We had to overcome a huge challenge these last two days while on our castle marathon. France is very expensive. Meals at restaurants, even for lunch, cost at least $50-$60 for a family of four and that’s without alcohol. So we’ve tried very hard to mitigate the damage to our travel budget by taking advantage of the beautiful weather and gorgeous scenery to enjoy picnic lunches where we can.
Fortunately for us, picnicking is a very French thing to do. And the castles play along by providing lovely picnic areas. What we didn’t take into account, however, is that yesterday was Bastille Day and today was Monday. Granted, Bastille Day is a national holiday, so no real surprise there. But I had forgotten that in small towns, Mondays are like Fridays for Muslims, Saturdays for Jews and Sundays for Christians. Many businesses are closed in order to observe a day of rest following busy tourist weekends.
This translated into picnic complications for us. We made lots of detours to get to our sightseeing destinations yesterday and today to avoid having to buy lowly supermarket bread. Because let’s face it, supermarket bread is to the French what Wonder bread is to Americans. It’s there if you’re desperate, but it’s just not that good.
So we persevered in our bread quest, which was ultimately successful on both days and not without its unique rewards. In keeping with our theme of serendipitous encounters with quirky, fanciful and beautiful sights, our hunt while driving on the route between Amboise and Chenonceau this morning brought us to one of the craziest windmills I’ve ever seen. It looks like it was accidentally dropped on the pencil-tipped stone roof by a crane.
Back to the castles. One cannot visit the Loire Valley for the first time and not go to Chambord, François 1er’s crown jewel. Consisting of no fewer than 365 chimneys and 400 rooms, it is an orgy of Renaissance excess. King François loved to hunt and the castle was built in prime hunting territory. The castle grounds are entirely enclosed and the city of Paris could fit within its walls – it’s the largest enclosed park in Europe and the home to many wild animals. My favorite fact about this castle is that in his 30+ years’ reign, King François only spent 72 days in Chambord. The castle wasn’t finished until decades after his death. Again, how can one really be surprised that there was a French Revolution?
In order to better appreciate the views and the park, we rented bicycles and made our way around the grounds. You can see the castle in the distance.
The highlight of the castle tour, in addition to the double revolution staircase designed by no other than Leonardo da Vinci, was our stroll among the chimneys on the rooftop terrace of the castle. There’s no better place for hide and seek.
After successfully finding today’s fresh bread, we arrived at Chenonceau. Judging from the crowds, this is one of the most popular on the castle circuit, which isn’t particularly surprising. The castle spans the width of the Cher River, making for a unique setting. Following its Renaissance glory days, it served as a hospital during World War I. More interestingly, because the Cher River served as the line of demarcation during World War II, half of Chenonceau found itself in occupied territory and the other half in free territory during the war years.
Chenonceau is particularly appealing because it’s beautifully decorated and exhibits an amazing array of artwork by famous European masters. But its claim to fame is that it’s an extremely women-centric castle. A woman played a large role in its design and another woman kept it intact during the French Revolution. But the juiciest story is a love triangle. King Henri II gave the castle to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poîtiers, who spent much of her time there. Queen Catherine de Medicis, King Henri II’s wife, was not too happy about the gift, but had to put up with it while her husband was alive. Back in those days, all kings had mistresses and their queens could do nothing but accept the fact that their main reason for being was to make their wombs useful and produce a male heir. As soon as King Henri II died, Catherine became regent of France and immediately kicked Diane out of the castle in order to inhabit it herself. Because it would have been scandalous to push a revered mistress like Diane out onto the dusty streets, Catherine gave her the castle of Chaumont-sur-Loire which, fortunately for Diane, wasn’t a shack.
After spending a good deal of time elbowing through the masses and exploring the rooms, Sophie needed to take a break. Seated beneath a portrait of Louis XIV, the Sun King – check out the deep valley on the top of his wig – she was completely nonplussed by her surroundings. Looking at her, we realized that it was time for our castle-visiting to come to an end.
We travel tomorrow to Ile-de-Ré, an island off the central Atlantic coast that will serve as our home for the next week. No castles there, but plenty of lighthouses, sand dunes and open air markets. Beach, sun and relaxation, here we come!