An Afternoon at the Loire Valley’s Château de Chenonceau

by Laura Packham  |  Published November 3, 2014

With a striking five-arch bridge mirroring its own reflection across the river Cher, the Château de Chenonceau is easily one of the most photogenic castles in France. But it isn’t just a pretty façade; in fact this magnificent 15th Century castle is immersed in tales of intrigue, conflict and l’amour.

Chenonceau castle, on the Cher river. (Photo: Benh LIEU SONG via Flickr)

Chenonceau castle, on the Cher river. (Photo: Benh LIEU SONG via Flickr)

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the Château de Chenonceau, designed almost exclusively by women and dubbed “Château des Dames” (Ladies’ Castle), is the toast of the Loire Valley. Located about 240km from the French capital, the castle resides at the end of a spectacular emerald green tree-lined passage, with branches swaying in the breeze overhead.

A pair of stone sphinx stand tall at the entrance to the French Renaissance gardens, the idea of the castle’s current curator to create an even more royal entrance. Crossing the castle moat to the entrance, a burst of colour surrounds on either side. To the left, you’ll find the garden of King Henry II’s wife Catherine de Medici, and to the right, the garden of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Come rain or shine, the gardens remain exquisite.

To the right of the regal chateau’s entrance, a pristine white chapel boasts vibrant stained-glass windows crafted by a master glassworker in 1954, after the original frames were destroyed during bombings a decade earlier.

The Most Beautiful Castle of the Loire

The early Renaissance and Gothic architecture – a striking contrast from the forest backdrop and river views – are just some of the draws that attract thousands of tourists to the steps of the Château de Chenonceau.

“Chenonceau is lucky enough to be a part of the history of France,” says Chateau de Chenonceau Communications Director Caroline Darrasse.

‘Our visitors come to enjoy the history of the illustrious ladies who built, lived and developed this castle.”

‘It is so particular, as it is the only “castle-bridge” in the world.”

Upon entering the castle, it’s difficult to know where to start, with each and every detail begging attention. Meticulously decorated rooms dedicated to various Kings and Queens, beautifully preserved kitchens, paintings and tapestries are among the highlights, as well as its quaint libraries with spectacular river views. Within its impressive collection of artworks are paintings by Rubens and LeTinoret, with one of the most remarkable being the imposing gold-framed portrait of Louis XIV in the drawing room.

Atop much of the superb Renaissance furniture sit perfectly matched floral arrangements.

“The public particularly adores the flowers embellishing each of the rooms, the salons and the kitchens,” Ms Darrasse explains.

But perhaps most striking of all is the Grand Gallery. Its iconic black-and-white tiled floor and high windows stretch over 60m long, and it was once a stunning ballroom used to entertain noble guests.

The Writing is on the Wall

The castle was rebuilt in the 1400s following a devastating fire and sold to Thomas Bohier, chamberlain for King Charles VIII of France in 1513. Years later, the crown ‘repossessed’ the castle from the Bohier family due to unpaid debts.

King Henry II took the keys and offered it as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who quickly fell in love.
 Shortly after, she began an ambitious redesign, building Chenonceau’s famous arched bridge and joining it to the other side of the bank.

Look out for the symbols “HDC” in the castles’ art and masonry. Originally, the markings were carved with just “H” and “D”, representing King Henry II and Mistress Diane de Poitiers. But when the King died in 1559 due to an unfortunate jousting accident, Mistress Diane was unceremoniously removed, a final act of defiance from the Queen Medici, who took over residence of the castle. She then proceeded to stamp her own name onto the castle, adding a C to all the H&D initials and emblems.

A Haven for Intellectuals

The castle later changed hands to Claude Dupin in the early 1730s, whose wife Lousie entertained intellectuals, among them Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu. Her granddaughter Amatine was the first recognized French female writer and her private affairs caused waves, with lovers said to include Flaubert, Chopin and Nietzsche.

During World War I, Chenonceau not only became a make-shift hospital for soldiers but also a secret passage for members of the resistance to pass from the castle’s entrance during Nazi occupation through to the left bank.

In a change of pace, the castle today belongs to the Menier family, at the head of a successful and established chocolate business.

When to go

“In Summertime, the castle becomes even more attractive on the outside,” Ms Darrasse advises, 
 “with the possibility of renting boats from the very attractive private landing stage of Chenonceau.”

‘Magic illuminates the gardens every evening of July and August with ‘The Night-Walk’ accompanied by music from the Arcangelo Corelli’s melodious support.”

When you’ve finished exploring the Château de Chenonceau and the numerous nearby castles, you may like to try something else that the Loire Valley has to offer – the famous vineyards and wine houses.

Enjoy a delicious white wine, distinctive, fruity and well-rounded, while exploring the nearby villages of Bléré, Tours and Amboise filled with restaurants known for their hearty French fare and old-world charm.