Châteaux of the Loire


Châteaux of the Loire


There is no shortage of mysteries, secrets, legends and questions when touring one of the most beautiful places on the planet: the Loire Valley. And the first question is: how many are there, the second: why here? The first one is not easy to answer, the Association Châteaux de la Loire groups 83, experts consider 42, the Unesco qualified in 2000 as a World Heritage Site the sector between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes, which includes no less than 24 great châteaux, but also valued its ecosystem, the castles and historic towns and cities like Tours, Blois, Amboise, Orleans ... in the area. Some speak of hundreds of them, maybe even a thousand. Many, but never too many.

The second question has a better answer. Although Moors and Christians fought in these lands in the Battle of Poitiers, English and French in the Hundred Years' War, no large fortifications were built or, in any case, they did not last long. It was at the end of the 15th century that the area was populated with a new concept of castle, that of repose and distinction. The kings, and behind them the court, left Paris, where fires and epidemics followed one after the other, and settled along this great river, the largest in France, which facilitated communications and on whose banks they could find forests fertile for game, a better climate and wide open spaces. The forerunner of the area was Charles VIII who, after fighting in Italy, returned full of Renaissance architectural ideas and craftsmen to put them into practice. He set to work on his beloved Château d'Amboise, where he was born and where he died at the age of 27.

His example was followed by Louis XII, Charles VIII's successor, who remodelled the Château de Blois, Francis I who had the Château de Chambord built and seized the Château de Chenonceau for non-payment of debts, and convinced Leonardo da Vinci to move into Clos Lucé, a mansion connected to the Château d'Amboise by an underground passageway. After them, other kings and nobles also decided to move to the Loire and create the largest collection of châteaux in the world. Today, the Loire Valley is a must-see destination with a sustainable tourist offer that has been constantly updated with proposals that include cycling or canoeing routes, wine tasting, magnificent gastronomy, accommodation in troglodyte and charming hotels, hiking through vineyards, traditional boat trips...

The châteaux of the Loire are a wealth of information, but here we have focused on the lesser-known aspects, legends and curiosities of half a dozen of them, perhaps the most outstanding. But there is still much to discover.

Intrigues and poisons in the most beautiful Loire château

The Queen's Apothecary in the Château de Chenonceau, unique in the Loire châteaux, with a collection of glass cabinets and boiseries from a Florentine palace, and a collection of 500 flasks, scales, mortars and ceramic vessels dating back to the 14th century, was the secret place where the intriguing Catherine de Medici, "the Black Queen", who was Queen of France as the wife of Henri de Valois, met with the no less mysterious Nostradamus to prepare ointments, remedies and poisons, who was Queen of France as the wife of Henry of Valois, met with the no less mysterious Nostradamus to prepare ointments, remedies and perhaps poisons such as the one that apparently killed her rival Joan of Albret, mother of Henry III of Navarre, inside gloves, and who, curiously, played a fundamental role in the development of Basque by ordering the first translation of the Bible into that language; She also allegedly poisoned her husband's brother, the first-born dauphin of the French monarch, who allowed him to ascend to the throne. This was not the only wickedness of this queen; she is also believed to have played a leading role in the so-called "Night of St. Bartholomew" that caused the death of some 8,000 Huguenots (as Calvinists were called in France).

The presence of Catherine de Medici, and also that of Katherine Briçonnet, who built it in 1513, Diane de Poitiers who embellished it and Madame Dupin who saved it from the rigours of the Revolution, makes Chenonceau known as the "Ladies' Castle". This omnipresent female imprint has preserved it from conflicts and wars, transforming it into a place of peace since time immemorial. It is surely the most beautiful and most photographed of the hundreds of buildings that line the Loire along its more than 1,000 kilometres of route, among fortresses, abbeys, royal palaces, castles and manor houses.

Its external appearance is dazzling, not least because of the magnificent bridge with its two-storey gallery over the river Cher, a tributary of the Loire, and the sensual curves of its turrets. Cycling along it or canoeing across it are two unique ways to enjoy it. But if its exterior is astonishing, it is on the inside that you can appreciate the feminine grace of the "ladies" whom it conquered. This Renaissance masterpiece offers priceless art collections, perfectly preserved rooms that show the splendour of the period with the richness of their furnishings and decorations. The rooms are so well arranged that at times it seems as if time has stood still. 

Works by Murillo, Tintoretto, Nicolas Poussin, Correggio, Rubens, Primaticcio, Van Loo... as well as a very rare selection of 16th century Flanders tapestries. The kitchens, installed on the pillars of the bridge, are very realistic and you can almost smell the cooking pots all around: the dining room, the butcher's shop, the pantry and the kitchen. The staging of each of these rooms is one of the highlights of the visit. Everything in the château and its splendid gardens cultivates the art of detail and refinement.

