These are some of the many location that can be visited on our photographic experiences.
Apart from the stunning Château and town, people come here because this is where Leonardo da Vinci lived out the last three years of his life. He was invited here by his biggest fan, King François I, who grew up in the Château. Leonardo’s lovely grace and favour home, Clos Lucé, which overlooks the Loire, was connected to the Château by an underground passage. Some of his inventions are still at Clos Lucé. He would be very happy indeed to see the inventions he scribbled on bits of paper brought to life. Literally. Those in the grounds are hands on working reconstructions. His tomb is, as he wished, in Saint Hubert’s Chapel in the grounds of Chateau Amboise. When Leonardo trudged here over the Alps from Italy, he had his painting of the Mona Lisa with him. He kept adding a stroke here and a stroke there until he could no longer hold a brush. He never considered it finished. François, who saw the Mona Lisa in Leonardo’s studio in Florence, visited him every day in Amboise unless duty took him out of town. When he died, Leonardo left everything to his assistant who either sold the painting to the King or gave it to him to thank him for his kindness to his master. François hung it in his palace at Fontainebleau. The Mona Lisa was the first painting in the Royal Collection which is why it’s in the Louvre.
Mary, Queen of Scots was brought up in Chateau Amboise. King Henry II, son of François, and his wife Queen Catherine de Medici raised her with their own children. Mary married their son, the short lived, François II. Mary arrived from Scotland in 1548, aged six and remained in France until she returned to her homeland, a widow of 19.
Chenonceau is one of, if not the, most photographed Châteaux in France. Its iconic, distinctive, bridge over the river Cher makes it unique. With a million visitors every year, it is, after Versailles, the most visited château in France. Now over five hundred years old we are lucky it’s still here. Many chateaux were demolished by vengeful French Revolutionaries. When King Henry II gave Chenonceau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici was furious and heartbroken. She adored Henry. It was Diane who added the famous arched bridge which joins the château to the opposite river bank. A stroke of imagination, this was the first time it had been done. As Henry lay dying, due to a tournament went badly wrong, Queen Catherine sent a messenger to a distraught Diane demanding the keys to Chenonceau. Once ensconced, she enclosed Diane’s open bridge to create an art gallery.
This is where her son François II and Mary, Queen of Scots, spent their honeymoon. How dull Scotland must have seemed to Mary when François died young and she had to return from the sunny Val de Loire to her cold and windy homeland.
With a population of 140,000 and a long history Tours is the perfect base for tourists exploring the Loire Valley. Named Tours Indre et Loire as many parts of France are named after the rivers which run through them. Tours has not one river but, including the Cher, three, the Indre being less famous than the Loire, the longest river in France. The Loire, one of France’s main thoroughfares for two thousand years, as the result of a decision to increase the fish population, is now only navigable by flat bottomed wooden boats (gabares) or canoe. The local fish, carp, catfish, chub, eels, pike and perch are served in fashionable restaurants in the Place Plumereau.
Near the cathedral, in the Art Gallery garden, is a huge cedar tree planted by Napoléon.
Tours has excellent rail and auto-route links to the rest of France. It takes less than one hour by TGV to Paris. Following the prevailing fashion throughout France, it also has a tram system. From the airport you can fly to London Stansted. Tours is a sophisticated city. Its lucky inhabitants are said to speak the ‘purest’ French in the whole of France.
The gardens of Chateau Villandry are, arguably, the most jaw dropping of all the jaw dropping gardens of all the châteaux in the Loire Valley. Truly awesome. In anybody’s books. World famous, they are the most beautiful gardens in the world, especially the fabulous decorative vegetable garden which spreads over two and a half acres. Virtually entirely organic, its gardeners hoe and dig and plant non-stop.
