do the same when we return home and resume our daily routine. After all, isn’t life also a journey for which we have to plan the itinerary?