Prestigious, majestic, colossal, extravagant… are these adjectives enough to fully describe the splendour of Chambord? The largest chateau of the Loire Valley is indeed full of surprises for those who are lucky enough to explore its domain. This remarkable piece of architecture is certainly more than just a castle: it is the dream of a King, transformed into reality.
Visit Chambord + Chenonceau on a roundtrip from Paris
Before we start describing the fabulous château of Chambord, here is some info that you might find useful if you’re planning to visit Chambord and the Loire during your stay in Paris!
You can buy a trip to the Loire Valley that will take you on a one-day journey. You’ll explore two French Renaissance castles (Chambord and Chenonceau) and get a taste of real French aristocracy from the 16th and 17th centuries.
You can also opt for a wine tasting experience in Château de Chambord and experience the unique, fruity tastes of the Loire Valley.
The round trip from Paris includes entrance tickets to the Châteaux of Chenonceau and Chambord (or Château d’Amboise depending on the season and day).
Chambord: a bit of history
During the reign of François I (Francis I)
The Counts of Blois used to have a little castle in the heart of the forest of Boulogne. Indeed, this wood was a good place for hunting.
Young King François I, at age 25, decided to dismantle the castle. He wished to build a unique and spectacular monument.
In addition, the king had two favourite pastimes: hunting and architecture. The new castle would combine them perfectly.
Work at Chambord started in 1519, just a few months after the death of Leonardo da Vinci at Amboise. Many features of the chateau were inspired by the great artist. For instance, look at the double helical staircases and the geometric shapes of the chimneys.
In 1527, François I seriously considered diverting the Loire River to bring it to the foot of the chateau! That task would have been immense. Therefore, the architects limited the task by using instead the little Cosson river.
François I only spend 72 days in his château!
Despite having completed most of the edifice, François I was said to have stayed at the chateau for only 72 days in total.
In fact, during the King’s reign, the chateau was rarely inhabited.
Remember the king’s passions… the château served as a residence for short hunting sessions. The chateau of Chambord stood right in the middle of the forest. They were no villages close by to deliver food for the King and his Court. A total of up to 2,000 people to feed!
Consequently, game was an immediate source of food.
This partly explains why the chateau was not permanently furnished. Thus furniture was brought only on the occasions of the King’s hunting trips in the domain of Chambord.
Another drawback was due to the chateau’s enormous rooms. With their open windows and high ceilings, they made heating a rather impossible task.
Following King François I’s death in 1547, the chateau of Chambord was inhabited for almost a century. Therefore, its construction was halted… and the château you admire today is incomplete.
A few words about King François I (1494-1547)
François I (Francis I in English) is considered to be France’s first Renaissance monarch. He was instrumental in making France a cultural power in Europe.
François I’s greatest rivals were:
- Henry VIII, King of England and
- Charles V from the House of Habsburg and the Holy Roman Emperor.
The latter had developed an “empire on which the sun never sets”, across Europe, the Far East, and the Americas.
This political climate was particularly worrying for France. The territories under the Habsburg’s rule surrounded the French possession.
How to impress your enemy!
Therefore, much of François I’s reign was devoted to fighting against Charles V (particularly during the Italian Wars [1494-1559]). And to impress him. That’s when Chambord came into play.
One of François I’s pride and joys was his new Renaissance château. The French king even hosted Charles V in Chambord. Amazed by the grand monument, the great emperor said to his host, “Chambord is the epitome of human ingenuity”.
As a gentleman (!) François I liked to show off by inviting his guests to Chambord, saying: “come to my place”.
During Henri II’s reign: the Treaty of Chambord
Upon the death of François I in 1547, the chateau was still not yet completed. François’ son, King Henri II, continued the work. The castle owes him the elevation of the west wing and the chapel’s tower.
On 15 January 1552, catholic King Henri II and three Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire signed the historic Treaty of Chambord. Here were the terms of the alliance:
- The French king committed to supporting the Princes’ fight against the Catholic Emperor Charles V of Habsburg.
- In return, the crown of France was given the Three Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun in Lorraine. The three cities remained surrounded by the independent Duchy of Lorraine, with Nancy as the capital.
When Henri II died in 1559, the chateau of Chambord was still not completed. The monument would sporadically continue to undergo work until the reign of Louis XIV.
The castle during Louis XIV’s reign
Louis XIV enjoyed the prestigious chateau and its estate. He stayed there a total of nine times between 1660 and 1685.
The Sun King commissioned important restoration work to complete the Chapel wing and transformed part of the first floor of the tower into a royal suite.
In order to accommodate the numerous people of the royal court, he had the lower rectangular enclosure raised by one floor. Large stables were built to house 1,200 horses. This enabled the King and his court to use Chambord as a hunting lodge. Hence the château became a place of entertainment in the middle of a forest rich in game.
