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The King and his Castles


The French say there are as many as a thousand medieval castles and Renaissance chateaux along the River Loire and on its placid tributaries. Haunted by midday ghosts of kings, poets, bold lords and beautiful ladies who whisper tales of politics and pleasures, of intrigue, dalliance and parties that went on for days – they all have stories to tell.

The name of Francis the First stands out among the reigning monarchs of the Renaissance. And the best-known castles are associated with him – Amboise and Blois, the royal residences, grandiose Chambord and romantic Chenonceau, whose graceful, white stone walls rose over the gentle River Cher to look upon incredible extravagance.

Chenonceau had just been finished when Francis took it over for a hunting lodge. He found it so beguiling that he spent much of his time there, often accompanied by his mistress, the legendary Diane de Poitiers. Diane met the king's son, the future Henry II, when Henry was 17 and she was 35. Though she wasn't a woman of great beauty, she possessed great style, ambition and wit. It is said that once at sunrise, she dove naked from the bridge at Chenonceau, then emerged and rode off on a white horse. She was the love of Henry's life until the day he died.

Chenonceau - a fairytale beauty and an infamous history. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.When Henry became king, he gave Chenonceau to Diane and with it, huge sums of money for its decoration. It was Diane who installed the bridge from the building already built out over the water to the far shore of the river. But when Henry died, his widow, Catherine de Medicis, banished her rival to a lesser castle and took possession of Chenonceau. She filled it with furniture and books from her native Italy and had a three-story extension built on top of the bridge. The first floor of the extension, called the Long Gallery, is surely one of the most graceful rooms in France. Black and white marble squares cover the floor and the creamy stone walls are pierced by deeply recessed windows from which stream watery reflections of the river.

As each of Henry's brothers succeeded him as king, Catherine de Medicis remained at Chenonceau. She loved to arrange elaborate fetes and entertainments featuring knights and ladies dressed as satyrs and nymphs, bagpipers, fireworks and mock naval battles staged from flowery barques on the Cher.

I visited Chenonceau when I toured the region last September with a friend who is also a lover of the Loire. Unencumbered by the rigors and restrictions of an organized tour, we traveled at our own speed, visiting some lesser-known chateaux as well as some of the famous ones. Using a France Rail 'n Drive Pass, we took a fast train out of Paris, picked up a car at the train station in Tours, and set off to explore chateau country.

On our first night in France, we slept in a 500-year-old castle, Le Chateau de Réaux. Though it was already September, drifts of pink and white baby cyclamen spread across the lawn as we approached the entrance. A bridge across the moat led to a gate flanked by towers decorated in a checkerboard pattern of pink brick and white stone. Over the door, a salamander, symbol of Francis I, was carved into the stone. And at the door to greet us – warm, vivacious and perfectly at home with English – was the owner, Madame Bouillé.

We could see for miles from our room in the old tower. Admittedly, it was an effort humping our bags up an ancient spiral stairway where centuries of footsteps are worn into the stone, but our pretty room was large and comfortable – and it had countryside views in three different directions. In the morning, we lingered over breakfast, chatting with Madame, who couldn't resist telling us about her brand new grandchild. Then we set off along the Loire.

Bourdaisière - in the Chamber of Francis the First. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.Not far from Chenonceau is the Chateau de La Bourdaisière, built by Francis I for one of his favorites, Marie Gaudin. We parked, walked up a little hill, and peeking into a walled garden, found the owner hard at work among his tomatoes. There were roses in the garden, and orchids in the greenhouse, but Prince Philippe-Maurice de Broglie loves to show visitors the prizes among the 400 tomato varieties in his garden. He encouraged us to visit the chateau and we could easily understand why the famous beauty, Gabrielle d’Estress, the mistress of a later king, chose not to live anywhere but in the house at Bourdaisière where she was born.

Cabbages and pumpkins in Villandry's famous vegetable garden. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.Villandry was the last of the great Renaissance chateaux to be built on the banks of the Loire (1535), but its most interesting history is 20th Century. In 1906, a Spaniard, Dr. Joachim Carvallo, purchased the property. Married to Philadelphia heiress Anne Caroline Coleman, Carvallo left a brilliant career at the School of Medicine at Paris in order to devote himself entirely to Villandry. He restored the chateau, which had been sadly altered, to its original elegant proportions.

Carvallo's even greater achievement was to re-establish gardens at Villandry that bring visitors from all over the world. Strolling through them is a delight. You hear birdsong and falling water. Paths are raked; weeds do not exist and hardly a leaf seems out of place.

To appreciate the scope and precision of the garden, you must view it from above. We climbed to the top of the keep (all that remains of the feudal fortress on the site before Villandry was built) and we were astonished. From a lake in an elegantly classical water garden comes the water used for a computerized irrigation system and to feed the many fountains. There are ornamental gardens dedicated to themes of love and music where appropriate flowers in appropriate colors are enclosed within sharply defined boxwood hedge, forming symbolic shapes like hearts and lyres. There is a playing field, a maze and an herb garden containing thirty different herbs, some of them rare.

