This post was most recently updated on May 7th, 2016
Chenonceau, or Château de Chenonceau, is one of the most beautiful and best preserved castles in the Loire Valley. It is famous because it was owned and lived in primarily by women. Because of that, it was spared most of the turmoil of many French châteaux and has been a place of beauty and relative peace.
History of Château de Chenonceau
It was built in 1514-1522 and then later expanded to cross the Loire river. While it was first owned by Thomas Bohier, a chamberlain to King Charles VIII, it was seized by King Francis I in 1535 for unpaid debts. After Francis’ death in 1547, it was given as a gift to Diane de Poitiers, by Henry II. She fell in love with the Château and commissioned Philibert de l’Orme to build the beautiful arching bridge to join it with the opposite bank. She oversaw the addition of beautiful terraced gardens and fruit trees.
After King Henry II died in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, forced Diane de Poitiers to move to the Château Chaumont. Catherine took up residence at Chenonceau and spent exorbitant amounts of money on it. She added her own new series of gardens. She added rooms, a grand gallery, and a service wing to the Château. She also threw lavish parties and held the first fireworks display ever seen in France.
The Château de Chenonceau passed to Louise de Lorraine, Catherine’s daughter-in-law, after her death in 1589. Louise was married to King Henry III, and when she learned of his assassination later that year, she fell into a state of depression. She spent the rest of her days wandering the halls dressed in black amidst gloomy tapestries embroidered with skulls and crossbones.
Henry IV obtained the Château by paying off the debts of Catherine de Medici that Louise had inherited. He gave Chenonceau to his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées.
Eventually, the Château de Chenonceau was purchased in 1913 by Henri Menier, whose family still owns it today. During World War I, the gallery was used as a hospital ward. The Germans took over the Château during World War II as it sat on the line between the occupied and free zones. Allied bombs damaged the chapel windows. In 1951, the entire castle was restored to its former glory.
Today, Château de Chenonceau is the second most visited castle in France, after Versailles. It has meticulously groomed grounds that include gardens, forest, a labyrinth, farm, carriage house, floral workshop, a play area for children, and a picnic area. Other buildings include a souvenir shop, a cafe, a formal restaurant, and a wax museum displaying the former ladies of Chenonceau. And then there’s the Château itself — elegant and very striking! For more detailed information about visiting hours and admission prices, see here.
What is it like?
After hearing about the history of Chenonceau and seeing so many beautiful photos of it, I just had to see it for myself. On a moody day in March, my husband and I, plus my son and his wife, arrived in the afternoon after a long day of road-tripping from the other side of France. We were so pleasantly surprised with the ease of purchasing tickets and the lack of long lines or crowds. It was threatening to rain, however, so I hurried to take some photos while the sun was still breaking through.
Click on any photo to enlarge
I was amazed at the condition of all the outbuildings! It also felt like I had walked into a storybook setting. There were swans in the pond, ivy creeping up the walls of the carriage house, a sentry tower near the entrance of the Château, and a walkway to the front entrance that reminded me of a Cinderella movie. Trees were beautifully groomed and shaped. The gardens were gorgeous!
But if the outdoors was breathtaking, the interior was equally so. Here there was so much attention given to the finer details. A beautiful flower display on a table, copper utensils hanging from the kitchen wall, gorgeous tapestries, an old basket and mug sitting in a window sill, as if just set down by a Château resident. Canopied beds with velvet spreads, ornate golden frames with majestic portraits, and floor-to-ceiling fireplaces radiating heat from a cozy fire. Tiled ceiling panels and painted beams. A library refuge and the study where Catherine de Medici managed the affairs of Chenonceau and France. A huge gallery that nearly spans the Loire River with stunning black and white tiled floor and busts of historic figures lining the walls. Even a personal chapel with stained glass windows. Don’t worry that I am giving away the surprises that Chenonceau holds. My words and photos can’t begin to take the place of you experiencing it for yourself.
Chenonceau even has a full-time team of floral designers who create incredible flower arrangements for many of the rooms twice a week. While we were there, many of them had an Easter theme.
You can’t get too much of the Château de Chenonceau. While we were still indoors, the skies grew dark and we had a brief hailstorm and pouring rain. But there was a profound peaceful feeling being inside, looking through those solid medieval panes of glass and knowing the storm was outside. And looking down on the river as it passed under the castle’s pillars made me think of centuries of time that had passed without eroding away this fairy tale.
Later, when we exited the Château, I saw a rainbow arching from the menacing clouds to the river. I hated to leave, but it was time. Some of the things we didn’t get to see: forest paths, a maze, and a wax museum. We did get to enjoy some chocolate crepes at the cafe before returning to our car. At a very reasonable price I might add.
I’m sure I know why Château de Chenonceau is so popular. It makes you feel something. Whether it moves you to want to protect your “lady” or to take comfort in the presence of your “knight”, you’ll definitely leave feeling a little more royal. And maybe even romantic.
Which castles have you visited?
Want to read about another French castle? Check out my post on Chateau de Baux.