My Trip to Châteaux de la Loire
One grim and grey period during my time in Paris, when winter had not yet turned into spring, I had the opportunity to leave the city with a group of friends who were visiting the Loire Valley. When we arrived there, we were greeted by bright sunlight, sweeping green panoramas of open space, and the majestic châteaux that overlooked the serene and peaceful landscape. We spent most of our time circulating through the various châteaux and their gardens, looking at the architecture, artwork, and manicured landscaping of the grounds. Although the air was still cold, the light was bright enough that we were squinting into one another’s cameras as we snapped photos.
The châteaux de la Loire are part of France’s architectural heritage and serve as sites for exhibitions, readings, classes, and other cultural events. Many began as medieval fortresses, which gradually changed into luxurious palaces during the Renaissance period, as warfare techniques changed and the feudal system faded. The architecture reflects this transition period between the fortified Gothic castles of the medieval era and the châteaux de plaisance of the early modern period. The extensive grounds of these châteaux include gardens, stables, and even chapels for intimate settings of worship. If this seems “un peu too much”, as they say in France at the moment, think of the luxury homes in Los Angeles that have private cinemas (yes, more than one per home).
My 4 Favorite Châteaux
Although there are more châteaux than you could possibly visit during a one-week jaunt in the Loire Valley, here are four that my friends and I enjoyed:
1- Château de Chambord
The château de Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley. It was constructed in the 16th century by François 1e who, according to Jean d’Haussonville in a 2015 interview on France Culture, “avait le goût des bâtiments”. Distinguished by its expression of Renaissance aesthetics, many of which were brought over from Italy, it also suggests a nostalgia for bygone times of chivalry through its citations of medieval architecture, including chimneys and stairway turrets. Its central donjon is in the form of a Greek cross that opens into four turrets and has, at its center, an open double helix staircase. This architectural feat is said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci, who was invited by François 1er to sojourn in the French court. Although the extent of da Vinci’s contributions to the construction of the staircase remains unknown, his influence on Chambord is evident when comparing his notebook sketches with the architectural orientations of the château. In addition to da Vinci’s contributions, other works of art are displayed at the château, including the beautiful 17th century tapestries for which the château’s expansive dimensions are well suited. The château has been the site of various cultural events since its construction, including the first performance of Molière’s play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, in 1670. It has also inspired works in other genres, including the 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast.
2- Château de Chenonceau
The château de Chenonceau has the unique feature of being built over a river. Originally constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, from which only its donjon, la Tour des Marques remains, it was developed in the 16th century into a château that embodied the Renaissance ideals of harmony between architecture and nature. In addition to its placement over the river Cher, Chenonceau also has the singular characteristic of being presided over by a series of women, including Catherine Briçonnet, who oversaw construction of the residence from 1515-1521, and Louise Dupin, who hosted many 18th century luminaries there in her salon littéraire. Besides illustrating the grace and nobility of its architectural design, it houses the paintings of many well-known figures in the art world, including Peter Paul Rubens, Antonio Correggio, Bartolomé Murillo, and Nicolas Poussin. Beyond its walls are stately gardens, including the floating parterre of Diane de Poitiers and a maze designed by Catherine de’ Medici. In 2018 Chenonceau inaugurated a new garden, based on the sketches of Russell Page, a garden designer well known for his contemporary landscaping. These and other gardens of the château host floral workshops, gastronomic events, and promenades noctures that appeal to visitors of all ages and nationalities.
3- Château de Montsoreau
The château de Montsoreau was built in 1450’s directly on a riverbed, which is one of its distinctive characteristics. It was constructed on the remains of the 11th century castrum, Monte Sorello, the castle or fort that is mentioned in a 1089 document. The first part of its name, mont, refers to its position on a coteau, or hillside, found at the juncture of the Loire and Vienne rivers, where the regions of Anjou, Poitou, and Touraine meet. Reflecting its placement, the architecture of Montsoreau includes wide bay widows and direct access to the river on its lower levels. In the centuries following its construction, the château changed hands many times and eventually fell into ruin. But when, in the 19th century, artists such as Joseph Mallord William Turner and Pierre-Auguste Rodin came across it during their travels along the Loire river, they were taken by its romantic aesthetic, and depicted it in their art. Great restoration efforts were subsequently made and today it houses a large collection of artwork, including works in its Musée d’Art Contemporain, which opened in 2016. The château is also celebrated in literary works, such as François Rabelais’s Pantagruel and Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame de Montsoreau.
4- Château d’Ussé
The château d’Ussé is locally known as the château of the Belle au bois dormant, or the Sleeping Beauty, as it inspired Charles Perrault’s version of this fairy tale. Located at the edge of the Chinon forest, and overlooking the River Indre, it was originally built as a stronghold in the 11th century. In the following centuries it fell into ruin, but was revived in the 15th century in a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles. By the 17th century, it had become a château de plaisance, with a trompe l’œil painted on the ceiling of the Guard Room to look like marble, a Florentine cabinet with secret drawers, and rich tapestries in the Vauban salon, the Vault, and the Central Gallery. In addition to these works of art, the château hosts exhibitions of period costumes that are changed each year. Certain rooms also display major scenes from the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, including the dramatic entrance of the evil fairy Carabosse, who feels slighted at not being invited to the birthday of the princess. The château not only inspired Charles Perrault’s version of this tale, but was the place where François-René de Châteaubriand worked on his Mémoires d’outre-tombe. It remains a private residence, housing the seventh duke of Blacas and his family, who oversee the château and care for its grounds.
These and many other châteaux grace the Loire Valley, providing pleasant surroundings for day trips with friends and family, as well as activities and events that appeal to a broad public. Whether you are interested in architecture, history, horticulture, art, or artifact, these châteaux are truly lieux de plaisance that spark a foray into France’s history through their focus on the architecture, interior décor, and landscaping that are standing today.
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