The Valley of the river Loire with her tributaries, the Cher, Vienne, Indre, Maine, and so forth is known as the Garden of France. And within this lush garden, we find castles, hundreds of them, ranging in historical importance and beauty from quaint and charming to astoundingly impressive. The proximity of these estates to the political power centers not only in Paris, but also Poitiers, Angers, Tours, Blois, and Reims often turned them into either royal retreats or royal showplaces. They also became bargaining chips in the neverending competition for the Crown of France between the Houses of Valois and Bourbon and its cadet branches, as well as the Catholic House of Guise versus the Protestant House of Navarre, not to forget the ever meddlesome Princes of Condé.
Together with our American cousins – doesn’t that sound deliciously apropos? – we spent ten days in the Loire Valley, splitting our time between two “headquarters” from where we undertook excursions to châteaux and wineries soaking in as much of the local flavor as possible.
Our first base of operations was the private Château la Chauverie in Saint-George-sur-Cher which is operated as a gîte or self-catering holiday home.
On our first morning, the bright sunshine induced an early start for me with a run to the bakery for croissants and such. Since everybody seemed to be sleeping in, I enjoyed a solitary breakfast in the frontcourt, interspersed with a photo safari of the gorgeous roses and other greenery around our peti’ château.
For our first full day in the Loire valley, we had chosen to visit le Château des Dames, possibly better known as Le Château de Chenonceau, located just across the river Cher from our village. To make our initiation into the world of Loire valley castles even more festive, we had booked lunch at the castle restaurant called L’Orangerie.
From the carpark, a leisurely walk through la Grande Allée d’Honneur, a glowingly green boulevard of towering plane trees afforded a serene approach toward the castle and its formal gardens despite the already gathered crowds.
Sniffing out the general layout, we got our bearings before walking to L’Orangerie for our lunch.
A protracted lunch is the perfect occasion to discuss the history of the Château de Chenonceau, wouldn’t you say? With around 800K+ visitors per year, second only to Versailles, Chenonceau is clearly the pearl among the Loire Valley castles. Yet, it had quite humble beginnings as castles go. There was an older fortification of which only the donjon remains, the rest was torched. A newer castle was built, sold, demolished, then the current edifice was built, and ultimately handed over to the Crown in payment for family debts. By now, we’ve moved into the 16th century and the king who took possession of Chenonceau was our old friend from Cognac, François 1er, the tall and lanky champion of all things Renaissance. As it happened, after some fairly ineffective warfare in Italy, François was ready for peace. He plotted with Pope Clement VII, whose birth name coincidentally was Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, to marry his second son, Henri Duc d’Orléans to the Pope’s orphaned niece Caterina de’ Medici, or as the French call her, Catherine de Médicis. François was happy since the girl’s enormous dowry would transfer quite a few assorted Italian fiefs to the French Crown and the pope, naturally, was delirious about his clever new alliance against the ever more powerful Holy Roman Emperor. Henri wasn’t thrilled and nobody thought to ask Catherine’s opinion. Both kids were 14 years old when they were married, the perfect Romeo-and-Giulietta age, but unfortunately for Cathrine, her young husband was the Emmanuel Macron of his era, as Henri was utterly besotted with an older woman, the sophisticated and savvy 35-year-old widow Diane de Poitiers, thus he had no eyes for his baby-faced childbride. To rub salt in the wound, Henri gifted his lover Diane with the Château de Chenonceau, the beautiful little castle Catherine would have dearly loved for herself. Oy vey!
Let’s have a closer look at Diane’s Lustschlösschen, then. From the Orangerie, we walked through the Green Garden, a lush park, to the Jardin de la Reine, Catherine de Médicis’ garden overlooking the western aspect of the castle.
This Spring, Catherine’s Garden was planted in a striking black and white color scheme, which puzzled me a little. Black and white were Diane de Poitier’s colors – why plant the Queen’s Garden in the traditional colors of her rival?
From Catherine’s Garden, one has a great view of the castle as it spans the width of the river Cher.
Although, this is not the way the castle appeared when Diane de Poitiers received Chenonceau as a gift. Back then it was a squarish hunting lodge with loads of ornamental doodads. It would have looked more like this.
Diane was an avid huntress and had the bridge constructed to have convenient access to the woods on the other bank. Queen Catherine, who evicted the usurper of her husband’s affection from Chenonceau before his corpse was cold, enlarged Diane’s bridge into the gorgeous Renaissance galleries we find today.
A look back over Catherine’s Garden from the castle entrance with the Green Garden in the background. Near the entrance to the castle is also La Tour des Marques, the donjon with its ancient vines, which is all that remained of the 13th-century castle of the Marques family who originally owned the Chenonceau estate.
Toward the East is the vast expanse of Diane’s Garden, overlooked by the steeply roofed Chancery which used to be the home of Catherine’s steward here in Chenonceau.
