Chateaux Cruising -
The last few days were spent cruising along the Loire River admiring the amazing castles (chateaux in French). This was the playground of the French kings for centuries. I was lucky enough to be able to tour the chateaux at Villandry, Amboise, Blois and Chambord. with more time I would have loved to go to Chenonceau, Cheverny and others. But there's only so much time and chateau sightseeing one can do!
The chateau at Villandry is actually more famous for its gardens than the building. The chateau was bought in 1906 by a Spaniard who was married to an American woman (the chateau is still owned by the grandchildren of that couple). They set about restoring the chateau and designing a huge Renaissance garden. I should actually say gardens, as the grounds have many distinctly different sections: the Garden of Love (which has 4 subsections for different types of love), the water garden, the herb garden, the kitchen garden. My favorite was the kitchen garden. Instead of rows of tomatos, zucchini, etc., the garden is layed out in geometric shapes with different vegetables and fruits chose for the color combination to make the garden look as beautiful as any flower garden. This place takes incredible upkeep. I saw at least 20 gardeners working while I was there. The brochure said it takes 4 gardeners, 4 months just to prune the trees lining the different sections of the garden.
The chateau at Amboise, in addition to being an imposing structure in the middle of the city, is famous as the burial site of Leonardo da Vinci . Ever wonder why the Louvre in Paris has the Mona Lisa? It's because he brought it with him when one of the French kings hired Leonardo to move to France to bring Renaissance art and thought to France. He ended his days here living and working on many of his mechanical inventions.
The chateau in Blois is interesting for it's many architectural styles. Each new king added to the chateau in the style of his day, which is apparent when you see how different each wing of the chateau looks. This chateau is also famous for an assassination. During the religious wars of the 16th century, the king of France (Henri III, I think) was a Protestant. There was also a very popular duke of the time who was a Catholic. The king was worried that the duke was gaining too much influence and power. To solve the problem he invited him to dinner and ran him through with a sword in one of the bedrooms of the chateau. The Catholics got their revenge within less than a year when a monk stabbed Henri, killing him. He did not have an heir, which ended that branch of the French monarchy.
And last, but definitely not least, the chateau at Chambord. Unlike most other castles, this one was designed and built in a single architectural style and has remained mostly unchanged ever since. François I wanted to build the most stunning building ever. He also wanted to have himself a 'little' hunting lodge out in the forest. So he combined the ideas and Chambord was born. Despite the incredible spires on the roof, the layout of the chateau is very geometric. Everything is perfectly proportioned. Each floor has the same layout, the whole building is symmetric from one side to the other. The building centers on a central staircase designed as a double helix. You can see from one staircase to the other, but they never meet. It was easy to get lost as it was hard to tell where you'd been because of the symmetry. As for François, he did live in one wing of the castle for 76 days, but died before it was ever completed. While visiting somewhere else in France, he banged his head on a beam and died a few days later. Other French kings such as Louis XIV also spent time here. It was also given or loaned to a few dukes and foreign kings in exile over the centuries before being given to the French government in the late 1800's.