The Malta Independent 18 February 2020, Tuesday

The Loire: a river made for kings, queens and mistresses

Tuesday, 20 August 2019, 13:49 Last update: about 7 months ago

from the travel diary of Arch. Robert P. Cachia

Thursday, 23 May: Arriving at our extremely charming Chateau de Nazelles at 8.30 in the evening after a monotonous two-hour drive from Paris-Orly airport has given us, understandably, a roaring appetite. So after taking possession of two exquisite rooms from our host Veronique, we start our drive towards Amboise town, which is only 15 minutes downhill from Nazelles. Luckily for us, our two friends Sabrina and Louis, have preceded us to the restaurant and are holding two tables "before", they are told, "the kitchen closes". But isn't this rather early by our standards Xandru protests? Then I remind everyone that here we are in a provincial area of France where people have typically more laid-back habits and less cosmopolitan timetables than in the big cities. Anyway, after crossing the mighty Loire, we enter the historic centre of Amboise and settle down to a dinner at l'Epicerie in the main square for an exquisite feast of grilled canard (duck), agneau (lamb) and porc washed down with two bottles of smooth Chinon rouge which, by the way, tastes as good as the best Burgundy. As I have just remarked, this is provincial France which means that Amboise town, by midnight, is practically dead. The seven odd restaurants in the main square have closed for quite some time now, yet the royal chateau ramparts above us look even grander without people milling about.



Friday, 24 May: Following my own personal itinerary, this morning we are heading towards the most romantic of all the royal chateaux of the Loire: Chenonceau. It lies only a further 15 minutes beyond Amboise, making our drive thankfully short and easy to plot.

After parking our car, we approach the chateau through a grand avenue of trees and enter the chateau forecourt proper between two crouching stone sphinxes (photo). It is all very atmospheric and oozes the very same feeling of being the one time preferred love nest of a king (Henri II) who gave it as a gift to his mistress, (Diane de Poitiers) way back in 1547.  Diane, who had first known Henri when she was 35 and he only 15, was reportedly the most beautiful woman in France. But beyond beauty she also possessed a flair for art and culture. The gardens that she laid out on both flanks of the chateau forecourt in fact are still very impressive even though they were later remodelled in the Italian geometric style by the incumbent queen who had been married to Henri in 1533 by his father Francois I for political and financial reasons. Referred to by Henri's courtiers as that Italian woman or la Florentine, Catherine de Medici came all the way from her native Florence to be married to Henri at the tender age of 14. What she lacked in physical beauty and presence however, she made up for with a fabulous marriage dowry of 100,000 silver crowns and 28,000 crowns worth of jewels given to her by her uncle Pope Clement VII,  himself a scion of the Medici banking family. Catherine also possessed that typically Italian, or should I say, Machiavellian capacity for exacting sweet revenge by patiently waiting for the opportune moment to strike back.

So when Henri died of a mortal wound in a jousting tournament in 1559, Catherine snatched her opportunity, kicked Diane out of Chenonceau and moved in her place. Her revenge was so sweeping that she even went on to build an art gallery over the bridge that Diane had constructed on the river Cher, evidently trampling over Diane's legacy with typical Italian gusto. The end result, I must say however, is simply gorgeous from all aspects. Catherine's Italian gardens and her gallery over the Cher (photo) are indeed spectacular and have made Chenonceau world famous to this very day. As Macchiavelli himself might have aptly put it, congratulations Catherine, revenge is a plate best eaten cold!


Saturday, 25 May: And speaking of Catherine de Medici's revenge over her rival, this morning we drove over to Chaumont-sur-Loire, (30 minutes upriver from Amboise), Catherine's own original chateau that she gave to Diane after kicking her out of Chenonceau. On entering and beholding the handsome gardens at the front of the chateau grounds we immediately get the feeling that Diane may not have had such a bad deal after all. But as soon as we catch our first sight of the chateau we are even more convinced that Catherine had not been such a bitch all along. The castle has that fairy-tale silhouette the likes of which few chateaux in the area possess: round corner towers with pointed gables, drawbridge gate and above all else a commanding 180 degree sweeping view over the mighty Loire.

It was also very profitable back then with handsome tolls over all river traffic and conspicuous acres of agricultural land in its domaine. When all is said and done, Diane might have lost her pleasure love nest at Chenonceau along with the dead Henri but she was now set up as the ex-royal mistress aristocratic dame which, in truth, she had always been even before la Florentine had come along.

This afternoon my friend Xandru has drawn me aside and advised me that we should dedicate some time to the girls by visiting Tours and its bustling shopping drag Rue Nationale. Out of respect for female wishes, I promptly agree since shops rarely come into my sights when planning my itineraries. So this afternoon we are off to Tours, which is only 30 minutes down the river from Nazelles. But before immersing ourselves among the shops I felt we had to take a quick peek at its formidable Gothic cathedral with its splendid façade towering magnificently over the river bank side of town.