This is where King Philip II of France met King Richard I, the Lionheart, of England to discuss plans for peace. Unfortunately it did not happen. Owned by one family for two hundred years Château Villandry was confiscated by Napoléon Bonaparte who gave it to his brother. In 1906, Spanish born doctor Joachim Carvallo and Ann Coleman his American born wife bought Villandry and began its restoration. Henri Carvallo, their great grandson, is still perfecting the spectacular gardens.
The word Fontevraud (Font–er–vro) does not easily roll off the tongue. Neither is it a word that springs easily to mind. It’s doubtful as to how many have heard of it apart from die-hard fans of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the greatest of the Plantagenet queens. An amazing woman by anyone’s standards, she fronted the greatest dynasty England ever saw even if it was, in essence, French. It lasted over three hundred years starting with her husband Henry II and ended with Richard III when he breathed his last not far from a car park in Leicestershire. It was her son, Richard I, the Lionheart, who gave England the badge of three lions proudly worn by soccer fans as being quintessentially English having no clue as to its history.
Fontevraud, a Royal Abbey, is a few kilometres from the Loire. Royal because this is where Eleanor, Henry and Richard are buried which is an irony as Richard and his mother betrayed Henry, broke his heart and caused his downfall.
The other remaining incumbent royal figure, until French Revolutionaries destroyed them there were many more, is the almost forgotten Isabella of Angoulème. Not up to Eleanor’s ankles, she never-the-less caused a sensation when she arrived in England. John, Bad King John in the Robin Hood TV series, dumped his wife Isabella of Gloucester, they married before he became King, when he fell in lust with his second Isabella. She was twelve when they married, he was in his late thirties. Infatuated with his young, beautiful, blue eyed, blonde, pre-teen wife who had a temper that matched his own, John neglected state affairs to stay in bed with her until noon.
Isabella, like Eleanor, was no slouch in the raised eyebrows department. She was about to get married when she met John but dumped her fiancé when she had a better offer, of being a Queen instead of a Countess. She had five children by John including his heir, Henry III. When John died, Isabella married a Count and had a further nine children. It was because of Henry III, her son by John, the Henry who built the present Westminster Abbey in London Isabella is in Fontevraud. When he went there to pay his respects, he found her grave in the grounds outside the Abbey and had her re-interred inside next to Eleanor, his grand-mother, her mother-in-law. She was, after all, a Queen of England.
During Napoleonic times, Fontevraud became known as, not a royal abbey, but as one of the hardest, toughest, prisons in France.
If it’s a fairy tale château you are after, look no further than Chateau D’ Ussé. Literally. This is the castle which inspired the French author Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty. Perrault made the fairy tale genre his own two hundred years before the Brothers Grimm. He also wrote Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard.
As for Sleeping Beauty, her name was Princess Aurora. When she was born, the King and Queen invited fairies who gave her good gifts. A wicked fairy, furious at not being invited, barged in and screamed that when the princess turned 15 she would prick her finger on a spindle and die. One of the good fairies, who overheard her, predicted that Aurora would not die, but would go to sleep for a hundred years and wake up when she was kissed by a Prince.
Whichever way you look at it, from any angle, the château at Chinon is a photographic dream. Among the many other reasons to visit is that Joan of Arc rode hundreds of miles here to gee the King up into helping her rid France of the English. Neither she nor he managed it. There is a wonderful statue in the town showing Joan grinding the faces of the English into the ground. The passion and the vindictiveness which the sculptor poured into his creation to celebrate something that he clearly wished to be true but was not is comic.
Another reason tourists come to the chateau of Chinon is that The Knights Templars, stitched up by another king, Philip II, were imprisoned here until they were taken to their death in Paris.
For lovers of the mighty Plantagenet dynasty, it was here, at his favourite home, that King Henry II of England, broken hearted by his sons betrayal died. His ghastly son, Richard the Lionheart aka Richard I of England who bled London dry to pay for his failed Crusade to the Holy Land, looked on his father’s body with no sign of remorse, regret or emotion. Henry is buried alongside Richard and Eleanor in nearby Fontevraud Abbey.