Molière and Lully
Molière and his troupe of actors held the first presentation of the five-act comédie-ballet “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” on the 14th of October 1670. French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully created its music.
However, Louis XIV neglected Chambord after 1685.
Under Louis XV: the château welcomed Stanislas Leszczyński
In 1725 King Louis XV placed Chambord at the disposal of his father-in-law, Stanislas Leszczyński. The deposed King of Poland lived in the chateau from 1725 to 1733. In 1737 Stanislas moved to Lorraine, to become the new Duke of Lorraine and of Bar.
Maurice of Saxony… from Chambord to Strasbourg
In 1745, Maurice of Saxony, Marshal of France received the estate from the King as a reward for his victory at Fontenoy. For five years, Maurice of Saxony lived sumptuously at Chambord. The officer was known for his violent and selfish behaviour.
Before he died, the Marshal had organised that the six cannons in the chateau’s courtyard would fire every 15 minutes for 16 consecutive days. A second funeral was held in Paris. However, as a protestant, the marshal could not be buried in Paris. Authorities sent his body to Strasbourg. This is where you can see his resting place today, in the choir of the Saint-Thomas Protestant church.
The château at the Revolution and during the 19th century
During the Revolution, Chambord served as a warehouse, a powder manufacturing workshop, a prison and barracks for the army. The Revolutionary government sold the furnishings in 1792. Unsurprisingly, the interiors were seriously damaged.
After the Victory of Wagram in 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte gave Chambord to Marshal Berthier as a reward for the military victories he had won for France. Marshal Berthier, Prince of Wagram, only spent two days at Chambord.
The Count of Chambord
Later on, his widow organised the sale of the Chambord estate to the heir of the Crown, the Duke of Bordeaux, Henri Charles Dieudonné (1820–1883). Dieudonné, the new Count of Chambord, was only one year old when he came into possession of the chateau. In 1830, the Count of Chambord and his grandfather, King Charles X, went into exile. Meanwhile, in 1840, the French government listed the chateau as a “Monument historique”.
The Count of Chambord would eventually come back to Chambord in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian war. On this occasion he tried, without success, to restore the Monarchy. He was promised to be France’s new king Henry V if he won the 1871 elections. But his motto – “Henry V will not abandon the royal flag of Henry IV” – had a disastrous effect on public opinion. Therefore the Royalists lost the elections. The Third Republic (1871-1940) came into existence. Never again would France live under a constitutional monarchy.
During the 20th century and today
In 1932, the French State bought the chateau back from the heir of the Count of Chambord for 11 million francs.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the château of Chambord kept safe the art collections of the Louvre museum.
Restoration work at Chambord resumed in 1947. The goal was to restore Chambord to its initial splendour.
In 2017 the French president inaugurated the reconstituted formal gardens initially planted in the 18th century.
In 2019 the château is celebrating its 500th anniversary with style!
The features of a grand château
The chateau of Chambord was built in the Renaissance style. It follows a feudal plan measuring 156m x 117m:
- a central tower (the “donjon”)
- with four other towers at the corners,
- the whole structure is enclosed by a surrounding wall.
However, the designs of towers, walls and moats were purely decorative. Indeed, the chateau didn’t serve any defensive goal.
Tuscan villas from the Renaissance era inspired the design of the château’s central section, with “four rectangular vaulted halls on each floor forming a cross-shape, meeting in the centre with the spectacular double-helix open-work staircase, where people can ascend and descend simultaneously without meeting” (Sir Banister Fletcher in “A History of Architecture”).
The chateau includes 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 77 staircases.
The roof terrace and the view
The roof of the chateau of Chambord is an extravagant work of Italianate masonry. This forest of stone consists of:
- 11 kinds of towers,
- three types of chimneys and
- a multitude of lanterns, gables, dormer windows, columns, spires and pinnacles, all richly decorated.
It is said that François I wanted the roof of Chambord to look like the skyline of Constantinople.
The roof terrace (accessible to visitors) was the best spot to observe the hunt, the military parades, and the parties. An “in-depth tour” of the chateau will unveil the most secret nooks and crannies to you. Very relevant for a period when intrigues and romantic exchanges were fashionable amongst the courts of the Kings and Queens of France.
The double spiral staircase
One of the most remarkable features of Chambord is the double spiral staircase. It is believed that Leonardo da Vinci might have designed this unusual stairway. It consists of two parallel stairways wrapped around one another, where two people can walk up and down without ever meeting.
The double-helix staircase leads to each of the three floors of the chateau.
Notice the casing which is in the likeness of that of Blois, which was commissioned by French King François I. Here and there you can observe cherubs, lizards, a wingless Pegasus, the letter “F” and the salamander, the symbols of François I.
