- Life Style
The Loire Valley, where royal pleasures abide
by Patricia Woeber
For example, Francois I (reigned 1515-47), that eagle-eyed monarch of all he surveyed, who wore elaborately embroidered clothing with large puffy sleeves, was always accompanied by his noble court retinue and servants - some 9,000 people in all - as he traveled between Chambord, Blois, Amboise and several other chateaux. Each fortnight he moved the whole caboodle to a different chateau. Actually, this mobile court made the valley the capital of France.
The first view of Chambord took my breath away. Francois I fashioned the building - a monument containing 440 rooms, 13 flights of stairs (one double-helix), 70 sets of backstairs, and, what lends particular character to the building, 365 ornate chimneys poking on high like a fantastic forest. It took 1,800 craftsmen 30 years to build the palace.
Some personal royal details amused me. Francois I adopted the salamander as his symbol, and decorated his homes with images of this amphibian. On the walls of a room in Chambord, 200 different salamanders were set in bas-reliefs. Louis XII chose a porcupine as his symbol, which is seen below his statue on the facade of Blois chateau.
My next day in Blois, a royal city of art and history, I stood in the central courtyard of Blois Chateau (Francois I's earliest passion), with a remarkable outdoor statue, spiral staircase and four wings illustrating different architectural periods. From the same spot, with just swivels of my heels, I noted Gothic (a medieval fortress, 13th century), Flamboyant Gothic with elaborate decoration (Louis XII wing, 15th century), Renaissance-fusion of Italian (Francois I wing, 16th century) and classicism (Gaston d'Orleans, 17th century).
While strolling inside, I thought it was a privilege to actually walk in all these fabulous palaces, truly historical artifacts themselves, let alone viewing their antique furnishings. Also, I was fascinated by these royal characters, who contributed so richly to Western art and architecture.
A vignette about royal personalities caught my imagination. In 1617, Louis XIII imprisoned his mother, Marie de Medicis, here in Blois. But she disguised herself as a laundry woman, climbed down by rope into the moat and achieved a daring escape. Despite her son's behavior and their complicated relationship, the two reconciled.
When Henri was killed in 1559, Queen Catherine de Medicis, Henri's wife, sought revenge on Diane by kicking her out and moving in. She planted a garden to rival Diane's. For me, it was a privilege to stroll through both exquisite gardens. Due to its fertile soil and amiable weather, the Loire Valley is known as the birthplace of France's gardens. In Parc Arboretum des Grandes Bruyeres, a 900-species garden with heather, roses, exotic shrubs and trees, I heard the owner Madame Rochefoucauld (an historic name associated with royal power) say, "I had no idea what I was getting into when I began." And yet, she continues, planting 200 trees each year from seedlings. At 75 years of age, Madame's energy inspired me. She gardens six hours a day, seven days a week.
Another day, I was off to stay in Amboise. Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francois I built Amboise Chateau, adding grand styles, impressive bedrooms and salons, exceptional collections of Gothic and Renaissance furniture. In Amboise, the Conspiracy of 1560 influenced the wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants - but that's another story.
Secondly, I explored the town of Tours (Louis XI and St. Martin lived here), strolling along elegant avenues and shady squares to the 13th century Gothic cathedral that took 337 years to build. In Place de Plumereau, the original market square, awash with gaily colored umbrellas shading cafes, bistros and brasseries, I drank a glass of Chenin Blanc, white wine of the Loire. Of all the delicious meals I enjoyed, the filet de canard, duck with kumquats, prepared by Chef Ludovic Laurenty at Chateau de Pray in Amboise, was particularly outstanding. I stayed in Le Manoir Les Minimes (18th century manor in Amboise), recently renovated and elegantly furnished by the enthusiastic owners, Eric Deforges and Patrice Longet. From here, there's a view of the Loire River and Amboise Chateau. Private chateaux owned by nobles have opened their doors to overnight guests, and they're an absolute joy.
In many ways, the kings, especially Francois I, represent the most glorious period of the Loire Valley. The more I saw, the more fascinating I found these colorful characters who created such a grand and lasting playground for our pleasure.
IF YOU GO
The Loire Valley is two to three hours by car from Paris, or 55 minutes on the TGV (rapid train). Using my mileage, I flew on Continental Airlines to Paris (non-stop from Houston or Newark): (800) 231-0856, www.continental.com.
Renault's Eurodrive package offers the most economical rental for 17 days or more, with unlimited mileage and insurance. Automatic or shift are available and the car can be picked up in Paris or Orleans. Request special offers: (888) 532-1221, www.renaultusa.com.
Chambord Chateau and park with hiking paths and guided tours: www.chambord.org. Chenonceau Chateau, art and music: www.chenonceau.com. Events at Amboise: www.chateau-amboise.tm.fr. Chateaux tours: www.loiredeschateaux.com. Electric bikes (190 miles of bike trails), Orleans Tourist Office: (33) 02-38-24-05-05.
Amboise, Le Manoir Les Minimes Hotel, rates from $100 to $475: www.manoirlesminimes.com. In Suevres, Chateau de la Rue, rates depend on the room: www.chateaudelarue.fr.fm. Loire Tourist office has brochures on small, charming hotels and 128 chateaux. Just off the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the Hotel Lancaster, an intimate connoisseur's deluxe hotel: (800) 223-6800, www.lhw.com/lancaster.
Le Grant St. Benoit in Benoit-sur-Loire. La Tonnellerie Hotel and restaurant in Beaugency: www.tonelri.com; In Amboise, Chateau de Pray: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
List of 86 parks and gardens: www.jardins-de-france.com.
Passport Val de Loire, $30, gives entrance to 100 monuments, including some chateaux: www.monum.fr. Loire Valley Tourist Board: (33) 02-38-79 95-28, fax (33) 02-38-79-95-10, www.visaloire.com, e-mail: email@example.com.
Touraine: www.tourism-touraine.com. French Government Tourist Office: www.franceguide.com.