But the vegetable garden is actually the most beautiful. Laid out in patterns within squares, as was the custom in medieval monasteries, it's planted twice a year. Crops are rotated and colors are contrasted – colors of the vegetables and of the many shades of green and purple in their leaves.

"These gardens require considerable upkeep," Henri Carvallo, great-grandson of Joachim, told us with considerable understatement. He supervises a crew of nine full-time, year-round gardeners and three apprentices.

Villandry was built by one of Francis the First's finance ministers, Jean le Breton, whose descendents lived there for 300 years. But Villandry was not le Breton's most impressive construction. That would have to be what Henri Carvallo calls, "that vast flight of regal fancy" – Chambord.

Tourists mingle with old ghosts on the rooftops of Chambord. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.The king asked le Breton to supervise the building of what he envisioned as another hunting lodge, but which turned into an immense pleasure palace, one containing 365 fireplaces – the largest and most magnificent of all the Loire chateaux. Francis had even wanted to change the course of the Loire so that it would flow in front of the chateau. It would have been a monumental – if not impossible – task and the king was persuaded to divert the smaller, closer River Cosson instead. He also persuaded Leonardo da Vinci, who was living at the French court at the time, to take a hand in Chambord's design.

The first sight of Chambord is unforgettable, not because of its great size, but because of its roofline, where a splendid jumble of towers, dormers, gables, lanterns and chimneys explodes in a frenzy. Courtiers used to party on roof terraces, watching tournaments and awaiting the return of the hunt. On the day that we were there, visitors were invited out on the roofs. We could easily imagine the celebrations and assignations that must have taken place at the various levels and among the nooks and crannies of that fantastic rooftop.

Deep within a wooded park is one of Francis' earlier lodges, the Chateau de Beauregard. It’s elegant enough, but it seems more suitable for sport than elaborate house parties. You can almost hear the barking of dogs and the trumpeting of hunting horns as you come up the drive. Beauregard remains little changed from its original design except for an intriguing 17th Century portrait gallery where 327 French kings, queens and important historical figures peer down from the walls. It was fascinating to put human faces on the people who had lived in the places we'd visited.

I spent a long time studying the portrait of His Majesty, Francois le Premier. Wearing a resplendently embroidered golden robe with a white plume in his hat and looking down his long, sharp nose, he seemed to be taking the measure of the artist who was painting him. Soldier, sportsman, diplomat and king, lover of the arts and famous in love, he may never have realized that his great legacy would be that he brought the Renaissance to France – embodied in so many of the glorious chateaux in the Valley of the Loire.

When You Go:

THE FRANCE RAIL 'N DRIVE PASS allows 2 people traveling together any 3 days of unlimited train travel, including high speed TGV trains – plus any 2 days of Avis car rental – all within a one month period. The pass is not available in Europe, so you must purchase it before you leave the U.S. We paid $187 per person in 2nd Class with an economy car. First Class on the train and a car with automatic transmission costs $247.

After exploring the Loire Valley, we rode the TGV to Avignon. We also paid an extra $50 a day for 3 extra days of car rental. The pass is a good value and a great way to get around for those who want to follow their own travel whims.

Ask your travel agent or call RAIL EUROPE: 888-382-7245. Web site: www.raileurope.com

SLEEPING IN A CASTLE is not as expensive as you might think. Prices at the three we stayed at ranged from $75 to $200 a room.

Chateau des Réaux:
Ph.: 33 (0)2 47 95 14 40. Fax: 33 (0)2 47 95 18 34.
E-mail: reaux@club-internet.fr

Chateau de la Bourdaisière:
Ph.: 33 (0)2 47 45 16 31. Fax: 33 (0)2 47 45 09 11.
E-mail: labourd@club-internet.fr

Chateau d’Ivoy – a 17th Century castle which is now a graceful manor house – where we felt more like houseguests than tourists:
Ph.: 33 (0)2 48 58 85 01. Fax: 33 (0)2 48 58 85 02.
E-mail: chateau.divoy@wanadoo.fr

We could see for miles from our room in the old tower. Admittedly, it was an effort humping our bags up an ancient spiral stairway where centuries of footsteps are worn into the stone, but our pretty room was large and comfortable – and it had countryside views in three different directions. In the morning, we lingered over breakfast, chatting with Madame, who couldn't resist telling us about her brand new grandchild. Then we set off along the Loire.

Bourdaisière - in the Chamber of Francis the First. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.Not far from Chenonceau is the Chateau de La Bourdaisière, built by Francis I for one of his favorites, Marie Gaudin. We parked, walked up a little hill, and peeking into a walled garden, found the owner hard at work among his tomatoes. There were roses in the garden, and orchids in the greenhouse, but Prince Philippe-Maurice de Broglie loves to show visitors the prizes among the 400 tomato varieties in his garden. He encouraged us to visit the chateau and we could easily understand why the famous beauty, Gabrielle d’Estress, the mistress of a later king, chose not to live anywhere but in the house at Bourdaisière where she was born.

