During my first trip to France in 1989 I spent a month researching various prehistoric painted caves in the south of France and the Dordogne. Although I was visiting some of the finest archaeological sites in some outstanding countryside, it was still ‘work’ and for a holiday after this memorable month I spent a week visiting Loire Valley castles. During that week, and any subsequent visits I have made to the area, one chateau has always stood out for me.
The Château de Chenonceau is widely considered to be one of the finest Loire Valley castles. This castle is not only remarkable for its history and its architecture, but also for the amazing quality of the collections of art and furniture housed in the castle. For parents looking for European travel tips for travelling with their children, Chenonceau makes an extra effort for their younger visitors.
Château de Chenonceau is recorded in history as the Château des Dames. This is because Chenonceau exists as we know it today because of women – and not just because of the so-called ‘woman’s touch’. Château de Chenonceau is set in formal gardens that add to the splendour of the castle, and today these gardens are kept to the exacting standards they were in the heydays of the castle’s royal life.
Chenonceau began as a bridge over spanning the river Cher, which lent itself to a fortified mill circa 1230. A fortified castle was then built for the Marques family. As a result of financial difficulties the site was sold to Thomas Bohier, a financial advisor to King François I. Bohier was married to Katherine Briçonnet. It was his money that paid for the castle we see today, but it was Katherine’s influence that determined its appearance. On Bohier’s death the castle passed into the hands of royalty. And it was Henry II who allowed Diane de Poitiers to live there. After the death of Henri II the castle became the residence of Catherine de Médicis. The castle was saved from the rigours of the French Revolution by Mrs Louise Dupin; the same woman who differentiated the spelling of the castle (chenonceau) from the local village (Chenonceaux).
But this castle, like many historical sites, is not locked in a medieval age. During the First World War the castle served as a military hospital – where some 2254 wounded soldiers were rehabilitated. During the Second World War the castle straddled the border between the zone of occupation and the free zone. But in 1944 a bomb fell near the castle and original stained glass windows were destroyed.
The custodians of this wonderful castle have also made it interesting for children. An outdoor play area equipped with games, free of charge and open from April through to October, is available for smaller children. A special audio tour on iPod is also available for the castle’s younger visitors. The restaurant also has a children’s menu. It really is one of the best French castles to visit with kids and a top Loire Valley attraction.
Chenonceau was France’s first private castle to enable visitors to download the audio tour onto their iPod or MP3 player in advance of their visit. Follow this link for the castle’s website.
The stunning photographs I have used here were taken by Stu Bradley, a photographer living and blogging in the Loire.