France: Castles and Wines of Val de Loire

A VERY early train brought us to our soon-to-be friend Nisa, who was our tour guide with Blue Fox Tours.  She drove six of us expertly out of Paris, through the French countryside, and into the Val de Loire (pronounced leh-way).  She corrected us right away when we called it the Loire Valley.  “As you can see,” she said in her beautiful French accent, “there is no valley here.  Val de Loire is just the name of the place surrounding the Loire River.  It’s a name, not a valley.  You cannot translate a name with no meaning into a valley.”  Oops.

I’ve made Nisa sound rough, but she was not at all.  She teased and joked the whole way through, beginning with telling a lady from New Zealand that her husband had gotten tired of waiting and left.  Everyone but the lady from New Zealand understood the joke and laughed.  She also told us never to drive in the famous round-about near the Arc de Triomphe because we would be trapped in there, driving around and around, all through the night until sunrise, not knowing which of the 12 exits to take.  And to top it all off, she sent us off to tour a chateau and said, “I will be at La Cave drinking until you get back.  Then you can taste some wine.”  We hoped she was teasing that time too, and thankfully she still seemed quite sober when we arrived at La Cave.  She wasn’t joking about tasting wine, though.  It was magnifique, and we bought a bottle to enjoy when we got “home” that night.

The Loire River is the longest river in Europe (1,000 kilometers, or about 600 miles), and it has a bike path with campgrounds and bed and breakfasts along it the whole way.  We thought of our sister and brother-in-law, who love to bike on their vacations.  “It is forbidden,” Nisa said, “to use it for cruises or transporting anything by boat because it is too unpredictable.  It can’t decide its water level.  Sometimes it floods.  Sometimes the sand comes up and stops the boats, and they go ‘ploop’ and are stuck there.”


Finally, we arrived at our first chateau.  I had wondered what made a chateau different from any other house, and Chateau de Chambord settled the issue.  “Oh!  A chateau is a castle!” I exclaimed, to which Nisa answered, “Anyone can have a castle.  We French are fancier.  Our castles are chateaus,”  punctuating the last word with a wave of her hand.  Then she went on to say there are 100 to 200 chateaus in France.  “We can’t decide how many,” she added, “because we haven’t settled on the definition for a chateau.  How big does it have to be to be a chateau?  We can’t decide, so we don’t know which ones are chateaus and which ones are just grand maisons” (the French word for houses).

Ten of the chateaus in France are defined because they were built by and for royalty.  The first glimpse of the Chateau Chambord was actually a stone wall 19.2 miles long!  It was put up in 1300 so that the king could release animals within the walls for hunting.  It wasn’t until 1515 that Francois I had the chateau built inside the wall.  He had visited Italy and was so impressed with the architecture there that he brought back none other than Leonardo da Vinci to help him design it!  It’s crowning glory is the double helix stairway da Vinci designed for him.  People going downstairs could actually pass people going upstairs on the same staircase without ever seeing them!  It worked great for wives not to see mistresses, which were quite common at the time, coming and going.

The two upper floors of the castle were completely empty with blank stone walls.  The king felt it was very important to live a nomadic lifestyle, visiting all areas of his realm, checking on them, and reminding the locals who was still in charge.  He still wanted all the comforts of home, however, so his servants would pack all of his tapestries, clothing, and furniture in crates, load them in horse drawn carriages, and take them to the next chateau on the route.  Thankfully, they could leave the lower floors, such as the sitting rooms, dining rooms, and serving tools and equipment, intact for their next visit.  Needless to say, each chateau wasn’t lived in for long by each king.  Some would only stay for a night or two during their whole reign!  One of them even had his own comedy troupe that traveled with him wherever he went, so of course, he had to transform one of the rooms into a private theatre.  In 1538, Francois reconciled with Charles V, King of England, and he invited him to Chambord.  Of course, this required a complete redecoration of the guest wing so that his majesty would be thoroughly impressed with France in all its glory.

You might ask what happened to Leonardo da Vinci after he was brought to France to be the French king’s architect.  He actually became good friends with Francois I, and he lived the rest of his days in a home in a little village right outside the next chateau we visited, Chateau d’Amboise (Amboise is pronounced ahm-bwah).  He finished Mona Lisa there and lived out the rest of his days.  He died in 1590, but his coffin, with the body inside, was stolen soon after that.  It was later found and returned to the chapel in Chateau d’Amboise, where it is buried. 

