Boy was it cold the day we went for a drive around the Loire Valley. Not only that, but the skies were a horrible grey and when we drove from the driveway of our own chateau in Chatellerault, we could barely see 20 metres in front of us the fog was so thick. We were worried that our first stop, Château de Chenonceau, was going to be barely visible and our day would be wasted. We needn’t have worried, it turned out our first stop was to be the highlight of our adventure.
From doing a little travel blog research about the Loire Valley, it seemed that Château de Chenonceau was the jewel in the Loire Valley’s crown, at least from a château point of view anyway. I wasn’t that excited about seeing the château to be honest, I was far more excited about seeing the rest of the Loire Valley. It’s famous for its beauty of course, and when it’s been dubbed ‘The Garden of France’, it’s difficult not to expect some of the most incredible scenery imaginable. What transpired was an inverted correlation between my pre-departure excitement level for various destinations, and my post-visit enjoyment of them. I actually thought the Loire Valley is incredibly overrated, but Château de Chenonceau turned out to be a real treat.
I’m all castled/cathedralled/chateaud out!!!
Since leaving Australia for the first time in 2000 to live and work in London, I’ve been to so many castles, cathedrals and châteaux that I am literally over them. I mean, if I never step foot inside another building of historical importance, then I’ll die a happy man. Of course there are always exceptions to that rule; I recently visited the Taj Mahal which blew my mind with its beauty. But as a general rule, I’ve been tending to give historic buildings a miss and it hasn’t bothered me one bit. However, we’ve been cooped up here in Chatellerault for over a month now, so we were keen to get out and do a bit of exploring which is why we were happy to include a couple of châteaux and an Abbey on our Loire Valley itinerary.
Making our way into Château de Chenonceau (take 1)
When we arrived at Château de Chenonceau we were dreading getting out of the car. It looked so cold, and the fog was still lingering, although it wasn’t too thick by this stage. We slowly forced ourselves out of the car, got rugged up in our jackets and scarves, and bought a couple of tickets to enter (€12.50 per adult, Jack was free). As soon as we walked through the gate into the magnificent grounds, we knew we were in for a treat despite the less than welcoming weather. The first thing we saw was a moss covered river with a row of beautiful trees down each bank forming a canopy overhead. From there we walked about 100 metres along the wide tree-lined avenue, past the maze and Caryatides, to the château itself. Before heading in we decided to make a quick left to check out Diane de Poitiers’ Garden, and get a great shot of the château straddling the river from side on. Château de Chenonceau started life as just a smallish château by the River Cher, but over time a bridge was built from the château across the river, before finally a gallery and grand ballroom was built on the bridge giving the building its now distinctive look. As we were making our way around the garden, Jack informed us he needed to go to the toilet. Recently we’ve trained Jack to tell us when he needs to go to the toilet so that he doesn’t need to wear nappies anymore. For the most part he has been excellent, telling us in plenty of time when needs to go. Unfortunately on this occasion, we were just too late. By the time I’d carried Jack to a nearby tree and got his pants down, he couldn’t hold on any more. I was about three seconds too late, but it was enough that we had to go back to the car and get Jack changed into a nappy and clean pair of pants. I was happy when Sarah volunteered to take him back to the car, and I waited for their return outside the front door of the château.
Making our way into Château de Chenonceau (take 2)
After what seemed an eternity, Sarah and Jack made their way back and we headed inside. My toes had frozen inside my shoes while waiting outside, so you can imagine how excited I was to see a roaring fireplace in the reception area. As it turned out there were a few enormous fires blazing away throughout the château, and it made a world of difference to our experience. Château de Chenonceau is absolutely spectacular inside, so well preserved and maintained. It is known as the ‘ladies château’ and it’s easy to see why. Some of the most famous ladies in French history have resided here over the years, such as Henri II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers and the Queen herself Catherine de’ Medici, and they’ve all left their distinct mark on the building. It’s beautifully fitted out with Renaissance furniture, 16th and 17th century tapestries draped on the walls, and many masterpieces by famous artists such as Le Primatice, Rubens, Le Tintoret, Rigaud and Nattier.
The various rooms of Château de Chenonceau
Each room in Château de Chenonceau has a distinct look and feel. From the moment you walk into the Guard’s Room, with the big open fire and reception where you collect audio guides and other information from staff, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time.
The small chapel is a brilliant white with beautiful stained glass windows. The original windows were destroyed by bombing during World War II, but the replacements made in 1954 are stunning.
The bedrooms are fascinating with small beds, by our modern day standards, in classic four-poster style with curtains, sheets, pillows and other decorations all matching in colour and cloth. There are so many artworks and tapestries adorning the walls, along with antique furniture hundreds of years old that at times it’s hard to know where to look. Your vision is stimulated to the max by everything that is around you.
The Green Study and The Library are lovely rooms, but it was The Grand Ballroom that really was incredible. Running the length of the bridge across the river, it is a massive expanse of brilliant white with a black and white tiled check floor, and beautiful candle chandeliers hanging overhead.
The Kitchen’s were probably my favourite part of the château, with copper post, various knives and even a wild deer head hanging from the walls. Incorporating several rooms at river level so goods could be transferred from boats straight inside, it was a captivating experience to see how the staff would have worked to keep the residents happy. There was the kitchen where all of the cooking was done, a smaller room where animals would have been chopped up into various cuts and hung from the pegs on the walls, and separate rooms where the staff and the occupants would have eaten.
There were loads of other rooms across three levels to visit and each one was different in its own way. It was well worth the €12.50 entry fee, although the only petty criticism I have is the ‘free wi-fi’. In order to get connected you had to register your details including your email. A confirmation email was then sent with a URL you had to click to confirm it was actually you registering. The only problem is, if you can’t connect in the first place, there’s no way to receive an email to confirm in order to connect. If you’ve got 3G connection you’ll be fine, but if all you have is wi-fi capabilities on your smartphone, you’re screwed. But hey, you’re in a château that’s hundreds of years old, so who cares about the internet right?
Exploring the rest of Château de Chenonceau
After leaving the warmth of Château de Chenonceau we ventured outside to check out the rest of the grounds. We didn’t bother exploring Catherine de’ Medici’s Garden, but we took a quick look as we walked past and it seemed very similar to Diane de Poitiers’ Garden. We walked past a long building with a series of rooms including a restaurant, wax works museum and a replica French hospital from the early 19th century which was actually quite interesting to check out. Apparently the château was used as a makeshift hospital during World War I, and I was shocked to see X-rays on the walls. I was soon to discover x-ray was discovered by a German in 1895, which once again blew my mind!
We left and walked through the very charming and visually impressive 16th century farm, then the vegetable and flower garden, before finishing our visit at the Donkey Park. It’s still slightly strange to me that donkey’s are an attraction here, because I’m not sure of their relevance to the château, but they were very friendly with one in particular coming over to give my hand a good licking to the amusement of Jack.
Overall we probably spent a bit less than two hours at Château de Chenonceau, partly because of the cold weather, and partly because we had a jam packed schedule ahead of us. If it was nice weather and you didn’t have much else planned for the day, you could easily spend half a day here exploring the grounds and château either before or after enjoying a nice lunch in the restaurant.
While we didn’t go much on the rest of the Loire Valley, this was definitely a highlight and we highly recommend you visit if you’re in the area. After all, there’s a good reason why it’s the second most visited château in France behind the Royal Palace of Versailles.