By Rebecca Smith
There is no shortage of beautiful chateaus dotting the French countryside. But one is known distinctly as the “Château des Dames”, the “Ladies’ Château”. It is the Château de Chenonceau located in the Loire Valley and is so called because it has been designed and owned predominantly by women, a remarkable feat, especially considering the times. The transitions have not always been smooth or managed with female solidarity, but women can herald it a glowing success story nonetheless.
An exquisite model of French Renaissance architecture, Chenonceau elegantly spans the River Cher and includes a moat-enclosed courtyard. Early in the 1500s it was but a dilapidated manor house and mill. Thomas Bohier bought it from the Lord of Marques and tore it down, leaving only the well and tower. Bohier’s wife, Catherine Briçonnet, then designed and commissioned the new structure. Of special note are the grande entrance and France’s first straight staircase.
Sold in 1535 by their wayward son to King François I, it was turned over to Diane of Poitiers, the young mistress of his son, Henri II. Diane expanded the estate adding formal gardens, a bridge across the river and a farm and vineyard, all of which turned a tidy profit.
When the king was killed in a tournament in 1559, Catherine de Medici, his widow, in, it is thought, a fit of spite, sent Diane packing and took control. She then revamped the landscaping and added new structures. Those included an elegant 60-meter long, 2-story gallery atop the bridge. It was at that time that Chenonceau became the site of numerous balls and galas and fireworks and became famous for its revelry and pomp.
That changed completely when the subsequent owner, Louise de Lorraine, took possession of it after the assassination of her husband, Henri III. She instilled an atmosphere of grief and sadness. She herself wore mourning white and had the ceilings painted white, as well. Indeed, she was known as the Reine Blanche.
Upon her death, the castle was bequeathed to her niece and, after that, was acquired by Farmer General Dupin, whose wife became its next ruler. Madame Dupin added a new intellectual touch. She initiated a salon of many of the most renowned minds of the time. She also was widely known and beloved for her charity work, which may have saved Chenonceau from being destroyed during the French Revolution.
In 1864 the chateau was bought by Madame Pelouze, who spared little expense in renovating and embellishing the property, rearranging statues and replenishing interior art and decorations.
Today thousands of visitors enjoy Chenonceau; it is one of the most photographed of all the chateaus. Attracting the photographers are a splendid 16th century fireplace and mantel, superb Flemish tapestries, stained glass windows in the chapel (replaced after being destroyed in WWII), glass cabinets with the signatures of past inhabitants, a library and Bureau Vert, paintings by Rubens and Mignard, and the glorious history-making straight staircase leading up to the Five Queens’ Bedroom. The gallery atop the bridge, which served as a hospital during WWII and as the symbolic boundary between Free and Occupied France, is certainly a highlight. As is the Wax Museum, which relates the long, intriguing history of the estate.
The Miller family are the current owners but undoubtedly the entire country, and women, in particular, feel a proud ownership of La Merveille du Val-de-Loire, the Wonder of the Loire Valley.
Chenonceau with historical guided tour - 3D: sketchfab.com/3d-models/chenonceau-with-historical-guided-tour-bab90b3131d74b699a428d0804d6e9c6
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