Châteaux de la Loire

“It’s said, a man’s home is his castle and I won’t argue but sometimes it wouldn’t be too much of a hardship to trade up.”      Le Fabulist – ‘On second thought’.  

Wandering through a diverse countryside that combines bucolic charm spiced with unexpected dramatic vistas is a passionate journey for anyone who appreciates a glorious ancient history, inspiring architectural achievements, a sparkling cosmopolitan culture coupled with a respected and well-maintained artisan class, world-class cuisine and unequalled array of wines.  Of course I’m referring to France, and in all humility I claim it’s the unvarnished truth and without apology for loudly proclaiming my love for the beautiful country of my birth.  I will now share with you some of the highlights I discovered touring the dream-like Châteaux de la Loire, in particular Chambord, Chenonceau and Blois.  There are dozens to be seen and admired but I will concentrate on only three and a few miscellaneous photos that I consider interesting enough to be included.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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The Loire Valley is an outstanding landscape of great beauty and a cornucopia of cultural jewels.  The river meanders through historic towns and villages, pleasant cultivated lands, abundant vineyards that produce fine Rosé wines and of course has a world-wide reputation for being home to dozens of splendid castles once the playground of French nobility and today the custodian of architectural splendour, art and history.  It’s worthy to note the Loire Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Chenonceau’s unique design and its splendid Grand Gallery, sixty metres long and six wide spans the River Cher; it was the setting for many a glorious royal gala where amorous intrigue was the rule rather than exception.

The chateau was designed by Philibert Delorme who combined a Renaissance flair with Gothic architecture, it was completed in 1430.  After several owners it was seized by the Crown and eventually Henry II offered the chateau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers – some gift!   Unfortunately for her upon the death of her royal lover, she was expelled by a jealous Catherine de Medici, then Regent of France while awaiting her son’s Francis II assencion to the throne.  She then made it her favourite residence adding more formal gardens and extended the gallery as seen in the photo across the width of the river Cher.  Sumptuous parties and the first ever fireworks display in France attested to her affection for the elegant castle.  The romantic shenanigans continued when yet another mistress took over in 1624, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Henry IV’s favorite courtesan; no wonder it is often referred to as ‘Le château des dames’.   Since 1840, the chateau is classified a Monument historique and the second most visited after Versailles.

A more appealing view of the chateau, I’m sure not be wrong in this assessment.

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A touch of esoteric lore – during WWII, one bank of the Cher River was under Nazi occupation and the other side under the control of the Vichy Government.  Many people escaping the German Gestapo, Jews especially and hunted underground fighters, were surreptitiously  guided to relative safety across the Grand Gallery, a rather handsome escape route all things considered.

 Chic, refined and generous, a fine broth of a king!

One of the  classically  laid out gardens for the guests to stroll about as they played out their romantic dalliances.

The stables – I should be so lucky to have such digs!

At the very first dazzled glance, the out-wordly royal Château de Chambord will  seduce the most jaded traveler.  I’ve had the good fortune to admire the Taj Mahal up-close and to my mind this imaginative, oriental-tinged, cupola dominated structure is every bit it’s equal in unsurpassed architectural fireworks minus the crowds, not a mean advantage.  The North façade is the most familiar view, especially appreciated by  photography enthusiasts who depending on the sun’s angle can almost always count on lovely reflections in the facing moat, built strictly for decorative purposes – a two for one shot. 

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The building took twenty years to build by King François I so he could be near his married mistress (what else might have been expected from the nobility in those hedonistic days?) but was never completed.  Imagine this was conceived as a ‘hunting lodge’ as the king maintained his royal residences not far off at Blois and Amboise castles.   The massive structure is built in Renaissance style and although never proven some of the interior might have owned its appearance to none other than Leonardo DaVinci who was befriended by François I – in fact, the ultimate Renaissance artist lived out his life nearby at Clos Lucé a comfortable manor  house  adjacent to the Chateau Amboise where his benefactor and close friend François 1 often resided.  He is buried at the Chapelle de St. Hubert in Château Amboise.   As a personal observation I find it incomprehensible the government, artistic community or the Italian people in general have not set forth a hue and cry for a return to his native soil of the physical remains of surely one (if not the greatest) of the most accomplished  artist, inventor and philosopher ever.  Let me quote Benevenuto Cellini, a splendid artist in his own right who said, “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a great philosopher.”  Indeed, the spectacular surroundings tends to make one think lofty thoughts; really, I assure you as I demonstrate below. 


