Saturday, September 13, we drove to Chinon, the fortress where Joan d’Arc first met the Dauphin in 1429. On the way we stopped at one of the most famous chateaus in the Loire Valley, Chenonceau. And, what a whopper of a home this was.
While stopping at the tourist office, this time in Chenonceau, we saw Susan from Denver and Hattie from Atlanta who had stayed in the same hotel we had in Amboise. We also seemed to be following the same tours as we had seen them the day before at both Chateau Royal and Chateau du Clos Luce. They were traveling with two other folk, and we offered to squeeze everyone into our car for the short ride to the chateau.
Spilling out of the tiny backseat (4 women),
we all stretched
and independently headed for this vision of grandeur.
It’s known as the Ladies’ Chateau, beginning with the woman, Katherine Briconnet, who together with her husband created the vision of this house on the River Cher.
She and Thomas Bohier, the General Tax Collector, purchased the property in 1513 and over the next ten years demolished the existing fortress and mill built by the Marques family while keeping the ‘keep’, the Marques Tower. They proceeded to construct a major showpiece. Unfortunately, their son ran up huge debts enabling the Crown to take possession in 1535.
Gorgeous views looking up and down the river, as well as across to the gardens.
Meanwhile the mistress of King Henri II (not to be confused with the 11th century King Henry II of England), Diane of Poitiers (1499-1566), lusted after this little place on the river.
When the king confiscated it for debt repayment, Diane managed to get her boyfriend to kindly bestow it on her. She had first met the cute little princeling when he was eight and she, twenty-eight. Love flourished, perhaps more on his side than hers…, and she remained the love of his life for 25 years.
The illustrious history of the chateau continued to grow under Diane’s power and influence. Known for her beauty, intelligence and sense of business, she became one of the most influential women in France.
Not to be bounced aside that easily, Henri II’s wife, whom he married in 1533 was none other than Catherine de Medici (1519-1589).
Ironically, their initials of “H” and “C” seen throughout the chateau,
create very nicely a “D” when intertwined, something, I’m sure, pleased the ousted Diane.
After Henri’s death in 1559 Catherine, now a Regent for her young son, Francis II (who, by the way, was the husband of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots) pushed Diane out of the chateau, taking it for her own royal residence. To entertain more properly, Catherine added two long galleries above the bridge and Italian Renaissance decor.
More deaths, more marriages, and we get to the next lady, Louise of Lorraine (1553-1601).
When her husband, King Henri III, the fourth son of Henry II and Catherine, was assassinated in 1589,
she stayed in the Chateau, painting her bedroom black and devoting herself to religion. Compared to the previous women of the house, she wasn’t much of a party gal, and, believe me, this home is made for parties.
The next illustrious lady was Louise Dupin (1706-1799).
She brought the Age of Enlightenment to the Chateau, starting an outstanding salon attracting the elite among artistic, scientific and political figures, such as Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire. With Rousseau she researched and wrote one of the earliest pieces of feminist philosophy, OUVRAGE SUR LES FEMMES. This brilliant lady also saved the Chateau during the revolution due to her popularity among the locals and using the chapel for wood storage, thus disguising its true purpose. Additionally, she happened to be the great-grandmother of another famous female, George Sand.
In mid-19th century Marguerite Pelouze (1836-no known date of death), descended from the industrial bourgeoisie, took possession of Chenonceau, which her husband had purchased from Dupin’s heirs. Not lacking for funds, she spent a fortune to restore the estate to when Diane de Poitiers ‘reigned’. Unfortunately, due to a political scandal, she was forced to sell (seems to be a theme among these chateaus…).
Skip forward to WWI, and the current owners (the Meniers of the Menier Chocolate Factory, my kind of tribe) at that time paid to convert the chateau to a hospital. Simone Menier (1881-1972) served as matron and cared for over 2,000 wounded soldiers.
During WWII, the chateau was a demarcation line between Nazi-occupied France and France under Vichy control. The door at the southern end of the gallery was used to smuggle jews and those escaping the German zone and as an access by the French Resistance. Simone (above) also participated in the resistance during this second world war.
All in all, this Chateau represents not only a bodacious abode but also important times throughout France’s history.
Again, too much detail to bore you with, so I’ll just mention a few highlights, beginning with:
In the chapel, Mary Stewart’s Scottish guards left some graffiti dated 1543 and 1546:
They don’t do anything half measure… look at the flower arrangements that graced many of the rooms and halls. Talk about picking a few blooms for the house:
Beautiful tapestries literally covered the walls, and the cost of just one of these functional decorations (great against cold stone walls) were typically only seen in the homes of the very rich:
Just as I found the fact Leonardo da Vinci had lived and died in France, the fact that Catherine de Medici ruled France from this desk with views of River Cher, was remarkable to me. Unfortunately, she, too, created so much debt she had to beg money from her Italian connections… :
We’re looking at the same view she would have five hundred years ago:
Here’s her mark (on a ceiling):
Here’s where she entered from her bedroom into the ground-floor gallery:
The party rooms (galleries on two floors used for entertainment):
To provide a sense of the lavishness with which these royals partied, here’s an excerpt form Cowichan Valley Citizen website:
“It was there at Chenonceau in the late 1500s that Catherine de’ Medici hosted a party for the Duke of Aragon that hasn’t been equalled since. Her guests enjoyed mock naval battles and a grand regatta staged on the nearby river Cher, plus a bunch of satyrs chasing lightly clad nymphs in a colourful tableau.
