Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Chateaux of the Loire Valley

The real reason to visit the Loire Valley was to visit all the chateaux, the French kings really knew how to spend the peasant's tax dollars! On Saturday we joined a tour and visited 4 chateaux in the day, it was a pretty full day and we only had just over an hour at each chateau but it also meant that we didn't get chateau-ed out, which I think is a definite possibility if you spend a long time at each one. Our tour guide would also give as a bit of background history of each chateau before we visited, which was good.

The first chateau of the day was Villandry, here we just visited the gardens and they really were amazing! The chateau itself was built in the 1530's and was one of the last large chateaux to be built in the Loire valley. The actual gardens that we saw are a recreation, from the 1920's, of what they looked like in the 16th century. The gardens consisted of 3 terraces, on different levels, one of the terraces was a vegetable garden. But it was like no vegie garden I've ever seen, they had gone for beauty rather than just plain utilitarianism.
The gardens, the vegie garden is the one in the distance. Due to the delicate roots of the box hedges the entire garden has to be hand weeded.

The next chateau of the day was Azay-le-Rideau, this was also built in the 16th century by the wife of a corrupt finance minister, who I guess was able to get his hands on a lot of the tax money. There was some lovely furniture inside the chateau and a lot of 400 year old tapestries, but the really striking feature was the outside. After the chateau was built a river had been diverted around it so it looks like it was built in the middle of the lake. This chateau was definitely one of my favourites of the day.

After lunch we set of again for another round of chateau visiting. We first visited Chambord, which is huge, the grounds are as large as Paris and have been reserved for French presidential hunting parties. I think the last president who hunted there was Mitterand, so it was a little while ago. The king who initiated the building in 1519 only ever spent 72 days here, I really can't understand, with this sort of behaviour, how it took the French people another 200 years before they revolted. Whilst the chateau looks great from the outside, inside it is a bit of a rabbit warren with no real hallways, meaning that you would have had to walk through other people's bedrooms to get to your own room. This chateau was also owned by the state, and they really hadn't put anywhere near as much effort into the interior as the other, privately run, chateaux had. The main feature of this Chambord is the main staircase, which is built as a double spiral, which means that if two people take separate flights they can see each other, but they will never meet. It is believed that Leonardo da Vinci actually proposed the idea for this staircase. Apparently Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years in the Loire valley and was even given his own manor by, I think, the French king. As a thank you gift he gave the French the Mona Lisa, which is why the Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre and not in Italy.

Also at Chambord were some royal coaches which were built for someone who could have been king in the 1870's, except he made too many demands and took too long to take up the position so the French people elected someone else to rule them. Along with these amazing carriages, which were subsequently never used, the same guy also had Hermes, known for their unbelievably expensive handbags, to make him a royal saddle.

The last chateau which we visited was Chenonceau, this chateau is the most popular in France with 1 million visitors a year, more even than Versailles. This chateau was given by Henri II to his life-long mistress Diane de Poiters, and as the gift was official after his death the queen, Catherine de Medici, could not just take it back. Instead she forced Diane to swap it for another chateau in a different town. Personally I think Diane was lucky to not just be killed by the queen as the chateau was really amazing and I can't imagine Catherine would have felt many qualms in killing her dead husband's ex-mistress for such a lovely place. During the second world war this chateau was important as it is built across the River Cher, which during the occupation was a border between occupied France in the north and free France in the south. Resistance fighters could therefore make their way to this castle and by simply walking through the front door, across the river and out the back they would be in free France.

There was one particularly interesting room in this chateau. After King Henri III was assassinated his wife, Louise of Lorraine, moved to this chateau. Here she painted her room entirely black, ceilings, walls, bed, even the curtains were black, and went into total mourning along with a whole stack of nuns which I guess she brought with her.

The owners of this chateau had done a great job in making the interior look lovely, with fresh cut flowers in every room and lots of furniture. You could really tell though that it was also a great money spinner for these people as there was no limit to the number of people allowed inside the chateau at any one time, which meant that the place was completely packed.

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