A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Hawkson

The Da Vinci Connection

semi-overcast 19 °C

Leonardo da Vinci may have been Italian but the French King Francois I was a big fan, and that's how the Mona Lisa ended up in the Palace of the Louvre and Leonardo's coffin ended up in the castle of Amboise. Da Vinci spent the last two years of his life in a chateau in the grounds of the 15th century royal fortress on the bank of the Loire in Amboise and much is being made of his time here as it is exactly 500 years since his death. There are special exhibitions and commemorations in Leonardo's chateau, Le Clos de Luce, and his ghost haunts the dungeons...

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This was Leonardo's workshop, laboratory and studio...

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...although by the time he set up shop here in France the Mona Lisa and all of his great inventions like the helicopter, parachute, Archimedes screw and the mechanical car were behind him.

King Francis I royal castle in Amboise was enormous in the 15th century and much of it has been demolished over the years. However, the bits still standing would house a small army...

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The castle's main feature is an enormous tower containing a spiralled roadway that enabled the king's carriages to be driven directly from ground level right up to the great hall accompanied by a troop of cavalry on horseback...

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Amboise Castle's main claim to fame, (or should it be infamy?) is that in 1560, during the Wars of Religion, a conspiracy by members of the Huguenot House of Bourbon was uncovered and was stifled by the hanging of 1200 protestants. The bodies were hung from the castle walls on iron hooks that normally held pennants and tapestries on festive occasions...

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All of the town's walls, and even this 15th century clock tower that straddles the main thoroughfare to the castle, were hung with corpses...

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But the macabre spectacle backfired when the king and the entire court were quickly forced to leave town because of the stench of rotting flesh.

Leonardo Da Vinci is everywhere here at the moment and every chateau seems to claim some connection to the old master. This archway in the grounds of the Château de la Bourdaisiere is said to have been designed by him...

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However the enormous cathedral in the city of Tours doesn't owe any of its design to Da Vinci – these great towers were over 300 years old when he was born...

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...and these stained glass windows were new at the end of the 13th century...

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Today the city of Tours is a vibrant commercial hub of highrises and factories that seems out of place with the tranquil towns and ancient villages that are strung along the valley of the Loire. But behind the modern facades of the shops and restaurants in the old quarter of Tours you will still find vestiges of medieval buildings.

No visit to the Loire valley would be complete without a few days spent in an ancient royal chateau – so that's where we are now. We just hope that the internet has kept up with the times.

Posted by Hawkson 09:13 Archived in France Comments (2)

The Gardens of Villandry

semi-overcast 24 °C

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The gardens of the Chateau de Villandry are a textbook example of the formal French gardens of the 16th century. The textbook, 'Traité du jardinage selon les raisons de la nature et de l'art,' by Jacques Boyceau, the superintendent of royal gardens under Louis XIII, states, “The garden should have a geomtric plan using the most recent discoveries of perspective and optics. A terrace overlooking the garden should allow the visitor to see all at once the entire garden..."

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"All vegetation must be constrained and directed to demonstrate the mastery of man over nature. Trees should be planted in straight lines and carefully trimmed, and their tops trimmed at a set height..."

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Here in Villandry, four gardeners spend three months each winter pruning more than one thousand lime trees that form the avenues.

"The residence must serve as the central point of the garden and no trees should be planted close to the house; rather, the house is set apart by low trimmed bushes..."

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Villandry has 52 kilometres of box hedges that have to be pruned between April and October each year.

"The most elaborate planting beds, in the shape of squares, ovals, circles or scrolls, are placed in a regular and geometric order close to the house, to complement the architecture and to be seen from above from the reception rooms of the house..."

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"These beds near the residence are filled with broderies, (embroideries), designs created with low boxwood to resemble the patterns of a carpet, and given a polychrome effect by plantings of flowers, or by colored brick, gravel or sand..."

"Farther from the house, the broderies are replaced with simpler parterres, (squares or rectangles), filled with grass, and often containing fountains or basins of water..."

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"Beyond these, carefully created groves of trees serve as an intermediary between the formal garden and the masses of trees of the park..."

