By now, we had made peace with a slower, more thorough pace than originally planned. We toured only one chateau, but we chose well – Chenonceau, billed as “The Ladies’ Chateau,” influenced over the centuries by the women who lived there. In the 16th century, there was Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henri II, and later his wife, Catherine de Medici, who ousted Diane when the king died and she became Regent. Then, in the 18th century, came Louise Dupin, a brave, enlightened promoter of writing and learning, who cleverly protected the chateau during the French Revolution.
The history doesn’t end there, as Chenonceau also had a role to play in both world wars. We decided to rent audio guides and again found them a wise choice. In room after room, I would listen, then go back to hear again the more interesting tidbits. The chapel’s stained glass was destroyed by bombs in 1944, but has since been tastefully replaced.
Visitors walk on the original floors, where in some places the design remains only at the edges of the room. This carefree hare was protected by the nearby furniture. Although some corners were roped off, we were free to wander more than I would have expected.
The stately arched bridge that reaches out over the River Cher was Diane’s creation, but it was Catherine who later built on it a long, elegant ballroom. It’s possible to rent a canoe and paddle downriver and underneath the chateau, if you have time.
By World War I, Chenonceau was owned by the Menier family, of Paris chocolate factory fame. They transformed the ballroom and another gallery above it into a 120-bed hospital at their own expense. Simone Menier served as matron of the facility, which was equipped with a state-of-the-art operating theater and one of the first X-ray machines. From the windows, convalescing soldiers would fish in the river below, tying small bells to their lines to signal a bite. Then, during the second world war, the chateau found itself sitting on the line between the occupied and free zones, allowing the Resistance to spirit many people through these same rooms to safety.
In honor of baby Prince Louis, whose birth was announced while we waited in Charles de Gaulle airport for our flight home, I am including this incredible portrait of Louis XIV. The massive ornate frame draws the eye and dominates all else in the room. The Sun King reigned for over 72 years, the longest of any European monarch. He visited the chateau in 1650, at age 11, and later sent this portrait to commemorate his visit.
Every room had fresh flowers, often many arrangements in one room, all changed twice weekly by the chateau’s florists. Here are some from The Five Queens’ Bedroom.
Don’t you just love this photo of Mom and Dad, patiently waiting for us to finish?
Of course, Diane and Catherine both had their gardens…Diane’s was my favorite.
Next time you are in France, I hope you will go to the Loire Valley and see Chenonceau. It’s worth the trip. Now, though, it’s time to say au revoir, after one last story.
To make our adventure complete, we wanted to visit a winery and not just any one. In Charlottesville last fall, Megan had been impressed by a red wine from Domaine Fabrice Gasnier, from the nearby Chinon region, and had taken a photo of the restaurant menu. As we drove, though, vineyards lined every road and there were countless signs with grapes and bottles on them. How would we find Fabrice?
Luckily, we soon came across a large, helpful map on a display board near the river, showing the location of all the local wineries. After one small wrong turn, we found the right place and squeezed into the crowded driveway. By the doors to a large barn, a couple was sitting outside, but there were no signs to indicate where to go or if the place was even open. They came right over, though, smiling. “Come, come,” they said, drawing Megan and I through a door into a dark, crowded room, filled with voices and music. In the dim recesses ahead, a long row of barrels faded into the darkness.
Incredibly, we had stumbled on a party, been welcomed into a gathering of friends, to celebrate the first bottling of the new year. Before long, we each had a glass in hand and were tasting different red wines, while chatting as best we could in both languages. Then Dad got up there and sang “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” with his new friends.
Afterward, we all agreed that this had been a highlight of the trip. Eventually, we even found the retail area. In the photo above, Megan and Dad are making a few purchases from Fabrice himself. I plan to save the bottle that I bought for when Megan comes up in August and we’ll drink a toast to serendipity! So, a la prochaine, until the next time.