When it comes to French castles, the Château de Chenonceau is probably the most recognisable and eye-catching in France’s picturesque Loire Valley. Built on the banks of the river Cher, the château was extended into a raised gallery that spans across the river Cher. Today, the Château de Chenonceau is a major tourist attraction in France, and the second most visited château after the Château de Versailles.
History of the Château de Chenonceau
The present day site of the Château de Chenonceau had two châteaux before it. The original, owned by Jean Marques, was destroyed in 1412, and was promptly rebuilt. The second incarnation lasted only 100 years, and was demolished by the new owner Thomas Bohier in 1513, leaving only the Medieval keep.
Bohier, chamberlain to King Charles VIII, built his new château between 1515 and 1521, leaving the keep as the only old structure. Bohier hosted many royal guests, including King Francis I. But Chenonceau didn’t stay in the Bohier family for long, when Francis I seized the property from Thomas’ son in 1535 to make up for debts unpaid.
The Women’s Château
In the centuries following, the Château de Chenonceau was owned and managed by a line of dynasties headed by powerful and influential women. It began with the chateau’s biggest love rivalry between Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers. Francis I’s successor, King Henry II, gifted the château to his mistress Diane de Poitiers in 1547. She commissioned the master architect Phillipe de l’Orme to extend the château across the river with an arched bridge. She also planted extensive gardens and fruit trees on the grounds.
When King Henry II died in 1559, the Queen and widow Catherine de Medici forced Diane de Poitiers to exchange the castle for the Château de Chaumont. Under Catherine de Medici’s ownership, lavish parties were thrown (even launching France’s first-ever fireworks show in 1560), and the bridge was upgraded to an ostentatious raised gallery.
When Catherine de Medici died in 1589, her daughter-in-law Louise de Lorraine inherited the Château de Chenonceau. But her stay was an unhappy one; when her husband King Henry III was assassinated just a few months later, she spent the next 11 years wandering the halls of Chenonceau in black mourning garments until she died in 1601.
The château changed hands over the next centuries. The Duc de Vendôme took ownership of the château for the next century, hosting the last royal to visit in 1650, when Louis XIV visited. By then the château had fallen increasingly out of fashion. The next owners, Claude and Louise Dupin, were patrons of the arts and transformed Chenonceau into a meeting place for Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Fontenelle. Louise Dupin also campaigned to save the château from destruction by revolutionaries, arguing its importance as a bridge.
Restoration of the Château de Chenonceau
In 1864 the Château de Chenonceau found a new owner, the wealthy heiress Marguerite Pelouze. The property was in dire need of renovation, and she commissioned the architect Félix Roguet to renovate the interior, and remove unused rooms. Having used much of her fortune on the renovations, she sold the château soon afterwards to the Terry family from Cuba.
Current Owners of the Château de Chenonceau
The Menier family (of Menier chocolates, now owned by Nestle) bought the château in 1913. It was involved in both world wars; it was a medical ward during WW1, and was bombed by both the Germans and Americans as it changed hands in WW2.
Inside the Château de Chenonceau
The château is open to visitors every day of the year, and is spectacularly furnished with Renaissance furniture, tapestries and artworks. Some famous painters have their works displayed in Chenonceau, such as Rubens, Francesco Primaticcio, and Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Château de Chenonceau Chapel
The onsite chapel of Chenonceau was used by royal visitors to attend mass. As a Royal chapel, it was in danger of being destroyed during the French Revolution, but Madame Dupin converted it to a firewood storage to save it. The stained glass windows are replicas of the originals, which were smashed by bombing in WW2.
The Château de Chenonceau Kitchens
While no longer in use today, the superbly upkept kitchen of Chenonceau is located in the lower levels of the château. With its arched, fireproof ceiling, immense stove and oven, extensive copper pots and pans displayed on the walls, this is one of the finest examples of a Renaissance kitchen in France. With baskets for fruits and vegetables, hooks for game, and chopping blocks and knives on display, it’s easy to imagine this kitchen busy with cooks and servers during its heyday. The taxidermied boars head above the beautiful 16th century chimney is a wonderful touch too.
Gallery over the river Cher
Dedicated in 1577 by Catherine de Medici, the 60 metres long gallery is known for its beautiful chalk and share tiled floor. During WW1, over 2000 wounded soldiers were brought to the gallery which served as a makeshift hospital ward.
Catherine de Medici was instrumental in expanding the gardens of the Château de Chenonceau, suitable for hosting elaborate garden parties. Her garden design is based around a large central pond, with five lawns and globes of boxwood. Catherine also included a hedge maze, waterfalls, aviaries, and mulberry trees to grow silkworms.
The other main garden area is the Diane de Poitiers garden, a French style garden composed of 8 triangular lawns. Centred around a fountain, the gardens feature flower displays, most notably roses and santolina. Climbing rose trees and orange trees also border the gardens, as well as vegetable gardens, and flower workshops that produce the bouquets for the château.
The Bedrooms of Château de Chenonceau
The Diane de Poitiers Chamber is named after the mistress of King Henry II, who owned the château from 1547 to 1559. It is beautifully decorated with wall frescoes, and a blue four-post bed. Notable artworks in the room include Portrait of Catherine de Medici by Sauvage, and Madonna and Child by Murillo.
The Catherine de Medici Chamber, who took control of the Château de Chenonceau after Diane de Poitiers, is equally extravagant. The ceiling is ornately painted and gilded with gold, and has artwork by Italian Renaissance painter Correggio.
The Salon Louis XIV was named for the French King commonly known as the Sun King. He was the last King of the Ancien Régime to visit the château in 1650, and stayed in this room, which was specially designed for him.
In the Francis I Salon are a number of incredible Renaissance masterpieces. A portrait of Diane de Poitiers by Primaticcio was painted in 1556 in the château. Also present is The Three Graces by Charles-Andre Van Loo.
Chenonceau Cellar – Cave de Dômes
The 16th century cellars of the Château de Chenonceau are open to the public for wine tasting. The wine on offer is Touraine-Chenonceau AOC whites, reds, rosés and sparkling white. This Loire Valley wine is grown in the vineyards surrounding the chateau, and is available for purchase.
Chenonceau Carriage Gallery
The Carriage Gallery is the place to see some old horse-drawn wagons used by the owners of the château. There are a variety of carriages, from luxury carriages, carriages to transport oak wine barrels, and even a tiny one for a pony and child!
The Château de Chenonceau has an onsite restaurant, l’Orangerie. In addition to the fine dining option, there are also numerous picnic areas to enjoy the ambience of the château.
Le Château de Chenonceau is the most visited château in the Loire Valley, and one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of France. It’s not hard to understand why; with its unmistakeable covered gallery spanning the river Cher, floral gardens, and Renaissance-era artwork and furnishing, Chenonceau certainly deserves its reputation for beauty and elegance. With a rich history under the oversight of powerful French women and men, Chenonceau is a must-see for any visitor to the Loire Valley!
Enjoyed this post? Check out my list of the best châteaux in the Loire Valley!
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