Chenonceau Castle

Chenonceau Castle is one of the many beautiful castles of Loire Valley, France. The castles in Loire Valley are some of the most visited and best loved attractions in France, a cluster of stately mansions, royal palaces, and extravagant châteaux. The beautiful valley is a great place for a French camping vacation or a day trip from Paris. (Tours, the principal city of the Loire Valley, is about 150 miles from the French capital.) In the heart of the valley, along the River Cher, lies the most romantic French castle: Chenonceau Castle (Château de Chenonceau).

Chenonceau Castle was traditionally a castle for women, and its design shows the delicate touch of its many female residents—so much so that it is often referred to as the château de femmes. Katherine Briçonnet, wife of Thomas Bohier, a wealthy tax collector, began construction of this elegant French castle in the early 16th century.

Katherine and Thomas died, leaving their son was left with massive debts. To settle these, he sold Chenonceau to the French crown. When King Henry II succeeded to the crown in 1547 he gave Chenonceau Castle to his older mistress, Dianne de Poitiers, a legendary beauty of the time.

Dianne is responsible for expanding Chenonceau Castle over the set of arches spanning the River Cher, giving the appearance that the château is floating on water and helping to make it the most beautiful castles in Loire Valley.

After Henry's death his wife, Catherine de Medici, took possession of this French castle from her dead husband's mistress. Catherine made many improvements to the chateau, landscaping the gardens and completing the construction of the raised bridge, including a 200-foot long gallery that runs from one end of Chenonceau Castle to the other. Catherine bequeathed this French castle to Louise of Lorraine, the wife of her son Henry III. When Henry died unexpectedly, the Queen entered into a life of mourning, becoming known as the “white queen” for her refusal to remove the traditional white widow robes.

Like many castles in Loire Valley, Chenonceau Castle was never intended to be a defensive fortress and has none of the imposing walls and towers that typify medieval castles, like Stirling Castle in Scotland. Instead, this was an achingly beautiful pleasure palace and is now one of the most popular attractions in France. (The only château with more visitors is Versailles, near Paris.)

Unlike some castles in Loire Valley, Chenonceau was saved from the ravages of the French Revolution by another woman, Louise Dupin, a favorite host in Enlightenment France. This elegant French castle was bought by the Menier family (famous for their chocolates) in 1913. The Meniers restored Chenonceau Castle in the 1950s, bringing the then-dilapidated structure and flood-ravaged gardens back to their former glory.

Chenonceau Castle is open to the public year-round. Summer hours are 9 am to 7 pm (fall and winter hours are shorter). This is one of the busiest attractions in France, so it is best to come early to avoid crowds. Admission is about $15 each. The château contains a wealth of objets d'art: intricately sculpted ceilings, antique furniture, and world-class paintings by Rubens, Correggio, and others. The formal gardens (one laid out for Dianne de Poitiers, the other for Catherine de Medici) are also well worth a visit.

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