In my continued attempt to somehow adhere to what this blog is supposed to be about, I’m going to march on with further coverage of my adventures throughout the Loire. Originally I was going to attempt to squeeze all the cities I’ve been to into one post but if my last post proved anything, it’s that that is an impossible feat. The two places I’ll be comparing today are also in the Loire Valley, the small castle towns of Chenonceaux and Chinon, one is home to a fairytale castle, the other a medieval fortress. Which one is best? Well, I’ll provide a snarky opinion and factoids but it’s up to you to make a choice…because you’re reading a travel blog and I guess that’s what you do?
First things first I’ll get this disclaimer out of the way: I was hopelessly biased towards Chinon before my June trip to France. It’s everything I want in a town; small, medieval and insanely picturesque. The town is dwarfed by the fortress that sits above it, rising out the rocky hills that dominate the countryside. As we can see by the name French have given it: Forteresse Royale de Chinon is NOT considered a chateau, it was built to endure battle, to house warlike kings and also to protect constantly contested land. In short it’s everything that Chateau du Chenonceau-not to be confused with its town Chenonceaux-is not. Chenonceau, is the product of a decadent nature that has come to define how we view French history; with its fairy-tale turrets and sprawling gardens, Chenonceau is hopelessly romantic and a statement of French opulence.
However before we get stuck into history let’s examine the etymology of the royal digs first shall we? The lovely and always helpful Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘chateau’ (plural chateaux) as a mid 18th century word derived from the Old French term chastel meaning castle (duh). Unlike a chastel ,a chateau is not defined only as a castle but as ‘a large French country house OR castle, often giving its name to the wine made in its neighbourhood’. With me so far? A chateau, despite it’s often fairytale exterior is not always home to a royal family. While I’m sure we like to think back to the chateaus of Disney folklore-lets go with the French example of Beauty and the Beast-if you were rich enough, you could build one. We only need to look at the celebrity couples who now rent or buy chateaux-looking at you Kimye and Brangelina-to understand that these places can be bought by pretty much anyone with too much money and a taste for wine/all things shiny. On the other hand, the definition of fortress is far more black and white. The first we hear of a word that sounds close to fortresse is with the Latin fortis which overtime morphed into the Old French and later Middle English fortresse meaning ‘strong place’. Therefore the official Oxford definition is ‘a military stronghold, especially a strongly fortified town’. Excuse me for being a word nerd, but after looking at the definitions for the word ‘chateau’ and ‘fortress’ I believe it’s abundantly clear that these two places are entirely different in principle alone. For me I look at these two definitions rather simply when researching or writing: a fortress is first and foremost a place to prepare of fight battles, the fact people live in them is entirely consequentially, a chateau is somewhere where you live and, if you’re unfortunate may have to do battle i.e. if you were an aristo during the first French Revolution.
Anyway…let’s get the ball rolling on this comparison! What I’m going to do for this post is split it into categories. Obviously what I think of these places is entirely subjective, and it’s up to you the reader to decide which place you think looks best for a visit.
The site on which Chinon stands began life in the prehistoric times as a settlement due to its close proximity to the river Vienne which served as part of a major trade network running through the Loire region as well as Poitou and the southern city of Limoges. From the 5th century Chinon housed a Gallo-Roman (a society formed by the consequent invasion of French Gaul by the romans…see Asterix and Obelix ) castra/castrum which is a building specifically made to serve as a military base. In the 900s the shape of the Chinon we know and love began to take place. The Count of Blois, a man named Theobald, was the first to build something close to a fortress on the mount. Much like his Roman predecessors, Theobald intended his new castle to serve as a stronghold against the regions of Normandy, Anjou and to a lesser extent Poitiers, all of which has their eye on the desirable stretch of land. Rather impressively, the Counts of Blois managed to hold onto Chinon until 1o37 when the famously argumentative Fulk ‘the Hulk’ III of Anjou, took Chinon by force after successfully capturing Touraine and the Chateau Langeais. Although it’s then owner Theobald of Blois -Chartres promptly surrendered-it wasn’t until 1044 and a new Count of Anjou in Geoffrey, that Chinon finally fell in Angevin hands. Geoffrey captured his rival and forced him into submission, Theobald forfeiting Chinon, Langeais and Tours to the Angevin family as terms for his release. Many historians mark this as the beginning of the Angevin dominance throughout the period until the early 13th century when Richie and Johnny blew their Plantagenet inheritance spectacularly. Despite its Gallo-Roman roots, the main structure of Chinon is attributed to Henry II, who dubiously took control of Chinon after the death of his father the Count of Anjou Geoffrey la Bel.
