Monday, 22 August 2011

Water views – Chateau de Chenonceau

This chateau is famous for being built over and across the River Cher, a splendid feat of engineering and design which was overseen by Thomas Bohier’s wife Katherine, while he was away fighting wars. It required a fortified castle and mill to be demolished though the tower of the original building still stands proudly near the entrance to the chateau. This chateau was not designed for military purposes but does have a guards’ room for protecting visiting royalty. Royalty and the nobility treated the chateau like a football.

It was seized from Bohier's son by King Francis I of France for unpaid debts to the Crown. After Francis' death in 1547, Henry II offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who became passionately attached to the château. She had the arched bridge constructed, joining the château to its opposite bank. She then oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees.

Diane de Poitiers was the mistress of the castle, but ownership remained with the crown until 1555, when years of delicate legal manoeuvers finally yielded possession to her. However, after King Henry II died in 1559, his widow and regent Catherine de Medici had Diane expelled by forcing Diane to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Chenonceau her own favourite residence, adding a new series of gardens.

As Regent of France, Catherine spent a fortune on the château and on spectacular night-time parties. In 1560, the first ever fireworks display seen in France took place during the celebrations marking the ascension to the throne of Catherine's son Francis II. The grand gallery, which extended along the existing bridge to cross the entire river, was dedicated in 1577.

On Catherine's death in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife of King Henry III. At Chenonceau Louise was told of her husband's assassination and she fell into a state of depression, spending the remainder of her days wandering aimlessly along the château's vast corridors dressed in mourning clothes amidst sombre black.

Château de Chenonceau was bought by the Duke of Bourbon in 1720. Little by little, he sold off all of the castle's contents. Many of the fine statues ended up at Versailles. The estate itself was finally sold to a squire named Claude Dupin.

Claude's wife (daughter of financier Samuel Bernard and grandmother of George Sand), Madame Louise Dupin, brought life back to the castle by entertaining leaders of The Enlightenment such asVoltaire, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution, preserving it from being destroyed by the Revolutionary Guard because it was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles. The chateau changed hands many times.

In 1913, the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, bought the château and still own it to this day. During World War I the gallery was used as a hospital ward; during the Second War it was a means of escaping from the Nazi occupied zone on one side of the River Cher to the "free" Vichy zone on the opposite bank.

An architectural mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance, Other than the Royal Palace of Versailles, Chenonceau is the most visited château in France. This chateau offers the ultimate in audioguides. You receive an iPhone programmed with an interesting commentary as well as photos of the room you are in and supplementary information if you wish. This is how non-guided visits should be done.


Melanie said...

Thank you for this. We bicycled to Chenonceau along the Cher River from Tours in April 2007. The next day we pedaled from Amboise to Château Chaumont sur Loire. I remembered that Diane de Poitiers had been forced to leave Chenonceau for Chaumont, but didn't recall the details. (We found Château Chaumont closed for restoration, so saw only the exterior and the grounds.) I appreciated your photos and details about Chenonceau.

Frances Harrison said...

I'm sure you enjoyed your trip Melanie. It's such a pleasure for me to share information on this fascinating country.

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