Amboise has two world-class attractions, the Château Royal d’Amboise and the equally extraordinary Château du Clos Lucé, or Clos Lucé as it is almost universally known. It was to here that I headed after a morning exploring the history of Château d’Amboise, but first it was time for lunch. The exit from the château disgorges you onto a street directly opposite La Cave, a wine shop that offers charcuterie and tastings. I took this as a sign of divine providence, sat in the shade and ordered a glass of the owner’s own Vouvray wine.
The heat was now ferocious, the mercury rising to a terrible 38°C. It took an immense amount of determination not to head to the air conditioning of my hotel room. Instead, I plodded uphill towards the estate where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life as a guest of the French King, Francis I. Amidst wonderful gardens, the Italian genius of the Renaissance spent his time inventing and painting. The story goes that when he left Italy for France, he carried with him the Mona Lisa.
It would be fair to call Leonardo one of the most influential painters of all time, but as a visit to the Clos Lucé proves, he was a man of many talents. He had an endless thirst for knowledge that led him to become an expert in many disciplines, including engineering, botany, architecture, mathematics and music. A mind never at rest, inventions seemed pour out of him: prototypes of tanks, airplanes, helicopters and an adding machine. Not to mention musical instruments, water pumps, bridges, the parachute, sculptures and anatomical studies.
It wouldn’t be unfair to call him a genius. Yet despite all of this, it is Leonardo the artist that is most popular. The Mona Lisa may be the most well known piece – and he was still working on it when in Amboise – but it’s the 1490s painting of The Last Supper that is his true masterpiece. All of these different aspects and periods of Leonardo’s life are covered at Clos Lucé, and perhaps it is testament to his enduring popularity that when I arrived at the entrance (dripping in sweat) there was a queue of thirty people.
In fact, the whole of the magnificent gardens and the period interior of the house were packed with people. I was so hot that once I had my ticket I headed into the gardens and the shade of some nearby trees. There is a trail that leads around the gardens, and I followed it past reproductions of various inventions and of his drawings and paintings hung amongst the trees. The mysterious eyes of the Mona Lisa could be seen peeking between trees in a shady glade.
Although there were a lot of people, the gardens were quite peaceful, and I spent a good hour meandering around before plucking up the courage to go into the house. There are some fascinating displays and lots of good information about the man, his times, and his work. It was crowded though, and the heat was suffocating. I rushed my visit just to get back outside and into the shade of a tree. Afterwards, I strolled back into the town and along the banks of the River Loire.
In the end, I had to give in to the temptation of the air conditioner, and went to cool off at the hotel. Later that evening I had a table booked at the restaurant Chez Bruno, run by the same people who run La Cave. As well as a well stocked cellar, they do excellent food. It felt like fate that, just a few days before we would leave the Netherlands for Germany, a Dutch couple sat at the next table. We struck up a conversation and shared a few glasses of wine. A fine end to a well spent day.