This elegant chateau we see today spanning the Cher River in France, was built between the years 1515 – 1559, starting first with a residence on the river accessed by a bridge. Later, an arched bridge on the other side was constructed, reaching all the way to the opposite bank. The bridge would eventually include a grand gallery and a floor of rooms above that. The entire Chateau is built across the middle of the river, with access walkways to reach the banks of the river at either end. Throughout history the women who have inhabited this chateau have influenced its design, as well as the gardens by which it is surrounded, and this is the reason it is often described as “the ladies chateau”.
The approach to the chateau de Chenonceau leads you up a wide, tree-lined promenade filtering dappled sunlight onto the crushed sandstone pathway. The stately trees form a line of sight that draws you forward with anticipation.
When you emerge from the avenue, potted citrus trees continue the line along the entrance pathway towards the chateau, taking you past the gardens on either side competing to invite you to stroll around and admire their beauty.
After you have soaked in the tranquillity of the gardens, you are ready to proceed to the entry courtyard and cross the moat into the charmingly decorated renaissance residence. The chateau with its white stone walls, conical towers, and blue-grey slate tiled roof, brings to mind images of fairy tale castles in a land far, far away.
In keeping with the theme of “the ladies chateau”, many of the rooms have stunning flower arrangements on display, as when it was once occupied by the lady of the house. Imposing hallways with vaulted stone ceilings and terracotta tiled floors, marble staircases, and lace-like lead light windows offering magical views out over the river leave a lasting impression.
Standing on the balcony above the front door, you can see out over the entry courtyard and into the impeccable gardens beyond. Most of the rooms are completely furnished as they would have been in past eras, including many original pieces of centuries-old furniture, colourful 16th century tapestries, ornamented wall panels and grand fireplaces.
I found the kitchens and servants’ rooms immensely fascinating, being built into the pylons of the arched bridge. Stepping into the basement area, was like walking through a museum with all the antique décor. As you are wandering through the servants’ dining rooms, kitchens, butchery, pantry and so on, you realise that you are standing in the middle of the river, and it feels a little peculiar to know the water is flowing past the rooms you are in.
The grand gallery with its exposed beam roof, spans the river with windows on both sides allowing sunlight to stream into the room throughout the entire day. Previously utilised as a ballroom for pomp and splendour, in later life it became the single point of access from occupied France to the free zone, and was used to smuggle people out to freedom during the Second World War.
I was interested to learn that women have played a strong role in the design and preservation of this graceful chateau throughout the course of history, even though they have not always held direct ownership. Starting with Katherine Briçonnet who oversaw the construction of the new residence in 1515, the next champion of the chateau was Diane de Poitiers who commissioned the building of the arched bridge joining the chateau to the opposite bank of the river. Diane also arranged the planting of gardens adjacent to the river, reinforced by stone walls to protect them from flooding.
In 1559, Regent of France, Catherine de’ Medici favoured the residence with her presence and spent considerable money on enlarging the chateau. Most notable was her addition of the grand gallery with rooms above, which extended along the entire bridge with a doorway at the far end providing access to the opposite bank of the Cher. After changing hands a few more times, the widowed Louise Dupin was able to save the chateau and its contents from destruction during the French revolution by asserting the importance of the bridge, being the only one across the river for many miles.
The chateau became a hospital during the First World War, where it is said the then owners’ wife helped with nursing the patients. Sadly, the chateau was damaged when it was bombed in the Second World War. Fortunately for us, the site has been restored to a reproduction of its former glory, and we can once again enjoy this enchanting chateau, which has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Allow yourself at least two hours to enjoy the gardens and the chateau at a leisurely pace. To purchase your tickets online, and for information on opening hours, please visit chenonceau.com.