Sunday, April 28, 2013

Château de Chenonceau

As with many places in France, the original building that had the name Château de Chenonceau predates the current building with the same name. There has been a castle, a keep, a royal residence, and/or a luxury second home at this particular spot on the the Cher River for well over a thousand years, but the current incarnation only (only!) dates back five hundred years. The Marques family had built a château and river-powered grain mill here in the early part of the 15th century, but when Thomas Bohier bought the property a hundred years later, he and his wife Katherine Briçonnet tore down almost all of the existing structures and rebuilt everything in the Renaissance style. The only parts that remain of the Marques buildings are the round tower at the front (which was also renovated by the new owners) and the stone piers that used to hold the mill at the side of the river, which is where the new château stands. That part of the castle complex is celebrating its 500th birthday this year.

Katherine Briçonnet became the first of the women that ruled at Chenonceau; it's known as the "Château des Dames" ("Castle of the Ladies"). She oversaw much of the building and decoration, and liked to give big parties, which King Francis I went to occasionally. Unfortunately this didn't build enough goodwill with the king to stop him from taking the property from Katherine's son a few years later, in payment for debts. When King Henri II took the throne, he gave the property to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, who had the bridge built across the Cher from the main château building, and also put in a large formal garden on the north bank of the river, as well as the fruit orchards and vegetable gardens that supplied the castle kitchens.

Henri II's widow, Catherine de' Medici, took advantage of her regency to oust Diane from the château in 1560 and spent much time and money making the gardens and rooms and furnishings even more luxurious. She had the grand gallery built on the bridge across the river and used it to have even more lavish parties than either of her predecessors, with a grand opening ball in 1577 hosted by Catherine and her son Henri III, who had recently married Louise de Lorraine. When Henri III was assassinated in 1589, Louise retired to the château and spent the rest of her life in mourning, surrounded by nuns. The nuns remained after Louise died in 1601, and the court of France stopped visiting Chenonceau, and the property was a sort of Capuchin convent for a hundred years, though still owned by the royal family.

With a new century came new money, and the immensely wealthy fermier général (king's tax collector) Claude Dupin bought the property from the Duke of Bourbon in 1733, turning its management over to his wife Louise Dupin, who brought the Age of Enlightenment to this corner of the Touraine region with her famous literary and musical salons that attracted people like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Her enlightened connections and attitude helped her keep the château from being seized and destroyed during the French Revolution, although she had to allow the destruction of some of the paintings and possessions of the royal past in order to maintain the property for her family. The ownership of the château passed to René Vallet de Villeneuve (Louise's nephew and Claude's grandson - complicated and close family ties) and his family, who maintained it and lived there until 1864, when it was sold the next lady of the château, Marguerite Pelouze, co-heir to the Parisian family's gas-light fortune. She spent a good bit of that fortune restoring the château and the gardens.

Marguerite continued the tradition of having parties and entertaining famous (or soon to be famous) people like Gustav Flaubert and Claude Debussy. Unfortunately, her co-heir brother Daniel got the family involved in scandal and financial ruin, and they lost the property to creditors, who sold it to the South American sugar tycoon family of Emilio Terry in 1891. There wasn't much South American influence at the château during the 22 years they owned it, and in 1913 it became the property of the Menier family, who made their fortunes in French chocolate. It was quickly turned into a military hospital for the duration of WWI and played a role in the French Resistance in WWII, but the Menier family wasn't much into parties, apparently, and now although they still own and maintain the château, it's solely a tourist attraction. According to the publicity, it's the second most frequently visited château in Frances, after Versailles.

And there was much evidence of the attraction the place has for tourists; the parking lot was filled with buses, the forecourt filled with camera-carrying people squinting in the bright sunlight, perusing their brochures, and chattering in several languages - Mandarin, French, Swedish, German, and English were the ones I identified, but I'm sure there were more. We walked through the large carved front doors and into the three-storied main building, where the doors were often much smaller.

The kitchen and staff rooms are in the - well, you can't say "basement" because they're not in the ground. They're built into the first two piers supporting the château over the river, where the original old mill used to be. They're narrow and cramped but surprisingly well-lit, with windows in all walls. Delivery barges could pull right up to the walkway between the two sections to unload supplies.

