Europe Travel Log – The Loire Valley

The Loire Valley

Saturday 17 September
We are on our way to the Loire Valley! In a big yellow bus! With a lot of other tourists!

This is the first time we are part of a tour group. There are guides for English speakers, Spanish and Italian speakers, and for French speakers. Our guide, who speaks excellent English, begins her commentary by explaining why there are so many chateaux. Apparently Kings had hunting lodges there and during the hundred year war with England, the Loire Valley became the official residence of the king and the administrative centre of France moved there from the Louvre in Paris. The war explains why there is little art in France from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – all resources were directed to the war – and why the rennaisance style of art was absent. It was not until Frances the first visited Italy and brought back Italian sculptors and artists to the Loire Valley that the renaissance style was introduced to France. One of the artists who came was da Vinci (Michaelangelo was favoured in Italy). The Mona Lisa has been in the Louvre Palace, and now the Louvre museum, since then.

I love the way that art and history are intertwined. I knew nothing of the history of Italy and France, and now, through our interest in art and architecture we have learned so much. This holiday has been our “History Tour”!

We are to visit six chateaux over two days. Amboise, Close Luce, Villandry, Chenonceau, Cheverny and Chambord, all within close driving distance of Tours.

Halfway to Tours, we hear a big bang from under the bus. It is disconcerting. The driver slows down for a few km but does not stop. Soon after there is another sound from under the bus, a sort of ripping sound. The bus is shaking a little where we are in the front, but apparently at the back the vibrations are quite bad. The driver slows to a speed where the shaking is not too bad. We expect him to pull over and stop but the bus keeps going! Peter is convinced that one of the rear inner tyres has blown. When we stop at our destination he speaks to an American man on the bus with us. This man works with trucks and has spoken to the driver who confirms it is a burst tyre. Peter and I are to change buses but the American is on a tour that stays on the bus. He refuses to ride in it. The last we see of him, he is talking furiously to someone on the phone. Good luck!

First stop Amboise. I like this small chateau very much, with its simple white stone (limestone) walls, terra cotta floors, and ribbed vaults typical of gothic architecture. But the most interesting feature is the wide bricked spiral ramp with curved stone ceiling (inside the chateau) that the king used to ride up to the first floor, rather than walk!

We, on the other hand, enter by climbing up spiral steps, passing through the small guards’ room with flagstaff floors (and white bricked vault), and into the official’s room. This Iarge room has huge stone fireplaces at either end and white columns decorated with figures where they meet the ribbed vaults they support. This chateaux is apparently an example of early French renaissance. The king had visited Italy, liked their rrennaisance architecture and built the chateau combining the gothic features of medieval architecture with features of the Italian renaissance. There are Italian and French flags flying outside.

The other highlight for me are the tapestries from the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not because I am a fan of tapestries, but because these genuine works of art are completely unprotected! I walk up to one and I touch it! I touch something beautiful that was made in the early 1500s!

From the roof we can look over the tiny town of Amboise which looks pretty much the way it did four centuries ago. We see the Loire River, unpolluted because it is very shallow at this point and can only be navigated by fishermen. We can also see close up the gargoyles on the roof, a remnant of the gothic style. We also see the verandah from which enemies of the king had been hanged then their bodies thrown in the Loire …

We descend via the tower which is made of limestone but this simplicity is wonderful. On the inside walls are windows through which we can see the central pole of the tower.

At this point our guide forgets about us, moves on quickly without us and when we emerge we are lost. This is not fun. We call, and call, and it is another group who point to where she is. She blames me for being slow. Thank god she is not our guide for the rest of the tour.

Our group is standing near the chapel which she tells us is da vinci’s tomb. Later our other guide tells us that da Vinci’s bones were scattered and mixed with those of many others. Some bones were picked at random and buried in the chapel. They are unlikely to be da Vinci’s bones!
After changing buses, our next stop is Close Luce, where da Vinci lived for the last three years of his life. Charles the first had lived here as a child, but it had originally been built as a fortress for a politician friend of Louis fourteenth.