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The park grounds are considerable and if one takes the time to stroll along the numerous verdant lanes there are always splendid photo-ops to be captured, as you may appreciate below, one of my all-time favourites.

The chateau is set in the midst of a 13000 acre game reserve where red deer are free to roam; it is enclosed by a 31 kilometre wall (21 miles).  In comparison Vancouver’s Stanley Park is a mere 1000 acres and New York’s Central Park is measured at a paltry 843 acres.  Okay, the latter two mentioned are within city boundaries, and not bad at all all things considered.

The immense natural reserve park features grassy and forested areas; a secluded observation cabin for photographers or simply to sit quietly, watch and recharge one’s depleted batteries.

Viewed from the South Facade the chateau’s special features are enhanced by their proximity.  Whether this is the original main entrance I don’t know other than that’s the visitor’s entry point, either way it’s ‘formidable’ from any angle.

The elaborate roofscape has often been compared to the skyline of a town and it is a fact that Francois I commissioned the construction to have the appearance of minaret dominated Constantinople.  The chateau features 128 metres of façade with more than 800 sculpted columns; within there are 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and some 84 staircases; it may be that the main double-helix open staircase, a spectacular centerpiece of the building was designed by Da Vinci although it is more conjecture than a proven fact.

 

This photo is à propos of nothing except I have a great affection for clouds with  ‘personality’ that enhance my idea of a great background for a photo.

The rear facade of the Château de Blois seen from the central town level.  I never fail to take plenty of shots of the magnificent evergreens that provide such a lovely  frame.
Seen from the upper level, the plaza and a fitting entrance to the castle.
The medieval castle was constructed over several centuries, from the 13th finally completed in the 17th – it’s comprised of several buildings set around one principal courtyard.  With 564 rooms and 75 staircases and a fireplace in each room, including 100 bedrooms for guests and retainers it is one of the largest castles in all of France.
The chateau is classified a ‘Monument Historique’ and a great tourist draw for the present owner the town of Blois.  Fine local Loire wines are no drawback either.  
It was past closing time but there was a gap in the gate so I snuck in just so I could snap the one photo of the famed stairwell.
A very familiar sight, the chateau’s most renowned feature is the famed spiral staircase in the Francois I wing.  It is often found in illustrated books depicting unusual or particularly attractive  architecture.  
 
Blois with a population of 50 000 is a prosperous town that as in many European cities close off streets to car traffic either in central shopping or historically important areas.  Marvelous – why we are so damn in love with cars in North America always baffles me.  Worse, when given a choice many merchants don’t want to bar car traffic for fear of losing business as I discovered for myself when it was proposed for Stevenson, British Columbia, (shame on you, dim-witted merchants).  Dumb is a relatively kind word  as in so many other instances of urban mismanagement by uninspired city and business leaders in North America.  Of course city coffers are augmented by the ever expanding usage of parking metres.  The City of Vancouver is particularly intent in finding every feet of sidewalk it can install yet another coin guzzling eyesore.  Ignorance is rampant; it really hurts the local businesses that pay the taxes and rent.  I have an apt phrase for this –  ferocious stupidity! 
Across the bridge spanning the swift Loire River and on to other scenic delights, food, wine and pleasant encounters with the locals.  A bientôt
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2 responses to “Châteaux de la Loire

  1. Splendid photos! Thanks for sharing, John.

  2. I’m pleased that you are pleased! To be candid one would have to be a photographer affected with strabismus (with apologies to cross-eyed folks) to spoil these fabulous sites. Merci beaucoup.

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