Off Piste in Amboise

Posted on April 26, 2016 by

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Despite its small size, Amboise in the Loire Valley has three very unusual Last Resting Places.

Tourists who flock to the magnificent Royal Château are in for a treat because it is here the mighty Leonardo da Vinci, at his own request, was buried. He lived just down the road in Clos Lucé, the childhood home of François I, the King who persuaded him to leave Italy and live near him, which is why the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, Paris, not in the Uffizi, Florence. In WWII, when Adolf Hitler was in cahoots with fellow psycho Benito Mussolini, plans were afoot not only to ship the Mona Lisa off to Italy but to dig up Leonardo and send him back with it. The French outwitted them.

Leonardo’s is not the only grave in the Château. Tourists may be surprised to see a Muslim cemetery. When Louis-Phillippe, the last King of France, invaded Algeria, Emir Abd-el-Kader, a religious and military leader was taken prisoner. Brought to Amboise in 1848, he, with his family and followers, remained in honourable captivity for four years. He came to admire France so much he could not understand why it wanted his desert home. When Louis-Phillippe was deposed and Napoleon III took over, Abd-el-Kader was freed. A tomb in the Château garden commemorates twenty-five members of his retinue who died here, including one of his wives, one of his brothers, and two of his children. The other graves are those of his entourage who also died there. The grave of Marie Riahhi, however, is not with her compatriots; her last resting place is off the beaten tourist track in a Roman Catholic cemetery.

This astonishing Gothic like city of the dead in rue des Ursulines is so unexpected, it’s doubtful that anyone except the locals knows about it or its inhabitants who were laid to rest here in – to mix metaphors – a sea of gravestones.
It’s hard to put into words the effect this place has on the senses. A mixture of horror and wonderment and absolute joy it has survived life’s vicissitudes for over two hundred and fifty years. There is something eerie, spooky, delightfully spine chillingingly creepy about the rusting gates which guard private mini-chapels with their dusty altars and long dead flowers crumbling in broken funeral urns. Some are ajar leaving the distinct impression the inhabitant managed to escape. Maybe the ambience has something to do with the fact that, unlike English cemeteries which are green and easy on the eye, the cemetery is on sand with not a blade of grass to relieve the starkness.

In 1776 a law was passed instructing towns to put cemeteries outside their borders. When the Duke of Choiseul, Foreign Secretary to Louis XV bought land for his burial, he gave the rest of it to the city for a cemetery. Today it and the wonderful avenue of yew trees leading to it are listed. A favourite of Madame Pompadour, the Duke fell out of favour when she fell out of favour. Her successor in the King’s bed, Madame du Barry, despised him.
When the Duke was exiled from Paris, he retired here to Château Chanteloup, his vast country estate of which nothing remains except for a Chinese Pagoda, his monument to friendship. The Folly, built by the Duke in 1775 after his exile from Court paid homage to those who had shown him loyalty. His château, its magnificent gardens and his grave were destroyed by Revolutionaries. His town house in Amboise survived because it was The Town Hall. Built in 1501, it is now a museum.

As Foreign Secretary, the Duke tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully to wage war on England until, under The Treaty of Paris in 1763 France had to surrender most of its North American and Indian colonies to England.
In an attempt to boost the Austrian alliance, Choiseul suggested that the King’s son, the Dauphin, the future ill-fated Louis XVI, marry the equally ill-fated Marie Antoinette. He saw the marriage as a personal triumph which would cement his position at Court. He was wrong. The French hated her.

In 1812, Henri-Michel, Marquis d’Amboise of Clos Lucé, Choiseul’s close friend (the Duke was the godfather of his daughter) was buried next to him. An ancestor of the Marquis, Jean d’Amboise, was private physician to Francis I. In 1793, Henri-Michel was in a Paris jail awaiting the guillotine. He was released after the death of Robespierre. It was thanks to him, Clos Lucé, former home of Leonardo da Vinci, was not destroyed during the Revolution.

Almost touching toes with the Duke in the cemetery is Léonard Perrault. He was not an aristocrat. He was the Duke’s employee, a stonemason hired to work on Château Chanteloup. Watching Perrault at work, the Duke asked him what would make his life easier. ‘A donkey and cart’ Léonard replied. His wish was granted. Thanks to the duke and his wife, this workman from a humble background received prestigious commissions including work on the Royal Château. One was to build the bridge in Amboise. He spent ten years crossing the mighty Loire from side to side by ferry. Sadly, his bridge was blown up by local residents trying to defend their town from the German invasion. They were not successful. The present bridge was built after the war.
In 1802, using his own money, Perrault rebuilt the Duke’s tomb which was destroyed by Revolutionaries. He asked that his reward be the privilege of being buried next to his old friend. So it came about that a duke and his mason rest in peace side by side. The Duchess of Choiseul, bankrupted during the Revolution, was reduced to living in a tiny apartment in Paris. Perrault, who was, thanks to her husband, now wealthy looked after her financially.

When Léonard Perrault died in 1815, his tomb was built next to that of the Duke. It is estimated that three hundred and fifty of his descendants are buried here. The Choiseul monument is looked after unlike that of Perrault. He does however have a street in Amboise named after him.
In 1996 the cemetery became the last resting place of Michel Debré, a politician, who died on his country estate in nearby Montlouis-sur-Loire. The hospital in Amboise is named in honour of his father Robert Debré, an eminent Jewish Professor, sometimes called the father of modern French paediatrics. His grandfather, Simon Debré, was a much respected Rabbi.

In 1940 Michel Debré was sworn in by Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy Regime, who deported 77,000 Jews to concentration camps. Following the German takeover of Vichy in 1942, Debré joined the French Resistance.
Professor of Law at the University of Paris, he was appointed Prime Minister by Charles de Gaulle and helped draft a new constitution for the Fifth Republic. When de Gaulle replaced him with Georges Pompidou, Debré was appointed Minister of Defence.
It is thanks to Debré, Mayor of Amboise from 1966 to 1989, the city has a very prestigious fountain. He persuaded Max Ernst, the world famous Surrealist artist who lived in the Touraine, to leave a lasting memento.
This wonderful cemetery is even more wonderful on 1 November, All Souls Day (La Toussaint) when massive bouquets of chrysanthemums are laid on the graves. The war graves are especially honoured. Chrysanthemums, a symbol of grief, are never given as gifts in France.

 

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