Henry II remained at war with various rivals including his own sons, throughout his reign (1155-1189) and Chinon quickly became a military stronghold and one of the King’s favoured royal lodgings. As a desirable plot of land, just who would inherit Chinon came in contention in 1172/3 after Henry decided to slash his oldest son’s-Young Henry’s French inheritance and give it to his youngest and favourite son, John or Jean sans Terre (for more detailed drama read this http://wp.me/p3WmQN-2L) . Henry biographer Warren sites the castles of Loudon, Mirabeau and Chinon as John’s French gains under Henry, a substantial gain indeed. Warren, like many other historians, pinpoint this decision as one of the primary reasons for the great revolt of 1173/4.
The great revolt lasted for a full year with Henry battling against his English barons, the French king and his own family. Enraged by Henry’s decision to effectively half his French gains, Hal joined forced with the King of France Louis, his mother Eleanor, and two younger brothers Richard and Geoffrey. Through canny planning, military precision, and the incompetence of his enemies, somehow Henry won this war and bought about his own renaissance in the 1170s/ However, by 1185 both Hal and Geoffrey were dead and Henry faced further rebellion from his new heir Richard (the Duke of Aquitaine) and the young, charismatic King of France Philippe Augustus. By 1189, the aged king had lost Tours, Le Mans, and huge chunks of French territories to Richard. Depressed and dying of what we now assume to be blood poisoning, the old king retreated to Chinon and died there on the 6th of July. Immediately, Richard was proclaimed the new Count of Anjou and more importantly the King of England and from 1189-1199 he successfully held onto Chinon despite losing huge chunks of his sizeable inheritance. Sadly, Angevin pot-luck eventually ran out in the early 1200s with a host of poor decisions from John (see a quick biog here http://wp.me/p3WmQN-52). In the space of a few years John lost almost all of the Angevin land, including Chinon, after a humiliating siege against Philippe in the Easter of 1205. Chinon had been one of the last remaining strongholds belonging to John and its fall marked the end of Angevin dominance in France.
Fast forward to the 1400s and things look a little different for Chinon, then being used as a hiding place for the Dauphin of France and claimant to the French throne: Charles Valois. How did things get so bad for the French you ask? Well, let’s find out!
Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, England was locked in a territorial war with France known as the Hundred Years War. The war was a constant string of disasters for both countries. In England the crisis was one of the major factors in the deposition of King Richard II-arguably the last pure Plantagenet king- leading to the eventual War of the Roses. There were heavy losses on both sides, the English struggling under the new Lancastrian King Henry IV while France, still split into provinces, faced bankruptcy! England’s fortunes changed with the succession of the charismatic Henry V who led England to victory at Agincourt. Soon, Henry was in reach of reclaiming the early Plantagenet glory in France, he’d even been given the promise of being the heir to the French throne. All this would have been wonderful had Henry not caught dysentery in 1422 and promptly popped his clogs, replaced by the ineffectual Henry VI. To add to the chaos, the mad French King Charles VI died two months after Henry had. Throughout the war, Charles had already led France to the brink of civil war. Suffering from bouts of madness, Charles was convinced he was made of glass and ordered that metal rods be strapped to his arms so that he did not shatter. This inability to rule exacerbated a problem the French suffered; a lack of unity. France was still locked in fractured states and duchies, the King relying on noblemen to support the French armies due to their feudal duties as vassals. It’s also worth noting that due to their love of aristocratic chivalry and a fear of arming peasants ONLY rich Franks were asked to fight. The English, one the other hand, were successfully unified using a method of paid conscription rather than relying on scheming nobles to fight for their country. During the latter stages of Charles’ unsteady rule, the great families of France began to fight for power- the powerful Burgundians taking swathes of land and extending its reaches into the Netherlands. All this discord and the lack of strong royal dynasty, led to a crisis of succession on an epic scale.
