Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

France: The Loire Valley

Chenonceau as seen from the bridge over its moat.
It was Francophile and Francophone daughter Katy who wanted to visit the Loire Valley and Chenonceau in particular. It was on the route between Bordeaux (which was on our must-visit list) and Paris, so it was a natural place to stop for a few nights.  Fortunately, Jane found us rooms in a nice country hotel (Le Bon Laboureur; click HERE for its website) in the village of Chenonceaux within a few minutes’ walk of the chateau. 
        Chateau de Chenonceau is famous for its extension on a bridge over the River Cher, started by Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and completed by his widow, Catherine de Medici, after she got the chateau from Diane.
The tiny (but magnificent) chapel at Chenonceau. 

        We did a day trip to Amboise to see its royal chateau overlooking the Loire and its tiny chapel, which contains Leonardo da Vinci’s remains.  The chateau, one of many built by and for Francois I, has some of the most interesting rooms of the chateaux we visited, but its exterior is impressive mainly for its prominent location on a bluff overlooking the river.  Near the royal chateau is Chateau du Clos Luce, where Leonardo spent his final years.  When Francois I persuaded him to
The gallery is in the part of Chenonceau above the River Cher.
relocate to Amboise, Leonardo, who was in his 60s, made the trip on horseback with the Mona Lisa and other works transported in leather bags carried by a mule.   Clos Luce has exhibitions of reproductions of Leonardo drawings and paintings, as well as working models of some of his more fanciful inventions, including a military tank that is popular with school children.
       Finally, and this is the chateau that I most wanted to see, we got to Chambord, which like Versailles started out as a hunting lodge.  This was another of Francois I’s residences, though he hardly ever stayed in the wing he had built for his own use.
The moat and gardens at Chenonceau. 
Chenonceau and the River Cher. 
     The chateau, thought to be inspired by Leonardo if not actually designed by him, revolves around a amazing double-helix staircase.  This is a spiral structure with two stairways that never meet.  It’s possible to have a regiment of troops going up one stairway and another coming down at the same time without ever meeting, though they could see each other through windows into the stairway’s hollow core.
       Chambord is unusual among the major chateaux in that almost every space is open to the public, which is free to roam without following a specified route through the rooms. Unfortunately,
A 16th-century queen's bedroom at Chenonceau.

Our quaint country hotel in Chenonceaux.
most of the rooms are unfurnished – though some are used for temporary art exhibitions – and the ones that are furnished are not as sumptuous at those at Chenonceau. 
         Chambord’s crowning glory is its roof, filled with more than 200 chimneys, a lantern tower at the top of the grand stairway (the lantern is not open to the public) and other architectural follies.  It can all be seen up close from the Renaissance Terrace, which forms the roof for most of the chateau and its extensions (mainly the king’s wing and, on the other side, the chapel). Chambord is also notable for its setting, in what was once the king’s personal hunting preserve and is now Europe’s largest walled park. The extensive grounds and waterways can be explored by bicycle, rowboat or motorboat, all available for rent.  Restaurants and shops in its small “village” make it a great full-day destination.
        Besides chateaux, the Loire Valley is known for its wines.  We visited only two AOCs, Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire.  In Vouvray, we visited Alexandre Monmouosseau’s Chateau Gaudrelle winery, which makes its wine in a cave at the bottom of a cliff beside the Loire. The grapes are grown (and presumably the chateau itself is located) on the land atop the cliff.  This small winery (only six employees) makes dry still Vouvray, a sparkling Vouvray using the same methods used to make Champagne, and late-harvest dessert Vouvrays. 
      In Montlouis-sur-Loire, we visited a wine center set in another cave beside the river. Montlouis wines are not that different from Vouvray's, though the quality seemed a bit less, but that might be because of the particular wines that were available for tasting.  We came home with a couple of bottles from Chateau Gaudrelle. (Click HERE for its website.)
An arch spans the main shopping street in Amboise.  The street ends near the entrance to the royal chateau.
The Chateau Royal d'Amboise overlooks a village street and the Loire River.
The gardens and restaurant terrace at Leonardo's Chateau du Clos Luce. 

Chambord.  The roof's lantern feature is at center top.

The main entrance to Chambord. Through the arch is an interior courtyard.

Chambord and its canal.  Fit for a king, right? 

Francois I's "F" and his symbol, the salamander, show up throughout Chambord.
The is the bottom of one of the interlocking stairways.
The entrance to the other is on the opposite side.

This is the view up into the core of the spiral stairway. The light comes from the lantern feature on the roof.

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