As Tours' main drag, Rue Nationale is impressive enough for sheer width and elegance and both Xandru and the girls seem to have been gobbled up by it in a flash. Well my job in the meantime is to stay put and sip on a cold beer in one of its cafes, until the shopping spree is over.

The nicest surprise we have had in Tours this evening is having dinner in its loveliest square by far, Place Plumereau at the very heart of its old quarter or vieux Tours. It is the kind of place that bewitches everyone with its very old timber-reinforced houses and stone niches on its corners. Exactly the kind of place that Francis, duke of Angouleme, would have passed through in 1514 on his way up the river towards Paris and his bride-to-be Claude, daughter of the late king Louis XII. This marriage would land him his subsequent enthronement, in 1515, as the new king of France, Francois I.

After three delicious pizzas with cured ham and mozzarella burrata (the Italian influence in the Loire still lingers after 500 years!), we leave the happy Loire movida in Place Plumereau behind us and drive back towards our chateau in Nazelles. For tomorrow awaits us the masterpiece chateau of them all, Chambord.


Sunday, 26 May: This morning's drive to Chambord, especially the last few kilometres, has been idyllic: we have driven over small stone bridges spanning meandering streams flanked by dreamy weeping willows and countless flowering gardens. The Chateau itself is beyond description and all the adjectives I can think of simply fail to get it all in: vast, flamboyant, spectacular, incredible! Its creator, Francois I, called the sun king of the French Renaissance, was himself a star in the making, chiefly out of rivalry to his arch enemy and nemesis, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Feeling himself and France completely enveloped on all sides by the aggressive imperialistic ambitions of the Austrian/Spanish Hapsburg super power, Francois I went all out to outdo his rival on every count. His chateau at Chambord may have started out as nothing more than a men's hunting lodge but after 20 years of continuous construction from 1519 to 1539, Francois had transformed it into his masterpiece, his chef d'oeuvre, his jewel in the crown.

The grounds, to start with, are planned on such a vast scale that only those at Versailles, laid out a 140 years later, would eventually surpass them.

The chateau itself, designed in the shape of a square, with huge round towers at the corners is a symphony of Gothic spires and chimney stacks faced with classical elements borrowed from the then-fashionable architectural models of the Italian Rinascimento. Chambord's claim to world notoriety however is not its flamboyant aesthetics, which are all too obvious even to the untrained eye, but an engineering piece of wizardry at the very core of its central keep in the form of two intertwined spiral stone staircases thought to have been the brainchild of a genial Tuscan engineer and artist who went by the name of Leonardo da Vinci.

Xandru and myself, as architects, are now having a little diversion manoeuvring a 3d CAD animation of this double spiral creation, kindly provided by the Chateau direction to help visitors visualize and comprehend the sheer ingenuity of the Tuscan engineer from Vinci who had the audacity to come up with such contraptions and the colossal conceit of the French monarch who abetted his whims. For in essence a double spiral staircase is nothing but a piece of superfluous luxury which serves little by the way of internal comfort. But as a grandiloquent advertisement of sheer genius it would immediately have struck home and king Francois was intent on impressing his courtiers and international guests with just such pieces of genius.

Monday, 27 May AM: Since we have a whole day in front of us before our evening flight from Orly, this morning we have decided to pay our respects to the great man himself. For Leonardo's corpse is buried inside the grounds of the chateau d'Amboise, resting here since 1519, the year he died in the arms of the King who had invited him over from Milan, Francis I. The sky today has been a little grey and when it starts to rain, we are luckily already inside the charming Gothic chapel perched high up on the castle ramparts facing town where the genius Vinci lies buried. It is an emotional moment for us all, what with the wet weather adding a little to the pathos of the moment.

And yet the chateau has also had its fair share of bizarre anecdotes in its history starting with the sad pathetic story of its original founder Charles VIII. This man started life with a serious handicap, even for a king's son: he was frightfully ugly, had an enormous nose and, on top of that, developed a hunched back! It has to be conceded however that he was affable enough to joke about his looks. He also had a big ego like most ugly men before and after him and the only way he felt he could satisfy his inordinate self-conceit was to gain glory on the battlefield. Which he did in 1494 by invading Italy and snatching the kingdom of Naples from the Spanish. When the Italian states banded together and gave him and his army a sound beating he returned to Amboise with his tail between his legs, licking his wounded ego like a dog. The only thing left for him was to vent all his frustrated energy in remodelling his birth place chateau at Amboise in the Italian style, setting a precedent for all his successors, Louis XII, Francois I and Henri II. But then four years after his Italian adventure, tragedy struck. Charles the Affable hit his head on a low door lintel after a game of tennis, fell into a coma and died. He was only 27.


PM: It is now time for us to take our leave of the mighty Loire and its magnificent royal chateaux. The Loire might be France's longest river but thanks to its Renaissance kings, queens and mistresses, I can now rightly concede it is also its greatest!

Au revoir! 

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