Leonardo da Vinci's mysterious staircase in Chambord

Although the Chambord castle is the largest and most spectacular in the Loire Valley, declared a World Heritage Site in 1981, with 426 rooms, 83 staircases, 282 fireplaces and a collection of 4,500 objects of art... and although the enclosed park in which it is located is the largest in Europe with 5,440 hectares, equivalent to the surface area of central Paris, with 32 kilometres of walls and more than 20 kilometres of paths that allow you to lose yourself in these enchanted forests. 440 hectares, equivalent to the surface area of central Paris, with 32 kilometres of walls and more than 20 kilometres of paths that allow you to lose yourself in these enchanted forests, home to more than eight hundred deer and fifteen hundred wild boars, among thousands of holm oaks and pines, the most visited and admired part of the castle is a curious and simple spiral staircase that connects the ground floor with the upper terraces, the centrepiece of the keep and, therefore, of the castle, which symbolises perpetual renewal.

 Curious, yes; simple, not so much, as its peculiar double helix design, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, allows people to go up and down at the same time, seeing each other but without crossing each other. The "trick" consists of two spiral staircases of almost 300 steps in total, which intertwine around a central gap, but without crossing each other. 

In fact, it is the highlight of the interior of the château, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, with classical mouldings, pilasters with capitals, lacework and rosettes... as well as the ubiquitous salamander, the emblem of Francis I, which appears more than 300 times on the sculpted vaults and walls, but with almost no furniture and only a few paintings and tapestries, largely because it was devastated during the Revolution. It is also surprising that this impressive château was created as a hunting lodge for the presumptuous and extravagant François I, eternal rival of Henry VIII of England and Charles I of Spain, who preferred to live in the more "modest" châteaux of Blois and Amboise. 

But it was not all hunting. Years later, in the time of Louis XIV, who had a passion for comedy, he had an area fitted out for a small theatre. It was in this theatre that Molière premiered some of his most important plays, such as The Gentleman.

Chambord's other less brilliant but much more prominent use was as a repository for the country's finest works of art during the Second World War. Shortly after the outbreak of the conflict, and long before Hitler invaded France, the main museums in Paris, faced with the threat of German bombing and looting, set up an evacuation and protection plan. Thus, on 28 August 1939, the largest transfer of paintings in history took place to Chambord. The château received 5,446 boxes containing part of the Louvre collections, including the Mona Lisa, which was then sent to Louvigny in Normandy. 

The château closed its doors to the public as soon as war was declared and became a place of rescue, where the curators and guardians made sure that the deposited works were protected and cared for, so that they would not be attacked by damp or moths... or by the greedy claws of the Nazis.

Château d'Amboise, Leonardo da Vinci's resting place, or was it?

As in the previous case, the most visited part of the Château d'Amboise - which Napoleon's friend Pierre-Roger Ducos, who received it as a gift, demolished three quarters of it, but did not manage to take away its spectacular profile overlooking the Loire - is the small flamboyant Gothic chapel built in 1493 in honour of Saint-Hubert, patron saint of hunters, a few steps from the palatial massif. It is very beautiful and its stained-glass windows project a play of colours onto the floor. And on the floor there is a simple tomb with a name engraved on the marble slab: Leonardo da Vinci. Once again the Italian genius who seems to have left his mark on the châteaux of the Loire, even though he only lived here for the last three years of his life.

And here he died, in fact in the neighbouring, coquettish chateau of Clos Lucé, which Francis I gave to Leonardo to work and enjoy for the rest of his life. He was buried in the abbey of Saint Florentin, an 11th-century Romanesque building in what are now the manicured gardens of the château, which the aforementioned Ducos also demolished, along with eight unmarked tombs there, including, it seems, Leonardo's. A skeleton was found, some of which are said to have been found in the abbey. A skeleton was found that some details indicated could be Leonardo's, a skull with eight teeth and some bones that Napoleon III considered valid and were buried in the chapel of Saint-Hubert which, by the way, cannot be visited now because it is under construction and will be closed until mid-2024. 

A disappointment for visitors. However, in the nearby Clos Lucé you can visit the rooms where the master lived on a daily basis, with replicas of the paintings he travelled to France with, including the famous Mona Lisa, and where he breathed his last. You can also discover his inventions, reproductions of which are exhibited in the gardens. The newly renovated workshops recreate the working atmosphere in which Leonardo worked in order to bring his ingenious reflections to fruition.

But the château and its gardens, adorned with thousands of perfectly pruned boxwoods and remarkable tree species, are worth a detailed visit and here too there is a curious spiral staircase in the Heurtault tower and the Minimes tower which allowed horses and carriages to reach from the level of the Loire to the terraces of the château. In one of the salons there is a copy by the painter François Guillaume Ménageot of Leonardo dying in the arms of François I. The original was a great success at the Salon du Louvre.

It is a pity that almost everything in it is a fake, because on 2 May 1519, when Leonardo died, the king was in another castle, Saint Germain en Laye, celebrating the birth of the second child he had just had with his first wife, Queen Claudia; nor was his face like that then, as he had no beard, and the painting even has a "ghost", a head barely hinted at between two figures, the result of a painting rectified by the author. You can also visit some of the many secret labyrinths that reveal medieval spaces and passages. Access to some of them is through small doors. At the lintel of one of them, while absent-mindedly going to watch a jeu de paume (the forerunner of tennis) in the Haquelebac gallery, King Charles VIII collided violently and a few hours later died after 15 years of reign at the age of only 27.

