Day 1…Morning. Chateau de Chenonceau to Amboise.
We had had flown to France in 2011 with three bucket-list destinations on our agenda. We decided we would walk around Paris, hire a car to drive around the Dordogne region and ride bikes around the Loire Valley. After our time in Paris, we caught the train from Paris to Blois where we were picked up by our Bike-Hire company for the forty-minute drive to our hotel, Chateau de Chissay, for the first and last days of our five day ride. Our hotel overlooked the River Cher and was our first of a number of chateaus we visited on our trip. It was a lovely place with mysterious corridors leading to an ancient chapel as well a dining room directly out of a film noir remaking of the Count of Monte Christo. Our bikes were delivered to this hotel and were ready and rearing to go the following morning. Minor details of how our luggage got to our next stopover we left to the minions of our very efficient travel company. The only difficult part of the start of our journey was that it was drizzling with rain (on with the gorgeous yellow rain jackets!) as it did off and on throughout the day. Luckily it didn’t interfere with our enjoyment of our ride to our first stop of the day, the Chateau de Chenonceau.
Visiting a French chateau on the Cher River in the Loire Valley of France makes it clear that you are a long way from home. Its lengthy history and its almost overwhelming opulence are just two issues of difference that spring to mind. The area around Chenonceaux was first mentioned in the 11th century and the first chateau was built in the 13th century but was burned down in 1412 to punish its owner; he rebuilt but ran out of money which became a common pattern for the owners of this flamboyant building. Dissatisfied with river-bank views of the Cher River, its 16th century owners decided to build a bridge over the river and continue the chateau’s structure out over this bridge. Today this extension over the river houses the Chateau’s Gallerie and so this makes for an amazing viewing experience of art and river views. The overhead shot below left illustrates the process of how the chateau was almost incorporated into the river with short canals diverting the water around the formal gardens of the estate.
While the Chateau de Chenonceau was never a residence of a monarch of France, it certainly received visits from various Kings of the country such as Francis I. However it was clearly an attractive place to the women associated with the country’s rulers. Henry II’s mistress Diane de Potiers commissioned the bridge section over the river in 1555. Henry II’s widow (Catherine de Medici) was not going to let such an architectural treasure remain in the hands of her late husband’s mistress so she forced her to swap the chateau for another one further down the valley, Chateau Chamont. Chenonceau was passed on to Catherine’s Daughter in law, Louise of Lorraine. Her husband, Henry III (1574-89) was assassinated and his wife Louise wandered the halls of the Chateau for another 11 years in justifiable depression before she died and the next King Henry reverted to giving the Chateau to his mistress.
Owning and maintaining a chateau the size and opulence of this one remained expensive for all the owners over the next four centuries. The previous pattern of large expenditure and large debts continued but this beautiful building survived into the twentieth century.
When we arrived at Chenonceau after following the River Cher from Chissay, the rain stopped, enabling us to have a pleasant stroll around the rose gardens at the front of the chateau. We then headed towards the huge maze on its own artificial island on the other side of the chateau. It was a beautiful piece of landscaping and the walk was worth the effort, particularly when we found the monumental Caryatids (see above right) towards the back of the Maze. These sculptures of Greek Gods once adorned the façade of the chateau but fell victim to one of the many refurbishments. It was great they were rescued and installed here.
From the gardens it was then into a slow wander of the rooms and halls of the Chateau, transporting ourselves back many centuries of history. The image to the right of one of the bedrooms captures the art, the old-fashioned beds and the gorgeous wall-paper that adorned all the walls of the chateau. It took us considerable time to make our way through the complex of rooms and we eventually reached the highlight of our tour, the Gallery-Bridge across the River Cher. The art was beautiful on the walls of this curious room but we were particularly interested to discover that it had a small role to play in French history of the twentieth century. During World War 1 it was set up as a hospital ward to treat injured solders from the fierce trench fighting to the north west of this area. In the first three years of World War II, the bridge across the Cher became involved in the conflict between the French and the Nazi occupiers
The photo on the left was taken by visitors to the Chateau in 1942. By this stage in WWII, Germany now controlled much of France and a ‘border’ was drawn across the country separating the northern half of France from Vichy France in the south. It just so happened that the River Cher was the border between these two parts of the country and it was illegal without appropriate papers to move from the north to the south. Numbers of people were able to escape the German occupied zone and reach the south of France by using the bridge across the Cher as their escape route. Eventually the border was scrapped and the chateau occupied by German forces resulting in it being bombed in the last stages of the war by allied aircraft.
We still had a busy day ahead of us and so we couldn’t linger any longer at Chateau de Chenonceau. From here our destination was Ambois and it was 14km ride through small hamlets and the Forest of Amboise. We knew we were riding through the Loire Valley but we didn’t actually reach the Loire River until we arrived at the bridge in Amboise.