As we finally entered the castle, its doors held a distinct fascination for me. They tell the story of Thomas Bohier and his wife Katherine Briçonnet who bought the property from the Marques family, then tore down the existing castle and built the current Château de Chenonceau from scratch between 1513 and 1521 while living in the donjon next door. As one can see written on the doors and in numerous other places across the château’s decor, the Bohier-Briçonnet motto was one of endurance and hope:
S’il vient à point, me souviendra or When this is finished, I shall be remembered
And so they were!
The flower arrangements throughout the castle did not disappoint! Chenonceau has its own horticultural department with vegetable and flower gardens of more than a hectare in size. There is also a floral workshop where two florists create the cut flower displays for the visitors to enjoy. During our visit, just one day short of the 1st of May, sweet-smelling muguets predominated most arrangements. Lilies of the valley have become the traditional Mayday flowers in France, ever since King Charles IX presented them to all the ladies of his court in 1561. Today, street vendors are even allowed to sell small bouquets of muguets tax-free on May 1st, just to make sure everyone has a little bit of good luck.
Another remarkable feature in the Château de Chenonceau is evidenced in its monumental fireplace mantles.
Above is a transitional piece, it may either show off the flower arrangement or the Valois mantle carving. Take your pick! Come to think of it, the same could be said about the next fireplace, the slightly more elegant but still war-like “counter mantle” of Catherine de Médicis on the other end of the gallery.
How exquisitely ironic that someone mounted the 19th-century portrait of the widowed Queen Catherine in this pride-of-place in Diane’s bedchamber. Wicked!
Other fireplaces in the castle were more delicately and intricately carved compared to Goujon’s masterpiece. I especially liked the Renaissance cheminée in King François 1er and Queen Claude’s memory which included not only the king’s Salamander and the queen’s Hermine but the Bohier-Briçonnet moto as well.
In King Louis XIV’s drawing room, the delicate Renaissance craftsmanship is overpowered by sheer royal grandeur. The salon is dedicated to a one-time visit to Chenonceau by the Sun King himself on July 14, 1650. It is, to say the least, quite splendid.
The date on the fireback stirred my curiosity and it turned out to have been quite an important year for the monarch. 1683 was the year in which his wife, the Queen Consort Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche died and the king entered into a morganatic marriage with his longtime companion, Françoise d’Aubigné, whom he had elevated to Marquise de Maintenon while she was the Royal Governess of his seven (7) children by his most celebrated maîtresse-en-titre, his official mistress, Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Montemart, Marquise de Montespan. The lives of absolute monarchs can become quite Byzantine at times. Louis XIV had more than a dozen children by his mistresses, most of them living into adulthood to become the ancestors of any number of current royal dynasties. On the other hand, only one of the six legitimate children of Louis and Marie-Thérèse survived infancy. The royal couple were double first-cousins, as was the generation before them. Such a union might create a strong dynastic bond, but the genetic consequences are dire.
Since this fireplace is in the Grand Gallery, let’s have a closer look at Queen-mother Catherine’s masterpiece.
And speaking of kitchens, let’s go and find them. Very cleverly, Katherine Briçonnet who directed and supervised most of the construction of Chenonceau while her Thomas was fighting foreign wars for his king, put the entire domestic operations into the massive, pre-existing foundation pylons of the ancient watermill in this very location. Not only was there plenty of space, but supplies could be brought in on barges directly from the river. Some called the small kitchen pier “Diane’s Bath” because she was rumored to take nude swims in the river from there. Well, she was an excellent athlete, give her a break!
Aside from the kitchens, we’ve seen some impressive fireplaces and a lot of greenery. Now, I would like to invite you to crane your necks, look up and ogle the ceilings, well, and some wall coverings, too. Wall coverings first, then.
The castle walls are covered with tapestries of astounding quality and superior condition. I’m not hugely enamored with tapestries but have to admit there are some pretty nice weaving hanging on those walls.
This stunning coffered oak ceiling from 1525 was one of the first known examples of such an Italian-styled ceiling finish in France. The initials of Katherine Briçonnet & Thomas Bohier demonstrate quite clearly who paid the artisans!
Amongst all the eye-catching splendor of this Renaissance gem, you can still find a few quiet corners to rest that eye.
It was time for us to leave Le Château de Chenonceau and enjoy the evening in our own gallery at La Chauverie just across the river Cher.
P.S. A curiosity I saw in a display case, a “rustic” platter of Palissy Ware. The autodidact potter and naturalist Bernard Palissy was a son of the Saintonge and he is especially well known around Saintes where we used to live. Small world!
Le Château de Chenonceau This is a link to the French Wikipédia page for the castle of Chenonceau, therefore it is, admittedly, in French. I linked it anyway because it is a highly detailed resource, vastly superior to any English-language page I’ve seen and one can easily use google for a little help in translating.
Chenonceau is called the ladies’ castle largely in reference to Katherine Briçonnet [1494-1526], Diane de Poitiers [1499-1566], Catherine de Médicis [1519-1589], Louise de Lorraine [1553-1601], Louise Dupin [1706-1799], Marguerite Pelouze [1836-1902], and Simonne Menier [1881-1972].