Great Dames!
June 27, 2000

(The WVU-Vendéens at the castle of Chenonceau, June 27, 2000)

As we leave Tours this morning we head up the Loire Valley toward Chambord.  Our route takes us through a valley that has over 600 castles.  Above left is the castle of Amboise, one of the earliest French Renaissance masterpieces.  As the lifestyle of the medieval warrior began to lose its luster, the great ladies of the Renaissance began to have a major influence on the arts in France.  Amboise was built by Charles VIII largely for his wife Anne de Bretagne.  This marriage would bring the independent province of Brittany into union with the French crown, thus creating peace and prosperity at home and allowing the French monarchs to turn their attentions to the riches of Italy to the south.  Amboise is also the castle where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last days, having come here to work with the kings of France as they reconceived the art and architecture of the realm.  Amboise is also infamous in French history as the site of the massacre of a large group of Protestants suspected of plotting against the young king François II in 1560.  François's father, the dashing Henri II, had just died.  His wife, Mary Stewart and his mother Catherine de Médicis would be instrumental in convincing him that the Protestants were a threat to the health of the kingdom.  In order to make the chastisement exemplary, the bodies of the Huguenots were hung from the walls of the castle, their heads hoisted on polls all around.  One legend says that Mary Stewart, Catherine de Médicis, and François II came here to celebrate the victory with a grand dinner held among the rotting cadavers.  François II would reign less than a year, however.  His queen Mary Stewart would return to her native Scotland, where as Mary Queen of Scotts (see the movie with Katherine Hepburn), she would lead the Catholic forces of Great Britain against a young Protestant named Elizabeth.  In the end, Mary's own head would serve as an example to any who would dare defy the Virgin Queen.
The castle of Chaumont is also on our route this morning.  We will see later today that Chenonceau was the gift of Henri II to his mistress and the greatest beauty of the French Renaissance, Diane de Poitiers.  When Henri was killed in a tragic jousting accident, he left the throne to his hapless son François II.  Real power, however, fell to his widow Catherine de Médicis.  Catherine would immediately confiscate the marvelous Chenonceau and give Chaumont to her husband's bereaved lover.  Diane would in fact refuse to live here, and the "Eternally Beautiful" lady of Chenonceau would finish her days in the nearby castle of Anet.


It is a crisp and breezy morning as we arrive at the castle of Chambord, one of the marvels of the reign of François I.


While Leonardo da Vinci was a friend of François I, the Italian master died before the actual construction of the castle began.  The incredible stairway behind us here is often attributed to da Vinci himself, but the documents proving the link have not been found.  Notes and drawings from da Vinci's own hand striking in their resemblance to many elements of this castle.  Our guide Hélène says that some suspect the actual plans were destroyed in hopes of guarding the secrets of this prestigious monument from other monarchs of the time.


The halls of Chambord are not the least of its marvels.  Many of the vaults are engraved with the giant "F" and the salamander that are François I emblems.


The walks around the upper terraces of the castle provide a view of the incredibly rich roofline as well as perspectives on the forests that surround Chambord.  Those forests were among the prime attractions for François I in choosing the site of this castle.  He was an avid huntsman and came to these woods often as a young man with his elder cousin Louis XII.  Louis XII and Queen Anne de Bretagne would not have a male child, but by marrying their daughter Claude de France to the young prince François they assured a smooth transition of the crown to France's favorite Renaissance monarch and one of this nations greatest builders.


Today is the last regular field luncheon of WVU-V 2000.  Our driver yesterday and today is Patrick, lower left.   He is happy to share his knowledge of this fine fare with this year's Vendéens.


The Hostel du Roy in the village near Chenonceau has become a standard relay spot for WVU-V. 


After lunch we cross the village onto the grounds of the castle of Chenonceau, one of the jewels of the French Renaissance.  Known at the Castle of the Six Ladies, the charms of the feminine influence are everywhere present.  As we mentioned earlier, one of the great ladies of this castle was Diane de Poitiers herself.


Diane, the "Ever Beautiful" was 20 years older than Henri II who gave the castle to her when he rose to the throne upon his father François I's death in 1547.  The castle was perfect for the great feasts and balls hosted by Diane and her court.  Built over the river Cher, the castle seems to float in the air above the gently rolling waters.


The glory days of Diane's reign here ended in 1560 when the lance of Henir II's friend and fellow gamesman Montgomery accidentally broke and flew into the king's eye.  The Queen Catherine de Médicis lost no time in taking the castle for herself.  Catherine's three sons, François II, Charles IX, and Henri III, would reign over France's most troubled years, the Wars of Religion.  The third son, Henri III, would do all in his power to bring peace to the kingdom, but he too would die tragically, assassinated by the fanatic Jacques Clément.  Royal marriages were generally matters of political arrangement, but that of Henri III and his wife Louise de Lorraine was based on true and eternal love.  When Henri III was assassinated, his "inconsolable" wife Louise would leave the world forever and live in the Chambre Noire (the Black Chamber)  which she designed as a sign of her endless mourning for her beloved husband. 


After Louise de Lorraine, Chenonceau would enter a long period of decline.  In the 18th century the property would come into the hands of the Dupin family.  Madame Dupin would bring the castle back to life hosting celebrities like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who was governor to her son and who exerted a great influence on her grand-daughter Aurore Dupin, better known to most as the author and feminist George Sand.

In the 19th century it was Madame Pelouze who undertook the project of restoring the castle and its grounds to their original Renaissance magnificence.  Here a few other great ladies visit the tomb of Madame Pelouze which is hidden in the forest across the river from the main gardens of Chenonceau.  A brisk walk back through the castle and across its grounds will have us back in the Vendée-Mobile and on the road "home" to Les Sables d'Olonne.

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