The surrounding fortress had allowed the chateau to have windows facing into the courtyard, so is less austere looking than others. The highlight is easily the frieze that da Vinci painted in the chapel. It is amazing to think that he painted it, and that here it remains in good condition … Vibrant colours, beautiful faces and figures …

It is interesting to see the underground tunnel through which the king entered to visit da Vinci. Also of interest are the scale models that have been built based on da Vinci’s drawings. We see a gearing mechanism that he used to develop ideas such as a pump with an Archimedes screw, a car, a catapult, an armored tank … And more.

The best story involves that of his young lover, Franscesco, to whom he bequeathed the Mona Lisa. Franscesco promptly sold it to the king for lots of money. And that is how it ended up in the Louvre!

We’re back on the bus. Next chateau. I do not expect to enjoy Villandry and would not have chosen it as part of my itinerary. But, gosh, am I wrong! We are to see only the gardens, as an example of a Renaissance garden. Prior to this the French had only vegetable gardens to feed the household.

The primary function of a renaissance garden is to be beautiful. It is extremely geometric and very precise. But also whimsical. There is the Romance garden – tender love, tragic love, adulterous love, and a broken heart – using colours and shapes to develop a work of art. The vegetable garden is beautifully laid out using colours of vegetables to produce patterns. There is a herb garden, also laid out to please the eye. A maze and lawns are set against a backdrop of carefully maintained forest.

Once again, the Italian renaissance influenced France. Prior to this, Villandry had been a fortress with many towers. Now, only one tower remains, along with a moat full of carp.

We stop in the town of Tours before going to our hotel. Tours was built in the fifteenth century and some of the original houses remain despite many having been destroyed by bombing in WW2 . Some are made of slate, some of mud wood and look exactly like the English houses of Shakespeare’s time. The central square is full of tables, surrounded by cafes, and jam packed with tourists.

Over dinner we meet a delightful couple who live near Boston. Joanne suggests two museums to add to our list: L’Orangerie, and the Mamatot-Monet. We are to be extremely grateful!

Sunday 18 September
At 8.15am the temperature is 9 degrees!
I’m looking forward to seeing the Chateau de Chenonceau. I have seen many pictures of it, built on arched piers over the River Cher.

We approach by walking down along avenue of trees. It’s quiet, peaceful and how i imagine the road to a chateau should be. It’s easy to imagine carriages, men and women on horseback.

Chenonceau is built from the local limestone which lightens with age. The facade is absolutely beautiful. The arches over the river look exactly as I have seen them! So picturesque! The front entrance is topped by round balconies on either side. The door is sculpted wood, decoratively painted with golds and blues over green.

The chateau was built by the finance minister to Henri fourth who accused him of cheating the monarchy of taxes. Henri confiscated the chateau and put his own motto above the front door, something to do with him being king by god’s grace …

It is a mix of gothic and rennaissance design with ribbed vaults and arches. The huge fireplaces are decorative. There is a good art collection, thanks to Catherine de Medici, wife of Henri. Most has been removed to the Louvre, but a Rubens, Tintoretto, van Eyck, Veronaze, and a Mirillo remain, all originals. They are on the walls of Catherine’s study. There is also a marvellous florentine ebony and gold jewelry chest given to her by her home state, Florence, for her wedding.

There is a wonderful sculpted fireplace in Diane de Poitier’s room. It has the letters H, D and C intertwined in gold, placed regularly round the head. She was the king’s mistress and when Henri died as a result of an eye injury during a jousting match, she was bequeathed the chateau. The queen confiscated it! Surprise! Surprise!

The chateau is sometimes referred to as the three ladies because of their influence on it’s design. Unusually it has a central hall off which the rooms come. There is a long ball room with chandeliers and the original slate and stone floor. This had been a bridge, built by Diane to access the woods for hunting. Catherine walled it in and it became the venue for sumptuous parties about which much is known because of writers at the time recording the details. It is sobering to recall again that while the aristocracy lived lavishly it was at the expense of poor people who were taxed to pay for this lifestyle.

One tower remains from the original fortifications. There are colourful gardens with fountains. Beside is the River Cher. I could spend a day wandering through the chateau and gardens. If we ever return this chateau would be on my “must see” list.

