If there is a more exquisite sight anywhere in the Loire Valley than the Château de Chenonceau in the early morning sunlight, I don’t know what it might be. Draped across the tranquil River Cher, its white stone brilliantly reflected in the slow moving water, this has to be one of the most sublime and graceful château to be found anywhere in France … and that’s saying something.
You approach it along a tree lined avenue that culminates in beautiful formal gardens. A path through the flower garden brings you to a riverside walk along the Cher, and leads into sun-dappled woodland where more paths diverge amongst the trees. It is as perfect as it is possible to get … at least if you get here before the tour buses start arriving.
Chenonceau’s spectacular location alone would be reason to visit, but this is also a castle with a history to match its magical location. The peaceful surroundings belie five centuries of intrigue, revenge and decadence. Its also unusual for the fact that its most influential inhabitants were all women, which is why it’s nicknamed the “castle of the six women”.
Chenonceau was built in 1515 by Thomas Bohier, the finance minister to French King Charles VIII. It was his wife, Katherine, who tore down the original castle, chose the new design and oversaw the building work. Chenonceau became a royal château when King Francis I seized it upon the death of Bohier. Francis was quickly succeeded by King Henri II who indulgently gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
Unfortunately for Diane, Henri II was married to one of the Medici’s, not a family with which to trifle. Catherine de Medici was a woman of iron will who clearly subscribed to the theory that revenge is best served cold. One of her favourite sayings was “hate and wait”. Which is precisely what she did to get her hands on Chenonceau and dispossess Diane.
Vibrant, fun and renowned for her athleticism, Diane de Poitiers was everything Catherine wasn’t. She had been Henri II’s governess when he was a child and, although 20 years his senior, Henri was clearly obsessed with her. God only knows what this says about his state of mind. Catherine despised her, but powerless to challenge her while Henri lived she waited.
In the meantime, Diane became a successful businesswoman and turned the estate into a financial success. The profits were used to add the bridge across the river – so she could go hunting in the woods on the far bank. Then Henri died in a jousting accident and Catherine made her move, forced Diane out and took Chenonceau for herself.
It was Catherine who added the two galleries on top of the bridge that completed the building you see today. She was making a fortune from farming silk and used the profits to build the house and to throw some of the most decadent parties the 16th century ever saw. Catherine was the first person in France to have a fireworks display, but her parties also included naked ‘nymphs’ and transvestites.
When Catherine’s third son, King Henry III, was assassinated in 1589 Chenonceau passed to his wife, Louise de Lorraine. Filled with grief, she turned the castle into a living mausoleum. She had her bedroom decorated in black and took to roaming the corridors in white mourning clothes. When she died in 1601 she was the last royal resident Chenonceau would have.
During the French Revolution the castle was in the possession of Louise Dupin. It was Louise who made the château fashionable for Parisian society darlings, including the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers, Voltaire and Rousseau. Aged 83-years old when the Revolution erupted, she managed to save the castle from the mob.
One final historical footnote, during the Second World War the River Cher formed the boundary between German-controlled France and Vichy France. Chenonceau, and its galleried bridge, were used to smuggle Jews and French Resistance fighters across the river away from Nazi hands.
It’s a glorious place. The only down side is its popularity. In summer up to 6000 souls – groups, families and individuals – pour into the house and grounds. It wasn’t that bad when we were there, but the house was uncomfortably crowded and we almost didn’t visit the kitchens due to a long queue. Go early.