Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Having settled nicely into Paris, it was now time to venture further afield with my first opportunity coming in the form of a school camp to the Loire Valley in the heart of France. Although I would be sadly traveling without Jules, it would provide me with an opportunity to journey through some of the most picturesque wine growing districts and according to our itinerary, view some of the most elegant chateaux’s in France.

Heading out early, our bus made its way through the outer suburbs of Paris and eventually on to the open highway. While most of the staff and students ignored the passing activity, for me as a new arrival to France, it was all very interesting. The early morning commuters, the regular toll booths, nuclear power stations, various bridges crossing gently flowing rivers and the sight of distant towns; nothing escaped my attention. Eventually the major highway gave way to smaller roads that passed through quaint towns and rolling hills lined with endless rows of grapevines. Conversation amongst the staff on board inevitably switched to the serious subject of wine and the reputation of the various varieties that come from this region. The only thing I could contribute at this point was a positive comparative endorsement of Australian wine, something that didn’t particularly carry much weight amongst those who had lived in France for several years. It seemed that on this particular subject, French produced wine was clearly the best in the world and those from other countries should be regarded as being merely one step up from vinegar. As I hastily retreated from the debate, I cast my eyes out of the window to see several hot air balloons effortlessly drifting across the horizon … now that would be a unique way to take this all in!

Our first stop would be Chateaux Chambord, which is the largest chateaux in the Loire Valley. Although it has some 440 rooms, this was a mere hunting lodge for Louis XIV who used it frequently as he particularly enjoyed the pastoral court life it offered. Originally built in the 1500’s, the Chateaux provides a somewhat grandiose vision of French renaissance architecture, with its curved exterior walls and more than 800 sculpted columns upon its elaborately decorated roof. While the chateaux interior has 84 staircases, one in particular attracts most of the attention. It is claimed to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci and consists of two intertwining spiral staircases. Much like a DNA ‘double-helix’, it allows two people to go up or down the stairs without crossing paths with each other … surely only Leonardo could have engineered something like that! With the pillaging of the French Revolution and with long periods in which the chateau was left abandoned, there remains little in the way of furniture. However, the building stands as testament to the flamboyant excesses of the French aristocracy and as a fascinating monument to its architectural extravagance.

Another great Chateaux we visited was at Chenonceau where one of the most photographed buildings in France elegantly straddles the River Cher. We sensed that this was quite a special place by the sheer number of tourists who were single mindedly trekking through the woods with cameras in hand. It is after all, apart from the Palace of Versailles, the most visited Chateaux in France. Although it is always referred to as a Chateaux, Chenoneax is technically a ‘manor house’, being much smaller in size, although it remains no less elegant with a history that goes back to the days of French royalty in the 1500’s. While Chambord might reflect the excesses of the period, Chenoneax is regarded as quite an exceptional, yet more modest example of French rennaisance architecture. The fact that it has survived both revolution and war is quite amazing; something which in no small part was due to a succession of extraordinary women who protected and administered this much loved building during its long history. It is truly a romantic building, with its beautifully balanced asymmetrical design that features arched footings, which seem to lightly touch the river that it spans.

Over two days we spotted many more chateaux in the region (there are actually more than 300). Most sit on vast acres of land as cold and distant monuments to a time long gone. So it was particularly nice to visit a Chateaux that is still inhabited and operational; due to the support of tourism of course. Such is the case with the beautifully preserved Chateaux Beauregarde, which was designed and built in the 1500’s and is indicative of the style of many constructed at that time. As well as being architecturally elegant, the Chateaux is significant for enabling the visitor to put faces to the many aristocrats and royalty who frequented such buildings and the region. This is due to an enormous ‘gallery of portraits’ (the largest in Europe), which displays paintings of 327 dignitaries from the 14th-17th century. With works displayed in a large and beautifully preserved oak paneled room, the gallery provides an insight into the human side of the architectural eccentricities of that period. At one time these people were the most powerful in Europe, with such unimaginable wealth as to indulge themselves with buildings of scale, splendor and opulence. While these Chateaux now remain a much appreciated legacy of those times, there is no doubt their presence must have fuel the discontent of the masses in their day. I guess that in the end, it wasn’t totally surprising that it all culminated in the fervor of violent revolution!

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