There are over 100 châteaux (castles) to visit in the Loire Valley of France. Each noble domicile tries to outdo the other. If limited by a short stay, how should you choose from this vast array? By aesthetics? Size? History? Gardens? Wine? Or romance?
Of course romance is always in the mode in this river valley with its fairy tale palaces, courtly gardens, lush green forests, and cultivated vineyards. It is here in the 16th century after the city of Paris had been designated the seat of power by King Francis I that the French royalty retreated for their personal pleasures and amusement during the summer months, and for the hunting season in the fall. It was also home to the world’s greatest Italian Renaissance prodigy: artist, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and philosopher, Leonardo da Vinci.
Once Bruce and I learn these facts our decision is made. We will visit Château du Clos Luce, at Amboise, where da Vinci spent the last three years of his life; Château d’Amboise, where his patron, King Francis I resided; and Château de Chambord, the largest Renaissance hunting lodge at Chambord, which many historians believe da Vinci designed or at least influenced. Since we want to feel a part of the history that occurred in this region (as we did at Versailles, Giverny and Auvers-sur-Oise, the last three sites visited), we select an authentic 16th century-hunting lodge to stay in, Château de Noizay, in Noizay.
The two and one-half hour drive down from Auvers to Noizay is pure excitement! We program the GPS, which we now call Kitty2 after Bruce’s mother, because she was the only person Bruce could take orders from without putting up resistance, to continue to take the "scenic" route. We want to pursue the thrill of the unknown; to venture forth in total surprise; as if on an actual "hunt." The Château de Noizay as our prize game.
In her mid-Atlantic American accent, Kitty2 immediately demands we exit the highway. Like the main characters in a Play Station Game, Bruce and I find ourselves, Lost in a Labyrinth. It takes every ounce of courage not to be frightened as we drive for miles and miles the dirt roads that run parallel to Monet and van Gogh-style landscapes and wheat fields, and across acres of sprawling vineyards. We are astonished to find ourselves smack in the middle of these two artists’ favorite subjects. Bruce refuses to put up the roof of our convertible, that’s how thrilled he is; I tie a scarf around my head to protect my hair from the dust.
Thank goodness we filled the tank before we started. Everyone warned us there were not many gas stations along the way. Indeed not another soul appears on the road. If something were to happen to our car the cell phone would be useless in this isolated maze. Then, out of nowhere, a sign appears indicating the route. Relieved, we turn right, and drive under the ancient archway leading to the tiny walled-in village of Noizay. Then we head straight up, and again to the right, where the Relais & Châteaux Hunting Lodge, Château de Noizay, graciously awaits us.
Built in the 1560’s, during the reign of the "French Wars of Religion," this 4-star hotel epitomizes the luxurious era when knights in "shining armor," dazzling stained glass windows, intricate silk tapestries, and dark wood paneling were de rigeur for large residences across the valley. How fortunate for us that it is still beautifully maintained by a sophisticated staff.
Instead of settling in at their Pavillon de l’Horloge (Clock Tower Pavilion), with its modern facilities of air conditioning, whirlpool tubs and shower, we decide to stay in the castle. It is the third week of September, the air is pleasantly cool, and we want to be transported back in time!
All 14 rooms are beautifully appointed with authentic period furniture, plush flowing drapery, and modern marble baths. But for us the choice is clear - the candy-red, pinstriped chambre de coucher located on the very top floor, with the ocular-shaped window. The view, from that height, not only spotlights the hotel’s gardens with swimming pool and tennis courts, but also the geometric rooftops of the Noizay hamlet and its church steeple shimmering in moonlight or aglow with color as it mirrors one of William Turner’s 1826 Loire landscapes.
"Expect me to get up early tomorrow morning," Bruce warns, as he flings open the window to begin shooting photos. "This view is exceptional! It’s as if the porthole were an eyepiece on a telescope!"
Tired from our long day’s drive and excursions to Monet’s gardens and van Gogh’s Auvers, we immerse ourselves in a full-sized bathtub, then dress in formal attire, as any member of a royal hunting party would do, before heading downstairs for our 20th -Anniversary ceremonial dinner.