Understandably, the English were pushing for Henry VI to take the throne, but the King was far too young, his regents ruling from the English centre of French government in Rouen. Naturally, this did not sit well with the new king and Dauphin Charles, who instantly began to plot to take the throne from the English. This was not meant to be, after a huge tide of bad luck, the Burgundian Dukes and the English occupied most of France leaving the poor Dauphin with pretty much just Touraine, hence the hiding in Chinon. Step in Jeanne d’Arc to make things right!
Jeanne or Joan-depending on what side of the Channel you’re on-grew up in a small village near Orleans during the lowest ebb of the war. As a young teenager, she claimed to have a vision of Archangel Michael and Saint Catherine encouraging her to take up arms, find the King, and reclaim France for the French. It was Joan, arguably Chinon’s most famous visitor, who found Charles hiding there and convinced him to supply her with an army. It was Joan who led the successful siege of Orleans, winning back the French capital and nearby cities and it was Joan who was in many ways responsible for a Dauphin becoming Charles VII. Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending. In 1430, Joan was captured by Burgundian forces and promptly handed to their English allies who wanted the ‘Maid of Orleans’ gone. Joan was placed on trial for heresy, an offence hinging on her penchant for wearing men’s clothing, a proposed sin in the Bible. Despite a passionate argument that as her clothes were a deterrent from rape in army camps and prison, a it wasn’t enough for the pro-English barons. In 1431, after a year of trials, brutality and interrogations, Joan was found guilty of heresy and burnt at the stake in Rouen. A mere decade after her death, the French ruled that she was in fact innocent of her crime and centuries later Joan became the patron saint of France which is pretty damn cool! Anyway..that’s enough about Chinon and medieval warfare, let’s talk about sexy Renaissance people having sexy affairs in pretty castles!
While the history of Chenoneau is one that seems far less bloody than that of Chinon, the chateau is no stranger to historical intrigue. Chenonceau has never been under siege, but it has been home to psychological wars, rivalries between a queen and a mistress. It’s also weathered revolutions, been a refuge for intellectuals, and remains one of France’s main tourist attractions.
The first mention of Chenonceau comes in the 1100s, but it is not until the 1300s that we see early illustrations of the chateau which at the time belonged to the power Marques family. The current chateau is of typical Renaissance build constructed in the 1500s. In 1513, the Château des Dames, which serves as the main part of Chenonceau, was built by the wealthy Katherine Briçonnet. Katherine and her husband Thomas, bought the chateau in the early 1500s and, while Thomas was preoccupied with the Italian Wars, Katherine began a construction project that took place between 1513-1524. After constructions Thomas promptly died, and a heartbroken Katherine died soon after in 1526. In a heartfelt tribute to her husband, Katherine had their initials TBK (Thomas Bohier and Katherine) carved above the opening along with her motto ‘ S’il vient à point, me souviendra’ which rather poignantly means: If I manage to build Chenonceau, I will be remembered.‘ Soon after, the chateau fell into the hands of the French crown and this is where the construction of what we see as Chenonceau begins. The story begins with the most famous owner of the chateau Diane de Poitiers, lover to the insatiable shag-bag King Henri II of France (keeping it classy). Henri gifted the beautiful Diane Chenonceau as a private palace in which he could visit her.
Diane, who was not short of money, expanded beyond the initial facade of the castle, building a beautiful arched white bridge over the River Cher. Diane was also responsible for the extensive flower gardens, the maze, and also the vegetable patches that still give so much personality to the land around Chenonceau. Much like Anne Boleyn, Diane was somewhat of an official mistress, given her own household and land in the form of the grand chateau. Unlike Anne, Diane would keep her head but she’d not escape the wrath of a monarch.
