Chenonceau was the icing on our travel cake, the multi-arched trophy for completing a meandering two-hour bike ride through the breathtaking French countryside. No amount of reading or research prepared me for the beauty of the site, the stunning architecture, its delicate design. And at first glance, it didn’t surprise me that the château, also known as the “Château of the Ladies,” or in French “Châteaux des Dames,” for the succession of powerful French noblewomen who each made an impact on the castle. The original owner, Thomas Bohier, disappeared on the king’s business so often that his wife, Katherine Briçonnet, made most of the (stunning) design decisions, during construction of the main château. In 1547, King Henry II gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and after he died in a jousting tournament in Paris, his wife Catherine de Médicis, unceremoniously forced Diane out of the château and into another as a sort of consolation prize. Catherine, as regent of France would continue to spend a fortune on the château turning it into a spectacular party destination for the local aristocracy, and with a bang hosted the first fireworks display in France in honor of the ascension to the throne of her son Francis II. Another notable and quick thinking female resident, Louise Dupin, saved her family and the château from destruction during the French Revolution. She negotiated with the revolutionaries, convincing them that the castle was the only way to cross the river Cher, and offered that the bridge be open to everyone. If there was an 1700’s equivalent of “you go, girl,” it might have been quietly whispered among her entire staff that evening.
Visiting the Loire Valley wasn’t on our original itinerary to Paris, but I was eager to make it happen since seeing the great châteaux in their natural setting was long on my list of places to go. These days it’s easy to be both travel agent and client with all the necessary resources found right on our own computers. By shortening our time in Paris by a few days, and arranging for a rental car at De Gaulle, we could relax and drive at our own pace to the charming small town of Amboise, known for being a home base for the eastern section of the Loire Valley. I found the perfect hotel with views of the Loire River and the Château d’Amboise, the Hotel Manoir les Minimes, (thank you, Trip Advisor) making our side trip itinerary complete. I eased the worry of managing Paris traffic, and a possibly delirious jet lagged four-hour car drive by embracing the encouraging online tips from other travelers, and ignoring the advice to take the train from those absolutely terrified of the famous tangle of rush-hour on the Périphérique. It was also helpful to figure out where to find a strong cup of French java before we exited the airport terminal. All worth it for the beautiful drive from Paris to Amboise, the chance to castle hop by bike, a road break to visit the remarkable Chartres (stained glass madness!) Cathedral on the way back to Paris, and to experience – in the most beautiful way – one of the prettiest regions of France. Recommended reading: Rick Steve’s Snapshot, Loire Valley