Linger in the Chateaux of the Loire

Skip the bus tours, strike out on your own, and savor the rich offerings of this valley of the French Renaissance

THE mayor slumps behind an oak desk strewn with negative press clippings. His second effort to construct a theme center for tourists alongside the landmark Chambord chateau abutting his town has fired the wrath of leading Paris newspapers and looks sure to go down in flames.

The influential daily Figaro denounced the project as an assault on the special character of Chambord and even called on the French government to purchase the site next to the 464-year-old chateau to ensure that yet another proposal is not forthcoming.

''People just didn't want to understand,'' says Michel Lhommere, who has been mayor of Mont-pres-Chambord (near Blois) for 25 years this month. ''We don't want to change Chambord. All our building would have been outside the walls of the old park. But you have to understand that the only industry around here is a nuclear plant, and our young people are having trouble finding jobs.''

''Some 1.5 million tourists visit Chambord every year, half to visit the chateau and half to just walk in the park,'' he adds. ''They stay a few hours, that's all. Our goal is to hold on to them a bit longer, [have them] eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels. Our Renaissance Center could have made Chambord the gateway for any trip through the Loire Valley. But it was blocked by a handful of Parisians and foreigners.''

The mayor should take heart. Even without a Renaissance Center, with new hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and parking lots (the first project), or a Leonardo da Vinci cinematographical spectacle (the second), there are good reasons for visitors to skip the one-day bus tour from Paris and take time on their own to savor this valley of the French Renaissance.

This 440-room hunting lodge, with a chimney for each day of the year, marks the beginning and the end of a concept of monarchy that influenced all the courts of Europe.

Here in 1519, a dynamic new king, Francois I, began construction of a chateau on the scale of his aspirations for the monarchy. And here in 1871, the count of Chambord, the last in the line of Bourbon kings, turned down the throne after a dispute over which flag would be flown -- the Republican tricolor or the white and gold fleurs-de-lis of his royal ancestors.

Francois I located his stately pleasure dome in the midst of one of the richest hunting grounds of Europe and enclosed it with 20 miles of stone wall. The first stage of the project took 1,800 workers some 12 years to complete, exhausting the royal treasury and delaying the ransom on the king's two young sons, held captive in Spain.

In all, Francois I would spend 42 days here. Taking account of the time in residence of all of its owners, Chambord has been occupied no more than 20 of its 464 years.

POETS of the 19th century penned rhymes over the deep solitude of this spot. Twentieth-century tourists who arrive before the tour buses can feel the same sense of the place. At first light or at dusk, you may even glimpse a deer or a wild boar still protected behind these stone walls.

Any local taxi driver here has a wild boar story to tell, or at least a story about how security for a presidential hunting party gummed up all the local roads. (Hunting is allowed under very restricted conditions.)

The chateau opens at 9:30 a.m. Forget waiting for the tour. Head for the double-ramp spiral central staircase (you can study it later) and bolt to the rooftop terraces. In early morning light, its splendor of turrets, chimneys, dormers, lanterns, fauns, cherubs, flame-breathing salamanders, flowers, shells, and geometrics glows.

While there is little evidence to support claims in some guidebooks that Leonardo da Vinci -- then living in the Loire Valley at royal invitation -- designed the chateau, the influence of the Italian Renaissance is evident throughout.

An influence far less welcome and, arguably, a greater danger to the chateau than tourist theme parks is graffiti carved on the surface of the fine white stone. The tufa stone from the towns of Bourre and Pontlevoy that built the Loire chateaux is no longer quarried.

Easily hewn and sculpted, the stone hardens and brightens with time. Twentieth-century artists take note, says a sign at one end of Chambord's terraces: ''There is only one tufa limestone quarry left in France.''

From Chambord, it's a gentle drive to Cheverny, one of the most lived-in and richly furnished of the Loire chateaux. The constant baying of some 90-plus hounds on the premises is a reminder that the hunt still absorbs the interest of at least a small segment of French society.

Antlers cover the ceiling and walls of many of the Loire chateaux, and nothing is more like an antler than another set of antlers. But those adorning the head of Cheverny's main staircase are worth a second look. They once belonged to a cervus megacerus, a prehistoric elk, or rather, a very large prehistoric elk. (Bay on, yon hounds!)

One of the drawbacks of a revolution that abruptly gets rid of kings and sparks war with the other crowned heads of Europe is that much of the furniture that gives a sense of place to a chateau is dispersed. Today's visitors often pass through empty halls. But the mental images picked up wandering past the rich fabrics, colors, and shapes in this small gem of a chateau will furnish all the others.

In the end, however many hours or days you have to tread the white halls and gardens of Loire chateaux, consider a return to Chambord -- at evening, perhaps. The walls take on a completely different aspect in late afternoon light, and you may yet see a wild boar.

If you have time, say hello to the mayor.

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