On our recent trip to France, my daughter and I visited the Loire Valley. This lush area stretches over 170 miles along the central region of the Loire River. In addition to agricultural offerings, the area draws tourists to visit some of the more than 300 chateaux and gardens.
Dating back as early as the 10th century, some of the chateaux were built by rulers, while others were the homes of wealthy land owners. My daughter and I chose to visit three of these chateaux on this trip –Chateau de Villandry (covered earlier – click the link), Chenonceau (which I will tell you about today), and Chateau de Chambord (click the link).
The original Chenonceau Chateau was built on these grounds in the 13th century, but it was burned in an act of revenge. A second chateau with a mill was built in 1430, but everything except the keep was demolished by the next owner. The oldest parts of the current chateau were built between 1515 and 1521.
The most picturesque part of the chateau, the bridge across the river, was built in 1555. The addition was overseen by the chateau’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, one of the many prominent women that owned or controlled the chateau through the years. Diane was the mistress of Henry II, and when he died in 1559, his widow Catherine de’Medici removed Diane and moved in herself. Throughout the years, each woman that owned the chateau added to the interior decor and gardens, often acquiring enormous debt along with the improvements.
In part because of these debts, but also due to political changes, the chateau changed hands many times until it was purchased by Henri Menier in 1913. Although Henri died later that year, the chateau has remained in the Menier family since then. (This is the same Menier family known for its chocolates).
The Chenonceau Chateau is located in the town of the same name. There is public transportation available via SNCF rail service to within a couple hundred feet of the chateau’s parking lot. Guided tours are prevalent to the area originating from the city of Tours, France, and day trips are available from Paris. The final option -and the one we chose – is to rent a car. Driving to the chateau was easy, especially since we had navigation available on our phone.
Chenonceau Chateau is open to the public every day of the year. It opens at 9:30 am, but closing times vary during the year. Adult tickets are €13 with the 30-page guidebook or €17.50 with an audio guide. Discounts are given for young people, children, and people with disabilities. For more information visit the chateau’s website.
There are several areas outside the chateau that are beautiful and interesting. The vegetable garden and farm are on the right as visitors follow the tree-lined walk from the parking area to the chateau -on the left is the Italian Maze. Gardens surround the chateau on three sides, while the fourth side borders the Cher River.
The day we visited was overcast and drizzly, so we didn’t spend as much time in the gardens as we otherwise would have. On a sunny day, the gardens would be beautiful. As it was, we walked along the river in both directions, taking a few pictures of the chateau from each angle.
Tour of the Chateau
As we started our self guided tour – we opted for the printed guide booklet – we read the explanation for each room we entered. As we went on we found that the booklet contained more information than we could digest at once; we chose to just read the highlights, while taking in all the sights our eyes could absorb.
My favorite rooms included the kitchen, the bedrooms, the chapel and the gallery. The kitchen is located in the lower level of the chateau. Meat and produce could be delivered by boats on the river to the lower level access. During the First World War, the kitchen area served as a hospital.
Each bedroom includes a fireplace so the inhabitants could remain throughout the year. The walls are all covered with elaborate tapestries, most dating from the 16th century. The bedrooms seem dark, with the fires warming the atmosphere with light in addition to heat.
Although the chapel survived the French Revolution and the First World War, the stained glass windows were destroyed during World War II. In 1954, they were replaced by windows designed by Max Ingrand. The brightness of the chapel contrasts with the darkness of the bedrooms.
The gallery fills the space created by the bridge across the river. There are 18 large windows that provide light. At each end a Renaissance fireplace adds warmth.
What I found most interesting was the checkerboard patterned floor. White tufa and black slate tiles form the pattern. Tufa is a porous material and is not as permanent as slate, so each white tile had a slight dip. Dancing on this ballroom floor might be a bit dangerous today.
Depending on the season, each room contains a glowing fire or fresh flowers. Since we visited in early May, we experienced both. A few of the rooms had a fire burning, while the rest had flowers from the garden. A couple of the rooms had both. The chateau employs two full time florists to arrange the fresh flowers for the rooms. The owners feel it is important that all visitors feel welcome.
If you visit Chenonceau Chateau, try to arrive at opening time in the morning or late in the afternoon. In the morning, go straight to the chateau; in the afternoon, walk through the gardens first (be sure to save enough time to visit the chateau). Plan to spend a minimum of 1 hour inside the chateau.
Visit during the off season or shoulder season if possible. Although we arrived early and toured in shoulder season, we found some of the smaller rooms crowded and difficult to see. We had spent too much time wandering through the gardens before entering the chateau.
Chenonceau Chateau is one of the most visited chateaux in France – second only to the much larger Versailles. It is easy to see why. I would heartily recommend taking a look if you are in the area or taking a day tour the next time you are in Paris.