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Shenanigans in the châteaux

Murder, intrigue and fairy-tales of the Loire Valley

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As the Loire runs majestically through central France from Sancerre through Orleans and Tours, heading to the Atlantic coast, it conjures up an image of royal dignity, serenity and graciousness. With its rolling vineyards, orchards, picturesque villages and handsome towns, this is real des-res country. 

And the châteaux are the bright jewels that pepper the landscape. They add to the lustre and provide what the real estate agents might call ‘tone’.

But for all their froth and beauty, the châteaux have their own stories to tell. Some quite dark. There’s a parade of flamboyant characters, scarcely believable plot twists, heartless acts and cruel turns of fate. The elegant battlements and towers may form a gorgeous image but tragedy and intrigue lurk in the shadows.  

Château de Chinon

A castle has dominated this rocky crag high above the river Vienne, a tributary of the Loire, since the 10thcentury. This tall towered slab of a château has looked down on the surrounding goings on over many centuries.

Having ‘seen to’ the vexacious problem of Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170, the Plantagenets held many a family row in Chinon’s cold, echoing halls for years afterwards. Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and others bickered before the king died a lonely death, betrayed by his son Richard.

Later the château was the dramatic setting for the vital rendez vous of Charles VII and the Maid of Orleans, the 17 year old Joan of Arc. Her youthful persuasiveness famously led to victory over the English.   

The château had gruesome links with the Knights Templar, a military order of the Catholic church whose role was to protect Christians in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Now the Knights Templar are surrounded by myth and speculation, as well as colourful histories, but their Grand Masters were imprisoned in Chinon’s dank dungeons before execution in Paris.

Château d’Amboise

Charles VIII died here, after hitting his head on a door lintel while dashing to watch a game of tennis. OK, more an unfortunate accident than a dark and dastardly murder.

Leonardo da Vinci, whose skills in architecture, design and art were worth a high price to an upwardly mobile monarch, was enticed to Amboise by king Francis I in 1515. For his living quarters he was provided with the elegant Clos Lucé nearby. Of course, it goes without saying there is a suitably secret tunnel linking it with the château. 

Amboise saw its share of bloody violence not long later in a murderous incident during the French Wars of Religion of the mid-16thcentury. Some 1200 Protestants were hanged and their bodies suspended from the walls of the château, with the stench eventually forcing the king to leave the town.

Amboise today is a pleasant, bustling town with the castle in the centre and easily accessible. Leonardo’s fascinating Clos Lucé with its working models of many of his inventions is a real must-see.

Château Chenonceau 

One of France’s oldest châteaux and certainly one of the most iconic, it is on the wish list for countless visitors. Only the palace at Versailles receives more visitors each year. 

Chenonceau’s popularity inevitably stems from its innate loveliness, as well as the fact that it is relatively small and bite-sized: families with children who might have no more than a fleeting interest in French medieval shenanigans can visit, have a coffee in the tea rooms and be on their way.

Constructed on the site of two earlier castles, this one was completed by 1522. Supremely dainty, it straddles the river Cher with four oh-so-elegant principal arches and a compact but precise formal garden.

As befits an architectural bauble of such beauty, it was squabbled over by the royals. Francis I seized it in lieu of unpaid taxes and later Henry II gave it to his mistress, the colourful Diane de Poitiers who was his elder by 20 years. On Henry’s death, his wife Catherine di Medici booted out Diane and settled in herself.

During the First World War the château was employed as a military hospital with 120 beds. Over 2,000 wounded soldiers were cared for here between 1914-1918.

Château d’Ussé

The castle that launched a thousand fairy-tales. The dreamy turreted silhouette of Ussé was built on the foundations of previous structures and reputedly inspired Charles Perrault to write ‘Sleeping Beauty’. It is also said that Disney took Ussé as inspiration for Cinderella’s castle.

The château was built in the 15thcentury and there are stories of the obligatory secret passageway that leads underground from the kitchens to the heart of the surrounding forest.

Château de Chambord

The grandest of them all, the château de Chambord was always a vanity project for Francis I. Conceived as a hunting lodge in 1519, it was never really finished and changed hands innumerable times down through the centuries.

Epic in scope and scale, it was described by Henry James as “an exaggeration of an exaggeration”, and you can see why. With more turrets and towers than you could shake a stick at, vast numbers of rooms, gardens and a surrounding landscape of dense forest, this was the largest ‘grand projet’ of them all. 

The central stone staircase, double-helix in design, was designed (or at least influenced) by Leonardo da Vinci who spent his last years in Amboise nearby. The intertwining staircases famously allowed the king’s mistress to come and go without being seen by his wife. 

Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord

The secrets of the Loire châteaux

The Loire Valley remains one of France’s most idyllic destinations. The sense of lush, bountiful pastures, intersected by slow moving waters that link timeless towns and villages is alluring – and has been for centuries. Here you can eat well, drink well and spend days absorbing the history and elegance of the region.

But for all the derring-do and the colourful sweep of history, the clink of armour and the whiff of heady romance, all you need do is scratch the surface to reveal the darker stories of this most fascinating of regions.  

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