The grand chateau of Chenonceau was built in the 16th century by Thomas Bonhier and his wife Katherine Briconnet on the foundations of a former fortified castle and mill. All that remains of the original buildings are the fairy-tale Marques Tower and the well beside it. For the next 500 years a series of rich and influential women improved, expanded and transformed the chateau and its estate into the masterpiece that it is today.
I’m at the entrance gate before it is even open, but there are already two coach parties ahead of me, one American and the other Japanese. Chenonceau is an extremely popular Loire Chateau, even out of season. So, rather than feel crowded by the groups who have limited time to visit, I decide to explore the gardens a little before I head to the chateau. In a small clearing in the woods, I locate the Italian maze, formed of 200 yew trees. It’s ridiculously easy to navigate to the centre and escape again to the Greek style Caryatides Monument on the far side.
I move on to the large manicured garden of Diane de Poitiers, the first influential lady to reside at Chenonceau. She was the favourite lady of King Henry II. Not only was she responsible for creating the beautiful gardens, she instructed that a bridge be built from the chateau across the river Cher, and then later added two long galleries upon it. Unfortunately, when Henry II died in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici decided that she wanted Chenonceau for herself and claimed it back from his mistress, offering her Chaumont-sur-Loire instead.
Catherine de Medici was now the mother of the new French King (Henry III) but there is no doubt who really ran the country. From the Green Study, overlooking the river, she schemed and plotted. Some say her actions were responsible for the Civil War of Religion which lasted for 30 years.
When King Henry III was assassinated in 1589, his widow, Louise of Lorraine, went into mourning at Chateau Chenonceau. Her bedroom there is painted black and decorated with objects of mourning, such as white feathers, silver tears, crowns of thorns and grave-diggers’ shovels.
All the bedrooms in the chateau are sumptuously decorated with huge Flanders tapestries, period furniture and paintings by famous artists, such as Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Poussin and Rubens. Four poster beds draped in velvet and silk, and large open fireplaces dominate.
In the 18th century, the chateau was owned by Louise Dupin, who was a representative of the Age of Enlightenment and who invited many writers, poets, scientists and philosophers to her home. Voltaire and Rousseau were among her many guests and it was thanks to her that Chenonceau was saved during the Revolution when so many other chateaux were pillaged and destroyed.
The present state of the chateau and its contents is mainly due to Marguerite Pelouze, who spent a fortune restoring the estate to its former glory in the 19th century. It was later bought by chocolate tycoon Menier who, during WWI, donated the main galleries as a hospital, equipping them at his own expense. His daughter, Simone, was matron and between 1914 and 1918 over 2000 wounded soldiers were treated there.
The chateau also played an important role during WWII as it was situated along the line of demarcation. Many members of the Resistance secretly passed through the galleries to reach the opposite bank of the river Cher. Today, visitors are not allowed to pass through the door which leads to the southern bank of the river, but after visiting Chenonceau, I take a self-guided walk along the river banks and see for myself the other side of the door. It leads into a heavily wooded area which, during WWII, would have meant safety for those brave Resistance fighters who were assisted by the equally brave Simone Menier.