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Approached via a long avenue of tall trees, the Château de Chenonceau is a fairy-tale castle widely regarded as one of the finest palaces in the Loire Valley.

No expense was spared in creating a home so elaborate and harmonious that it has been a source of envy, pride and astonishment ever since. The château is set over the slow-moving Cher River on a graceful arched bridge that's reflected in the languid water.

So many strong women have left their stamp of this chateau that, for me, a tour feels a little like getting to meet them. The art, tapestries and gardens are astounding, but I always make time to visit the Black Bedroom.

France specialist Leanne

The château's history

Construction began on the château in 1515 at the behest of Thomas Bohier, chamberlain to King Charles VIII. All but the keep of the previous castle on the site was demolished, and the new château was begun in elaborate style.

Bohier's wife, Katherine Briçonnet, played a large part in the plans and enjoyed hosting the French nobility there. Most of what you see today dates from the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods, with the interior furnished with original antiques, tapestries and tiled floors.

The interior

One of the most impressive rooms is the ground-floor François I room, which features priceless artworks by Tintoretto, Correggio, Rubens and Van Dyck, among others.

In contrast, the bedroom of Louise de Lorraine, widow of Henri III, features a black ceiling decorated with teardrops and the couple's intertwined initials.

The vaulted kitchens reveal much about the sheer scale and logistics of catering for the massive groups of courtiers and party-goers that regularly filled the château.

The arched bridge

The arches across the Cher that are now so symbolic of the château were added in 1555 by the mistress of King Henri II, Diane de Poitiers, supposedly so she could go hunting on the opposite bank of the river. She also added the formal gardens at this time.

When Henri II died in 1559, his vengeful wife, Catherine de Médicis, forced his mistress to exchange the château for the less elaborate Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire. Queen Catherine went on to embellish her newly acquired palace further and added the gallery above Diane's bridge in 1577.

The Grand Gallery

The château's most flamboyant parties were held in the Grand Gallery, which sits over the river, and Queen Catherine was renowned for the wild events she hosted there. By the 18th century and under the auspices of French aristocrat Madame Dupin, Chenonceau hosted the cream of European society, when Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau were among the visitors.

Later, during World War I, the gallery was used as a military hospital. During World War II, when German-occupied France lay just beyond the river, it acted as an escape route for fleeing members of the French Resistance.

An exhibition on the gallery's upper level explains the château's history and the role the women who lived here played in its design and destiny.

Speak to someone
who's been there
Audley Travel Country Specialist Samantha

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