At the death of King Henri in 1559, his willful wife Catherine de’Medici (the grand Italian family of Machiavelli fame) demanded that her love rival hand Chenonceau back to the crown. Catherine was a Medici at heart, and this was one family you did not want to mess with! Despite Diane’s previous position of favourite, now there was no Henri to fight her corner and Catherine eventually got her way and set up home in Chenonceau. Now, it’s undeniable that Diane made her mark on Chenonceau, but Catherine was not one to be outdone and was soon eclipsed her rival’s DIY exploits. The regent spent gross amounts on the chateau, hosting infamous late night parties, even holding France’s first ever fireworks display in 1560 to mark the ascension of her son Francis II. She added to the original four gardens that Diane left behind, along with a library, chapel, and several other rooms. In what I can only describe as A* revenge, Catherine built upon Diane’s biggest achievement: the arched bridge. Catherine built on top of the chateau’s crowning glory, determined to make it bigger and better than Diane ever had and in short, she succeeded. In 1577 Catherine’s grand gallery which was built on top of Diane’s bridge. Saucer of milk for Madame Medici!
With Catherine’s death in 158,9 her daughter-in-law and wife to Henri III, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudemont was given charge of the castle. Louise’s tenure at Chenonceau is a tragic one, while Catherine and Diane lived in a state of luxury, Louise spent most of time at the chateau in deep mourning. Soon after Catherine’s death, Henri III was assassinated. This affected Louise greatly, and the aftermath of Henri’s death was a deep depression that Louise never recovered from. The tapestries of the chateau were black, servants dressed in mourning clothes and Louise famously had a bedroom-which is still intact-painted and furnished entirely in black.
After being tugged back and forth between members of the royal family and their respective mistresses, Chenonceau was handed to the Duc de Vendome and his descendents for over 100 years. In 1720, it was bought by the Duke of Bourbon who, to solve money problems, sold many of Catherine de’Medici’s fine statues, most of them ending up in the less nice Palace of Versailles. The last and final owner I’m going to mention is Louise Dupin the daughter of financier Samuel Bernard and actress Manon Dancourt e.g. another well to do aristocrat. The estate was sold in 1733 to the wealthy Claude Dupin for 130,000 livres (according to the dubious google converter that’s just over £140,000 in today’s currency). Claude entrusted the chateau to his wife who was known as “an intelligent, beautiful and highly cultivated woman.” Louise lived up to her reputation, setting up a literary salon at the chateau which quickly become popular with leaders of the influential Enlightenment movement. Authors such as Voltaire and Monstesquieu along with playwrights (Marivaux), philosophers (Condillac) and even Rousseau-who worked on the famous Émile while there. In his Confessions, Rousseau wrote about their activities at Chenonceau claiming: “we played music there and staged comedies.” The intellectual activities the chateau hosted and Louise’s progressive political views, saved Chenonceau from being destroyed during the Great Terror in the first French Revolution. The Revolutionary Guard swept through France burning anything they saw as representative of the old regime and French monarchy. Dupin’s excuse to spare her home was that the bridge was essential for commerce and travel as The Cher was the only bridge for miles, but her influence within the intellectual and left wing circles was probably Chenonceau’s saving grace.
Throughout the 1800s Chenonceau was taken over by another woman Marguertie Pelouze, who restored and repaired the chateau. Marguerite was passionate about improving Catherine de’ Medici’s early works, but this passion bankrupted her and the chateau was promptly sold. In 1913, the Menier family acquired Chenonceau from a Cuban millionaire (I kid you not) and still remains in the wealthy family-famed for their chocolate. It was the Meniers, who allowed the grand gallery to be used as a hospital ward and escape route from Nazi occupied France during WWII. Unfortunately, Chenonceau was captured by the Germans in the 1940s and bombed by the Allies in 1944, destroying the chapel windows.
Both Chinon and Chenonceau were integral to French culture and politics, they served their purpose in different eras. Chinon captured and lost by kings, Chenonceau bought and sold by the upper class. One of the most interesting things about the two is how inherently feminine Chenonceau’s history is when compared with Chinon. Chinon was a place where men fought and died, it was repeatedly built upon to weather the storms that war bought. Chenonceau was lived in by influential women of a particular class, a home of literature and culture. Its architecture was inspired by romance and passionate love not the need to protect against bloodshed.
