Chenonceau & Valencay

Row boats at Château de Chenonceau

Row boats at Château de Chenonceau

Today we were energised, focused and determined to visit another two châteaux on our wish list. Our choices: the very popular and picturesque Chenonceau, and the less well-known yet majestic Valençay.

Château de Chenonceau is one of the most winsome and peaceful châteaux of the region, straddling the River Cher flowing gently under its exquisite arches. This is the place that Catherine de Medici coerced Diane des Poitiers (de Medici’s rival and dead husband’s mistress) into relinquishing, under the guise of “swapsies” – giving her Chaumont in return. Now, while I was really quite taken with Chaumont on our visit yesterday, there is something truly enchanting about Chenonceau, and I can see why Catherine played ‘hard ball’ to get it.

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Like so many châteaux of the region, Chenonceau has grace and beauty that can be viewed and appreciated from afar, with the long, cool avenue of trees flanking the approach providing the perfect reveal. But for me, it was her interiors that were particularly charming. There was an intimacy and cosiness that belied her scale: quaint tower rooms where de Medici spent many hours pouring over matters of state; a small and pretty chapel; blonde stone walls hung with tapestries; soft, velvet drapes cocooning the beds; and colourful lead-light windows allowing kaleidoscopic rays into the rooms. Utterly delightful!

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The two most famous of Chenonceau’s owners, Catherine and Diane, have definitely left their mark in the gardens. As the first to lavish such attention on the château’s grounds, Diane had extensive planting carried out – not just in the area now called “Le Jardin de Diane,” but throughout the entire domain. Diane’s garden is laid out in four triangles along the river, protected from flooding by stone buttresses, and still has her original fountain in the centre of the manicured prettiness. Catherine’s garden is smaller in scale (which is surprising, given their history of rivalry!), but the intimacy combined with the perfect symmetry, and the shaded benches from which to admire the colours, make it the more appealing to spend time in.

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The gallery that spans the River Cher has been used for many things over the years. When her numerous owners have had an entertaining bent, it was a magnificent ballroom, its length made a very efficient hospital ward during World War I, and in WWII it was the perfect escape route from Nazi occupied France to the ‘free’ side of the river. In 1560, the first ever fireworks display in France took place here, celebrating the ascension of Catherine’s son Francois II to the throne.

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Château de Chenonceau was a particular favourite of mine, and it is easy to see why it is the second most visited château in France (Versailles has the title of most visited – no surprises there!).

Our second château of the day was Valençay. This one is a little further afield than the tourists staying in the ‘centre’ of the Loire valley tend to travel, but it was well worth the extra hour’s drive from Chenonceau. Once in the grounds of Château de Valençay (which is located smack in the middle of the town), the first view of the castle presents a mashup of architectural styles. Now, technically, most grand houses throughout Europe have this, but this jigsaw puzzle was quite jarring at first – bits of French Renaissance, Castle Howard and medieval meeting hall, all sewn together at the edges. But considering its construction took over 200 years, you can forgive the incongruities in style! Walking around the outside of the château to the grand park, it was much more cohesive, and much more impressive to look at.

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Valençay’s most famous owner was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (foreign minister to Napoleon), and the time of his occupancy was a bit of a golden age for the château. Talleyrand had the best table in Europe. He was a true gourmand and sourced all the best chefs, making him a VERY popular host (and successful diplomat!). The most famous of his chefs was Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the first internationally renowned ‘celebrity chefs’, and the founder of haute cuisine. Needless to say, the kitchens at Valençay were particularly impressive!

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The furnishings in this place were particularly spectacular, in their flashy, Empire/Louis XVI/Regency way – bling, velvet, inlay, tapestries, marble, gilt, polish, shine, in every room…and oodles and oodles of chairs! It is one of most richly furnished châteaux in the Loire. My personal favourite piece of extravagance was the 19th century ‘secretary’ in the Périgord Room – a gift to Talleyrand from the King of Naples (ah, the perks of being a successful diplomat…with the best chef in Europe!). One thing that has been consistent in all of these glorious châteaux is the lovely fresh flower displays in all rooms, making it seem as though we were there to stay for a weekend in the country with the nobles!

After our pleasant, scenic drive back to Amboise, we indulged in some champagne and whiskey cocktails at Le Shaker across the river from our abode, before meandering to L’Alliance in the centre of town for dinner. They also made a valiant effort to please the eccentric vegetarians in France, and bombarded us with lots of baked egg and cheese combinations for both entrée and main – really, steamed veggies would’ve sufficed! But the service was cheerful and friendly, and we appreciated their efforts (maybe one day, vegetarians won’t be such a novelty in the French countryside!). Our stroll back to Les Fleurons was via Le Bigot (unfortunate name), the chocolatier – the perfect way to cap off the day!

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We stayed at Les Fleurons B&B in Amboise

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About bontaks

Nic is the the ‘Bon’ part of ‘Bontaks.’ Together we are Nic and John – two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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