All you need to know before you go to the best château in the Loire Valley:
A visit to France’s Loire Valley is truly incomplete without a visit to Château de Chenonceau.
I was first attracted to the Loire Valley because of the Loire River, which served as the demarcation line in central France during WWII.
This river cut communities in two; it sliced farms and vineyards in half; it separated school districts and divided families. This pivotal slip of water also taught the people of France that the distance between life and death is often narrow and arbitrary.
The stories of heroism along the banks of the Loire River and its tributaries, especially the River Cher, are enthralling, beautiful and devastating.
Any love affair with the Loire Valley, especially one as long as mine, will include wine tasting and visits to the many châteaus that dot the valley, often called the Garden of France. And there is one château where you sip wine, visit the luxury of the former home of King Henry’s mistress, and experience WWII history. My kind of place!
The Château de Chenonceau actually serves as a bridge across the River Cher. The long gallery room – where the court used to dance – stretches from one bank of the river to the next. At one point it served the logistical purpose of being the only bridge across the Cher.
During WWII, members of the resistance smuggled people from Occupied France to “Free France” through the château, sneaking in through the grand front doors on occupied soil and walking out the back door into (relative) freedom. This worked quite well until the Germans caught on and stationed guards to watch the doors.
This type of story is the light that I can find in the senseless brutality of WWII. It’s stories like that of the resistance in France – run primarily by women – smuggling people over the demarcation line at great risk to their own lives that gives me hope in even the darkest of times.
In fact, I originally found the Loire Valley through a story of a woman in Saint-Martin-le-Beau who worked with a priest over the river, hiding people in coffins and staging fake funerals to bring people over the River Cher. (Read more about that here and about Saint-Martin-le-Beau and the descendants of a WWII heroine here.)
That bravery – that light – is alive here at Château de Chenonceau.
While I may focus on WWII history in my travels and writing, Château de Chenonceau sits on numerous crosssections of history – all fascinating.
For instance, during WWI it served as a hospital for wounded soldiers.
And then there is the feminist history. The château – the most visited of the Loire Valley – is often called the “ladies château” because it is women who have historically run the estate.
The château was a gift from King Henry II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers who built the bridge and the gardens. Then, upon his death, Chenonceau was reclaimed by Henry’s wife Catherine de’ Medici who (after ousting Poitiers) built the grand gallery that stretches across the bridge built by her husband’s mistress.
Upon inheriting the château, Medici’s daughter-in-law lived her remaining years in a bedroom that she decorated in black while she mourned the death of her husband King Henry III. The black tapestries remain today in the darkest of rooms amongst the light of Château de Chenonceau.
In the 1700s, Louise Dupin entertained the likes of Voltaire in the château during her famous literary salons, which were the hub of progressive thinking during the Age of Enlightenment.
She even wrote a book (never published) called “On the Equality of Men and Women.” A woman truly ahead of her time, that Madame Dupin!
In keeping with tradition, today the château is still in the hands of a woman.
Château de Chenonceau is located in the village of Chenonceaux in the Indre-et-Loire département of the Loire Valley. It is a 2.5-hour drive south of Paris, a 20-minute drive from Amboise, or a 40-minute drive from Tours.
It is easiest to drive to the château and then drive to some of the surrounding châteaus and sites of the Loire Valley. I usually take a train from Paris Montparnasse to Saint-Pierre-des-Corps and pick up a rental car at the Europcar counter just outside the station doors. I use Enterprise (also at the train station) if I need to pick up or drop off the car after hours since they don’t charge for that perk.
It is possible to take a TER train directly to Château de Chenonceau from Tours, but the train schedule is really limited.
Adults are €15.00 with brochure and €19.00 with audio guide; children 7-18 €12.00 with brochure and €15.50 with audio guide; children under 7 free.
There is a great audio tour, or you can roam freely with the brochure provided. Sometimes there are lines, but they always move quickly.
Opening hours are long, from 9:30 to 17:00 but extended in the summer hours. Often the gardens stay open even later, hosting events like wine tastings under the stars.
Grab lunch at the self-service crêperie, or bring a picnic for the lawn. There is also a fine-dining restaurant and wine-tasting available in the wine cellars. All eateries are open mid-March to mid-November, but the château is open every day of the year.
Beautiful gardens, wine tasting, a historic palace, war stories, and a legacy of feminism. Need I say more?
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