Insight Guides: Loire Valley

Travel Books: France

The Loire Valley is a bourgeois paradise, with a riverscape awash with Renaissance chateaux and medieval castles, not to mention rolling vineyards and great food and wine.


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Chateau de Chambord

North of Cheverny and Villesavin, watery Sologne evaporates into the woods. From here the Domaine the Chambord, dissected by elegant avenues, stretches as far as the eye can see. Through the trees are hazy glimpses of the Loire’s largest and grandest residence, a Renaissance chateau built for posterity by a fickle king. Poet Alfred de Vigny likened this skyline of dove-grey domes and delicate cupolas to an oriental town in miniature. Prosaic Charles V, not normally given to fulsome praise, called Chambord, `a summary of human endeavour’ while Chateaubriand, more attuned to the fate of the Chateau, saw a neglected woman with windswept hair. Vivian Rowe in “Chateaux of the Loire” calls Chambord, “The skyline of Constantinople on a single building.”

In its place the young king created an airy pleasure palace as an escape from his stifling marriage, the inward-looking chateau at Blois and the restrictions of court life. But as the chateau grew in splendour, so too did the king’s aspirations. By the end of his life, Chambord was François’ bid for immortality, prefiguring Louis XIV’s relationship with Versailles. It is no surprise, then, that Chambord foreshadows Versailles in its scale of conception and sheer size. With false modesty, François used to invite favoured guests to `come back to my place’, a cosy hunting lodge with a fireplace for every day of the year. Significantly, the architect’ names are unknown, although Leonardo da Vinci, the King’s guest at Amboise, is reputed to have drawn up the first plans or guided the master builders. Nearly 2,000 craftsmen worked on the site over twenty-five years, producing a vast palace containing over 450 rooms, foreshadowing Versailles’ 365 windows and 70 staircases. Yes, despite the sumptuous apartments, Renaissance court life was an outdoor affair, revolving around hunting and feasting.

From this airy village, courtiers gathered to watch tournaments or hunts until nightfall. At intervals, enthusiastic parties, laden down with trestle tables and portable banquets, were despatched to join the hunters. An irate English ambassador complained that these French courtiers were `bohemians and gypsies’, never in their quarters when one went to visit them. Despite their elevated vantage point, courtiers readily sank to low intrigue, idle gossip or romantic assignations among the chimney pots. From this airy platform are magnificent views of the estate, the majority of the 13,600 acres (5,500 hectares) forming part of the National Hunting Reserve.  Reassuring signs claim that “cerfs, biches et sangliers vivent en liberté” but in fact most sensible deer keep a low profile and the boar are positively invisible, not just in the autumn mating season.

Perhaps old race memories die hard: here François I would trap and kill a stag single-handedly to impress female admirers on the terraces. One evening, François, wounded by a particular liaison dangereuse, used his diamond ring to scratch a message on a pane of glass: “Souvent femme varie, bien fol est qui s’y fie” (Every woman is fickle, he who trusts one is a fool).  This complaint finds a poignant echo in Chambord’s experience of neglectful male owners – or even in Claude de France’s disappointment in a faithless husband who had hunted too long on the estate or the terrace.

Extract from The Insight Guide to The Loire Valley by Lisa Gerard-Sharp (copyright © APA Publications (UK) Ltd).
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