The splendour, the court intrigues of the past and the beautiful architecture draw me to palaces and castles on every trip. One of my favourite places for a castle trip is the French Loire, where dozens of castles have been built by the powerful families and kings of the French history. My favourite? That is the unique Château de Chenonceau for sure.
The history of Chateau de Chenonceau
The mistress, the queen and the widow
This beautiful château is not on the Loire itself, but on a tributary stream, the Cher. Or on? The castle is actually built over the river! But the castle has not always looked like that. The current appearance of the castle and its impressive ornamental gardens are the result of two major rivals at the French court.
Chenonceau was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the treasurer of the French king – Thomas Bohier and his wife Katherine. Nice detail: their traces can still be found around the castle, as they used to decorate it with their initials. The castle then came into the hands of the crown itself and eventually became the property of King Henry II. That is where the intrigues begin.
Hendrik II was married to Catharina de Médicis, but he very much preferred his mistress Diane de Poitiers over his queen. When Henry became the owner the palace of Thomas Bohier, he did not dedicate it to Queen Catherine, but he gave it to Diane. Catharina also received a gift: the smaller and less beautiful Loire castle Chaumont. That stirred up a lot of ill feelings. Catherine already had to accept that her husband was parading around his beautiful mistress in public, that she was wearing the crown jewels and that he even involved her in state affairs. Now he also gave the castle Catherine had wanted so badly, to her rival. Her jealousy was huge.
It was the mistress who had the castle connect both river banks. She had a bridge built between the bank with her castle and the other. She also left her traces in the interior. Just like the initials of the builders, you will also see the names of Diane and her beloved king on many places in the castle. Also, works of art with the goddess Diane are a nod to the former inhabitant of the Loire castle. Diane was said to have a deep love for the palace on the Loire, which was said to be the most beautiful of his time.
But Diane eventually lost. After the death of the French king, the queen avenged herself on the mistress. Catherine exchanged her castle Chaumont with the splendid one of Diane and banished Diane from the French court. Catherine spent a fortune change Diane’s love palace into her own home: she expanded the castle, created beautiful ornamental gardens and built a two-story gallery over the bridge of Diane. The gallery with its black and white tile floor was the scene for the extravagant parties that the queen gave.
The most important inhabitant after Catherine was her daughter-in-law Louise who became a widow at a young age. Mourning for her husband, she retired in Chenonceau, where a black room is still reminder us of the time when Louise plunged the castle into mourning.
The bridge of Diane and Catharina saved the castle from destruction in the following centuries. During the French Revolution, many members of the nobility and royal family ánd their property were targeted, but Chenonceau was not only a castle of the nobility, but also one of the few bridges between the two banks of the Cher. It survived because of this. During the First World War, the gallery served as a hospital for wounded soldiers. There were 120 beds and an operating room was set up with one of the first X-ray machines of that time. During the Second War, Chenonceau was the only link between free and occupied France. It was an important smuggling route and saved many lives.
Visiting Chateau de Chenonceau
This unique history can still be seen during a visit to the château. The initials of the builders, the paintings with goddess Diane, the gallery of Catherine and the black room of Queen Dowager Louise make this history of strong royal women come to life again.
But a visit to Chenonceau is not limited to the fairytale-like and beautifully furnished castle. You might also want to visit the old court kitchens, the vegetable garden, the labyrinth and Catharina’s geometric ornamental gardens. And maybe a bit cliche, but nice though: you can rent a rowing boat and get under the castle.
In the summer, the castle gardens are often open for visitors in the evening as well. The gardens are then beautifully illuminated and create an enchanting sight!