But at the banquet, Catherine outdid herself. She had recruited the most beautiful noblewomen in all of France to serve at the long tables as waitresses…. and you’ve guessed it…they were all topless.
The extravagances she staged are the stuff of legend. In fact one for her son lasted four days and four nights.”
FYI: one source said that big gala for her son really drew down the coffers…
South door used to escape to the ‘free zone’:
One of the two kitchens:
With groceries being delivered via boat under the bridge and a rotisserie spit with a counterweight to turn it hanging outside (Hattie not quite sure of this contraption):
Another shivery moment of history: a 16th century, Italian cabinet with mother-of-pearl and fountain-pen engraved ivory incrustations, a wedding gift to Francois II and Mary Stewart (!):
Louis XIV portrait by Rigaud given by Louis to his uncle, Duke of Vendome, in honor of a previous visit. Now THIS is a frame (size is roughly 5 feet x 7 feet):
(Can you imagine what you would do if one of your relatives gave you a portrait this size for you to hang on your wall?… of course, it helps if your home is a huge chateau, and the relative a king…)
One of the marble medallions brought back by Catherine and placed above doors on the second floor (what they call the first floor). It’s an emperor, but please let me know which one if you decide to research it, which I haven’t):
Of course, you HAVE to have a wine cellar, which we visited but didn’t taste in spite of the way it looks…:
The maze was the last bit of the estate we toured. Created by Catherine’s orders with 2,000 yews, it wasn’t that difficult to figure out, but you could imagine what went on behind these hedges back in the day:
Hstorical pinpoints, such as Catherine de Medici’s room from which she ruled, bring life to figures found on the paper pages of history. This is one reason why I love history and am enthralled by the quirks and haphazardness of people moving in and out of each others’ lives. It was a small world, too, thanks to the practice of inbreeding among all the royal families of Europe.
Leaving the splendor of Chenonceau we picked up our trail of Joan d’Arc as we headed towards Chinon. Chinon is a beautiful little village on the Vienne River bordering the ancient counties Anjou and Poitou. Henri II, Count of Anjou and crowned King of England in 1154 (again, not to be confused with Henry II over in Dover land) developed this fortress on a site whose history dates back to the Iron Age.
The Hundred Years War brought the Royal Fortress of Chinon into prominence with Charles VII using it as a refuge in 1418. It was here Joan met the Dauphin for the first time in 1429. She traveled 11 days through enemy territory with a small ensemble, an amazing feat during those times.
After the 17th century, the fortress was neglected, which began its slow decline to basically a ruin. After seven years and over 17,000,000 euros later, this site opened in 2014 with audio-video displays as part of the tour. Unfortunately, neither of us felt the money had been well-spent but you didn’t need really anything other than knowing this young Maid slept and drilled her soldiers here prior to routing the English from their siege of Orleans, roughly 100 miles away.
Historians can’t say for sure which room the famous meeting took place, but they did say there are two possibilities, both of which we saw.
I don’t know if you know the story but to test her (as if the poor girl didn’t have enough to prove) Charles disguised himself as a regular guy while one of his minions dressed as a royal prince. She did pick him out correctly in spite of this trick. From there, he sent her to be vetted by the Church. They approved of her (obviously retracted this later), the Dauphin gives her an army, and she rides into history.
Similar to visiting Normandy’s beaches, following in the footsteps of this charismatic young woman, you can’t help but breathe in the grief. Knowing how she died blankets every site with sadness.
The fortress also figured prominently in the history of the Templar Knights, an organization involved with the Crusades and one envied by both the Pope and kings due to their influence and accumulated wealth. This order began two hundred years earlier by nine Frankish knights wanting to protect the pilgrims making their way to and from Jerusalem.
In spite of their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, they managed to accumulate a lot of wealth and proceeded to serve as a bank for many, including the ever, over-spending royals; and, it was this wealth that King Philip IV aimed to grab to fill his beleaguered coffers. This guy Jack (1243-1314) was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templars and he wanted to return the Templars to their original goal of soldier-monks. In short, Philip with the help of Clement V, the pope in his pocket, managed to have the Templars convicted of despicable acts (confessed under torture). Those who confessed to unbelievable lies were not burned; those who refused were burned. Amongst the latter were two: Jack and Geoffrey de Charney of Normandy.
Frankly, the Templar exhibit in the Fortress’ visitor center was one of the better displays.
