* Prices may differ from that shown
When Mr Tart and I went to the Loire Valley castle hunting I knew that I definitely wanted to visit Chenonceau. It's one of the castles that really said Loire to me as it seems to be one that's often used to illustrate the area. SOME HISTORY: Chateau de Chenonceau was originally a fortified castle built in the 1430s. In the early 1500s the castle was purchased by Thomas Bohier who demolished the fortified castle (apart from one tower) and began the building we see today. Unfortunately for Bohier his castle was seized by Francois I after Bohier's son failed to pay a debt. Francois's son Henry II then gave the castle to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Diane extended the castle to include an arched bridge across the river. When Henry II died (a splinter from a joust went into his eye and he died from the infection - yuk!) his wife, the formidable Catherine de Medici, took the palace from Diane (but did give her Chateau Chaumont as an exchange!). Catherine added a long gallery over Diane's bridge. The castle was then passed to Henry III's wife, Louise de Lorraine, Gabrielle d'Estrees and then to her son by Henry, Cesar of Vendome. The Castle is now in private hands but is open to the public. LOCATION: Chateau de Chenonceau is in the village of Chenonceau. It is 34km from Tours which was where we were staying. It is on the D40. There is plenty of parking at the castle and it is free. OPENING HOURS AND PRICES: The opening hours vary depending on the time of year that you visit so it's a good idea to check the website. We went in August when the castle is open from 9am until 8pm. The latest it opens is 9.30 and the earliest it closes is 5pm. It is open every day of the year. The castle costs Euro10 for adults and Euro8 for children and students. If you choose to get the audio guide the price goes up to Euro14 for adults and Euro12 for children and students, but we chose not to have these. EXPERIENCE: Once we'd parked we walked to the ticket booth. It's about a 10 minute walk from car park to castle. The ticket office was also the shop. There was a queue for the tickets but you can also get them from an automatic machine so we got ours from there. The shop had a good mix of tourist fare and good history stuff (a lot of which I would have been tempted by if it hadn't been in French!). The ticket gets checked as you leave the shop and there you can pick up a brochure to guide your visit although they weren't handing them out, I just happened to spot them so make sure you look out for them. The first part of the castle you come across is the Marques Tower. This is the only part of the fortified castle left. This was the keep of the original castle and looks very small compared to the new one. Make sure you check out the door of the main castle as it is really amazing. It dates from the reign of Francois I and shows the arms of the castle's builders and the symbol of Francois himself, a salamander, which you can spot all over the Loire as a lot of the castles seem to date from his time. Inside the castle there are eighteen rooms which you can look around. There were a few highlights for me. The first was Diane de Poitier's bedroom. I've studied some of Henry II's reign and about his wife, Catherine, so I was really intrigued by this. The irony of having Catherine's portrait on the wall of this room is great! I love the royal connections, the portrait and the symbology of this room. The green study and the library were Catherine de Medici's working rooms when she became regent of France (her sons were young when her husband was killed). Just the thought that she was in these rooms gave me a little thrill (yes, I am a History nut!). What really surprised me was the small size of the library where Catherine had her desk. It was really tiny and you would think that a queen would demand a larger space. My favourite space in the castle was definitely the gallery. This is the area built by Catherine on top of Diane's bridge. The room is 60 metres long (about 180 feet) with a black and white floor, wooden ceiling and huge windows either side to make it really airy. You could see how this would have made the most amazing ballroom. Louis XIV's bedroom is also an amazing room. It is really bright red in colour and has a beautiful fireplace with Francois's salamanders on it painted in gold. My favourite bedroom was definitely Louise of Lorraine's bedroom. The room is painted black, including the ceiling. Louise retired to Chenonceau after the assassination of her husband Henry III in the French Wars of Religion. The room is painted with objects associated with mourning including silver tears and widows' coronets. The room is very atmospheric and I can't imagine actually sleeping in it. There are lots of other rooms in the castle but I won't go into all of them. They are sumptuously decorated and are really interesting to look round. You can also see the kitchens which give a bit of a view of the other side of castle life which was interesting as well. Chenonceau is also famous for it's gardens but I have to admit that I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to gardens and I'm just not interested enough to look around them. They did look incredibly beautiful, however, and I'm sure if you were spending a while at the castle you would make the effort to look round them properly. There is a maze in the gardens as well which I would have liked to have done if we'd have had more time (we were averaging three castles a day!). There is a café in the old stables of the castle. We stopped here for a drink as the water we'd brought hadn't lasted and it was unbelievably hot. The prices were high and I wouldn't recommend getting anything here unless you have to, although as the castle is a way outside the village there aren't really any alternatives. There is also a more exclusive restaurant called L'Orangerie which is open from March to November. We didn't venture here but I'm sure the view would make the extra cost worth while for a special event. I would also recommend taking a little rowing boat out so that you can row under the bridge of the castle. We hired a boat which cost Euro4 for half an hour which was a bargain because we really enjoyed it. We rowed under the bridge and a little way down the river and it also gave us some great pictures. They provide life jackets as well. If you're not keen on boats it is definitely worth walking a little way down the river in order to get the best views of the castle. CONCLUSION: I would highly recommend a visit to Chenonceau to anyone visiting the Loire area. It's not that cheap but it really is worth the price as the castle is stunning. The setting makes it perfect. The rooms are beautiful and the gallery is just amazing. Even if you're not a History nut (like me) then you can't help but be a little impressed by the location of the castle and the way it's built over the river.
