‘A well spent day brings happy sleep’, Leonardo in Amboise

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.

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

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.

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

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.

Succumbing to the lure of the Loire in royal Amboise

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.

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d'Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

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.

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d'Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

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.