Bouquets of Chenonceau
The Loire Valley is sprinkled with fairytale like castles in the range of 300 and each have a story to tell whether historic, family lore or political intrigue. Probably the one that epitomizes that all-in-one, is the 500 year old Chateau de Chenonceau, known to all as the “Chateau de Dames” as six main female characters have shaped it. Both the elegant architecture and stunning location spanning the Cher River make it a must see in the region. Though the Loire can be an easy day trip from Paris, it would be a shame to rush it.
The castle was built in 1515 by a tax collector for Francis I, but it was his wife who saw to the design and construction. When things didn’t go well for the tax collector, Francis I took it over himself. And then his son, Henry II bestowed it on his mistress, Diane de Potiers. She was his former nanny and 23 years his senior, there may have been a mother complex to explore, but by all accounts she was beautiful, intelligent and clever because she was his true love for 20 years until his untimely death by a jousting accident. Then his wife Catherine de Medici got her revenge by banishing her from Chenonceau and moving in herself. Her favorite saying was “hate and wait” but I am sure it sounded better in French or Italian. She was married long enough to have ten children and reigned as regent for three of her sons.
Obviously, Catherine added a great deal to this pleasure palace by adding the long impressive gallery ballroom across the bridge. She loved entertaining and throwing parties that she used to spy on the courtiers surrounding the royals. In 1560 there were the very first fireworks display over the river to commemorate the coronation of her son Francis II. She passed on the Chateau to her daughter-in-law Louise de Lorraine, the widow of Henry III, but unfortunately she mourned herself to death and allowed the residence to fall into decay.
Some clever women followed with Louise Dupin in 1777, who saved Chenonceau from destruction during the French Revolution mobs – she pressed that it was the only way to cross the Cher for miles. Then Margueite Pelouze gave it ten years of restoration projects, but her extravagant lifestyle accumulated piles of debt and then to cap it off had an affair with French President Grevy, which blew up in the press. Somethings never change.
In 1913 the wealthy Menier family of chocolate fame purchased the property and have treated it as the National treasure it is for more than a hundred years. The estate hosts more than a million visitors annually with exceptional gardens both inside and out. It is a jewel to be sure. I have been told the current Chatelaine of the castle for the past twenty years prefers fresh flowers in each room, highlighting like a piece of art. Today there are about 200 bouquets large and small strategically placed from bedsides to tapestries, the designs are breathtaking. Since 2015 the exclusive Master florist, Jean-Francois Bouchet uses cut flowers and vegetables to create extraordinary displays. For special visitors he also gives classes on how he creates his master pieces from the hundreds of cut flowers, utilizing the flowers in the gardens around the chateau.
I have been fortunate enough to have visited Chenonceau on many occasions throughout the different seasons. Though we were not celebrating a Kings coronation, I did get to celebrate a friends Birthday there once and we did have fireworks over the Cher. It was definitely a dazzling affair. I was also at Chenonceau at Christmastime one year and the displays were magical enough to validate the airfare alone! It takes Jean-Francois and his small team three months to prepare for these holidays. His flowers are so amazing Rizzoli has published a coffee table photo book for his fans.
But the Chateau is not just about the inside – it is the famous gardens surrounding it too; from Diane’s Renaissance Garden to rival Catherine’s grass paneled Italianate garden to the Labyrinth. The full hectare of twelve flower beds with apple trees and roses produce for the flower displays and the stables and farm vegetable garden are enchanting. And of course, the Orangerie, now a marvelous restaurant and party venue. But interestingly, the botanical director of these lush gardens is Nick Tomlan, a transplanted American from Wilmington and an alumni of Longwood Gardens. Recently, I had the pleasure of a guided tour with Nick around the gardens.
The impressive Chateau de Chenonceau is the jewel of the Loire Valley and besides Versailles it is the most visited. Righty so, don’t miss it. You can actually feel the historical ethereal personalities that loved and inhabited this castle for they have definitely imprinted their souls here.