Le Chateau de Chambord

Le Château de Chambord is probably the most famous of castles of the Loire. Images of its fairy tale towers and turrets, silhouetted against a flawless blue sky and reflected in a mirror-smooth pond, represent the region in countless publicity posters.

Le Chateau de Chambord
Le Chateau de Chambord

The extravagant, French Renaissance Château de Chambord was commissioned by François Premier as a hunting lodge. It has been suggested that it was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci who was a guest of the King at Le Château D’Amboise at the time.

Construction on le Chateau de Chambord began in 1529 and continued for 20 years but the château was never completely finished. It is easy to see why. The building is huge and of mind-boggling complexity. The famous spiral staircase of the François Premier Wing at Blois is repeated again and again at Chambord. No space is spared a turret, a tower, a balcony or an arch and no surface is free from a decorative flourish.

The architectural extravagance of Chambord is highlighted by the parklands in which it is set. On one side acres of lawns intersected by neat gravel paths give way to dense stands of trees. On the other, a still, untroubled lake reflects the ridges, the recesses, the folds, the twists and the turns of the busy, if not hectic château.

In many ways le Château de Chambord was a folly and like many follies it was rarely used. François I spent only a few short hunting trips there – seven weeks in total – and after his death in 1547, it was abandoned.

Almost century later King Louis XIII gifted the château to his brother Louis XIV, the Sun King. Louis refurbished the Royal apartments and added a 1200 horse stable. Le Château de Chambord became, once again, a Royal hunting lodge. But even so it was used only for a few weeks every year and by 1685 Louis XIV too had grown bored with Chambord. The château fell from favour and was abandoned once again.

During the French Revolution, Le Château de Chambord was stripped and left to rot.

In 1939, with the Nazi invasion imminent, the French Government cleared art treasures from the Louvre and hid them at Chambord.

Restoration of le Château de Chambord began after World War II. Furnished in a strong, dark, plain masculine style with cabinets of weapons and walls sporting stuffed animal trophies and old paintings of the chase, the refurbished rooms of Chambord reflect its original, practical (and somewhat unpleasant) purpose as a hunting lodge. But the bare chambers that run from one into another at the top of those dizzying spiral staircases, the narrow walkways and the tiny balconies that look out across the turreted rooftops, the round tower rooms are pure fantasia- the stuff of fairy tales.

I was fortunate enough to explore le Château de Chambord with a group of teenage princesses and to see it through their eyes – magical!

Le Chateau de Blois

Sited on a hill in the centre of the Loire Valley, in a city of the same name, Le Château de Blois offers a fascinating look at four hundred years of French history and architecture.

The spiral staircase at Blois
The spiral staircase at Blois

Originally the Château was the seat of the Counts of Blois and the beautiful vaulted Salle Des États Généraux dates back to the early days of the building at the beginning of the 13th century when it was used by the Counts as a court of justice. It is the largest remaining civilian Gothic room. Its name derives from its later use for the Estates General Convention.

In the 14th century Le Château de Blois became the favourite residence of the French Royal Family. Seven Regents and ten of their wives lived at the Château de Blois, each one adding to its “ailes” or wings or refurbishing its interiors to reflect their times and their tastes, not to mention their wealth and their power.

In 1391 Louis, duc d’Orléans, brother of King Charles VI bought the château. After his assassination, his widow, Valentina Visconti lived there. It was later inherited by their son, Charles D’Orléans, who was taken prisoner at Agincourt and spent twenty-five years as a hostage in England, before returning to his beloved Blois, which he rebuilt larger and grander than the Mediaeval Castle he had inherited from his father.

Louis XII, son of Charles D’Orléans was born at Blois in 1462 and during his reign Blois became the political capital of France. His contribution to the Château’s buildings is the extravagant Gothic red brick and white stone structure that forms the entrance to the castle today.

When François I took power in 1515, his wife, Queen Claude, daughter of Anne de Bretagne, had him refurbish the Château once again. The result is the magnificent François Premier wing, built in the pure Renaissance style. The most striking feature of this wing is the turret style spiral staircase, covered with ornate Italianate sculptures and decorations as well as the emblems of the Royal family.

Henri III, driven from Paris during the French Wars of Religion, lived at Blois and held the Estates General convention there in 1576 and 1588. It was during this convention that the King had his arch-enemy, Henry Duke of Guise and his brother Louis, assassinated by his bodyguard, the loathed and feared “Forty Five”.

Henri IV, the first Bourbon Monarch took possession of the Château after Henri III and on his death in 1610 it became the place of exile for his widow, Marie de Medici her son, Louis XIII banished her from his court.

In 1626, Louis XIII gave the Château de Blois to his brother Gaston, Duc D’Orleans as a wedding gift. The Duc charged the architect François Mansart with the task of developing a new wing in the classical style. The Gaston D’Orléans Wing which faces the Louis XIII Wing across the courtyard as a central section made up of three horizontal layers with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian elements.

After Gaston D’Orléans’ death, Le Château de Blois was abandoned. By the time of the French Revolution it had been unoccupied and deteriorating for over a hundred years. The Revolutionaries, in their determination to destroy any trace of the ancien régime, ransacked the ruins. Plans were in place for its demolition but it was decided that instead it would be used as a military barracks.

In 1841, Le Château de Blois was classified as a historic monument and its restoration began.

Today all the Gothic, Renaissance and Classical splendour bestowed on the Château de Blois by Counts, Dukes, Kings and Queens, lives again in all its glory.

Le Chateau d’Amboise

Built in the 11th century, on a steep hillside overlooking the River Loire, Le Chateau d’Amboise enjoyed its first few centuries as a tranquil retreat. Then, in 1434, its owner was convicted of plotting against King Louis XI and the château was confiscated.

Le Chateau d'Amboise
Le Chateau d’Amboise

Once in the hands of the monarchy, Le Chateau d’Amboise became a favourite of the French Kings, who extended and remodelled it in true royal style.

Charles VIII and his wife Anne de Bretagne lived at Amboise and among their many additions to the chateau were some of the first Renaissance decorative motifs ever seen in France. Gardens were established, in the Italian style, and these were later to develop into the formal French style, seen still all over France.

In December 1515, Leonardo Da Vinci came to Amboise as a guest of The King, François I. He lived and worked in the nearby Clos Lucé, which is connected to the château by an underground passage. It was during his time that Amboise reached the pinnacle of its glory. Da Vinci died at Amboise and is buried in the Chapel of St Hubert, adjoining the château.

King Henri II and Catherine de Medici raised their children at Amboise along with their ward, Mary Queen of Scots who had been promised to the future French King François II. Renowned for her redecorating zeal, Catherine de Medici left a significant mark on the appearance of Amboise.

Amboise lost favour with the royals during the religious wars and never regained its standing. In the 17th century it was abandoned and, like so many of the great buildings of France, became a prison. During the French Revolution much of the château was destroyed and more of it fell in the bombings of World War II.

Happily, after the war, Le Chateau d’Amboise was listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture and restoration began.