The Loire Valley is a magnet for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in France’s royal history. The lure of the majestic River Loire, beautiful countryside, picturesque towns and villages, and dozens of glorious chateaux with their frequently scandalous pasts, not to mention their lavish formal gardens, is overwhelming. This is one of the most historic and popular regions in the country, and it attracts tourists in their droves. To emphasise the point, UNESCO designated a 300km stretch of the valley as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
We last visited the Loire a couple of years ago, but didn’t have time to visit Amboise. A state of affairs I’ve been eager to rectify ever since I learned of both its royal history and its connection with Leonardo da Vinci. Home to approximately 15,000 people, it’s a relaxed and easy going place despite being one of the region’s premiere destinations for tourism. I found myself there during a mini-heatwave, the temperature reaching 38°C, which may account for why there seemed to be few tourists walking around.
I arrived early in the morning after a drive from Bourges and was able to check into my hotel – always a good sign – before heading off to find breakfast and then making my way to the town’s outstanding sight: the Château Royal d’Amboise. I walked through still quiet streets until I found an open cafe sitting directly beneath the towering walls of the château. The château wasn’t yet open so I made my way to the Pont du Maréchal Leclerc, Amboise’s road bridge over the Loire that also crosses the Île d’Or.
From the bridge the views to the town and château are wonderful. The castle started life as a stone keep in the 11th century, but was expanded over the centuries until it was seized by Charles VII after its then owner was accused of plotting against the royal family. It became a royal residence in 1434 and was a firm favourite of French kings for the next 150 years. Charles VIII even went as far as to die here – by hitting his head on a wooden lintel when on his way to play tennis.
It was during the 16th century reign of Francis I that the castle reached it’s pinnacle. It was to Amboise in 1516 that Francis brought Leonardo da Vinci, and it was here that the Italian died in 1519. His grave lies within the Chapel of St. Florentin in the grounds of the Château d’Amboise. It is one of the first buildings that visitors to the château see when entering the grounds. The interior is very simple, with just a few stained glass windows adding a splash of ornamentation.
I decided to walk through the grounds before visiting the castle interior, I was glad I did as the temperature got uncomfortably hot as the morning went on. During the reign of Francis I there were many more structures than today, several 16th century buildings didn’t survive into the modern era. Demolished in later centuries, the space left behind became the extensive formal gardens. What remains, although not a patch on the 16th century château, is still impressive and the grounds are very pleasant.
The heat by late morning was unbearable, so I headed indoors to explore the château. The castle has seen many famous ‘guests’ including Mary Queen of Scots, who at least was here of her own free will. Louis XIV turned it into a prison, a role it continued to serve until the 19th century. It was here that the Algerian Emir Abd Al-Qadir and his family was imprisoned in 1848, for his role fighting French colonisation of his country. The château has some furnished rooms, but many are quite bare. It doesn’t take long to go around it.
While it remained a royal residence, after Francis I successive monarchs spent less and less time here. Without the royal court visiting on a regular basis many buildings were unused and fell into disrepair. The nail in the coffin came during the French Revolution, when many decrepit buildings were destroyed. It seems a shame, but it’s compensated for by the extraordinary views over the valley below. From the battlements you can probably see Mick Jagger’s house.