Beautiful Chateau, shaped by powerful women
During my trip to the Loire Valley a few weeks ago, we had the great fortune to spend a day visiting Chenonceau, one of the loveliest architectural masterpieces I have ever seen. The Chateau was home to some powerful women- Diane de Poitiers, and Catherine De Medici. While the chateau itself is stunning, and the situation is majestic (it spans the river Cher) what made this Chateau so special to me was the relationship between Diane and Catherine. I had read a book by Leonie Frieda about Catherine DeMedici which gave me some insight into her life and what her marriage with Henri the Second was like. Fundamental to this relationship was Diane de Poitiers relationship with the king. Diane was his mistress. I found it fascinating that this woman, 20 years his senior, could maintain such control over him and command such fascination and amorous desire. Thinking that she must have been truly beautiful or full of charm, it was eye opening to discover that in reality, she was a cold fish who was generally disliked by everyone. (The only nice thing that was said about her was that she was a thrifty house keeper.)
At Chenonceau there are two gardens, symbolizing the two women: The Catherine garden, and the Diane garden. They are on opposing sides of the chateau and create totally opposite feelings in the visitor. the Diane garden, which is much larger, was stark and austere. The sun beat down and there were no trees only copious gravel pathways. All the plants and flowers were so constrained; it was difficult to get a sense of beauty when walking in it. Only when seen from above, inside the chateau, does the visitor get a sense of what it actually looks like. From the ground it felt large, flat and hot. (Below) Perhaps similar to the character of Diane, beautiful, remote, distant and austere. Like I think Diane would have, this garden left me feeling cold and unwelcome.
The Catherine garden, by contrast, had an entirely different effect. It was surrounded by tall trees and woodlands. the river felt closer, even though both gardens adjacent to it. I was full of wide expanses of grass and lovely little trees and plants. The lawns were inviting, there were benches in the shade, encouraging people to sit and relax. While smaller is scale and size, this garden felt like it was naturally part of the landscape. The feeling is almost maternal, as if you are being taken care of and accepted. Which, given that Catherine had 10 children, makes sense.
These two very different experiences in the gardens made me wonder if they were a reflection on the characters of the two women? It seems like it might be so.
The crowning glory of Chenonceau was the grand hall. This ground floor hall runs the expanse of the river. It began as a bridge during Diane’s time, but Catherine when she took ownership of the chateau, had it enclosed and turned into this majestic space. Catherine used this hall to hold a grand party for her son upon his succession to power. Being there, you can picture the dancing revelry which took place. (Also of note, the black ans white floors- Diane famously only ever wore black and white clothing for the majority of her life. Could this floor be an homage to her time at Chenonceau?)
One of the unexpected joys we discovered was the village area next to the chateau which housed, presumably, the workers of the estate. This is a lovely enclosed little community, full of beautiful houses, a duck pond and carriage house. The houses are surround lovely grassy common area. It felt cosy and comfortable, as opposed to the grandeur of the chateau itself. Being there, it was easy to picture what it might have been like when the estate was working- full of chickens, children and people bustling around. Today the area is immaculately kept with matching buildings crawling with Wisteria bushes.
Finally, the drive up to and away from the Chateau is worth showing. the elegant tree lined road really illustrates that this is a royal residence. There is no ambiguity of the power of the resident one is visiting. (There is even a guard cat today in residence!)
“Un Chat de garde!” I believe his/ her name is Noisette. Well worth the visit.