Chiverny is completely different. It seems more of a stately home than a chateau. It is classical French seventeenth century architecture. The facade is made from long narrow limestone bricks-very regular and very precise. It is decorated with Roman style busts.
The roof is made of black slate and has the rounded domes and sloping gables with flat roof that I see everywhere in Paris. The buildings in Paris that I so admire are clearly classical French of the seventeenth century – it makes sense!

Chiverny is decorated in baroque style, very busy, flowing, and dynamic. It has a straight staircase rather than spiral, an Italian influence. The ceiling above the stairs retains the wonderful arching curve in limestone that is so beautiful.

Attention has been paid to letting light in, so it is south facing with many tall windows. The shutters are elaborately painted.

The king’s room is the largest. In every chateau, a room must be set aside in case the king visits. It must be appropriate for a king … This room has an Italian coffered ceiling, and tapestries completely cover the walls, floor to ceiling and around corners. I don’t really have an interest in tapestries, but these are remarkable and have retained their original vivid colours despite being four hundred years old.

A Sunday market has been going on just outside the chateau. Chiverny is known for it’s good wines. Perhaps we should have visited the market instead of the chateau …

Finally, the highlight of the tour – Chambord!

Built by Francis the first and his son Henri the fourth from 1519 to 1559, Chambord is the largest chateau in France. The wall around the chateau and grounds is 32 km, the wall around Paris is 35km! (the original wall around Paris is now the ring road.)

Chambord was never lived in … The rooms too high, too large to heat. The king built it to be the greatest hunting lodge ever. Unfortunately, the hunting season begins in November and the chateau was too cold!

From the road, having passed through the wall that encircles it, there are fabulous views of the chateau through the forest. Glimpses of medievil turrets and towers! Fairyland …

The chateau has a facade of limestone blocks, forming wide circular towers below, a terrace (Italiant Renaissance) and narrow pointed ones above (gothic).

Double spiral staircase, said to be inspired by da Vinci, beautiful in white stone and curving balustrades. I climb it to the Terrace! (quickly up, quickly down because I am with a group. Rush, rush. Without Peter I couldn’t do it!) I’m absolutely delighted to have climbed up one staircase and down the other. Especially under the pressure of not keeping the other members of the group waiting.

A room with panels from Versailles to show how the chateau would have looked when it was built. The chateau was stripped during the revolution.

Ceiling vaults stamped with Francis the first (F) combined with his emblem, the salamander.

The terrace from where the towers and turrets can be seen more closely, and a clear view of the canal that delivers water to the moats around the chateau. A fisherman can be seen in his boat.

I would love to spend more time at Chambord. I’d explore the chateau thoroughly and walk alongside the canal.

However, we are on a tight timetable. Our guide tells me that he would prefer to do ten day tours of the Loire Valley. He also says that he does tours of the Louvre – one and a half hours and two and a half hours. I tell him that that is madness. He agrees.

We are returning to Paris on Sunday evening and the guides expect there to be traffic delays as French families return home after a weekend away. They are right. The electronic warning system says a forty five minute delay. The driver gets off the motorway and drives through the back roads. It’s pretty, and we’re only thirty minutes late!

The Loire valley has three hundred chateau, makes wonderful wine and is the garden of France. A weekend scratches the surface of what can be seen and done. For me this tour has been a “Taste of the Loire”. Looked at this way it has been a wonderful few days, during which I have learnt a lot about French history, the scandals of its royalty, the beauty of it’s architecture, and a context for many other things I have seen.

If we return to France I would like to spend about four days in Tours, driving to the chateaux I want to see more of. I’d spend time walking in the gardens, enjoying the peace of the surrounding farmland and vineyards, tasting local food and exploring just a few chateaux.

A fabulous weekend nonetheless!

Notes on Accessibilty
The bus
Impossible to get a wheelchair on to the bus. High steps requiring strong upper body strength to climb.

The chateaux
Some have complete wheelchair access, some partial, and some none. Where ramps have been possible they have been incorporated.

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