We had started our day well, going out for an early morning photo session on a crystal clear morning. Walking ancient cobbled stone ways lit by occasional street lights that cast eerie shadows hiding who-knew-what and then finding modern concrete stairways to climb in the soft morning glow of the golden hour, past garden beds whose blooms would come alive in the morning sun.
No-one else broke the silence that was ours as we ascended towards the highest church in Blois, the St Louis Cathedral, our footsteps echoing against the stark walls.
The historic architecture is thoughtfully signed with its providence and here and there some type of vine clings to walls with shuttered windows. You hesitate to say “ghostly”, but that’s the feeling you get. We’re out for well over an hour and are totally invigorated by the experience as we reflect over a breakfast that we ravish.
Next we’re heading out to Chambord but then almost immediately going off-plan to view Fougeres-sur-Bievre, a mediaeval castle stuck in the middle of chateau land, aka the Loire Valley. Since we were the only visitors and it was our first such experience on the trip we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a classical square-shaped affair from the Middle Ages of hard Beauce ragstone with round corbelled towers on each corner with inverted cones on top. Abandoned by the British in 1429 it was totally rebuilt throughout the rest of the century and looked the part.
Inside was somewhat sparse so we weren’t detained by furniture but I loved walking up and down the helix staircases and gazing out of the machicolated windows, wondering what barbarians might be seeking to attack us. Outside the building there were a couple of lovely gardens and, somewhat beyond, a tempting chateau apparently not open to the public.
So it was that we left happy and motored on to Cheverny, one of the great chateaux of the Loire; but we had no intention of going in, just stopping for a snap or two, something I accomplished by lying on the ground and shooting between the gap of a gate and the ground.
As fate would have it there was a patisserie that we pencilled in after we’d parked and walked past it on our way to the main gate of Cheverny. However, fate took another hand in our schedule yet again as I noticed a degustation area and directed Lorraine into its bowels while I went off to try for a different shot of the chateau.
How was I to know that she’d walked into wine lover’s heaven, for here, set on 3 cylindrical stands with 32 stainless nozzles apiece, was the piece de resistance of all wine tasting. It truly was amazing because they have set it up so you can get a wine tasting glass for a small fee and it has a computerised chip in it that allows you to taste any three wines of your choice from the selection of 96. However, Lorraine, charming the host, had conned him into some freebies first and then had a go at the glass for nothing. I thought she’d never leave.
After our patisserie time indulgence we cruised on to Chambord, one of the architectural marvels, not only of the chateau world, but anywhere. Its variance to other chateaux is marked by its extraordinarily complex towers, stairway and adornments. Mind you, the bus tours and hundreds of others had also “found” it the day we were there yet the carpark, about one kilometre from the chateau entrance, was only about a quarter full.
This place can handle a crowd fortunately so you were never stuck behind hordes of tourists like some more well publicized venues. Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life near here and it is generally believed that he had something to do with some of what we see today, though Italian architect Domenico de Cortona is generally credited with much of the design. In fact, whilst ever you are outside the building, it’s hard to take your eyes off the Italian roof line, so incredible is some of the detail and, at times, it seems almost Gaudi-esque. With 800 columns and 365 chimneys it was definitely the highlight.
Francois I started this off though he only spent 72 nights here but it was much refurbished by Louis XIV before he tired of it and headed off to set up Versailles. It’s incredible to think that it was only ever set up as a hunting lodge!
Inside we see the first use of coffered vaulted ceilings in France and the huge ceramic heaters that always fascinate me. The three that were here came when the Marechal de Saxe, victor at the Battle of Fontenoy, was installed as manager by a grateful Louis XV. They were all sold off but have since been re-united in their original house. The most mentioned item however, is the double helix staircase that goes for three stories (there’s also another 83 stairways).
It’s extraordinary to reflect that, during WWII, the treasures of Le Louvre were stored here, ever trying to keep them from the hands of the Germans. One one occasion a Lancaster bomber in dire trouble was heading straight for the chateau. Miraculously the wings were tilted and it missed by an estimated metre. Who knows what damage might have occurred. It crashed in the garden just beyond.
It was a satisfying visit but our next venue was back at Blois, where we’d spent our first two nights. Here was another Francois 1st extravaganza though Louis XII is responsible for much of what we see today of its 564 rooms and 75 staircases, though only one staircase, a double helix, is truly memorable.
The Palace Royale is an impressive building with equally impressive views over the old town and its river. Once a mediaeval fort, it morphed into what we see today via the whims of its many owners, several of them kings, including Louis XII, who was responsible for its conversion into a true palace in 1498. Not long after, Francois I came to power and, inspired by lodges in the Vatican enhanced by Bramante, built the Renaissance wing with its in-your-face staircase.
Though there are only 30 rooms here, one is 540 square metres, while the Kings Room is 173 square metres. Also of passing interest is the fact that there are 6,720 fleur de lis scattered around, 237 candelabras in the Studiolo as well as numerous monograms; Francis I (35), Catherine de Medici (180) and Henry III (192).
The only other thing of note during this great day was when, whilst on our way to the Royale, about five carloads of adolescents charged by in their vehicles hanging out of the windows with horns blaring. We were shocked to say the least as they sat on the window sills of the cars and leant out at all angles at speed, seemingly with some sort of death wish.
We finished up dining at a wonderful restaurant, La Castalet, our second such quality eating experience on our trip thus far, after the Au Buchon Lyonnais, which is one of quite a few restaurants scattered around the country specializing in cuisine from Lyon. This is usually a dish based on fatty meat like sausages, duck pate or roast pork and the conviviality of the staff and owner are also associated with Buchon.