I've always found the phrase "Châteaux de la Loire" a bit of a misnomer. You could pick any stretch of tens of miles between Orléans and Saumur, tool along by car or in a boat, and be forgiven for saying at the end of it, "So where are all the châteaux?". The Loire at this stage of its journey is wide and shallow - sand and mudbanks appear in summer - and the banks are low; not ideal territory for building an imposing château to impress your peers. Many of the most famous ones are actually on tributaries, the Cher, the Indre, the Vienne. Then again, the châteaux are not a homogeneous collection of pleasure palaces. Many were built as, and remained, châteaux-forts (what we would call a proper castle, for defence), some started as châteaux-forts and were converted, and some were constructed in the renaissance style we associate with these châteaux, to be grand country houses. But "Châteaux and Châteaux-Forts of the Loire and its Tributaries" is a bit of a mouthful so we'll go with the usual description. Depending on who built them, and when or why, gives a great variety of possibilities for the visitor. For sheer size go to Chambord. For châteaux-forts go to Loches or Chinon. For gardens you want Villandry. And for beauty go to Azay-le-Rideau, or this one, my personal favourite, Chenonceau. Where to start to describe a thing of beauty? Chenonceau is built on the Cher, literally, as it spans the river bank to bank. The Cher is at this point thickly wooded on either bank, and the green of the trees is reflected in the water. Slip in this perfectly proportioned, creamy-white structure and the result is a complete harmony of man-made and environment. It crosses the river but does not dominate; it contrasts with the dark green of the woods and water without diminishing them. The span across the river is not a two-storeyed slab but a delicate procession of six arches, delicately picking up their skirts, tiptoeing across the water and then gently subsiding into position. For this château is feminine above all - appropriately as we shall see - but not lacking power for all that. It is a place where powerful women held sway and it is a perfect metaphor for them. Self-confident, aware of its beauty, powerful without losing grace. It sits serenely in its river valley inviting the world to come and admire, with no need to demand or impose. Great writers have visited and loved Chenonceau. Flaubert (he of Madame Bovary fame) said: "The Château de Chenonceau, shrouded in aristocratic dignity, exudes a strangely suave atmosphere .. It rears its pretty turrets and square chimneys to the skies . The general feeling is one of gentle peace, elegance and comforting strength." Henry James (he of "The Ambassadors", "A Portrait of a Lady"), writing in "A Little Tour in France", said: "Though Chenonceau has no great height, its delicate facade stands up boldly enough. This facade, one of the most finished things in Touraine, consists of two stories, surmounted by an attic which, as so often in the buildings of the French Renaissance, is the richest part of the house. The high-pitched roof contains three windows of beautiful design, covered with embroidered caps and flowering into crocketed spires. The window above the door is deeply niched; it opens upon a balcony made in the form of a double pulpit, one of the most charming features of the front." Marguerite Yourcenar (she of well, some fame as a novelist and essayist; she was born in Brussels so that makes her a rare famous Belgian) wrote an entire book on the subject, called "Chenonceau, Château des Dames". Voltaire and Rousseau also had spells living hereabouts. Strangely neither had anything much to say about the Château, surprising for Voltaire who had an opinion on everything (he would have taken to Dooyoo like a duck to water). Rousseau said it was a "fine spot" and was rightly chided by Henry James: "Even common decency obliges me to pay some larger tribute than this to the architectural gem of Touraine." Just shows even the great have their moments of weakness. So what do visitors today, who are neither aristocrats nor literary giants, experience? The approach is off the N76 in the tiny village of Chenonceaux down a magnificent avenue of plane trees. Plane trees are ideal: they grow gratifyingly straight and tall, with smooth foliage-free barks, so that they look like stone columns. Both pedestrians and cars enter through this, the only entrance, and for the first time this year I arrived on foot (having stayed in the village) and so walked the whole length of the avenue. One tries to imagine one is Charles IX or Louis XIV arriving by carriage, but one is constantly being pushed to one side by 21st century motor carriages. Nevertheless, it is a pleasing experience, as you can appreciate the avenue itself without being distracted by the Château, whose aspect is hidden by the contours of the avenue as it descends then rises. If it is summer, you will also be grateful for the shade as the foliage forms a cool, green tunnel above your head. About half-way down are wrought-iron gates. These will not swing open for you, as they would for royal visitors in the past. At this point, cars peel off to the right into the spacious car parks. The ticket office is on the left, and you can also buy a ticket for an audio-guide which you pick up in the Château itself. Tickets are checked at the gate, and you proceed down the other half of the avenue, through the cool woods on either side. At the end you are decanted into a wide open space where the woods were obviously cleared for the Château and its park. Facing you is the façade, so attractive to Henry James above. I suggest you walk to the left through Diane de Poitiers' garden (more of her later) until you come to the balustrade above the river bank. Look back to your right and you will see the profile