The construction of Amboise began in the 4th century when the Celtics built a small fortress to defend the residences around them.  Then King Clovis, who was baptized in Notre Dame and made France a Catholic nation, took the land from the Celtic people and continued building. In 1214, King Philippe gave the chateau to the lords of Amboise, giving it a name for the first time.  The name stuck, but the Amboise ownership of the chateau didn’t last forever. In 1431, Lord Louis d’Amboise was sentenced to death for plotting against King Charles VII’s favorite officer.  King Charles took the chateau and stationed archers there.  His successor Louis XI liked it, and kept his wife there while he lived the nomadic life of a king.  His son, Charles VIII was born, grew up, became king, and died there at age 27 when he hit his head walking through one of its many low door frames.  “I am now 27 years old,” Nisa said, “so I will be cautious walking through this castle. or this could be my last tour.”

The chateau is built in the Renaissance style.  It has beautiful gardens, and a look over every wall yields views of either the beautiful Loire River, the French countryside, or the quaint little village below.  Its entrance makes the king’s nomadic lifestyle a little easier, in that it is actually an incline instead of steps. It’s even wide enough for a whole horse drawn carriage so the servants don’t have to carry everything from the ground level.  This also worked well if the chateau was under siege.

In this castle, we learned about the fleur de lis (pronounced floor de lee).  It is three petals of a golden lily on a background of blue, and only royalty was allowed to use it.  We see it all over New Orleans, and it is used on a black background as the Saints NFL team logo.  Once we learned about this symbol of royalty, we started seeing it everywhere!  We even watched a sports announcer commentate the World Cup from a fleur de lis shaped desk!

We saw some other symbols in this castle as well, including a crest, divided down the middle, with several symbols of the French fleur de lis on one side, a line drawn down the middle, and the English ermine symbol on the other side.  This symbolized that at the time this crest was made, there was an alliance between France and England.  We saw more stones signed by the masons who created them, and we also saw some very … we’ll say interesting… sculptures at the top of each of the posts spiraling up one of the entrances to the chateau.  Some were funny, like the one scratching his, um, backside and others were just plain obscene, and I won’t even described them here. 

We drove on, saw other chateaux from the outside, and finally toured our last one.  This was Chateau de Chenonceau (pronounced chee no so), acquired in exchange for debts for the mistress of King Henry II, Diane de Poitiers.  As we walked around, it was clear to see it had not been designed as a royal residence and had, in fact, been designed by a woman (Katherine Briçonnet in 1515-1521). Unlike the chateaux that were clearly built for fortification and awareness of approaching enemies, this one was built for serenity and beauty, with lots of windows to overlook the lazy river and surrounding forest.  It had beautiful groomed gardens and more kitchens than any dwelling we had ever seen!  There was an entire separate kitchen for each purpose:  butchery, bakery, preparation, and more.  

Diane had a beautiful arched bridge built to lead to the castle, spanning over the River Cher, but it didn’t stay just a bridge for long. King Henry II was married to Catherine de Medici (have you ever seen the Netflix series written about her family?).  When King Henry II died in a jousting tournament, he was actually wearing the favour of Diane, rather than his wife’s.  When the king died, there was no way Catherine would allow her husband’s mistress to live on in such luxury, so her final act of jealousy was to exile Diane.  You would think Diane became a peasant after that, but no.  She was actually exiled to one of the chateaux we had driven by earlier!

Diane was a very healthy cougar (she was 16 years older than Henri) and lived, presumably physically fit until the age of 65, when she finally died in a riding accident.  From the time King Henri died until her own death, she wore only black and white, the colors of mourning.  She attributed her health and beauty to a daily swim in the river, plenty of exercise, and her daily dose of drinkable gold.  After she died, her body was buried with honor until the French Revolution, when it was dug up and thrown in a mass grave.  Later, her body was exhumed and studied.  By studying her hair, they found evidence of the gold poisoning had probably declined her health enough to fall off that horse and finally kill her.  

Catherine took over Chenonceau and immediately painted her own bedroom completely black as she mourned the loss of her husband…and probably a life of regrets.  Only two out of eight of her children had survived infancy, and especially since her husband had sought the love of another, she assumed she had been sexually inadequate.  She was nicknamed The Black Queen, but there is a question whether it was because of her darkened bedroom, the dark life she was forced by happenstance to lead (you’ll have to research those details for yourself) or because of the dark arts she had practiced throughout her life.

As we drove back to Paris, it was pretty easy to settle the question whether it was money or power that bought happiness.  It is neither.  These people who had everything all died in sorrow, disappointment, or fear. I believe joy is a choice made in whatever circumstance you’re in, and it comes from a source much deeper than anything you can buy or any power you can wield.  We are having a great time on this trip we for which we saved for a long time, even though we’ve eaten more street food and French fries than we ever have before to stretch those dollars.  But without the trip, we would still be happy because we are followers of the founder of joy, Jesus Christ.  What about you? Have you found what…or who…truly makes you happy?

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