Mademoiselle de Montpensier, in her Mémoires (1659), wrote about the great spiral staircase in these terms:
“One of the oddest and most remarkable things about the house is the steps, made in such a way that one person can go up and another come down without the two meeting each other, although they can see each other. Whereupon Monsieur [her father] immediately took pleasure in playing games with me. He was at the top of the staircase when I arrived. He came down as I went up, and laughed hugely to see me running in expectation of catching him. I was very glad at the pleasure he took, and ever more so when I caught up with him”.
The top of the central section is surmounted by a 32-metre lantern. It crowns the grand stairway, well above the terraces. A single-helix staircase ascends to the top of the lantern, which is topped by a narrow turret and a stone fleur-de-lis.
The apartments of the castle
On each floor, the apartments were designed to converge towards the great double spiral stairway.
The royal apartments of François I
The private apartments of King François I (“le logis” – the living quarters) are located in the east wing, parallel to the chapel, located in the west wing.
The royal apartments of Louis XIV
The royal apartments of Louis XIV are lavishly furnished. Fabulous French and Flemish tapestries adorn their walls. In the Sun Room are frames depicting hunting scenes. They once decorated the Tuileries Palace before it burnt down in 1871. They were commissioned by the Prince Ferdinand-Philippe of Orleans to Louis-Godefroy Jodin.
The decoration of the royal chamber dates back to Stanislas Leszczyński, King Louis XV’s father-in-law. The souvenir room of the Count of Chambord has paintings and statues of children depicting King Henry IV and the Duke of Bordeaux (the last Count of Chambord).
The Hunting Museum
Exhibitions are hosted in several unfurnished rooms of the chateau, as well as the Hunting Museum (Musée de la Chasse et de l’Art animalier) on the second floor.
Coffered vaulted ceilings, inspired by Italian art and architecture, were used for the first time in the Kingdom of France at Chambord.
The Chambord estate
The National Estate of Chambord comprises a dense forest enclosed by a 32km long wall (the size of inner Paris). It is the largest enclosed forest park in Europe, measuring over 5,500 hectares. The wall was built between 1542 and 1642 in order to keep the game within the limits of the enclosed forest for the benefit of the royal hunts. There are six entrances to the estate of Chambord. Five of them are used for car traffic.
The estate’s forest
The forest has been listed as a National Hunting and Wild Game Reserve since 1947. It is representative of the Sologne flora and fauna. The Estate’s flora is mostly made up of pine and oak, but also includes chestnut, birch, elm and willow. The Chambord Estate is home to over 650 spontaneous species of plant life, including 150 exceptional varieties.
A wide variety of animals live on the estate:
- 700 stags,
- 600 wild boars,
- 100 red deer, and …
- 40 Corsican sheep!
The best way to discover the forest is to stroll along one of the four sign-posted paths which cross the western part of the estate. There are three observation towers from which visitors can observe the animals searching for food after sunrise and before sunset.
The park is still a hunting reserve today. It could be used by the President of the French Republic to go hunting with his guests. However, since François Mitterrand, no President has used the estate for hunting. Recently Nicolas Sarkozy abolished the tradition.
Chambord has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site since 1981. It was later included in the Loire Valley site in 2000, stretching from Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes.
The best time to visit Chambord is outside the months of July and August, during which time the huge crowds of visitors could make the visit a little disappointing. Also, try to avoid weekends and attempt to arrive early.
The events and festivals program is a busy one, particularly in summer.
The sound and light show at the castle
Since 1952, Chambord has been host to one of France’s best sound and light shows. The show, which takes place every summer, is projected upon the chateau’s north façade.
In 2010, the show was called “Chambord, Rêve de Lumières” and retraced the life of François I and his travelling court at Chambord, in a gorgeous, 50-minute display of colour.
The “In-depth tour” of the château
The “In-depth tour” of the chateau of Chambord takes you all around the chateau to places which the general visitors do not have access to. (Source: www.chambord.org)
Boat rides on the Grand Canal
Visitors at Chambord can discover the Estate by sailing in a small electric boat around the moat of the chateau, beside the beautiful lawns.
If you prefer to remain on solid ground, you can also rent bikes which will allow you to discover the great estate of Chambord in an equally agreeable way.
How to get to Chambord
Chambord is 180 km away from Paris and is easily accessible by car by the A10 motorway.
If you are travelling from outside Europe (America, Australia…), fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle, and rent a car from there or connect with a train at Gare d’Austerlitz.
Trains from Paris-Gare d’Austerlitz run to Blois, from where you can take a coach to Chambord, 14 km away.
More info about Chambord
- Book your round trip from Paris to Chambord & Chenonceau
- Visit the official website of the castle of Chambord
- The page on the chateau on Wikipedia
- We love that beautiful coffee table available on Amazon (affiliate link): Chambord: Five Centuries of Mystery by Jean-Michel Turpin
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Featured image: Chambord Castle © Arnaud_Scherer – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons