There Are Places We’ll Remember All Our Lives: Chenonceau

Posted on Jan 5, 2014 by


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           Because of its distinctive bridge which spans the river Cher, Chenonceau is unique among French chateaux. It is one of (if not the) most photographed in France. With a million visitors every year, it is, after Versailles, the most visited château in France.

Known locally as Le Château des Dames (the ladies’ castle), it was built by a woman and owned by a succession of women. Built to the designs of Katherine Briçonnet, an aristocrat, it had its 500th birthday in 2013 when we were there. This is where Katherine entertained King Francis I, Leonardo da Vinci’s patron, although when she died, it did not stop him from taking Chenonceau from her son.

When Henry II of France gave Chenonceau to his official mistress, Diane de Poitiers, his wife, Catherine de Medici was furious. She wanted it. Badly. Chenonceaux became Diane’s favourite home. It was Diane who added the arched bridge which joins the château to the opposite bank. A stroke of imagination, this was the first time it had been done. She could not know that one day her bridge would save her beloved Chenonceaux from those who wanted to destroy all royal residences during the French Revolution. Nor could she know that people would flee over her bridge from Nazi occupied France in the north to Petain’s soi disant – so called – ‘free’ Vichy France in the south.

It was Diane who designed the flower and vegetable gardens along the banks of the Cher. Buttressed from flooding by stone terraces, the exquisite gardens were laid out in four triangles. Her equally must see fabulous kitchens were built inside the piers of the bridge.

As her lover Henry lay dying (a tournament went wrong) his wife Catherine sent a messenger to a devastated Diane demanding she relinquish the keys to Chenonceaux. It was Catherine’s favourite residence. She spent a fortune on it. This is where her son Francis and his bride Mary, Queen of Scots, had their wedding feast. They spent their honeymoon here enjoying fêtes, picnics, hunts and balls. How dull Scotland must have seemed to Mary when Francis died and she returned to her homeland.

It was Catherine who enclosed Diane’s famous bridge and turned it into an art gallery. It was Catherine who in 1560 arranged the first firework display in France. It took place at Chenonceau to mark the accession to the throne of he son Francis 11; the Francis married to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Following a succession of owners, Chenonceaux was sold in 1733 to Claude Dupin. His wife was the grandmother of the notorious novelist George Sand who whisked her lover the composer Chopin away to her home near Limoges. Chenonceau was saved from demolition during the French Revolution by Madame Dupin. Bridges being essential for the movement of arms and troops she pointed out that it had the only bridge across the river for miles. For some obscure reason she changed the spelling of the chateau to Chenonceau leaving off the ‘x’.

In 1864, a Scot, Daniel Wilson, who made his fortune installing gaslights all over Paris, bought Chenonceau for his daughter. No wonder it is called the women’s castle. She spent his vast fortune on such extravagant parties there that the Château was sold to pay off her debts.

In 1913, the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, bought the château. It still owns it. During World War I the famous gallery was used as a hospital ward.

NB to you. Don’t go in August, the hordes ruin the experience. NB to the curators. Learn the Japanese for No Flash. Screaming it in English and French as our Oriental friends frenziedly flash has zero effect – apart from making the rest of us laugh like drains.

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