One of the outstanding aspects of the Château is its double-flights of winding oak staircases carpeted in red with a gold motif. I can’t wait to glide down the steps in my four-inch high heels, reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in the film Funny Face floating down the Daru staircase at the Louvre in Paris. Foolish me, I slip... From that point on I carry my shoes in hand, like Cinderella, all the way down to the bottom rung before replacing them. So much for stilettoes in a mid-sixteenth-century abode!
The restaurant at Château de Noizay is considered one of the very best in the area. The refined simplicity of a Louis XVI appartement with its traditional azure and gold-gilt mirror, pristine linen, sparkling crystal, and flowering orchid plants characterizes the ambiance of the small beige and pale-blue salle a manger off the main entrance where Bruce and I finally settle, rather than the lure of the larger more formal salle a manger, filled with guests actively engaged in conversation, or the cozy book-lined library, where still others relax, drink in hand.
Foodies we are not. Food dare-devils, yes! Always willing to try something new, especially since we have restrained ourselves for months before our trip. The menu is diverse and charming: Saint-Honore Crayfish and mushrooms from the woods; Monkfish with Jabugo ham and grilled leeks and black olives spice; Pigeon from Racan smoked on hay and roasted with white asparagus and almonds; or pan-fried fillet of Angus beef with fingerling potatoes, candied sweet garlic and veal gravy flavored with roasted peanut. Desserts include Choux Pastry stuffed with praline flavored-mousseline and garnished with flaked almond; or a crunchy basket of fresh strawberries from Touraine. Plus a cheese trolley on which a cornucopia of Loire cheeses including Saint-Maure, Pouligny-St-Pierre, and Selles-sur-Cher is served.
Convincing Bruce to share the mouth-watering Pate de Foie Gras with me is not too difficult, considering the spread is luscious with a shot of whisky, as well as the succulent Le Homard Rissole (deep fried pastry-enclosed with Lobster), and to top it off, the fresh aroma of a sweet tasting La Poire (Pear) for two. It is hard not to want to play out a scene from Tom Jones during our shared meal, as was the custom when these châteaux were built, but restraint is observed! The service is impeccable, and we are spoiled like the royals who ate here so many centuries ago.
Satiated, we compliment the staff members and bid them a bonne nuit before climbing back up the staircases to our suite - with heels in hand again. A bright round-faced moon greets us as we enter. Mesmerized by the beauty of the night sky, we push open the window. A slight chill fills the room as we take a seat on the ledge while munching on the dark chocolate that has been left for us. The view intoxicates our senses more than any aperitif could. Time and place have ceased to exit. Speechless, we sit, becoming one with the elements.
We awake refreshed the next morning to another beautiful day and order a tasty American-style breakfast in bed: freshly squeezed orange juice, bacon and eggs, toast, a Corbeille de viennoiseries (basket of pastries), and coffee. Then we dress for our day's outing to Château du Clos Luce, and Château d’Amboise.
We program Kitty2 to direct us to Amboise and follow her lead to turn right along the river bank; the road takes us through several small towns and onto the highway. We discuss how happy we are when we travel together, and the many places we’d like to visit in the next few years: India, Nepal, Africa, China and Italy. But I am confused by the fact that we have not yet arrived at our destination. We have been traveling for an hour and fifteen minutes. I remember reading Amboise was just a short distance from Noizay. Had we programed Château de Chambord in error? We had planned to visit there tomorrow morning on our way up to Paris.
Frantically double checking the site on our iPhone, I discover that it is in fact only 14 minutes away. Devastated we ask for a map at the toll booth and pull over to the side of the road. Sure enough there is another town to the north named Amboise. Sorry Kitty2, but using only the GPS is insufficient! By the time we reach our true Amboise destination, with its medieval castles and timber-framed houses, we realize it not only cost us time, but the ability to visit more than one château. We ask a villager which château to choose: d’Amboise or du Clos Luce. "Definitely da Vinci’s," she stoically replies in English, and points the way up.