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"Bodies of water (canals, basins) serve as mirrors, doubling the size of the house or the trees..."

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The gardens of Chateau de Villandry perfectly display all the features of a formal French garden of the 16th century. Ornamental flowers were relatively rare in French gardens in the 16th century and there was a limited range of colours. An important ornamental feature was therefore the topiary, a tree or bush carved into geometric or fantastic shapes...

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Although adhering to the general design of a medieval French garden, by using some 140 thousand flowers and vegetables the gardens of Villandry are a riot of colour today and it is recognised as one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe. The vegetable beds are as colourful as the flower gardens...

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To see more of Villandry and the gardens of many of the chateaus we have visited you can watch Monty Don's French Gardens on Netflix. Episode 2 features the world famous vegetable gardens of Villandry.

Posted by Hawkson 00:54 Archived in France Comments (3)

Another Day, Another Market

sunny 26 °C

It's Sunday and today we are taking a break from the tour des châteaux, (actually we are not – we just thought you might like to see the other side of life on the banks of the Loire). Sundays are market days in many towns and cities in France and the riverside town of Amboise is no exception...

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Amboise is a sleepy town between Blois and the bustling city of Tours but it comes to life every Sunday morning with one of the biggest markets in this part of France. It's a beautifully warm autumn morning here with clear blue skies and the flower stalls are laden with colourful displays...

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Clothes, shoes, bags, household goods and even mattresses make up a large part of this market which is strung alongside the river under an avenue of giant plane trees, but it is the food that gets our attention. Pork hams and dried sausages are a major feature, (note the wild boar's head)....

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However, it would seem that dried sausages, (saucisson), can be made with any meat and flavoured with almost anything. One display even has sausage made from kangaroo meat. Cheese is another staple of the French and there are hundreds of different kinds in the market today. Where to begin? – cow, sheep or goat; plain, flavoured or coloured; young or old; soft or hard or somewhere in between; mouldy or clean; ripe or not. Decisions: decisions...

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Fresh mussels, scallops and oysters from Brittany are very popular and relatively inexpensive, but there is a bewildering assortment of seafood on offer. Where to begin?...

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And the bread; the pastries; the mushrooms; the nuts; and the fruits and vegetables. Everything here is a delight for the eye, the nose and the palate. We may not be in Spain but paella is very big here...

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Each of these paella pans serves ninety portions at less than five euros a plate – that is our lunch decision for the day. All we need now is some bread and wine – voila!

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There is plenty of local wine for sale in the market but wine is everywhere here. The local hypermarket has a giant tent sale this month. Seasonal tent sales in Canada often mean a marquee full of plants, garden furniture and BBQs, (maybe even actual tents). Here in Amboise a giant tent in the parking lot is overflowing with discounted wines starting at three dollars a bottle in case the 6 liquor aisles inside the store doesn't have enough...

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And if we need a bite for dessert we can always get a crepe or two from the automatic crepe maker...

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Now, back to the châteaux. We have several more to visit but the Château de la Bourdaisiere looks particularly inviting. Maybe we will find a comfortable four poster bed and give our feet a rest for a few days...

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Posted by Hawkson 04:48 Archived in France Comments (3)

Charming Chateau Chenonceau

sunny 26 °C

If Chambord is the grandest chateau in the Loire Valley then Chateau de Chenonceau, which spans the River Cher, must surely be the prettiest...

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All of France was once ruled from this Chateau by an Italian noblewoman, Catherine de Medici, following the death of her husband King Henri II of France, (1515 - 1559). Henri was mortally wounded in a jousting tournament with the captain of his Scots guards and his 15 year old son was crowned Francis II. But not for long. He soon died and Catherine became Queen Regent on behalf of her 10 year old son King Charles IX. Then he died and with her help her third son became King Henry III. Catherine was still pulling her son's strings when in 1572 thousands of protestant Huguenots were slaughtered in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and she got the blame for it. Now let's take a break and have a look at the original front door of the Chateau dated 1519...

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Phew – a good pair of walking shoes, stamina and a clear head for history are needed here. This is our third chateau in three days and we barely mentioned the great Royal Chateau of Blois where Catherine de Medici died at the age of 69, just a few months before her third son died.This chateau still has towers and walls that were part of an ancient castle that was already 400 years old when Francis I turned it into one of his many palaces in the early 1500s...

