Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Most Beautiful Chateau Award goes to...

Chateau Chenonceau in the Loire Valley, France.

This is a castle with stories to tell. It was essentially built by six women over the past 500 years, each one leaving an indelible mark through her design, expansion, landscaping or scandal.

It is a feminine building inside and out...not built to display power or might, but a home to live in and enjoy. You feel this as you walk through its rooms...I would move in immediately, given the choice.

An hour outside of Tours, which is a short 1.5 hour train ride south-west of Paris, you will need a car or bike to get here. But, the trip is worth every km. 

The River Cher runs through the chateau, giving you waterfront views out of every window. The keep in the front yard of the chateau is the only original structure left from the 6th century when Thomas Bohier and Katherine Briconnet built Chenonceau on top of the remains of a fortified castle and mill.

Years later, after investing decades in building the chateau, it was turned over to the State. Wanting to impress his mistress, King Henri II gave Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers, a woman 20 years his senior, who he had a life-long obsession with...much to his wife's non-amusement.

Diane de Portier threw herself into developing the intricate gardens, creating expansive vegetable and fruit plantations, and developing the chateau into a well-functioning property.

But, the story goes that she pretty much kept to herself, consuming her time with gardening and personal grooming. She was beautiful, a slave to her looks, and spent much energy in keeping herself looking perfectly young. Cold showers to invigorate the skin, only the best home-grown food to eat, and botanical potions and lotions to heal and relax her insides and out.

In 1559, when King Henri II died unexpectedly from a splinter to the eye, his wife, Catherine de Medici immediately took Chenonceau away from Diane de Poitiers, relocating her to another chateau farther away. Catherine, a politically and socially minded woman of her time, filled the house with life, throwing grand parties and magnificent balls. The gallery above, was christened with opulent festivities in 1577 honouring her son, King Henri III.

From the Green Room, her study, she ruled France for nearly 30 years as Regent, after the death of her husband. It's a gorgeous room, small and octagonal. From her desk in the middle of the room, she would have been able to look out onto the gardens and river from windows on every side of her.

Walking through the chateau, I was drawn to the many original pieces of artwork still hanging on the walls, or painted on the ceilings. Intricate tapestries by Flemish masters cover entire walls, along with renaissance murals and paintings by the likes of Tintoretto, Jordaens or Rubens.

The above tapestry, "The Cher" by Neuilly (1883) was commissioned specifically for Chenonceau, details the galleried bridge over the river, along with the north-east corner's intricate chapel. I just love the texture and richness of historic tapestries.

Walking down the stone staircase towards the kitchens, I had a 'Downtown Abbey' moment. One can feel the energy, the work, and the living that went on in these rooms to run a chateau of this size. They are beautiful..and beautifully decorated.

The kitchens are built into the huge river pillars that the galleried rooms above rest upon. The large hooks for hanging meat are still displayed, along with gorgeous rows of copper cookery. My first thought was, do you know how expensive those are?!

In one of the rooms stands a long table where the chateau staff ate their meals. Windows looking out onto the water breathe fresh air and natural light into this, otherwise, basement area. I'm not sure what happened in the kitchen during the many times the River Cher flooded.

From a small wooden bridge joining the largest kitchen room with the room of stoves, a pulley system is still visible from which vegetables and fruit were pulled up from boats docking beside the kitchen. Food was delivered from other towns along the river and easily lifted into the kitchen, without disturbing the rest of the house.

The staircase leading to the second floor was one of the first straight staircases built in France. As with so many details in the chateau, this is another impressive Italian mark left by Catherine de Medici. She missed Italy and surrounded herself with signs of home. I can relate...Canadian Flag anyone? I have like 25 now, here in Germany. When I lived in Canada I didn't own a single one.

The vaulted ceiling above the staircase is made up of intersecting ribs, showcasing the centrepiece -  an ancient medallion depicting a lady with flowing curls.

The smaller garden on the north-west side of the chateau, was built and designed by Catherine. I preferred this one to the other because of its more intimate design, surrounded by water on one side, the chateau on the other side, and on the remaining two sides by large, lush trees. The obligatory apologies.

The garden is filled with "Clair Matin" roses (my new favourite), standard roses, box hedges, a circular pond in the centre, and rows and rows of low-cut lavender. It is heavenly scented!

Catherine de Medici's bedroom still contains her incredible Renaissance four-poster bed, which stands in the centre of the room. Walking through all of the rooms gives you a feeling of being in an art gallery, and this room is no exception. The highlight for me, was the Correggio, "The Education of Love", painted on wood, hanging on the wall next to her bed.

The last king of the Old Regime (Ancien Régime) to visit Chenonceau was Louis the XIV in 1650. This room commemorates that visit and displays, among other prominent works, an original Rubens, "The Child Jesus and Saint John the Baptist", bought from Joseph Bonaporte, Napoleon's brother.

During Catherine's time of power, France was embroiled in the Huguenots War, a bloody and turbulent time. After her death in January 1589, the widow of King Henri III (Catherine's fourth son, who was killed by a monk the following August), Louise of Lorraine sought comfort and solace at Chenonceau, surrounding herself with the colours and symbols of mourning. Walking into her bedroom is like entering a dark basement...the only sad place on the property.

Spending time at Chateau Chenonceau was a true highlight for me. Wandering through the rooms, inhaling the stories and passions that so many interesting women lived before me, was a treat. And outside, the various rose gardens, the Orangerie, the maze, and 16th century farm which still supplies all of the interior floral decoration of the chateau, can be strolled through and appreciated by their many visitors. I was definitely one of those...and I'll be back!

The Loire Valley is the perfect girls' trip destination.

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