Cabbages and pumpkins in Villandry's famous vegetable garden. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.Villandry was the last of the great Renaissance chateaux to be built on the banks of the Loire (1535), but its most interesting history is 20th Century. In 1906, a Spaniard, Dr. Joachim Carvallo, purchased the property. Married to Philadelphia heiress Anne Caroline Coleman, Carvallo left a brilliant career at the School of Medicine at Paris in order to devote himself entirely to Villandry. He restored the chateau, which had been sadly altered, to its original elegant proportions.

Carvallo's even greater achievement was to re-establish gardens at Villandry that bring visitors from all over the world. Strolling through them is a delight. You hear birdsong and falling water. Paths are raked; weeds do not exist and hardly a leaf seems out of place.

To appreciate the scope and precision of the garden, you must view it from above. We climbed to the top of the keep (all that remains of the feudal fortress on the site before Villandry was built) and we were astonished. From a lake in an elegantly classical water garden comes the water used for a computerized irrigation system and to feed the many fountains. There are ornamental gardens dedicated to themes of love and music where appropriate flowers in appropriate colors are enclosed within sharply defined boxwood hedge, forming symbolic shapes like hearts and lyres. There is a playing field, a maze and an herb garden containing thirty different herbs, some of them rare.

But the vegetable garden is actually the most beautiful. Laid out in patterns within squares, as was the custom in medieval monasteries, it's planted twice a year. Crops are rotated and colors are contrasted – colors of the vegetables and of the many shades of green and purple in their leaves.

"These gardens require considerable upkeep," Henri Carvallo, great-grandson of Joachim, told us with considerable understatement. He supervises a crew of nine full-time, year-round gardeners and three apprentices.

Villandry was built by one of Francis the First's finance ministers, Jean le Breton, whose descendents lived there for 300 years. But Villandry was not le Breton's most impressive construction. That would have to be what Henri Carvallo calls, "that vast flight of regal fancy" – Chambord.

Tourists mingle with old ghosts on the rooftops of Chambord. Copyright: Mary O’Brien.The king asked le Breton to supervise the building of what he envisioned as another hunting lodge, but which turned into an immense pleasure palace, one containing 365 fireplaces – the largest and most magnificent of all the Loire chateaux. Francis had even wanted to change the course of the Loire so that it would flow in front of the chateau. It would have been a monumental – if not impossible – task and the king was persuaded to divert the smaller, closer River Cosson instead. He also persuaded Leonardo da Vinci, who was living at the French court at the time, to take a hand in Chambord's design.

The first sight of Chambord is unforgettable, not because of its great size, but because of its roofline, where a splendid jumble of towers, dormers, gables, lanterns and chimneys explodes in a frenzy. Courtiers used to party on roof terraces, watching tournaments and awaiting the return of the hunt. On the day that we were there, visitors were invited out on the roofs. We could easily imagine the celebrations and assignations that must have taken place at the various levels and among the nooks and crannies of that fantastic rooftop.

Deep within a wooded park is one of Francis' earlier lodges, the Chateau de Beauregard. It’s elegant enough, but it seems more suitable for sport than elaborate house parties. You can almost hear the barking of dogs and the trumpeting of hunting horns as you come up the drive. Beauregard remains little changed from its original design except for an intriguing 17th Century portrait gallery where 327 French kings, queens and important historical figures peer down from the walls. It was fascinating to put human faces on the people who had lived in the places we'd visited.

I spent a long time studying the portrait of His Majesty, Francois le Premier. Wearing a resplendently embroidered golden robe with a white plume in his hat and looking down his long, sharp nose, he seemed to be taking the measure of the artist who was painting him. Soldier, sportsman, diplomat and king, lover of the arts and famous in love, he may never have realized that his great legacy would be that he brought the Renaissance to France – embodied in so many of the glorious chateaux in the Valley of the Loire.

When You Go:

THE FRANCE RAIL 'N DRIVE PASS allows 2 people traveling together any 3 days of unlimited train travel, including high speed TGV trains – plus any 2 days of Avis car rental – all within a one month period. The pass is not available in Europe, so you must purchase it before you leave the U.S. We paid $187 per person in 2nd Class with an economy car. First Class on the train and a car with automatic transmission costs $247.

After exploring the Loire Valley, we rode the TGV to Avignon. We also paid an extra $50 a day for 3 extra days of car rental. The pass is a good value and a great way to get around for those who want to follow their own travel whims.

Ask your travel agent or call RAIL EUROPE: 888-382-7245. Web site: www.raileurope.com

SLEEPING IN A CASTLE is not as expensive as you might think. Prices at the three we stayed at ranged from $75 to $200 a room.

Chateau des Réaux:
Ph.: 33 (0)2 47 95 14 40. Fax: 33 (0)2 47 95 18 34.
E-mail: reaux@club-internet.fr

Chateau de la Bourdaisière:
Ph.: 33 (0)2 47 45 16 31. Fax: 33 (0)2 47 45 09 11.
E-mail: labourd@club-internet.fr

Chateau d’Ivoy – a 17th Century castle which is now a graceful manor house – where we felt more like houseguests than tourists:
Ph.: 33 (0)2 48 58 85 01. Fax: 33 (0)2 48 58 85 02.
E-mail: chateau.divoy@wanadoo.fr