There once stood a most forbidding fortress in the Loire Valley, built in the 12th Century in the town of Valencay, on the borders of Touraine and Berry. There is now a most enchanting Chateau in that spot as, thanks to good fortune and the monetary fortune of a bride who married the local lord who owned the ugly fortress, a spectacular renovation took place in the 16th century.
A magnificently modern Chateau for a very modern minister
The domed roofs we see today must have been seen as a new-fangled idea at the time and there is more than a hint of the renaissance style which was to become so popular in France. For the next two hundred years, successive owners tweaked, added, updated and embellished until in 1803, the chateau became the property of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. He was a man of great importance, a man who could move political mountains. When Valencay became his, he was at the time Foreign Minister in France. Among his many guises he was formerly a bishop, French Ambassador in London, deputy of the constitutional clergy, deputy to the Constituent Assembly and organiser of the coup d’état that delivered power to Napoleon Bonaparte.
He was a man who liked to live life to the full and entertained guests lavishly at the chateau – including the Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine. He became a Prince and was a consummate diplomat, a spin doctor, skilled in many things – though modesty wasn’t one of them.
Napoleon rated him highly most of the time, though one day in a fit of pique accused Talleyrand of being “A piece of sh.t in a silk stocking”. Talleyrand, ever the statesman bowed to the emperor and murmured under his breath for all to hear “what a pity that such a great man should be so ill bred”.
You can only imagine when you walk through the rooms of the chateau today what goings on there must have been – and that’s not too hard because the rooms are beautifully furnished and many of them look pretty much as they did in Talleyrand’s day.
Secrets and passion at the Chateau
When you approach the chateau, the gentle sound of classical music hovers in the air, it’s a bit like a soothing welcome and that really sets the tone because there really is an air of mellowness to this pretty chateau.
The rooms too exude music of the 19th century and it makes your visit strangely intimate and personal. There are lots of stories to be told about this place – it was certainly a castle of secrets during Talleyrand’s time. There is for instance, a secret door in the music room through which Madame Talleyrand would stealthily creep to reach her lover in the room above. A painting of a beautiful young woman catches the eye, she is the 16 year old Duchess de Dino, married off to one of Talleyrand’s nephews and then becoming the uncle’s mistress (despite a 40 year age gap). It was here that King Ferdinand VII of Spain was “entertained” for 6 years when he was forced to abdicate in favour of Napoleon’s brother.
There are the uniforms of Talleyrand and his special shoes, he had a malformation on his right foot though no painter ever dared show it in the portraits of this infamous mover and shaker.
There is a lot to see here, the kitchens are stunningly conserved and when I was there guest chefs were demonstrating fine cuisine to an enrapt audience. The walls of the immense kitchen and galleries that lead to it are lined with detailed drawings of favourite dishes of the day. The great French chef Antonin Careme was bought here by Talleyrand and cooked elaborate grand feasts, perfecting his skills and becoming “the chef of Kings, the king of Chefs”. He is credited with inventing the Toque, the chef’s hat, being the father of haut cuisine and creating many famous cakes and sauces.
The food prepared in the kitchens would have been carried up to the dining room, where today a table is set for 36 with beautiful linen and chinaware, the music playing softly in the background. It brings a feeling of the past to the present and making you imagine that bejewelled ladies and gents might file into the room at any moment to indulge.
There is an Italianate style theatre in the grounds built at Napoleon’s request to amuse the Spanish “guests”. It is quite incredibly preserved and open only on Wednesdays and Sundays to help maintain the integrity of its historic interior, but if you’re lucky enough to be there on those days – don’t miss it.
Outside the chateau is surrounded by a 53 hectare park, there is a deer park and peacocks, old carriages, caves and ancient trees, formal gardens and follies. I highly recommend hiring a golf cart to get all the way round the 4km path, there are a few hills that will make you squirm a bit and its enormous fun but of course it’s a lovely walk too!
More fabulous French Chateaux
Chateau de Fontainbleau Ile France
Chateau de Chantilly, Picardy
Chateau du Lude, a peek into a lived in museum, Loir
Chateau Guedelon, a medieval castle being built in the 21st Century in Burgundy