An English friend wanted to visit the castles of the Loire Valley. And I had not been for so long that I decided to drive her to three major places, very near each other, and an easy journey from Paris. You can even do it in one day if you like. So we started with Chambord, in grey weather and drizzling rain. We drove on to the nearby Cheverny which is concentrated on children and Tintin’s château de Moulinsart, and finished in splendor with Chenonceau, which has everything: 850 000 visitors for the beautiful site on the Cher river, the romance with Diane de Poitiers and Henri II, and ravishing flower arrangements done by three full time staff. What a treat.
The weather was awful but then the grounds were not crowded and wandering through the amazing castle bought by Diane de Poitiers (favorite of Henri II), enlarged by her rival Queen Catherine de Médicis and later embellished after 1913 by Henri Menier‘s family, was a complete moment of happiness. The great surprise was to find so many masterpieces by Veronese, Poussin, Van Dick, Ribera, Primaticcio… a huge portrait of Louis XIV th by Rigaud with an exceptional frame by Lepautre given by the King himself after his visit. The other bonus was to find in every single room, flower arrangements made by Jean Francois Boucher (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) and Aurélie Fachin who are employed full time by the castled match the style of their vases to the paintings and sculptures.
The situation of the castle enlarged by Catherine de Medicis so as to jump over the river Cher is totally exceptional and this served the Resistance well during WW II. On one side you were in Nazi occupied France, on the other, in the Free Zone, which allowed the Menier to help many Jews and resistants to flee thought the castle. The history of the place is amazing with women being at the origin of most constructions starting with Katherine Briçonnet, who built the first castle on the plans of a Venitian palace and died in 1526. When you are in the gallery, you can easily imagine beneath, by the water, the boats landing with fish or large boars near the kitchens. Diane de Poitiers who created the French gardens and started the bridge over the Cher, Catherine de Medicis who built two levels of ballrooms and apartments on the bridge and ran her kingdom from the green library. Louise de Lorraine, the last queen in the castle, was the widow of Henri III and retired there. Her very dark room is a testimony of her loss.
When you first walk in, the beauty of the guards’ room with its tapestries immediately strikes you just like the Chapel which is decorated with very successful XX th century stained glass windows by Max Ingrand (the old ones were bombarded during the war), a St Antony by Murillo and the Virgin with a blue veil by Il Sassoferrato. It is a very happy and light place and was saved during the Revolution by Louise Dupin, the then owner, who transformed it into a wood storage room. Many beautiful bedrooms follow with their beds à baldaquin, Brussels tapestries and exceptional fireplaces. The Salon François 1er, salon Louis XIV, Gabrielle d’Estrées’s bedroom with a beautiful Florentine St Cecilia, the visit is a succession of beautiful rooms which you reach through a stone stairs. There were many children running around and loving the games they had to play with a little textbook in hand.
When you walk back to the (free) parking, you go through the vegetable garden and the Russell Page garden with the Lalanne sheep. Refinement follows you to the end in this privately run house.
In Chambord, the majestuous castle owned by the State which is famous for its shoots and deer hunts, what strikes the most is the architecture with the double spiral staircase conceived by Leonardo da Vinci. The roof is covered with high and decorated chimney s and most of it under scaffolding at the moment. François 1er, Louis XIV, the Princesse de Conti, and the Comte de Chambord (Henri de Bourbon) will renovate and expand the decoration of the castle. Wildlife and hunting is well represented in the decors and the French style gardens are being restored. What is most impressive besides the architecture is the huge forest where you can wander at leisure.
Visiting these two extraordinary palaces is very physical and you spend your time climbing up and down. If you drive another ten miles, you will reach Cheverny, the big white house, on which Hergé based the château de Moulinsart. It is charming, still run by a private family, the Vibraye, well furnished but mostly geared at children. Soon, the gardens of 250 000 tulips will be in bloom and for Easter many egg searching attractions are organized.
Chambord is a two and half hour drive from Paris, Chenonceau 45 mns further. You can also go by train and taxi.
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Quelle bonne idée de revoir la France !! Tu me donnes l’envie d’y retourner.. merci Laure!