Chinon is home to several temporary attractions as well as some permanent displays. On both my visits to Chinon there were different exhibitions all aimed at young families. In 2013, they had a ‘knights and dragons’ theme. This consisted of ‘live dragons’, knights who’d teach kiddies swordplay and let you dress up in their armour (oh to be seven again) and stalls selling ‘ye olde’ food and drinks such as ‘dragon’s blood’ (I’m pretty sure this was actually a variation of squash). This summer, they had the Knights Templar tour which was dotted throughout the castle rather than just in their gorgeous grassy courtyard. One of Chinon’s defining traits, are its battlements and the towers which you can still venture inside of. Starting deep underground and finishing with a view that overlooks the lush Loire countryside, the Templar exhibition documents the journey of famous knights on each floor.
There are also references to other medieval exploits including Eleanor of Aquitaine’s catastrophic jaunt on the second crusade, and Richard I’s hijinks in The Holy Land. The exhibition ties in nicely with the conventional tower and battlement tour, so catch it while you can. Chinon’s permanent exhibitions are pretty hard to beat if you’re into history. After a lengthy restoration project costing the French millions, Chinon was fitted out with a sleek, sophisticated projection system that is set up around the main halls of residence. Upon arrival you are given a guide book in a chosen language (choices of French, English, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese) with a special bar code on the back. Throughout your journey throughout the castle, you’ll see certain paintings, displays and screens with the barcode symbol next to them. Just swipe your guidebook against this and a ‘historical figure’ will explain what you’re looking at in your chosen language….fun moment a bench/Henry II started telling me about the construction of Chinon in the middle of lunch.
The residence is also decked out with projectionists showing short films documenting the early beginnings of Chinon, the life of Henry II, Richard and Philippe Augustus, The Crusades and of course Jeanne d’Arc. These are all short, no more than five minutes, but they’re pretty cool. Chinon also pays rather moving homage to Jeanne d’Arc who, as I mentioned, visited Chinon. On an upper floor you’ll see two rooms dedicated to the saint’s life, a story told through manuscript, film and paintings. We see Jeanne’s humble beginnings in a tapestry, right up to her debut in WWII Allied propaganda posters. Rather poignantly, the transcript of Jeanne’s trial and her death warrant are displayed at Chinon, enough to bring a lump to your throat.
The food at Chinon is pretty good too, up a small grassy knoll you’ll find a typically French restaurant that serves a wide array of tarts, salads, sandwiches, soup and desserts. For a tourist attraction the food is mercifully cheap and a full meal (drink, main and pud for one) should cost no more than €10. Combine that with an entry of just €8.50 (which includes free/discounted to other chateaux and abbeys of the Loire) Chinon is a pretty affordable day out…provided you don’t go crazy in the gift shop as I do.
The downside to Chinon is probably the amount of physical effort it takes to tour the place! Now, I’m in pretty good shape stamina-wise, but the traditional spiral stairs in the old towers and battlements at Chinon are not only cramped and very steep. For anyone who is averse to heights-I’ll post a view from the top to show what I mean-or cramped spaces, the tower tour may not be for you. Another thing I did notice was the lack of international tourists at Chinon, all the tours were in French as the only people there were French! I’m not complaining as-despite being a tourist-I loathe crowded tourist spots, but this does fit into my extended theory that the French appear to care more about history than the English. However, with the amount of chateaux in the Loire, unless you’re into French history and fortresses, Chinon may not be for you.
Whatever, I liked it *insert teenage huff*
The closest comparison that I can give to Chenonceau is England’s Hampton Court. Like Hampton Court, there is a fair amount of aristocratic history at Chenonceau displayed throughout its breezy halls and expansive gardens. Like Hampton Court, there is a crazy amount of stuff to do. The restorers at Chenonceau have really gone for the tourist market-particularly families-so unless you have the attention span of Spongebob Squarepants, you’re unlikely to be bored. If you’re travelling during the peak seasons of June-August, you will be facing lengthy queues to do pretty much anything, but it’s worth it. The chateau is surrounded by woodland and the stroll through a beautiful tree-lined path is a nice way to amble up to Chenonceau, the view of the white turrets rising up before you is particularly breathtaking. Before you even get to the Château des Dames you’ll pass a creperie, a petting zoo, a restaurant and a park. As I’ve said before, the French really go all out when it comes to historical landmarks. The ticket to actually get into Chenonceau is €12 which includes the chateau itself, the gallery (connected to the chateau) the gardens and the wine cellars. If you want to go to the petting zoo or one of the rowing boats/river tour, the iPod guide… that’s gonna cost you a little extra, but considering the ticket Hampton court is £25 I think the base ticket is a very good price.
