Amboise has wow factor by the bucket load. It’s not just the fact that there is a magnificent castle with centuries of history witnessed within it’s walls. It’s not just that the extraordinary Leonardo da Vinci lived his last years here. Or that his home is still there, the Chateau du Clos Lucé and he is buried in a chapel at the castle. But, there’s something timeless about the town of Amboise. It is charming, pretty and it retains an authentic air of the past in its alleyways and roads and along the river Loire.
Amboise is a great place to stay in. There’s plenty to enjoy and explore while you’re there and it’s easy to tour the local area of Chateaux and famous towns from here…
The chateau d’Amboise
History stretches back millennia at Amboise. The Romans set up camp here, Clovis, King of the Franks met with his enemy, the Visigoth King, here in 503. They signed a treaty but Clovis killed the Visigoth ruler four years later and became the first king of a country which became France. A castle has been in Amboise since medieval times. But today, we know it most for its Renaissance legacy.
Charles VIII of France (1470-1498) was born here. After going off to war in Italy in the late 1400s, he lost, but bought back with him a love for the Italian arts and Renaissance. He also returned with furniture, art and artisans whom he set to work to renovate the Chateau of Amboise in the Renaissance style. He must have been very excited about it as work went on night and day and Charles liked to inspect the progress. One day, whilst doing so, he hit his head on a lintel and just a few hours later died (though some claim it wasn’t related to the accident, but he may have been poisoned).
From party pleasure palace to prison
Work stopped until Francis I (1494-1547) became King. Born in Cognac, he had lived at Amboise from the age of six and he was a huge admirer of the Renaissance style. In fact he’s often called the Father of the French Renaissance. He made Amboise his official Court, completed the restoration and bought Leonardo da Vinci to France. The great Renaissance man lived next door in the bijou Chateau du Clos Lucé in 1516.
For a while Amboise seemed to be the centre of the French universe, pageantry, feasting and splendour went on in copious amounts. Francis I staged huge, ostentations parties, with Leonardo da Vinci designing costumes and automatons, including a clockwork lion that walked and urinated and its body opened up and was filled with lilies. For one play, he recreated the night sky over the stage complete constellations and planet, filling the audience with incredulity. To this day there are loads of events held at the Chateau, including from time to time, balls in the state room (above). Check on the Chateau d’Amboise website for events.
However, just 40 years later, Francis had died and the Chateau had fallen out of favour. It became a prison, was bought by an aristocrat, became a prison again and underwent a sorry time.
What to see at the Chateau d’Amboise today
At one point the chateau was virtually a city, not just a castle. There were wild animals in the moat, it had its own church, law courts and barracks. Today the castle is much smaller but incredibly beautiful. Over the centuries bits were pulled down or destroyed, but it retains an aura of greatness.
You enter via a ramp from the street. The tall walls and turrets dominate the town but give no indication of what you will see once you’re inside the castle gates. From the terrace there are magnificent views over the river and countryside, the restored gardens are truly superb.
Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the Chapel of St Hubert, wedged against the ramparts. It was built by Charles VIII at the end of the 15th century for his wife Anne of Brittany. The chateau du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo lived, had been Anne’s summer house. The chapel is an absolute jewel, with the sun shining through its beautiful stained glass windows, stunning carved doors and exquisite sculptures, it is sublime.
Inside the Chateau there are rooms in late Gothic style as well as Renaissance. Some rooms are furnished with tapestries, paintings and furniture. Columns in the state room are encrusted with fleur de lys, a bust of Francis I looks down on all who walk through.
In the town of Amboise
The town itself is well worth visiting. You’ll see some fine old houses and plenty of lovely cafés and bistros. Plus there are wine tasting venues to while away the hours.
There is a small gothic church, the Eglise St Florentin. Leonardo da Vinci was originally buried here as he wished. Later, his remains were moved to the Chapel of the Chateau of Amboise. A few minutes from the century is the magnificent Romanesque church of St Denis. It was built in the 12th century on the site of a Roman Statue of Mars and has a sumptuous interior.
Locals love: Maison Bigot in rue Nationale which is a truly pretty little street. They make chocolate and cakes that are divine. The tea room is great for sitting and watching the world go by. They’ve been baking here for more than 100 years and all that practice makes for perfect pastries!
Don’t miss: If you’re there on Friday or Sunday, head to the market (Sunday is best) and enjoy the local cheeses, wines and produce.
Visit the Chateau du Clos Luce where Leonardo da Vinci lived from 1516-1519. It is superbly restored and wonderfully atmospheric. Take a stroll from the centre of Amboise via the rue Victor Hugo. It takes less than ten minutes and is a lovely walk in a street lined with quirky boutiques and pretty cafés.
Where to stay: In the town, the Hotel Bellevue is right in the centre, at the foot of the castle, it’s comfy, cosy and friendly. If you want to stay somewhere a bit special close by, a 20 minute drive away is the Chateau of La Bourdasière. You’ll be staying in a beautiful Renaissance castle. It was once home to Marie Gaudin, known as la Belle Babou. She was a mistress of Francis I and apparently many other powerful men were her lovers, including Emperor Charles V. She was married to Philipert Babou, Francis I’s Finance Minister.
Today it is a quite extraordinary hotel, owned by Prince and Princess de Broglie. Rooms range from basic to luxury and prices are very reasonable. The gardens are beautiful, with a tennis court and heated pool. And, as the prince has a passion for tomatoes, there are some 700 varieties grown here. The chateau also has a lovely restaurant.