The climb to Château du Clos Luce is a steep one, but extremely appealing. The homes are built right into the stone foundations with bold painted doorways and flowerpots brimming over with colorful geraniums. Further down the narrow road, troglodyte (prehistoric) caves are carved into the hillside. You must move up against the walls of the buildings when a car passes by; that’s how narrow the lanes are.
Pink bricks and tufa limestone were built on top of Gallo-Roman foundations for this imaginative manor house fortress. It was built in 1471 during the reign of King Louis X, who gave it to his "favorite ennobled kitchen boy" as a gift. In the late 1400s, King Charles VIII revamped it into a beguiling small château "with chapel" for his Queen, Anne of Brittany, and in 1516 King Francis I, advised by his sister, Marguerite da Navarre, invited Leonardo da Vinci to live out his life there as his guest. "Here you will be free to dream, to think and to work," are the words reported to have been part of the offer from Francis I to da Vinci. "Just speak with me for one hour a day is all I want in exchange," is the rumored agreement between them. Of course da Vinci was also paid 1000 gold crowns per year, and was named "The King’s First Painter, Engineer and Architect."
Many of the châteaux in the area are devoid of furnishings, art and household objects, but Château du Clos Luce is a museum as well as a château. The Saint Bris family who have owned the property since 1854 have fully restored it with period chests, desks, tables, chairs and textiles that resemble an authentic Renaissance residence. Paintings and sculpture are also dispersed around the rooms.
In the Great Hall, where royal guests, important artists, and political figures were welcomed, we find a fragment of the first Tournai tapestries illustrating the 15th century Song of Roland theme. There is also a late 17thcentry Flemish tapestry reminiscent of the hunts of Francis I in the forest of Amboise and an armored bust of him in the style of Vasse. Copies of the three favorite paintings da Vinci brought with him when he came from Italy are also on display: Mona Lisa; Saint Anne; and Saint Jean Baptiste, the last finished while living here. In da Vinci’s bedroom with its red velvet canopied bed is a showcase that contains the portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria painted on a wood panel by Bernardo Luini, a pupil of da Vinci. In the kitchen, where da Vinci’s vegetarian cook Mathurine presided, are rounded copper dishes, pewter jugs and several Renaissance tapestries from the royal manufactory of Amboise, along with a tapestry fragment depicting a falconer. The exquisite azure-ribbed Romanesque chapel sparkles, with its delightful frescoes sprinkled with gold stars painted by artists from da Vinci’s studio. Among them was Francesco Melzi, his beloved disciple to whom he bequeathed his manuscripts and notebooks of drawings and sketches. All of these objects, along with his written quotes placed around the rooms, give the impression that you are actually walking in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci. And in truth, his essence has defined the space for centuries; not unlike, Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, Claude Monet at Giverny and Vincent van Gogh at Auvers. Being an actress and playwright, it is quite easy for me to "make believe." I advise all visitors to take this leap of faith. Time travel, after all, is in the mind.
But the most stirring aspects of Château du Clos Luce are in the basement. There replicas, models and videos of over 40 of da Vinci’s inventions are on display; drawings and blueprints on military engineering, mechanics, flying apparatuses, hydraulics, gears, bridges, automobiles, human anatomy, mathematics, and civic engineering. Like Bill Gates who brought Leonardo’s notebooks for 30 million dollars, Bruce and I are spellbound by the breadth of the man’s imagination. To inhabit his realm is for us the greatest of adventures!
An underground passage linking Château d’Amboise to Château du Clos Luce still exists, but unfortunately, it is closed today. As we exit the building, we catch a glimpse of a hot-air balloon as it sails between the turrets of the castle, and find ourselves walking through a 15-acre park. It contains over 25 full-sized interactive versions of da Vinci’s inventions including the paddle wheel, the helicopter, and a two-level bridge. In addition there is a mini-sized "Giverny" with reflecting pool and garden; a giant pigeon house; a mill; plus several restaurants serving Renaissance food as well as everyday French cuisine; and, of course, a large gift shop. Images of the faces of Mona Lisa, Saint Anne, and Saint Jean hover above us as we walk the grounds. They demonstrate da Vinci’s use of sfumato: a painterly technique of shadow and light that creates mystery. Bruce and I wish we could spend the whole day exploring the grounds, but time has run out. Clos Luce is closing. Watching the new television series Da Vinci’s Demons, based on Leonardo’s early adult life, will have to do; it shall become a ritual after our return home.
