Loire Valley must-see: Château de Chenonceau

Writing about the Loire Valley brought to mind another favourite: the Château de Chenonceau (https://chenonceau.com). Surely one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, built over the Cher River, with its iconic arches reflecting in the water. The land entry is also lovely: hop off the local train or bus and walk through a postcard-perfect village, down a long avenue lined with trees, and past the formal gardens. 

We were fortunate enough to visit in December, when it was decked out for Christmas in one of the most beautiful displays I have ever seen, including a stunning feasting table in the gallery. It was also delightfully quiet, given that Chenonceau is said to be the second-most visited château in France, after Versailles. The whole interior is grand, but for me, the recreated kitchens were a real highlight, with vaulted ceilings, rows of gleaming copper pans, and a pulley-system down to the river to hoist up supplies.

And, of course, it has a fascinating history as the ‘Ladies’ Château’, home to several influential women. The château passed into royal hands in 1535, as part of a debt settlement, and is perhaps best known for its links to an infamous royal love triangle. King Henry II gave it to his favourite, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded more power over both the king and his children than did his queen, Catherine de Medici. After the death of the king while jousting, the queen ousted the mistress and took back Chenonceau for herself and her children. Three of her sons were kings and two daughters were queens, giving the château an impressive royal flavour, reflected in the many masterpieces, tapestries and furnishings.

Catherine de Medici held lavish parties at the château, including the first fireworks display in France, while wielding enormous power as regent for her young sons. Her role in the bloody religious massacres of the era and alleged murders of several important figures have left her with a terrible reputation, perhaps more so than she deserved according to some historians. For a fictionalised take on her life, I enjoyed the novel by C.W. Gortner (The Confessions of Catherine de Medici), which conveys both the challenges she faced in clinging to power as well as the dire consequences of her decisions.  

The château was later home to other women of note, including Louise Dupin, who was famous for her literary salons, welcoming scholars such as Voltaire. She is known for her book on the history and rights of women, written with the assistance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was tutor to her son before he became famous as a philosopher (https://blue-stocking.org.uk/tag/louise-dupin/).

More recently, the Menier (chocolate) family transformed Chenonceau into a military hospital in World War I, with Simone Menier as matron. The beautiful gallery across the river housed rows of wounded men, who reputedly fished out of the windows. Simone and the Mernier family also played a role for the resistance in World War II, using the château as an escape route between the Nazi occupied zone and the free zone on the other side of the river.  

So many fascinating stories just begging to be made into novels!

Loire Valley must-see: Leonardo da Vinci’s final home

If you’ve looked at my webpage for The Daughter’s Promise, you’ll know that I love the Loire Valley in France. I’m also a big fan of Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance Man and perhaps the most brilliant, multi-talented person ever born. (Incidentally, he was the illegitimate son of a peasant woman – a useful fact to throw at anyone who stands in the way of equal educational opportunities for all.)

Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Amboise in the Loire Valley, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to visit his home, the Château du Clos Lucé (https://vinci-closluce.com/en), on our last trip to France. The house and grounds are lovely in their own right, but it is the Leonardo connection that makes this an exceptional experience.

He is best known as the creator of the Mona Lisa and other great paintings and sculptures. But he was also a brilliant naturalist, scientist, engineer and inventor. Many drawings, inventions, workshop equipment and personal items are displayed inside the château, while larger reconstructions of his inventions dot the grounds. Some of the highlights include his famous flying machines, from the bird-inspired glider to the helicopter-like aerial screw; his clever engineering ideas, such as the transportable, revolving bridge and water-powered devices; and his advanced weaponry, including a multi-barrelled canon and armoured tank.

Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the stunning Château d’Amboise, just down the road (https://chateau-amboise.com/en/). If you are visiting the Loire Valley, Amboise makes a great base, as the town is beautiful and conveniently situated on the Loire River, with a train station nearby. The châteaux are walking distance from the centre, with other châteaux nearby (don’t miss the stunning Château de Chenonceau). Drop in to Bigot for a delicious omelette or pastries (https://maison-bigot-amboise.com/) – they saved us by serving us after the kitchen had closed, when we arrived cold and bedraggled!

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