The first thing to do is head up through the garden and rather chic pathway up to Chenonceau’s main entrance, once inside you’re free to explore the downstairs studies, the medieval kitchens and several fussy or pretty (depends on your idea of pretty) statues. The walls are covered-COVERED-in beautifully preserved tapestries and the furniture restored to former glory, the downside of this is that of course you can’t take flash photos as it will damage the fragile artwork…of course asshole camera enthusiasts ignored this!
Up one more floor, and you’re greeted with Chenonceau’s architectural draw: Diane de Poitiers’ bridge and the Medici gallery. The bridge, an odd twist on the moat, is what makes the chateau unique and it’s the first thing people think to visit upon arrival. The bridge is directly below the gallery stretching across the Cher and offering close up views of the rivers. Unlike the gallery, it’s sparsely decorated-Diane knew less was more-offering a gateway out of the castle and into the woods and a stroll along the riverbank.
Up a floor, and you’ll reach the famed Medici gallery. The reconstruction and care of the chateau has been continuous since the 1900s and the effort really pays off. The Medici gallery is once again full of artwork including paintings, statues and even furniture-some of this is Catherine’s own but most of it has been shipped from other places. As Chenonceau has been bought and sold so many times, it’s not surprising the current owners have had to search elsewhere in order to restore Chenonceau to its former glory.
Once you’re done with the first floor, the bridge and gallery, it’s up the wide white staircases-an innovative design in an age of spiral staircases-to the private apartments of Catherine de’Medici and her ancestors. Catherine’s bedroom and the apartments where she spent her life, have been restored to their historical best, and the informative private iPod tour paints a vivid picture of the time. The sprawling white hallways of the second floor are not short of windows and balconies both offering breathtaking views of the River Cher and the forests of the region. A warning to anti social/anxious types like myself: avoid going in the Chateau des Dames during the early morning and lunchtime period as it’s packed to the brim and can be uncomfortable. If you plan on making an early trip, there are three gardens and a maze to get through so you’re not stuck for things to do. The ornamental gardens are tended to throughout the year, the various displays changing along with the season’s weather. There are two restaurants to take your pick from, one so fancy you need to make a booking and have a fat wallet, the other serving good but not amazing food and ice cream. If you’re over 18 (or 21 for my international readers) I seriously recommend the wine cellar where you can have a tasting of the chateau’s finest wine for just €2!
The downside of Chenonceau as I mentioned earlier are the sheer numbers of people there, but, as the most famous chateau in the Loire Valley it’s not surprising. As a day trip it’s more expensive than Chinon but you’re probably going to see more. For me, Chenonceau felt more like a project that I had to wade through than a relaxing day. Because of its popularity, there is very little space to sit in peace or to get a quick respite from the crowds. However, if you’ve got kids it’s probably easier to entertain them there as there is a multitude of things to keep them distracted and if all else fails, the ice cream there is pretty good.
So, what’s better, the medieval fortress or the fairytale chateau? In my opinion I had a more enjoyable day at Chinon, because of the town it’s based in. Once you’re done with the fortress itself, there is an adorable little village which houses medieval houses, a church built by Henry II, and plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. At Chenonceau, you literally arrive at the station Chenonceaux and straight ahead lies the chateau, so not much room for exploring. Also, while I do take an avid interest in Renaissance history, it’s architecture is not necessarily my bag and the sprawling views, stone steps and battlements that Chinon appeal to me more.
This is my longest blog post ever, which is a little scary but think about all the things we’ve covered!
-100 Years War
-The French Revolution/Great Terror
That’s impressive right?
Over and Out!