And then those supplies would be transformed into dainty breakfasts, perhaps, brought up by maidservants at a decent (not too early) hour of the morning, when they would pull the bedcurtains back and you could sip your tea or coffee or chocolate and watch the swallows dart by the windows overlooking the river or the gardens.

The rooms are filled with artwork and tapestries; some of the walls are painted and others covered with old flocked wallpaper. The floors are of tile, or wood, or flagstones, and the ceilings are painted and carved in a variety of styles, depending on which room you're in - there's everything from vaulted arches dating back to 1515 to plaster medallions from 1815 on display.

Above: a page from the castle archives; corner detail from a 16th-century Italian cabinet; floor tiles made of baked clay; apparently the Na'vi thought this was a nice place to visit, too
Below: carved and painted wooden ceiling in the top-floor hallway; tile floor in the master's master bedroom; what's left of the majolica tiles in the guards' room on the ground floor; the narrow staircases that connect the floors

Walking in to Louise de Lorraine's bedroom was like walking into a crypt. As Pat pointed out, even if the second window had been uncovered, it still would have been dark and gloomy in there. But that's the way Louise wanted it, apparently, as it made it easier to keep her mourning widowed state. One narrow window allowed her to kneel on the carved prie-dieu and look outward and upward to the heavens, but heavy black curtains closed off the rest. The walls and ceiling are painted black with silver-grey patterns of feathers (the French words for "feather" and "sorrow" are homophones), tears, grave-diggers' shovels, and crowns of thorn. Cheerful!

Outside the door to the chapel, some of the graffiti apparently dates back to the 1540s; according to the brochure, this glass-protected bit was scratched there by Mary Stuart's Scottish guards, but I can't find any verification of this claim. In fact, although Mary I of Scotland was indeed married to the French king Francis II for his brief year and a half reign, and did spend most of her childhood living in France, she didn't move to France until 1548, and the brochure claims that this bit of history dates back to 1546.

The more verifiable history of the château is found in the exhibition rooms, where the owners have collected a range of etchings, drawings, paintings, and old architectural plans of the château showing it in its successive forms throughout the year as it was back in 1560 all the way through the present. Several of the landscapes show well-dressed people picnicking in the gardens around the château, underneath the trees or along the banks of the river. They don't allow you to picnic on the grounds these days, and in fact I was stopped at the entrance so the ticket-taker could check that I didn't have food in my bag. They sell overpriced cafeteria food and beverages in a large terraced building that also houses a wax museum (we didn't go in to see those exhibits) but there's also a nice restaurant tucked into the formal garden area that looked like it served pretty tasty dishes. We didn't have time for a formal meal, because there were still the farm buildings and gardens to visit before we caught the train back to Tours.

The buildings on the farm date back to the 16th century and include the extensive stables set up by Catherine de' Medici. Today, most of the work involves flowers, because all of the château rooms have fresh floral arrangements year round that are replaced twice a week, and the formal gardens take a lot of replanting each spring. The fancy restaurant probably uses herbs, at least, from the gardens, though I don't know how much actual produce is grown there any more. There are low espaliered hedges of apple trees along the pathways, and more fruit trees in protected corners. There are long greenhouses for the delicate plants, and a series of cold frames surrounded by deep straw, and that day there were a half a dozen green glass cloches protecting plants we couldn't identify, which were probably feeling the heat a bit under the bright cloudless sky.

And oh, the tulips, the beds and beds of tulips. We stepped through the low stone archway under the wisteria just beginning to bloom, and emerged on the other side into a riot of color. We just ambled around for a bit then, dazed and smiling, drinking in the rainbow.

But then it was time to head back to the train platform - it's conveniently located at the end of the long carriageway through the archway of trees leading to the château, and it's only a half an hour from the center of Tours. After I finish with school, and after I come back after my travels with Mom and John, I'm going to see where else I can go by train to find more beautiful history to wander through.


  1. Did you see a hedge maze? They had just planted one a few years before I visited there in high school, so the bushes were only knee high. I'm curious if it's ready yet. I can't remember where on the estate it was, we wandered around in the woods for a bit and literally stumbled across it. It was near a folly of some kind, I remember the huge carved caryatids in a row across the front.

  2. The maze is there and more than head-high, I think, from what I could see in the distance, but they had the path over the canal closed to repair the bridge, and we didn't have time to explore and find the alternate way to get there. It's on my list of things to do if/when I go back, though.