Friday, February 18, 2011

Château de Chenonceau, Chenonceaux, France

Château de Chenonceau

The Château de Chenonceau, which rests over the Cher River, is a 16th Century Renaissance palace near Amboise, France. It is the second most visited château in France--eclipsed only by Versailles--and is fondly nicknamed "the château of the ladies" because it was always controlled by women.

It was designed by the French Renaissance architect, Philibert Delorme for Thomas Bohier after the original palace (ca. 1411) was destroyed by a fire. Francis I siezed it from Bohier's son in 1535 for unpaid debts to the crown. Henry II inherited it when his father Francis died in 1547. Subsequently it was held in the hands of royalty until the 18th century when its various owners sold off the château's contents and demolished or neglected the gardens. Today, the château is on its 14th owner: the Menier family, who are famous throughout France for fine chocolates. The family financed the restoration of the château and the gardens with Bernard Voisin, starting in 1951; work continues through their support and income generated by visitors.

The interior is probably the best-preserved and maintained of all the chateaux of France, complete with fabulous floral arrangements made from the estate's cutting garden gracing virtually every room.

Five Queens' Bedroom

16th Century kitchen in basement

hydrangeas and roses

delphiniums and hydrangea


anthurium and ivy

clematis, roses, foxglove

The Grand Allée of Plane trees leads from the parking lot to the château, a 15-minute stroll. The original estate included a collection of trees called the "Green Garden", designed by Bernard Palissy, next to the l'orangerie; and a vegetable garden covering 10,000 square meters (now the cutting garden for the bouquets at the château).

Grand Allée

gate to "Green Garden"
inside: Laurels, Yews, Calycanthus, Cherry trees, Chimonanthus, Wisteria, et. al.

wisteria on 16th century wall/Chestnut tree

clematis arbor in "Green Garden"

silk house with pollarded Mulberry trees

Diane de Poitiers, King Henry II's mistress, built the arched bridge that spans the river in order to access the hunting grounds on the opposite shore and decorated the château starting around 1547, turning it into a pleasure palace. She also set to work on the grounds and built the garden to the east of the château, a formal parterre with paths dissecting lawns into eight triangles, with a fountain in the center (ca. 1551).

The original fountain--a stream of water spurts from a large sculpted rock, falling into a pentagonal basin made of white stone--has been preserved.

3,000 meters of santolina are meticulously clipped into scrolls and arabesques within the lawn and form the borders of flower beds along the edge of the moat. Today 130,000 bedding plants grown on the estate are planted in the spring and summer to maintain the flavor of Diane's concept. In the spring, the flowers are mainly yellow and blue: violas, daisies, daffodils and forget-me-nots cover the beds under white roses. In the summer, the beds are changed to petunias, nicotianas, dwarf dahlias, impatiens and begonias.

slate and limestone floor in gallery

After Henry's death, his vengeful wife, Catherine de Médicis, threw Diane out (and into Chaumont--see earlier blog) and took over the château, adding the three-story structure on top of Diane's bridge, with a plan to build a matching château on the other side of the river (which was never realized). The three stories include a 200' long gallery with double-decker ballrooms and art galleries. During her tenure, the château was the place to see and be seen.

Starting around 1560, the garden to the west of the château was built by Catherine, who spent five years changing what had been a simple vegetable garden into a formal Italian Renaissance design adapted to French conditions.

The garden, buttressed from flooding by stone terraces, consists of four triangles with a circular fountain at the center. It was planted with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees--including an allée of orange trees, melons and artichokes; and hundreds of roses.

Catherine spent a fortune adding amenities to the grounds, including an aviary, menagerie, sheepfold, cave and silkworm farm. She enhanced all these with plants and added her favorite climbing roses on walls all over the estate.

Chancellery (estate steward's house)

boat dock with arbor
boat ramp and buttresses

A labyrinthe of 2,000 yews--based on an Italian plan dating from 1720--was planted in the 18th century in the spirit of Catherine's time, by Madame Louise Dupin, whose husband bought the property in the 1800s. Madame Dupin brought the chateau and the gardens back to a state of glory after a long relapse following the release of ownership from royalty.

At the center of the labyrinthe is a gloriette of living willow.

Carytids, placed on the château but later removed and abandoned, were resurrected and placed in the labyrinthe.

The grounds of Chenonceau are extensive--over 175 acres--and may be visited for an entire day without covering all of its features: a 70 hectare park, a 16th century farm, a wax museum displaying wardrobes from the 16th and 17th centuries, a children's play area, an extensive cutting garden (where classes are held to make the château's arrangements) and a restaurant. There is even a promenade nocturne in July and August. The magnificent vistas and leisurely peacefulness of its gardens make it a place to visit again and again.

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