DOUBLE REFLECTION AT CHENONCEAU

I am shocked as I drive into the Chenonceau estate in the Loire valley to see numerous coaches and hordes of people there, so turn around and leave. The lady in the tiny tourist office tells me that the château is visited by thousands of people all year round (I read later an estimated 850,000+ which can sometimes mean around 6,000 a day in the summer months!) – but that it is open until 8pm. I explore the petite hamlet and return in the quiet, late afternoon.

Chateau frontage

The sun is still burning and the château stands out pure white against a Chartres-cobalt sky. It is a fairy tale castle of snow-white walls and black tiles on roofs and turrets. The château famously spans the River Cher which flows beneath its arches, creating such a pretty image.

Bridge 1

As you approach the impressive entrance with its embellished sculpted-wood door there is an ancient well and tower in the courtyard which adds to the fantasy effect.

Marques tower and well

Entrance door 2

There are only a handful of us touring the château now and I wander around the interior almost undisturbed. I am astounded that the glazed pottery floor tiles, an attractive terracotta-red, are still there, receiving all those footsteps each year.  They make for a striking effect in many rooms.  They were originally decorated with pretty fleur-de-lis, now mostly rubbed clear, but just under the leaded windows in the corners where the feet have not reached you can still see them. Five hundred years old.

Tiled floor

Each room of the château is exquisite, glorious in its wealth and splendour. They are crammed with beautiful works of art – paintings by masters including Tintoretto, Coreggio, Murillo, Rubens, and Van Dyck; renaissance fireplaces; opulent tapestries from Flanders; and elaborate, embossed ceilings to marvel at.  The château’s official website insists that the originals are on display and are “preserved with the greatest of care”.

Catherine de' Medici's room

Catherine de’ Medici’s room with Corregio’s ‘The Education of Love’ painting on wood.

The rooms are sumptuous but what also makes an impression are the incredible flower arrangements in each one and when I compliment them later the staff tell me they all come from the estate grounds.

Cesar of Vendomes Room

Each room has a different display and distinct perfume which adds something to my tour. I learn that ten gardeners grow about a hundred different varieties of cut flowers and over four hundred rose bushes for the château’s decoration.  Twice a year the flower beds are re-filled with over 30,000 seasonal plants.

The Five Queens' Bedroom

The Five Queens’ Bedroom

Lillies

The guidebooks make much of the theme that Chenonceau is “the ladies’ château” with six interesting women in its history.   Two in particular interest me.  One is King Henry II’s long-standing mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who lived here when the King made her a gift of the estate in 1559. Diane was twenty years older than the King and was renowned for her beauty, business acumen and hunting skills.   She was Henry’s mistress for twenty five years and was seen to be the most powerful woman in France during that time.   For her Henry levied taxes on his subjects to pay for the expensive renovations she wanted to the château. She then developed the original building and extended the bridge over the river to extend her hunting grounds.    Thus, taxes on ordinary people paid for the lavish bridge which would later house a 60 metre long, elegant gallery of eighteen windows which fill the passageway with sunlight.

The gallery of light

Centuries later this gallery was used as a hospital for over 2,000 First World War wounded soldiers.  During the Second World War it marked the demarcation line between occupied France on one river bank and the free zone on the other and was evidently used as an escape route. Such a lot of history for one walkway.

20140925_182518

The other woman who interests me is Henry’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici, who is said to have tolerated her husband’s mistress but who still ousted Diane from the estate when the King died, and moved in herself.   I smile at someone’s apparent joke as the room called ‘Diane de Poitier’s Bedchamber’ in fact has a portrait of Catherine de’ Medici on the wall, surveying the room and the four poster bed.

Diane's room

Diane’s room watched over by Catherine

Some of the ceiling joists are decorated with entwined initials. The official guidebook states that these are the reversed double C’s of Catherine’s insignia and H for Henry. Other sources state that these were the initials of Henry and Diane and can be seen elsewhere in France.  (Diane was supposedly so involved in affairs of state she was  permitted to work on royal documents which were then signed ‘HenriDiane’.)   The outcome is that one sees an H a C and a D. Whatever the truth, H C and D are as conjoined in the symbol as they were in life.

The entwined initials

The entwined initials

Both women designed a garden on either side of the courtyard. Intriguingly, while considered exquisitely designed by experts, the mistress’s is dull to me, with its geometric, ordered lines and shrubbery whilst the Queen’s is a more intimate and colourful rose and lavender garden blooming around a central pool.

Catherine’s two daughters and three daughters-in-law all became European queens in their own right, hence they are honoured by  a chamber called “The Five Queens’ Bedroom”.   After Henry’s untimely death in a jousting accident Catherine came into her own, and ‘ruled’ France as regent until her son was of age.

Diane de Poitiers made other interesting additions to the château. As well as the bridge she installed France’s first straight staircase, copying the Italian style. A loggia was added and when the mellow evening sunlight played through it this became one of my favourite places inside the château.

Loggia 1

Outside in the gardens I mooch slowly around breathing them in.   As I offer to take a photograph for two South Korean girls a huge hot air balloon rises up above the château behind them as if by magic. They get a stunning photo to take home. When it’s my turn I show one of the girls how to use my phone and she laughingly and charmingly says: “Yes. Samsung. MY country!”   But by now the balloon has soared away.

I walk down the river path and find a lovely spot to sit on the wall and look back at the château and its magnificent reflections which mirror the walls and arches.

Arch & reflection

Sometimes the reflections almost resemble surreal art paintings which only adds to the pleasure of my visit.

Surreal 1

There is a hot sun on my back, the château is brilliant against the blue sky, the reflections dance and shimmer on the water, and beside me large brown fish swim lazily upstream against the current, weaving through the flowering weeds. I sit and look … and sit and look, in silence, for a long time.

More reflections

It is another absolutely pure moment in time and my whole heart fills with it to bursting.   As I gaze at the reflections I have a mirrored reflection in my mind.   The churches and cathedrals I have visited have been beautiful or awe-inspiring but they have not touched me as much as this moment. It does not seem to be in most churches that I can find any sense of the divine. But it is rather when I have these perfect moments that I can catch glimpses of it.  I feel that actually it might be within myself that I could perhaps, as the song says, one day “touch the face of God”.

 – + –

Reflect close up

– + –

On the banks of the Cher

The Château of Queens

Lifts her elegant skirts

And strides across the river

Leaving stately, arched footprints behind.

She looks in her mirror

And, combing out her tresses of weeds

Lets them drift far away, downstream.

Sun on my back

I see the château shimmering in the flow

And suddenly I know

This gifted moment of perfection is mine.

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