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, Chenonceau, and Chateau de Chambord, the subject of today’s post.
Chateau de Chambord
The Chateau de Chambord was begun by King Francis I of France, built as a hunting lodge. It was constructed over the years from 1519–1547, although it was not totally completed. The chateau is the largest chateau in the Loire Valley and famous partly because its image is widely used in advertising.
As we approached the chateau, we saw the familiar image. We’ve never been to Chambord before, but we have seen the classic panorama. The day we chose to visit was cloudy and dreary – it had rained some in the morning. This was the day we had, though, so we parked and walked to the entrance.
We were somewhat surprised to hear about the history of the chateau. We thought such a large and famous chateau would have been well cared for over the years. This was not the case – read on…
Domenico da Cortona is thought to be the original designer of the Chateau. He made a wooden model which was the source for architectural drawings made by André Félibien in the 17th century.
Construction of the Château de Chambord began in September of 1519. The work was interrupted by war and slowed by dwindling funds. In 1524, the walls were finally begun. By September of 1526, nearly 2000 workers were employed with construction of the chateau.
The chateau was built as a hunting lodge for King Francis I, but he spent little time there. The chateau was intended for short stays, not as a permanent home. The large rooms, windows and high ceilings made the building hard to heat. The chateau was out in the country rather than near a village, so all food had to be brought in by the hunting parties – sometimes very large groups of hunters. Eating utensils and furniture were also brought in for each visit. (Note: the French word for furniture is meubles, similar to mobile – because historically, it was necessary to move it from one location to another). Presently, period furniture and art has been added to enhance some of the rooms.
King Francis I died in 1547. For over 80 years the chateau sat abandoned and began to deteriorate. In 1639, it was given to Gaston d’Orléans, who started some restoration. King Louis XIV, continued the work on the chateau, adding a large stable, but it was abandoned again in 1685. Throughout the 18th,19th, and early 20th centuries the chateau changed hands several times, but since it was so large, restoration would never be finished before it would be left empty again.
The French state has owned the chateau and surrounding land since 1930. In 1939, just before the outbreak the war, art from the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, was moved to the Chateau for storage. Restoration of the huge structure began again in 1945, at the end of World War II. The chateau is now open as a tourist attraction.
Shape and Size
The rooms in the middle of the Chateau de Chambord are laid out in the shape of a cross whose four points are the same length. At the center, a spiral staircase climbs to each floor. Each floor of the chateau is about 40 feet high, so the ceilings were far above us. The center hallway of each arm of the cross-shaped building is open with rooms on either side. Doorways connect the end rooms to the hallway and more doorways connect the interior rooms to each other. We entered one room, then exited to a second and third room, and finally exited the third room back out to the hallway.
Surrounding and connected to the center chateau is a square-shaped double wall that offers access to each corner and contains more rooms. Outside the wall, gardens separate the chateau from a moat that partially surrounds the estate.
The chateau contains over 400 rooms and about 365 fireplaces. The chateau is furnished with period furniture, although continued restoration may add more. Many of the fireplaces are massive – all built of stone.
The roof has eleven different towers and three types of chimneys placed somewhat randomly to imitate the look of a city’s skyline. These structures are framed at the corners by four large towers. The roof is an open area that can be accessed from inside. We walked around, seeing the towers up close and looking over the walls to see the gardens. It was windy and chilly so we didn’t stay out there long, but the views were incredible.
The image of the chateau has been used on packaging for chocolate, alcohol, and other products, making Chambord one of the most well-known chateaux in France.
One of the chateau’s highlights is the double-helix staircase at the center of the chateau. The two spirals ascend to the three floors without ever meeting. It is thought that Leonardo da Vinci may have designed the staircase.
My daughter and I tried out the staircase, as had many other visitors before. I entered on one side and she entered the other. As we climbed, we could see each other through the small openings in the center, but we never met. We did not connect until we arrived at the top floor and exited the staircase.
The Chateau de Chambord is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day. It is open from 9 am until 5 pm from January through March, and open from 9 am until 6 pm the rest of the year.
Admission at this writing is 13€ per person with an additional 6€ for parking. Tickets can be purchased on site or reserved online. We found very short lines when we visited, but it was a dreary day and during shoulder season (the beginning of May).
This is a must-see chateau, just like the other two we visited. It is not difficult to visit two or three chateaus in one day if you plan ahead. We rented a car and drove from one chateau to the other. We visited one chateau on the afternoon of the first day, and two chateaux the second day with some time to spare.
Another option is to join one of the many guided tours originating from Paris or Tours, France. There are two-, three-, or four-chateaux options – some including an overnight stay.
This is the third and final Loire Valley chateau that we visited – all of them were well worth the time and admission fee.