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Now, if you are not reeling from all this historical stuff, let's get back to Chenonceau where, while Catherine de Medici was planning major extensions and the beautiful gardens, her husband, Henri II, was more interested in pursuits of a carnal kind with his mistress Diane de Poitiers. She even had her own bedroom on site...

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Henri left the chateau to Diane on his deathbed but Catherine soon shoved her out and redecorated for when her daughters and daughters-in-law visited. All five were queens and this was their bedroom...

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Beneath the chateau are extensive kitchens with a fascinating array of pots and pans...

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The crowning glory of Chenonceau is the long gallery that spans the river...

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This great room, and the two floors above it, was built by Catherine as a grand ballroom to entertain visiting royalty and noblemen. During the First World War the chateau was turned into a hospital by the owners and the the galleries became wards for hundreds of wounded soldiers. In 1914 the chateau's operating room was equipped with one of the first X-ray machines in the world. Catherine de Medici was also interested in medicine in the 1500s and she had an extensive apothecary. This is one of the medicine cabinets...

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The walls of the Chateau de Chenonceau exude history. While decisions made here changed the course of history in the middle ages, the chateau had a role during the Second World War when it straddled the demarcation line between Nazi occupied France and Vichy France and was used to smuggle people across the river to potential freedom. If only the walls of these corridors could talk – what stories they would tell...

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Posted by Hawkson 11:01 Archived in France Comments (4)

A Chateau a Day

semi-overcast 20 °C

The Loire Valley to the west of Paris has long been the hunting ground for the French aristocracy so it is no surprise that they would want to have a little pied-à-terre somewhere in the woods from where they could take pot shots at the passing game. This is the petit pied-à-terre of King Francois I which was begun exactly 500 years ago in 1519...

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This 426 room chateau at Chambord may seem a little excessive as far as hunting lodges go, but medieval French kings had a tendency to go a little over the top. King Francois the first (and almost the last) spent only 72 days in this chateau during his 32 year reign but to be fair he had lots of other castles to get around. This is his 'townhouse' on the other side of the Loire River in Blois...

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More about Blois next time. Now back to Chambord where the most unusual feature is an elaborate stone staircase that intertwines two flights that never coincide. Two people joining the staircase from opposite points on the same floor can never meet...

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Even today it would take some fancy engineering and at first glance it seems implausible. But to understand the principle take two similar corkscrews and screw them together. Got it? Never mind – open a bottle of wine, drink it and try again. It is suggested that the staircase was designed by Francois's friend Leonardo da Vinci who lived nearby in Amboise, but no one can be certain that he had a hand in the plans. While the giant staircase is certainly the centrepiece of Chambord there are soaring architectural features aplenty...

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However, these cherubs are not the prettiest...

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Louis XIV, the sun king, made many additions to Chambord in the middle of the 1600s but he rarely visited – he already had his chateaus at Versailles and Fontainbleau for hunting. This is Louis XIV's bedroom in Chambord where he held court...

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The numerous royal chateaus weren't usually staffed or furnished. The king's entourage of thousands would travel just ahead of him, carrying the furniture with them from one chateau to the next. They would have everything set up just in time for the king's arrival and he always felt at home.
Château de Chambord was ransacked by the proletariat during the revolution of 1789 and everything of value was stolen, auctioned off or used as firewood. The pots and pans in the great kitchen are all contemporaneous to the time but not originally from the chateau...

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The rooftops and spires of Château de Chambord are truly magnificent and are said to resemble the skyline of a medieval city...

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The 13,000 acre estate surrounding this great chateau is home to wild boar, deer and all kinds of game and it is surrounded by a wall more than 30 kilometres long – now that's what we call a garden...

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Another day; another chateau! We are staying in the Loire Valley for the next eight days and will be visiting one of the great chateaus every day – if we can stand the pace. However, there is much more to France than the rock piles of the royals and the rich so we will be digging deeper into daily life à la mode française.

Posted by Hawkson 23:52 Archived in France Comments (5)

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