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france: château de chenonceau

  • travel
France, Chenonceau, Loire, château, castle

Of all the wonderful sights on the Rick Steves’ Paris & the Heart of France tour, none captured my heart like the Renaissance castle of Chenonceau. Full of royal intrigue, World War II history & maintained with such care, I could have easily spent all day exploring the grounds… hopefully this post inspires you to visit as well.

France, Chenonceau, map, Loire

Located in the fertile & temperate Loire Valley about 130 km southwest of Paris, when French kings began to spend more time there, all other royalty followed & built up the entire region. Home to over 300 castles, the region draws tourists like a magnet… eager to explore the stunning architecture of Chambord, Blois & Amboise. These are all very nice, but Chenonceau connects so many dots for me.

Due to work & personal interests, I usually view European history through an Iberian lens. Chenonceau opened up a new chapter for me to dig into: Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V. Instead of my standard look west to the Americas, I could see at Chenonceau how the actions of Carlos V influenced Renaissance France. Let’s take a quick look…

Flemish tapestry showing the capture of François I (at left), 1550. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During the 1525 Battle of Pavia, Carlos V decimated the French & took King François I prisoner. In exchange for freedom, François sent his first male child, François III, & his second son, Henri II, to Spain as captives where they would remain for four years. The young Henri spent from age 7 until 11 under the watch of the Hapsburgs. Back in France, Henri II married Caterina de’ Medici —both were 14 years old— & prepared to take the throne of France since his older brother had fallen very ill.

Medieval royal marriages were tough to maintain, & the following year Henri II took a mistress twice his age: a 35-year old widow, Diane de Poitiers. She had enormous influence on the French court while Caterina could do little to intervene… you can already smell the intrigue brewing. Henri fell out with his father over the affair with Diane, but they reconciled differences two years before Henri became King in 1547.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire
Bridge addition, 1570. Sketch courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The castle at Chenonceau had previously become royal property as part of a former Chamberlain’s debt repayment. As a new king, Henri II saw it as the perfect gift to his mistress. Diane became immediately attached to the property & commissioned many improvements such as a bridge to connect to the other side of the Cher River & extensive gardens. In fact, she became the private owner of the château in 1555 —no small feat for a woman of her era.

With Henri II’s untimely death in 1559, Caterina seized the opportunity to kick Diane out of Chenonceau for good; no more competition! The property soon became her personal favorite (like Diane before), & she spent lavish sums on expansion & hosting royal parties. The Grand Gallery is Caterina’s creation & remains one of most stunning spaces of the castle. Let’s see why everyone seemed to covet Chenonceau…

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, keep, tower

The original property consisted of a fortified mill along the riverbank, built in the 1430s. Those fortifications were not to the liking of the former Chamberlain of France, so he demolished everything except the keep. Afterwards, the remaining tower underwent modifications to blend better with the Renaissance castle. I love how they’ve inserted a Renaissance portal into the curved wall & built more rooms up above.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, entrance, door, chapel

Before entering, a massive oak door is as stunning as the castle itself. Step left into the chapel with modern stained glass windows from the 1950s & two of many paintings by Spanish masters. Keep an eye out for Alonso Cano & Esteban Murillo.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, kitchen

The kitchen is a delight, & it’s easy to imagine the space full of provisions for Caterina’s parties as well as packed with servants prepping the food.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, fireplaces

Salons & bedrooms on both floors have been restored to their former glory, & one of the castle’s trademarks are fresh flower arrangements that are placed weekly. Bouquets add so much elegance & charm, I’m surprised that other châteaux haven’t copied their idea.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, upstairs
Chenonceau, castle, Loire, grand gallery

Stunning party space with impressive views, both inside & out. I really loved the external details of the gallery visible from the castle:

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, grand gallery
Chenonceau, castle, Loire, gardens

Two beautifully maintained spaces from the two main protagonists of the castle: Caterina’s garden on the left & Diane’s on the right (as looking out from the balcony, seen above). Stroll around each not only for the beautiful plants but also for stunning castle views at every turn.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire, grounds, maze, caryatids

The surrounding grounds are also full of interesting spaces to visit: a hedge maze decorated with Renaissance caryatids, donkeys, vegetable & flower gardens, a wine cellar with tastings, & an exhibit in the stables about a former WWI hospital that was privately funded by the then-owner of Chenonceau, chocolate mogul Gaston Menier. You can even dine in fashion with produce grown on site.

Fortunately for us, the château of Chenonceau survived the French Revolution —mainly because it had been transferred to Diane de Poitiers long ago & had remained in private hands ever since. Future owners included many important women, as if continuing the care given by both Diane & Caterina. And during World War II, the Cher River formed one boundary of Vichy France so prisoner exchange could take place via the Grand Gallery.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire

I found it impossible to stop taking photographs, although I managed to turn off my phone for a bit in order to experience the moment. Crowds gather throughout the day, so if you arrive early then you’re in for a real treat… as well as photos without many people. Whether you go with a group or on your own, don’t miss out on this spectacular castle & its history which spans over five centuries.

Chenonceau, castle, Loire

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