Wednesday, December 26, 2012


{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 8.}

Following our visit at Chenonceau, we drove over to Amboise where we ate lunch. We didn't actually visit this one, which was fine for me because I've seen it before. Then we got a nice little drive along the Loire river and saw many beautiful villages, homes, and chateaux. The Loire valley is so picturesque.

Chambord was a new one for me. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but it's HUGE. You can't even begin to understand how gigantic this place is. Granted, it's not as expansive as Versailles, but it's still way beyond the size of any normal castle, even the royal ones. Just incredible. It's this gorgeous ornate crazy fantastic monster in the middle of a swamp. Yes, that's right, a swamp. No, not like the Okefenokee, but a swamp all the same. They had to put in a huge foundation deep into the ground just to make sure the whole thing didn't sink and collapse. Why build there? Well, it was a favorite hunting spot, and why not. When you're king you do what you want.

Yours Truly at Chambord
It was started by Francis I on the grounds of an old hunting lodge and the original plan consisted of a square keep with a tower in each corner (like a medieval fortress) and a large central staircase (a design idea he picked from his escapades through Renaissance Italy). Each floor would be divided into four equal apartments by a cross shaped common space. The central staircase by the way is a giant double helix. Both stairways go to each floor but the stairways themselves never intersect. If you're having trouble picturing it, imagine you and a friend walking up different sides of a strand of DNA (come on, you remember science). Cool, right? However, those stairs actually make each floor double the normal ceiling height in order to allow for enough head space on the actual stairwell. So even though Chambord is only 3 stories and a roof terrace, it's the height of a 6 story building (not including its spires and chimneys).

French Renaissance architecture

See how little the people are?

Forest of chimneys

The central staircase

Well, France was ok with the stairs, but he was definitely not down with the equal apartments. That might be fine for his guests, but he was King. And gosh darn it he wanted to be Special. So the architects quickly drew up a wing just for him, connected to the main castle by a gallery. That made the king happy (always a good thing), but now it looked lopsided, so they added a matching gallery and wing on the other side in which they put the chapel and the apartments of the royal clergy. Everybody felt that was very fitting because of course the King of France ruled by Divine Providence, and as king you need to constantly remind the lesser mortals of your superior standing. Once they had added the galleries and the wings to the design, it was quick and easy step to complete the courtyard by adding extending the wings and connecting the ends. By the way, Francis was 25 when he started this building project in 1519. What have you accomplished?

Floor plan of Chambord, from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1856))

Anyway, poor Francis only ever spent about 2 to 3 months total at Chambord over his 32 year reign. He never even saw it completed. His son did a little more work on it, but he had a very short reign. He managed to get his daughter married to the King of Spain and got a peace treaty with the powerful Austrian royalty, and so through a tournament to celebrate. During the jousting, his opponent's lance broke and a large fragment went into his eye. Moral: Don't forget to lower your visor. His son was the sickly Francis II who reigned for only a year before dying (you may have heard of his wife, Mary Queen of Scots). His brother Charles was the one who killed all the Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; he subsequently went mad with remorse and eventually died of health issues. Henry the III only ruled for 2 years before getting assassinated. Not a happy family. Then we Henry IV, who was actually a very popular king who cared about the welfare of his people. Chambord was at this point starting to fall into disrepair. Next up was Louis XIII who you may remember from The Three Musketeers. He was actually a pretty good king, and it was he who gave Chambord to his cousin Gaston d'Orleans who did a lot of restoration work, but who probably never actually lived there because he spent a lot of time in exile for conspiring to assassinate Cardinal Richelieu.

So then Chambord was back in the royal family, and Louis XIII's son Louis XIV came along. Louis XIV is the Sun King, the one who built Versailles, and it's easy to see that the guy who built Versailles would love Chambord. He may have spent some summers there as a kid, and as king he restored the main keep and furnished the apartments. However, he was not about to go live in some wing off to the side. He was the King, the most important person on earth, and he should be in the center of the building to reflect that he was the center of the world. However, like Francis I, he wasn't about to live in some cute little corner apartment. So he added a wall connecting two apartments on the back of the building and had the rooms decked out to match his own radiance. However, after Versailles was built, he basically abandoned Chambord.

Louis XIV

Why did everybody keep abandoning it? Simple. It's a logistical nightmare. First, it's in the middle of a swamp. It's not a pleasant place to be, and there's no town or village nearby to supply food, so you have to bring it with you or hunt it down. Plus, the size of the rooms and the windows make it impossible to heat. Despite the absurd number of fireplaces, it's just freezing inside. So it quickly became the white elephant of the family. Beautiful, but expensive. Louis XIV's son Louis XV (ok, so the French aren't very creative with their names) gave it to his father-in-law the King of Poland, hoping to get rid of him. It worked. Stanislas I lived at Chambord for about 8 years before going back to Poland. About fifteen years later, Louis XV needed gave Chambord to Maurice de Saxe, a German who worked his way up through the French military to become a Marshal of France and won several notable battles (well, notable at the time), for his lifetime. So Maurice came to Chambord and basically played king of the castle, living like Louis the XIV, for a couple years before dying of an illness. {No one really knows what exactly; all we know is he had a fever}. Frankly it sounds like fun.

After that, the poor castle was pretty much left alone. At one point, some crazy people bought it for the final living heir of the Bourbon line of French kings, Henri Dieudonne who called himself the Comte de Chambord, Count of Chambord. They bought him a bunch of toy cannons and a crown and stuff. Completely ridiculous. He spent his entire life in exile and died childless. The castle eventually made its way into government ownership, and it is constantly under renovation. I think they said next on the list is the main central staircase.

The crown never worn by Henri, Comte de Chambord

Fun fact: During WWII, most of the art from the Louvre was secretly moved to Chambord to protect them, because they knew the Germans wouldn't bother bombing an abandoned castle in a swamp.

Fun fact number 2: The Chateau de Chambord inspired the Beast's castle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. You can read the whole interview here. Very interesting. I always wondered where they got it, and a part of me is really happy that they were inspired by a French castle for the animation of a French fairy tale. Oh, yes, Beauty and the Beast is French. Now there are fairy tales like Cinderella that basically have versions all over the world and go back before any real reckoning. There are also fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast that have identifiable authors and while perhaps based on standard mythology, are uniquely their own story. The earliest version of La Belle et la Bete is by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1740) but the most famous is by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1757). Now you know.

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