When picking where I wanted to visit in France, there were a number of factors to consider. The first, of course, was where I could find fantastic regional cuisine. Some picks were easy: how could I go to France to taste regional cuisines without visiting Provence or Alsace? Others, unfortunately, had to be eliminated due to the difficulty in getting there by train. I had hoped I might visit Périgord for foie gras and truffles, and Bretagne for crêpes, but complicated, expensive train connections ruled them out as possibilities for this trip. Of course, after visiting so many cities and regions in just over a month, it was also something of a relief to cut out day-long train trips in favor of an extra day in a region I was already visiting, such as Touraine.
After all, some decisions about where to visit were based on sights to be seen, too, and what would the point be of coming to the Loire valley without seeing a few of its stunning châteaux? When we decided to spend three nights in Tours, we knew we wanted to get out of the town and see some of the countryside and royal residences. We debated the relative merits of being total tourists and booking tickets with a tour group versus figuring out train schedules and new locations on our own, and decided that the tour group was the best way to go. After all, it's all tourists at the châteaux anyway.
We considered a few different tour companies, and opted for Acco-Dispo. They offer full-day or half-day tours that allowed us to see different châteaux on different days. On the Friday morning tour we chose, we saw Chenonceau, the most visited of all Loire châteaux, and then had a choice of visiting the royal châteaux d'Amboise, home to François I and two other French kings, or Le Clos Lucé, home to Leonado da Vinci during the last three years of his life.
We met our guide, Cécile, at the Tours tourist office around 8:45 am, and once the rest of our tour group arrived (a Japanese mother-daughter pair with limited English and very little French, and an "Australian" woman of Asian descent who spoke good English as a second language), we were off. On the drive, Cécile entertained us in carefully-enunciated English with stories of queens and kings and mistresses and the affairs that built Chenonceau. When she was done, she played a recording of the same information in Japanese. Knowing more about the people who lived there made the experience of visiting the château richer.
The path to Chenonceau is lined with tall, stately, shady trees. The three women seen headed down the path were on the tour with us.
When we got to the château, we discovered that the front was being restored.
Good thing no one comes to see that side of the château. At Chenonceau, it's all about the view from the river banks.
Chenonceau is constructed across the Cher river. While she lived there, Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, decided she didn't want to have to walk to the bridge to cross the river - she wanted to be able to cross the river without leaving the comfort of her home. Diane built gardens around the château, such as this one:
The interior of the château was, for the most part, fairly typical - richly decorated rooms filled with tapestries and paintings and elaborate furniture. I wonder how much of what is shown to be in Diane's bedroom today was actually hers - I would guess almost nothing.
Awkward fact: when Henri II died, his widow, Catherine de' Medici, ousted Diane de Poitiers and took up residence at Chenonceau herself. Her room was at least as fancy as Diane's.
The bridge over the river is a beautiful, light, airy room with plenty of windows for admiring the view.
But my favorite part of the château was the kitchens. You descend down a stone staircase to see the larder, pantry, butchery, and a servants' dining quarters.
Oh, and did I mention the bread oven, complete with baskets for baking bread? I want one of these in my house!
Our time at Chenonceau was limited - we had about an hour to see all of the grounds and interior. I would have liked to spend a little more time in the gardens, but instead we'll have to make do with one last look out over the river.
And then it was on to the town of Amboise! The crown jewel of the town is the royal Château d'Amboise, which overlooks the village from its hilltop perch.
While François I was king, he invited Leonardo da Vinci to visit him at Amboise, and in 1516 the king gave Leonardo Le Clos Lucé, a manor house just 500 meters from the château. Leonardo lived here until his death in 1519. (It is because of Leonardo's residence in France at the end of his life that his most famous painting - and perhaps the most famous painting in the world - resides in the Louvre in Paris.) Today, the house is a museum devoted primarily to Leonardo's extensive genius for invention. The basement is filled with dozens of models based on some of his most innovative sketches, including the first helicopter, the first hang glider, the first ball bearings, a turning draw bridge, paddle boats, Achimedes' screw, inflatable life savers... It's pretty astounding what he came up with. Le Clos Lucé has a few animations available online to show off some of his ideas. And all this in addition to his painting!
Unfortunately, the manor house does not allow photography, so you'll have to go to see his genius for yourself - it's well worth the visit. The only image I have of the premises was taken from the extensive grounds, showing a model of his helicopter and the house:
The helicopter is attached to the ground and definitely not flying away any time soon, but it does spin, much to the delight of babies and onlookers alike.
Our time in Le Clos Lucé was very limited as well - it would have been great to have a little more time to see more of the extensive grounds surrounding the house, which feature many life-size models of Leonardo's inventions. I would have liked to see a little of the town of Amboise, too, which looked decidedly cute during the quick drive through town to the manor house. But it was not to be on this trip. The other three ladies on our tour were off to see another three châteaux that afternoon, and for our part, we were back to Tours for the remainder of the day.
Coming soon: crêpes and reine de reinettes and mirabelles and every good thing on our last day in Tours.