Pretend to be a noble at a French châteaux in the Loire Valley

France will have you fantasizing…

Just two hours southwest of Paris, lies the Loire Valley, an enchanting countryside ablaze with colours of green and gold, filled with vineyards, farmlands, hunting forests and ancient towns. Christened Loire after France’s longest river, which was a highway for transporting food and building materials in flat boats during the Greco-Roman age. An exceptionally fertile land that enticed 15th-century French royals and nobles to hire Italian architects and artists to build hundreds of palatial Renaissance-style chateaux.

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All 300 kilometres of this lush region that dazzled poets and novelists for ages is now a UNESCO-protected national park. The Valley of a Thousand Châteaux has a mind-boggling range of regal residences to explore: stately homes, mansions, castles, fortresses, even palaces. Save yourself some heartburn, go with my top three recommendations.

Chambord: Flamboyance gone overboard

Driving through a seemingly unending lush park filled with wild deer and boar, you’re forced to question what you know about Chambord. Chateau or town? Put your doubts to rest as you alight in the massive parking lot, facing an elegant castle as large as a palace. Can you believe that this royal weekend retreat was originally a simple hunting lodge, rebuilt during the 16th-century by French monarch François I, using an army of 1,800 workmen over 15 years!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Talk about flamboyance…this castle has 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 85 staircases, stables for 1200 horses, and a park surrounded by a 22-mile long wall. An address befitting all the kings who made it their home, even Louis XIV. While away a couple of hours exploring the theatrical interiors…second-floor vaulted ceilings, enormous corner towers, and a 100-foot tall lantern supported by flying buttresses. Forbidding dungeons too? Chances are.

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Surprise highlight? The huge double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, himself! So they say. Two staircases winding around a central illuminated well, twisting up to the roof. Two of you can test out the mystery construction (or optical illusion) by going up the two staircases simultaneously…you’ll be visible to each other only in glimpses through tiny windows. On the rooftop, surrounded by countless spires, chimneys, turrets, domes and balustrades, send a silent message to Gaudi. Its his kind of quirky, well almost.

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Peer down onto the expansive green grounds, imagining your men hunting deer in the woods ahead. And is that your horse carriage there? Nah. As you drive away, keep your eyes hooked on the majestic castle and its empty grounds till the grey silhouette disappears. The brooding, timeless beauty will stay etched in your memory for a long time.

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Chenonceau: Feminine grace meets war intrigue

Slow down as you walk through the half-mile long canopied avenue of immensely tall plane trees, over a crunchy carpet of gold-red autumn leaves towards the symmetrical French gardens. Serenity, yes? Feel your eyebrows raise as you get closer to the exquisite chateau stretching across the river Cher, its 60-meter long gallery built over a series of arches, reflecting in the languid waters. Close your eyes and recreate the scene…house guests in fluffy gowns and top hats paddling canoes for entertainment. And hey, that’s you…as Catherine of Medici, Regent of France, hosting one of your infamous parties! Have a ball!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Something tells you this residence was designed by women…the splendidly furnished rooms, airy chambers, fine paintings, tapestries, book-lined libraries and gorgeous views from the terraces, all have a distinctly feminine feel. Wonder if they had even more unusual and elaborate flower arrangements on the fireplaces and consoles back then. 

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Notice with sadness, how the pattern and colour of the floor tiles have been worn away by hundreds of visitors. And chew on this….Chenonceau marked the border between free and Nazi France in World War II and dramatic prisoner swaps possibly took place here. Somewhat inappropriate for such a fairytale location. Huh?

Cheverny: A matter of family pride

Familiar? This 17th-century stately hunting palace was the inspiration for Herge’s famous castle of Moulinsart in the Adventures of Tintin. The most sumptuous of all Loire chateaux has been with the same family for nearly seven centuries and they still live on the property, while one section is open for public viewing. Family pride shows in the flawless preservation and the intimate feel. The chess table in the sitting room, children’s room with its oakwood cot and miniature velvet high back chairs, book-lined library with a grand piano, ornate furniture upholstered with floral needlework, damask and gilt-panelled walls and portraits of aristocrats adorning them…all speak of a highly formal lifestyle. A time and place for everything in this home. Do they ever put up their stockinged feet on these exquisite sofas and relax?

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Pause at a lady’s bedroom, where a headless mannequin stands poised in the centre. It is fitted with an elegant ivory brocade gown, with a wide scoop neck, long sleeves with gathers at the shoulders, an embroidered yoke, tiny buttons all the way down the back and full fluffed skirt with a small waist…maybe 24-25 inches. On the wall behind, is a family portrait of (her?) four children, twin girls in white taffeta frocks, their younger brother in a formal brown two-piece and bow tie, and the youngest sister in a pale teal frock holding up a white lace umbrella.

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Suddenly, the mannequin comes to life and its you. Surrounded by 3-4 maids doing up the tiny buttons on your gown, putting flowers in your hair and sprinkling floral eau de toilette, before you join your family in the sun-washed breakfast room. Brief ceremonial greetings, followed by dignified clinking of silver, and children proceeding for their horse-riding lessons, while you move to the study to finalise the guest list for the ball you are planning later that month. (Got carried away there, didn’t you?)

Outside, follow the trail to the kennel of 70 carefully-bred hunting hounds, where  a signboard cautions, “Priere de ne pas exciter les chines” (please do not excite the dogs). They’re preening and posing for pictures, and barking in sync for their next meal. Excitement enough.

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Finally, before exiting the grounds, relax on one of the delightful benches on the satin-smooth grassy grounds, scanning the picture-perfect chateau grounds one last time. Can’t get enough of it. Wait, didn’t that curtain just move?

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3 must-see French chateaux in the Loire Valley

Cocktail of opulence and tragedy at the Habsburg Palace

Vienna’s imperial palace will overwhelm you…

Even as you survey the facade of ornate Habsburg Palace, the winter residence of the Austrian imperials since the 13th-century, you sense fulfilment. The very essence of Vienna’s cityscape is embodied within these walls…several squares and gardens, 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms spread over a massive 60 acres…a mini city in itself!

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Trapped in the spell of a historic cafe

A trip down coffee lane…

If you are a die-hard coffee lover like me, I bet you treasure each cafe moment while vacationing, specially  in Europe. Just the vision of those cheerful, warm and welcoming spaces, usually opening to the street and sun acts like an energy shot. Coffee drinkers are ensconced in comfortable corners, or lined up in pavement chairs facing the road, reading newspapers or observing the world as it slips by, having vibrant conversations, people-watching, thinking, listening, contemplating, or writing. How can you not be lured into these social hubs where people connect (without wifi)? And if history fascinates you, then a vintage cafe with an illustrious past is a double whammy. So, how can you not want it all, even if your cup runneth over?

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