After seeing the fortress, we visited the Tourist Agency who located a wonderful inn for us: Hotel Diderot. We had one of the last rooms, which happened to be in a little garden cottage across from the main house in this little village.
Breakfast the next morning featured many homemade jams and preserves as well as a traditional breakfast treat of cracked walnuts, local honey, and fresh goat cheese mixed together and eaten on toast or rolls. That, with cut fruit and aromatic coffee made us sorry we weren’t staying a second night. Plus, Calhoun, we discovered one of our hostesses had gone to UNH! Talk about a small world :)
With lingering glances at the jams and croissants, we left to head to Chartres. First stop, though, was the church of Saint Catherine of Fierbois.
where Joan retrieved or had retrieved the sword of Charles Martell, Charlemagne’s grandson. Joan had dreamt the sword was buried inside this church, and there’s a plaque indicating where she found it.
In her own words during her 1431 trial:
“When I was at Tours or at Chinon I sent to seek a sword which was in the church of Saint Catherine of Fierbois, behind the alter, and it was found at once all covered with rust.
Inquisitors: How did you know that this sword was there?
“This sword was in the earth, all rusty, and there were upon it five crosses, and I knew it by my voices…. I wrote to the prelates of the place that if they please I should have the sword and they sent it to me. It was not very deep under ground behind the alter, as it seems to me, but I do not know exactly whether it was before or behind the altar. After this sword was found, the prelates of the place had it rubbed, and at once the rust fell from it without difficulty. There was an arms merchant of Tours who went to seek it, and the prelates of that place gave me a sheath, and those of Tours also, with them, had two sheathes made for me: one of red velvet and the other of cloth-of-gold, and I myself had another made of right strong leather. But when I was captured, it was not that sword which I had. I always wore that sword until I had withdrawn from Saint-Denis after the assault against Paris.” Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses, p. 61-62
She also stayed next door in the priest’s home while on her way to Chinon.
Next was Orleans where Joan d’Arc fought her famous battle, forcing the English to give up their seige.
Along the way we had to investigate the dried-up sunflowers. Having seen fields and fields of them, we wanted to find out if the seeds were still in them (yes).
We also some nuclear generators and silos, just one site of several we’d spotted during our drives.
Unfortunately, the house in Orleans where Joan stayed had been destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII,
but it was rebuilt and now houses the most extensive research library on the second floor (available by appointment) and a brief film of her life on the ground floor (not the best).
We felt we really didn’t need to stop here. The city wasn’t the prettiest and the Joan d’Arc information could have readily been found in books, but we did have an excellent gyro at a tiny, street side restaurant and bought a book on the Maid.
Back in the car to continue to our final and last night stop in France: Chartres. I had last been here in 1971 via an American Youth Hostel bike trip with my friend Annie Bommer. I told Max what I remembered from that trip was (1) the French had carefully removed all the stained glass so it wouldn’t be harmed by WWII fighting and (2) it was the first time I had ever seen a skinned rabbit (it was hanging in a butcher’s window).
Reaching Chartres, we located a hotel right in the center of town. It was a Best Western, but nothing like any I’d been in before. It was like a dream with some of the friendliest hosts and hostesses we had met during our trip.
And, not only was the price right BUT, I got my TUBBY!! Talk about feeling like a princess…
After unloading our one knapsack, we headed out to the cathedral. It’s the oldest medieval cathedral that has only been slightly modified (unlike others) since the early 1200’s.
While there, a service was occurring with a soloist contributing to the other-wordly feeling we got walking in this huge cathedral. It was breathtakingly lovely as we gazed literally in true awe of its size and history. Talk about if walls could talk.
It’s also a pilgrimage site since the 12th century due to the Sancta Camisa, a faded tunic said to be what Virgin Mary worn at the birth of Christ. Riiiiggghhtt. Uh-huh.
Walking out of the Cathedral I saw the Michelin Man
and just had to take a photo for Colleen who, I’ll never forget, for the longest time had a keychain with his image. From the sublime (Cathedral) to the not so sublime :)
Furthermore, Chartres offers a light show starting at 10 p.m. running until 1 a.m.
Get a relaxing libation (tea or wine), lower the lights, sit down in front of a big screen if possible, and watch this, then tell me it hasn’t captured your soul.
We caught some, but not all, of the 29 sites. It was mesmerizing, and this is another city we’d love to revisit. It’d be worth it if only for the light show.
The next morning, Monday, September 15th, it was time to head back to Dover as winds looked favorable, along with the tide, for an early morning departure for Ramsgate. It would be our last stop on the south coast before crossing the Thames and heading up to our winter berth.
We encountered some rude ferry toll takers, which prompted us to snap an interesting sign that explained why they had this demeanor.
Of course, taking a photo right in front of them (they sat behind the glass wall on which this message was posted) wasn’t the smartest idea, especially since we were asking her if we could get on the earlier ferry (fortunately, there were no-shows and we got on).
To say our trip was magical doesn’t do it justice. Just know that croissants never tasted so magnificent :)