THANKS to the French fondness for vistas, you approach the ch^ateau of Chenonceau through a great double row of mottled, arching trees, up a long, sandy road that a cavalcade could ride up, six abreast. It seems totally of the land, with its sturdy, cream-colored walls, amusing conical turrets, and dignified slate-blue roof - all flanked by flat, symmetrical gardens. There is no Gothic yearning here; everything is expressive of excellent taste, solid comfort, and money in the bank.
But come closer and you find out that this absurd and enchanting palace is built completely on piles set into the glassy water of the Cher River. It's actually a narrow bridge that has a ch^ateau sitting neatly on top of it.
Ch^ateaux are often barnlike, but here you can move right in. People usually describe this one as feminine - perhaps because of its having been designed by a succession of women, but also because it's small and livable. The estate is best viewed between pink rose trees severely trimmed into balls, connected by brave rows of matching flame-pink petunias.
Early autumn is the time to come. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the ch^ateaux of the Loire were chic places for the king and anybody else who could afford it to go for the fall hunting season. The roses are still in bloom, and everything here gleams in fine warm powdery light, like a photo taken through a golden filter.
Of course, Chenonceau is lovely inside; all of the tiny paned windows look out over the river, and there are large, beautifully proportioned rooms full of noble textures: embroidered bed hangings, tapestries of men in lovelocks and knickers, wooden shuttered windows, walls of silk, walls of handpainted canvas pretending to be leather, and top-heavey, carved fireplaces you could almost stand in. There are parquet floors, stone floors, elaborately carved and trompe d'oeil ceilings, and portraits of kings and their friends in fancy gold frames.
But the people who lived here are the lure of the place. Chenonceau has an untouched, fairy-tale quality. Yet, a soap opera has been played out within these serene walls that would make TV's ``Dallas'' pale in comparison.
The original section was built on the ruins of an old mill for Thomas Bohier, finance minister to Fran,cois I. Fran,cois took a fancy to the place, and after Bohier's death it was suddenly discovered that the former minister owed large debts to the crown - debts that could be satisfied either by total bankruptcy for the heir, or by turning over Chenonceau.
So Fran,cois's heir, Henri II, gave Chenonceau to his chunky blond girlfriend, Diane de Poitiers, who had a bridge built to the other side so she could ride over there. She fancied herself as Diana, goddess of the hunt. Inside the ch^ateau, you can see a painting of her, looking self-satisfied, in an abbreviated tunic-like hunting costume, with her signature long, stout legs well revealed, and something of a George Washington look about the expression.
After Henri died, mean Queen Catherine de Medicis kicked Diane out and had a two-story gallery added to the bridge so that Chenonceau completely spanned the Cher. Later, this gallery was completely hung with black and painted in feathers and tears by order of Queen Louise. The gallery ceiling still has her design - it's unattractive, but historical.
One of the most unusual aspects of Chenonceau is that it has its original furniture, tapestries, and paintings, though some pieces have been removed to permit hordes of tourists to tramp through.
Many pre-revolutionary ch^ateaux were cleaned out during ``the Terror'' of the French Revolution, with most of the contents destroyed or snapped up by English buyers. It's not unusual here in the Loire Valley to visit a gigantic palace full of echoing stony rooms containing only a few pieces of furniture labeled ``of the period.''
The reason Chenonceau has its furniture is due to the cleverness and charm of Mme. Dupin, the chatelaine of Chenonceau during the revolution. She was remarkable. There is portrait of her by Jean-Marc Nattier in the red-patterned satin drawing room, and we can see that she was a beauty: large, dreamy eyes, a mild and elegant 18th-century face, and powdered gray hair that somehow doesn't look ridiculous.
She was a wealthy bourgeoise lady who knew all the dazzling people of her era and was often described as ``tr`es gentille'' (very nice). This latter quality, combined with her quick wit, made the villagers reluctant to damage her home. She also had urged the local revolutionary committee to spare Chenonceau, since it was an important bridge.
Thus, all fleurs-de-lis and royal references were tactfully removed and Mme. Dupin lived peacefully at Chenonceau for many years.
That was not the only time that Chenonceau's odd status as a bridge came in handy. During World War II the mild little River Cher was the border between occupied and unoccupied France. The castle entrance was in the occupied zone, while the rear was in the free zone - very convenient for people who wanted to slip across.
The curator insisted on showing me the waxwork display in a side building; and he's right, it is nice. I saw Diane with her huntsman and her bridge in the background; Mme. Dupin conversing with Voltaire and Rousseau; and Catherine giving a fete for a happy-looking Mary Stuart.
The curator also showed me a rare book: ``Le portefeuille de Madame Dupin,'' an ancient volume that smelled of old roses. When I read it, I felt as if a friend was hailing me from across the centuries. Unfortunately, it's out of print. So instead I must content myself with reading and rereading Marguerite Yourcenar's beautiful essay on Chenonceau, ``Ah, mon beau ch^ateau.''
If you go
There is a one day bus tour from Paris to the ch^ateaux of the Loire that would include Chenonceau, along with three or four other locations.
Several companies offer extended tours to the Loire Valley. It's possible to stay in ch^ateaux in the area, now converted to hotels. Rates are from $150 up per night including breakfast. A book listing these, ``Relais & Chateaux,'' is found in bookstores ($6.95) and from David B. Mitchell Co., 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016; (212) 696-1323. Mitchell also offers tours.
The French Experience Inc. sponsors a ``Loire Valley Chateaux Experience,'' a 4-day, 3-night self-drive tour of ch^ateaux country. The tour includes lodging in an historic ch^ateaux, breakfast and dinner, and a car for $478 per person (double occupancy). For details, contact them at 171 Madison Ave, Suite 1505, New York, NY 10016, (212) 683-2445, or through a travel agent. The French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., Suite 222, New York, NY 10020, (212) 757-1125, can give details of other tours and lodgings.