A couple of years ago we had an autumn break in the Loire valley, France. It is a wonderful time of year to visit the region. Chateaux litter the valley, like stars on the ground. Tucked away in forest nooks, perched on cliff tops or standing proudly in the middle of a verdant landscape, there’s a chateau for every occasion. By far the most romantic is Chenonceau.
The chateau is reached by a wide tree lined avenue which rained leaves of gold as we strolled up from the ticket office. Slowly the building emerged from the green-gold foliage revealing its fairy tale turrets and pristine gardens. Instead of heading inside we crossed a garden for the classic view of the building spanning the river Cher. In the crisp autumn sun, it was beautiful; as romantic as the guidebooks would have you believe.
The tour of the chateau is a well-thought through route that takes visitors through both the building and its history. Different rooms are furnished to reflect the different owners. Burning wood fires in tapestry lined rooms and extravagant floral displays create a genuinely atmospheric visit.
The chateau’s story is one of love, vengeance and salvation. A small castle was built in the 13th century by a local nobleman. It eventually became the property of King Henry II in the 15th century. Through hook and crook, the king managed to give the castle to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
His queen was not impressed. On her husband’s death she wrenched the castle away from Diane. Queen Catherine de Medici made Chenonceau her favourite residence. She threw lavish parties and, when her son became regent, she held the first ever firework display.
Centuries later, the chateau was occupied by Nazis. It formed a link between occupied France on one side of the river, and ‘free’ France on the other. Right under the noses of the occupying Nazis, countless Jews achieved safe passage through the castle.
From the kitchen windows, we saw the moorings where provision laden barges drew up in the middle ages. In the lower gallery, we saw the door through which hundreds of people fled from the evils of war. In the upper gallery, we read the stories of the people who have called the chateau home.
By the time we finished, we were ready for lunch. There were two options available: a self-service canteen and a more formal restaurant, the Orangerie. We opted for the latter. Although it is a formal dining room, the atmosphere was relaxed. Service was a little slow, largely because it was so busy, but the waiters were trying hard to meet everyone’s needs. We opted for the set menu which we thought would be three courses, but in fact turned out to be four when an unexpected cheese course arrived. We were stuffed! The portions were generous and the food delicious.
An afternoon walk was in order. We started in the vegetable garden with its delightful sixteenth century farmhouse. It was movie-set picturesque. Children ran up and down the garden paths, while the ducks in the garden pond looked on warily. Next door was a donkey park. Two rather sad looking donkeys clung close to the enclosure wall, as far away from the visitors as possible. They were indifferent to all the pleading, whistling and cooing.
The wood surrounding the castle is incredible. The ground was a carpet of burnt umber and gold. Periodically crisp, copper, curled leaves would tumble down around us. It was a great way to walk off our lunch and soak up the warm autumn sunshine.
Chenonceau is the romantic Disney idea of a chateau. Yet, it has a remarkable history which bats away the fluffy fairytale aura to stand in its own right as an historical building. In the summer months, it’s clearly rammed with visitors, but the autumn is a fabulous time to visit. There are fewer tourists and the gilded landscape under the crystal blue skies is stunning.
For more images see the Pinterest board: ramblingmoon/chenonceau
Useful Links: Chateau de Chenonceau