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Chateau de Chenonceau, the Loire

The Château de Chenonceau, in the Indre-et-Loire département of the Loire Valley in France, was originally built on the site of an old mill on the River Cher in the 11th Century. It was designed by the French Renaissance architect Philibert de l’Orme who also designed the wonderful Chateau Thoiry.

After centuries of being updated, destroyed and rebuilt, the chateau was seized by French King Francois 1 and declared royal property. 12 years later his son Henry II gave the chateau as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

It is often known as the “ladies Chateau” because Diane and the subsequent famous lady owners became very fond of the chateau on the river and it was mostly women who shaped the fortunes of Chenonceau.

It was Diane de Poitiers who commissioned the architect Philibert de l’Orme to update the building and create an arched bridge joining the château to the opposite side of the river.  She also oversaw the planting of the gardens which remain to this day remain as close to the original as is possible.

When Henry II died, the castle was snatched from his mistress by his widow Catherine de Medici, the new Queen of France. They had married when both were aged 14 and just one year later, Henry had begun his affair with Diane a woman who was twenty years older and Catherine was not a woman to cross. Catherine also fell under the spell of the beautiful Chateau de Chenonceau, making it her favourite summer residence, lavishing a fortune on it and extending the gardens.

In 1560, the first ever fireworks display seen in France took place at Chenonceau during the celebrations marking the ascension to the throne of Catherine’s son Francis II and setting a popular trend thereafter.

When Catherine died in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife of King Henry III who had acceded to the French throne by then. When Henry III was assassinated, Louise, a very pious woman decided to spend her days at Chenonceau, where she is said to have wandered the corridors in a state of deep depression dressed in dressed in mourning clothes. Sombre black tapestries stitched with skulls and crossbones were hung from the walls to ensure that everyone else must have felt depressed as well.

For the next 150 years the chateau was passed down, left empty, neglected and finally sold on.  It was saved from destruction in the French Revolution since the bridge built by Diane de Poitiers was the only means of crossing the river for miles so it was decided to keep it intact.

The chateau was bought and sold several more times before ending up in the hand of the Menier family, the famous Parisian chocolate producers, and they still own it to this day.

Chateau de Chenonceau

The Kitchens of Chenonceau:

Chenonceau’s fabulous vaulted ceiling kitchens are located in the cellars of the first two piers which form the bridge over the river Cher. Ingeniously, there was a platform where boats with supplies would draw alongside called “The Queen’s Bath” and later, “Diane’s Bath”.

The kitchens are considered to be amongst the finest examples of Renaissance kitchens in the world. There is an immense oven, copper pans galore, boars’ heads on the walls, huge knives, cooking implements and fabulous moulds. Dried herbs and hops hang from hooks, huge buckets of fruit and vegetables help the visitor to imagine in its heyday.

The kitchens of Chenonceau would have been a hive of activity, servants rushing about with great vats of steaming hot water, bread being kneaded on the huge tables, meat roasting on a spit in front of an open and roaring fire all year round, a lowly scullery maid or several  sat before a pile of vegetables, peeling and chopping. The hooks from which game was hung and the great chopping blocks are still there. The feeling that this was a real working kitchen, where great banquets were prepared for Kings and Queens, the nobility and the rich of the land is quite unique.

The Rooms of Chenonceau:

There are several Kings and Queens’ bedrooms each with fabulous period furniture, rooms hung with antique tapestries – Aubusson included, walls hung with masterpieces and everywhere unique and original features. From hand baked original floor tiles with a fleur de lys motto, carved messages, this is a chateau with a uniquely personal feel. The feeling of previous owners living and loving here is evident and tangible. The bedroom of Louise, in mourning for her dead husband is filled with reminders of her widowhood, the initials of Diane de Poitiers can be seen in her bedroom and elsewhere, the initials of Catherine de Medici who ruled France from the study at Cheanonceau can be seen.

These little personal touches, a message from the past, a memento of the existence of famous owners whose lives are a part of the history of France make Chenonceau a rare and uncommon place to visit.

The rooms are filled with glorious flowers from the gardens creating a perception that the Chateau is still very much alive as well as representing the feminine touch which has so long been a part of its history.

Gardens at Chenonceau

Here you can see Diane de Poitier’s garden and the gardens of Catherine de Medici which include a maze built to her specification as well as a 16th Century restored farm. There are magnificent floral displays in every room, all the flowers are grown on site in the magnificent walled gardens.

Chenonceau at night: Visit the illuminated gardens, the sound of classical music and the scent of flowers fill the air. Every weekend in June and every evening from July to August, from 21:30 to 23:30 (if you need to catch a train back to Paris – check the times and transport links).

Practical Information for Chenonceau: Chenonceau is open year round but opening times do vary from month to month so check the website for details.

There are restaurant facilities and picnic areas available.

The Chateau du Chenonceau website has lots of information in several different languages.

Love castles? Have a listen to our Amazing Castles of France podcast! 

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