Satisfied and fulfilled, we drive through the small market town of Amboise where the French royal court once lived, and where Saint Joan of Arc was reputed to have passed through in 1426 on her way to Orleans. We stop for a moment along the banks of the River Loire to look back at the picture-perfect town of Amboise before heading back to our château in Noizay.
After freshening up, Bruce and I return, formally dressed, to the same seats we occupied the previous night in the salle a manger for our final meal at Château de Noizay. But, tonight we order individually because we are famished. We each select our own mouthwatering, scrumptious fois gras. (We may never taste the likes of this again, we fear.) I follow with a tender L’Agneau (Lamb) du Poitou; Bruce with a crispy Le Caneton (Duckling) croise; but we both give in and share a warm honeyed La Pomme (Apple) for two. Delighted, we thank the owner of the lodge, Cecile William, for another wonderful haute diner and for the terrific service we received during our stay. We then wish her a bonne nuit, and climb the grand staircase back to our rooms for the last time.
Greeted by the view of a cloudy sky, we lie in bed, side by side, munching again on dark chocolate squares. We reminisce about the day; decide a two-day stay in the Loire Valley is definitely not enough; and try to recall some of da Vinci’s memorable quotes:
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
"The deeper the feeling, the greater the pain."
"As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death."
"No being ends in nothing."
And finally, "Love triumphs all."
The following morning, we rise early and pack as we eat another une petite dejeuner Americain breakfast in our room. The air feels brisk as we load the car with our baggage. After putting on warmer jackets, we roll-up the windows but leave the top down, and begin our drive north. Ominous grey clouds appear in the sky just as we arrive at the daunting Château de Chambord. It’s as if we have found ourselves on a movie set. If we see nothing more than the facade of this castle, it is well worth the visit, we agree! It’s astounding: 511 feet long and 183 feet tall. It is by far the largest in the Loire Valley. The property encompasses 13,442 acres - the same size as "Inner Paris."
Built between 1515 and 1547 but never completed, Chambord was intended as a hunting lodge for 25-year-old King Francis I, not a fortress to defend him from his enemies. The walls, towers and partial moat therefore are merely for show. "The towers, the cupolas, the gables, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building," wrote Henry James when he first saw it. Since the fantastical "roofscape" did resemble designs akin to small northern towns in Italy, many believe Leonardo da Vinci was responsible for the design, after all he was living at Château du Clos Luce at the time. Others disagree, claiming Philibert Delorme, a French Renaissance architect, as its creator. Though Francis I reigned for 32 years, he spent only 72 days within its walls.
There are 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms. Left completely bare and unheated for most of the year, the Château would only be furnished during hunting season, when the King would bring his whole entourage, including mistresses, for a period of sport. To give the impression of what it must have looked like, the entranceway on the first floor is practically empty, except for the double helix staircase, alleged to be designed by da Vinci, in the center of what it called the "keep." Both concentric spiral banisters soar to the third floor and around a hollow central column without ever connecting. In this way, it is difficult to tell who is coming or going.
Authentic period furnishings from the 16th to 19th century have been provided throughout the residence as examples of what the living spaces may have looked like when occupied. On display are military toys, a billiard table, silverware, a ceremonial canopied bed as well as engravings and portraits that belonged to the Duchess de Berry. Our favorites are the trophy suites, where animal horns and woven tapestries are displayed signifying the royals’ passion for the hunt!
As we exit Château de Chambord a special treat unexpectedly awaits us. It is a handsome young equestrian in full regalia atop a magnificent stallion waiting to entertain. We stop our pace to watch them canter across the impressive verdant lawns of the estate. "When will we ever experience this again," we sigh. "Paris, you will just have to wait!"