The castles are everywhere. Like weeds, they crop up along the Loire River every few miles. Each one more spectacular than the last because successive kings had to outdo their predecessors, their queens had to outdo their predecessors and in some cases, the kings’ mistresses had to outdo their queens.
The result is a landscape that gives one a better understanding of why the common folk revolted back in 1789. Luckily for those of us living in 2013, however, the common folk were not able to destroy all of these incredible monuments. Sophie and I have started an official castle count, and will report back at the end of our trip with the total number of castles seen from the road during our weeks in France.
Our approach to Amboise looked like this photo below. One of King François 1er’s favorite summer “cottages,” the sight of this castle on a hill is the perfect welcome to the region. The townspeople of Amboise are very proud of their history and every year, 450 of them spend months donating their time to produce an elaborate sound and light show on the grounds of the castle that recounts their town’s storied Renaissance past. We saw “A la cour du Roy François” last night, and while it was about 30 minutes too long (the French do love their history), it was impressive to see these Amboise citizens reenact scenes from 1516-1519, the glory days of François 1er’s rule and the period of Leonardo da Vinci’s stay in Amboise.
My quest to keep the girls entertained led us to check out Château du Clos Lucé, the manor house where Leonardo da Vinci stayed as one of François 1er’s honored guests. I led Chloe and Sophie on a tour of the house and the grounds and entertained them with a bunch of trivia questions I had prepared before our departure. This modest castle turned out to be one of those great surprises I mentioned in my last post, because the gardens were teeming with scale models of many of the master’s designs, including this propeller below that Sophie spun round and round until she practically flew herself.
Today’s adventures led us to more castles, Azay-le-Rideau and Villandry, both beautiful in their own unique ways. Surrounded by water, Azay-le Rideau, pictured below, is simply gorgeous to behold. Built by one of François 1er’s financial backers in the early 16th century and now a national monument, the castle is furnished in Renaissance, XVII century and XVIII century styles. The evolution of the decor is fascinating, but most interesting of all are the ornate Renaissance loggia and the attic, which once served as the servants’ quarters and still has the original wooden eaves.
By this point, Sophie was exhausted and wanted to return to the hotel. We were afraid this would happen, but she’d been fabulous on the trip until this afternoon. The jet lag finally caught up with her and the sound and light show last night was apparently the last straw. But we forged ahead, knowing that once she saw our next stop, she’d dig deep into her reservoir of energy to make it through the rest of the day.
The Château de Villandry is more or less a contemporary of Azay-le-Rideau and was built by François 1er’s finance minister (who also built Chambord). Not sure how I’d feel about a finance minister who used public funds to build himself a vacation house like this….Privately owned today, the castle building itself is notable for its surviving medieval tower keep, the ode to symmetry in its architectural design and its collection of 17th century Spanish religious paintings, which are dark and dreary and creepy (as described by Chloe).
But it’s not the castle that most people come to see; it’s the absolutely stunning Renaissance gardens that are maintained by nine full-time gardeners. The gardens are so big that when I asked my husband and the girls to guess how many gardeners the castle employed, they thought there were at least 100. The photo below shows just a small part of the property. If you were to take all the hedges in the different sections of the gardens and line them up, they’d go on and on for 30 miles.
Sophie’s mood vastly improved when she found swans to befriend. Known for being as mean as they are pretty, Sophie seduced the birds into submission by feeding them grass. Her mood improved even more when we discovered a cute little play area near the hedge maze (really, what kid wouldn’t love this place?).
Although we arrived back at the hotel at a reasonable hour, the girls didn’t fall asleep until about 10 minutes ago because they were so revved up. Tomorrow is Bastille Day and in honor of the French Revolution we are going to visit the most celebrated royal castle in the Loire Valley, the Château de Chambord. And lest you have any doubts, I admit to greatly enjoying the irony inherent in our plans to visit a prime example of the excesses that would eventually cause the downfall of the French monarchy, albeit about 270 years before “Let them eat cake.”