that makes Chenonceau so famous: the span across the Cher butting on to the classic renaissance proportions of the main building. You can walk the length of this side of the garden, from the woods at the end of the open area right up to the Château without losing this panorama. What do you think? Wasn't I right? While you're looking and admiring I'll quietly drop in some historical facts. Thomas Bohier, Treasury Superintendent to François I, was responsible for the first transformation from a fortified mill to a renaissance country house. Actually his wife, Catherine Briçonnet, was in charge of the work while Bohier was with the French army in Italy, so in a sense she was the first of the Château's women. After they died in the 1520s, it was found that Bohier had been cooking the books, so Chenonceau was handed over to the crown in payment of the debt. In 1547 Henri II succeeded to the throne and gave Chenonceau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Hers is a name which redounds through any history of 16th century France. She was the power behind the throne and Henri was totally in awe of her, much to the chagrin of the queen, Catherine de Médici. Really, Diane should have known better than cross a Médici, but while she was in the ascendancy she made Chenonceau into a thriving estate, developing its agriculture and, importantly for posterity, had a bridge built linking the main building to the other bank of the Cher. It all came to an end when Henri II was killed and Catherine ordered Diane out of Chenonceau and took it over herself. Now it was party time, sumptuous banquets, mock naval battles on the Cher, fireworks. And two galleries added to the bridge Diane had built. In complete contrast was the next woman owner, Catherine's daughter-in-law Louise of Lorraine who, after her husband Henri III was assassinated, spent the rest of her life in mourning and prayer. It was due to yet another woman owner, Mme Dupin, whose popularity with the villagers was such that the Château was spared during the upheavals of the French Revolution. If you can drag your eyes away from the view of the Château, have a look around at the garden you are standing in. This was laid out by Diane de Poitiers in the formal French style and is a magnificent example of its type. I'm not good on flowers, but when I was there in September the colours were mainly muted pinks and violets, gentle colours which offset the geometric rigours of the layout. There is another formal garden on the other side of the entrance, this one laid out by Catherine de Médici, possibly in a spirit of "me-too-ism". Appropriately, it is smaller, less magnificent and rather over-shadowed. Move towards the Château itself and pause to look at the façade. Although the main entrance, since the expansion across the river this is now the shortest side. Any more of it would be too much: it has all the busy turrets and twirls one associates with the French renaissance but manages to retain a harmony of design. Standing proudly in front of it, on guard, is the Marques Tower, the donjon of the former fortified mill. Inside everywhere is open, and you are free to wander at will using the audio guides or the very helpful leaflet you get with your ticket. The rooms are small scale, intimate, so you'll inevitably have to suffer some crowd crush in the doorways. There are various bedrooms, including Louise of Lorraine's (the mourning/praying one) furnished totally in black, small reception rooms and kitchens. The things that struck me were the wonderful wood-panelled ceilings, intricately carved and decorated, no two alike; Diane's small study/library leading off her bedroom, decorated in green and with a wonderful view over her garden and the river; and the abundance of paintings by famous artists on the walls (Del Sarto, Murillo, Poussin, Van Dyck, Veronese) jostled by visitors' shoulders. And of course you can walk along the galleries crossing the Cher. Lovely and light, not just from the daylight but from the reflection off the water, these are completely open so you have continuous rooms whose length is the width of the river. They are grand where the rest of the Château is intimate. In the 20th century their uniqueness had two interesting consequences. During the first world war they were converted into hospital wards for injured soldiers - the story goes that the soldiers would fish from the gallery windows. In 1940 after the German invasion the north bank of the Cher, and the main part of Chenonceau, were in occupied France, while the other bank was in Vichy France so the gallery was a route out. Back outside, if it's lunchtime you can picnic in one of the many designated areas in the woods or eat in the former stables and silk-worm farm now converted to a self-service restaurant. There is also a waxworks, a 16th century farm, and a maze if you fancy playing at Harry Potter. I can't comment on any of these as I haven't tried them. So I have an excuse, as if I needed one, for another visit. I'll leave the final words to Thomas Bohier, the original builder, whose motto is inscribed in the Guards Room just inside the entrance: "If I manage to build Chenonceau, I will be remembered." Indeed he is. Details: Adults 9, or 10.50 to include the waxworks. Children (7 - 18) 7.50, or 11, Audio guide 3.50. Open every day from 9am, with varying closing times depending on the time of year - 7pm for the main season mid March to mid September. Car parking is free. Disabled access is possible for the grounds and the ground floor but not the upper floors. In the summer months there is a son et lumière presentation which given the setting should be a good show.
Many of the rooms are preserved in their original style and furnishings and visitors can browse through Louis XIV's living room, Francois I's bedroom, or visit the beautiful gallery.