Little Château de Valmer, where you can drink good wine and eat... flowers

Among the many curious places in the Loire Valley, the Château de Valmer has a place of honour, although it is perhaps too much to call it a château. Of the mighty Renaissance château that once stood there, only a small pavilion remains, after the fire that devoured it in 1948. However, it has some remarkable vineyards, gardens and orchards. 

Of the former, with 28 hectares, it has been producing different wines since 1888 in the AOC Vouvray, using the traditional method, dry, semi-dry and sweet, and Touraine, rosé. All excellent. The terraced gardens on eight levels follow the Italian model and are a place of relaxation and plant and stone art with several sculptures and fountains.

But the highlight is the extensive one-hectare vegetable garden enclosed by walls, located on the lowest terrace. It is a remarkable living plant conservatory of around 900 ancient or extinct species of fruit, vegetables, plants and flowers. The 57 different shaped pumpkin pergola is particularly spectacular. The domain also conserves more than 3,500 types of seeds. 

Among its many local varieties are the melon and the Touraine thistle, which are now rare, and species with unusual names such as the "good sister navel" bean or "galapagos" tomatoes, endemic to this country and found nowhere else. Red fruits and old apple trees are also present, as well as condiments and edible flowers such as borage, nasturtium, daylily, and collections of sage, mint... An original flower tasting - which many great chefs now incorporate into their dishes - followed by a wine tasting, is the perfect complement to the visit.

Chaumont-sur-Loire, where horses are more luxurious than princes

Once again Catherine de Medici, with her chief astrologer Nostradamus, and her rival Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Catherine's husband, are the protagonists and successive owners of the 16th-century château of Chaumont-sur-Loire, one of the most outstanding in the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Cultural Landscape category. The exterior is somewhat reminiscent of Disney's Snow White and the interior is lavishly decorated. The stables are the most sumptuous and modern in Europe, built in 1877 by the architect Paul-Ernest Sanson at the request of Prince de Broglie. The harness room contains sumptuous harnesses made in particular by the house of Hermès. This room, untouched since the end of the 19th century, as well as the important collection of draught harnesses, metal parts and whips it contains, is now considered to be one of the most beautiful harness harness halls in Europe.

Also to be admired is the heart of the English-style Historical Park, which extends over 21 hectares and was designed from 1884 by the most famous French landscape architect of the 19th century, Henri Duchêne, just as Prince de Broglie had imagined it. But the highlight is the International Garden Festival, an unmissable international event dedicated to creation, imagination, poetry and nature. Recognised since 1992 by garden professionals and amateurs alike, it welcomes landscape gardeners and designers from all over the world every year. In 2023 it is open from 25 April to 5 November and the proposals presented by great architects and landscape designers seek solutions to climate change and the degradation of the living world, new factors that are now facing the former temperate zones of the planet, posing the need to adapt to a changing climate, minimising the harmful effects of high temperatures, rethinking behaviour, fighting against heat islands and using new or traditional solutions to the shortage of shade and water.

Time to search for the great treasure of the château of Sully-sur-Loire

Perhaps today's visitor to the spectacular château of Sully-sur-Loire will be luckier than the Marquise de Bausset-Roquefort, the last owner of the château who, convinced that the castle was hiding a rich treasure, turned the whole castle upside down and had each and every one of its walls examined, even calling in divers to probe the moats, as well as a dowser, a magnetiser and even a clairvoyant. Of course, without success, but the legend is still there and there are still those who look through the cracks in the walls to see if there is anything glowing.

In any case, a visit to this château, the first of the collection along the Loire, surrounded by moats full of water in which its towers and façades are reflected and permanently crossed by beautiful swans, is very interesting. 

In its rooms with enormous fireplaces, tapestries, paintings and period furniture, echoes of Joan of Arc seem to resound. She came to meet King Charles VII, but the Maid of Orleans, a nearby city, was not made for idleness, so she decided to leave the castle without notifying the king and go to drive the English out of France. The Spanish Anne of Austria and her son Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin were also refugees here during the Fronde des Princes in March 1652.

The disturbing Voltaire also found asylum here after the king, offended by his verses, ordered his exile. He recorded his time here in one of his ironic verses: "I am by order of the king in the most amiable of castles and in the best company in the world".

To keep the atmosphere alive, in spring, the Château de Sully-sur-Loire comes alive on the first weekend of every month with original activities. On Saturdays at 2pm, you can discover Renaissance gastronomy, a revolutionary culinary art for the time which introduced fruit and pastries to royal banquets. In this workshop, everyone can create their own dish of the period before taking part, at the end of the day, in the reading of tales and stories from the Renaissance. On Sunday, a costume parade from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance is organised. 

Authors: Enrique Sancho

Photos: Carmen Cespedosa

Agency Open Comunicacion

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