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.
Chambord: a bit of history
During the reign of François I (Francis I)
The Counts of Blois used to have a little castle on this site, in the heart of the forest of Boulogne, reputed to be a good place for hunting. Young King François I, at age 25, decided to dismantle the castle in order to build a unique and spectacular monument. The two favourite pastimes of the King – hunting and architecture – were combined perfectly in Chambord. 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, such as the double helical staircases and the geometric shapes of the chimneys.
In 1527, the King seriously considered diverting the Loire River to bring it to the foot of the chateau. However, confronted with the immense task, it was decided that the river of Cosson would suffice instead.
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, as it was built primarily for short hunting visits. The chateau of Chambord was built in the middle of the forest of Boulogne, with no villages close by to deliver food for the King and his Court. There were up to 2,000 people to feed, and game was an immediate source of food. The chateau was not permanently furnished and 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, open windows and high ceilings, making heating an impossible task.
When King François I died, the chateau of Chambord was inhabited for almost a century afterward however its construction was not finished.
François I (Francis I) (1494-1547)
François I is considered to be France’s first Renaissance monarch as he was instrumental in making France a cultural power in Europe. François I’s greatest rivals were English King Henry VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V from the House of Habsburg. 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, as it was surrounded by Habsburg territory. Much of François I’s reign was devoted to fighting against Charles V (particularly during the Italian Wars [1494-1559]) and to impressing him. One of François I’s pride and joys was Chambord, at which he hosted his rival Charles V. Amazed by the castle, the great emperor said to his host, “Chambord is the epitome of human ingenuity”.
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 by elevating the west wing and the chapel’s tower.
On 15 January 1552, the Treaty of Chambord was signed between catholic King Henri II and three Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The French king committed to support 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 capital.
When Henri II died in 1559, the chateau of Chambord was still not completed and would sporadically continue to undergo work until the reign of Louis XIV.
Chambord during Louis XIV’s reign
The Sun King, Louis XIV, enjoyed the prestigious chateau and its estate, staying there a total of nine times between 1660 and 1685. He 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, the lower rectangular enclosure was raised by one floor. Large stables were built to house 1,200 horses, enabling the King and his court to use Chambord as a hunting lodge, a place of entertainment in the middle of a forest rich in game.
Molière and his troupe of actors held the first presentation of the five-act comédie-ballet “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” on the 14 October 1670, whose music was composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully.
However, Chambord was neglected by Louis XIV after 1685.
Under Louis XV: Chambord welcomed Stanislas Leszczyński
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, before moving to Lorraine in 1737, as the new Duke of Lorraine and of Bar.
In 1745, Chambord was offered to Maurice of Saxony, Marshal of France as a reward from the King for his victory at Fontenoy. For five years, Maurice of Saxony lived sumptuously at Chambord and 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 but, as the Marshal was protestant, he could not be buried in Paris. His body was sent to Strasbourg to be buried in the choir of the Saint-Thomas Protestant church.
Chambord at the Revolution and during the 19th century
During the Revolution, Chambord served as a warehouse, a powder manufacturing workshop, a prison and the barracks for the army. The furnishings were sold by order of the Revolutionary government in 1792, and the interiors were seriously damaged.
After the Victory of Wagram in 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte gave Chambord to Marshal Berthier as a reward for his military victories he had won for France. Marshal Berthier, Prince of Wagram, only spent two days at 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 both into exile. Meanwhile, in 1840, the chateau was listed as a “Monument historique” by the French government.
The Count of Chambord would eventually come back to Chambord in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian war when he tried, without success, to restore the Monarchy. Promised to be France’s new king Henry V if he won the 1871 elections, his motto, “Henry V will not abandon the royal flag of Henry IV” had a disastrous effect in the public opinion and the Royalists lost the elections. The Third Republic (1871-1940) was born and never again would France live under a constitutional monarchy.
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 art collections of the Louvre museum in Paris were kept safe at the chateau of Chambord.
Restoration work at Chambord resumed in 1947 with the goal of restoring Chambord to its initial splendour.
Chambord: the features of the château
The chateau of Chambord was built in the Renaissance style, from a feudal plan measuring 156m x 117m: a central tower (the “donjon”) with four other towers at the corners, the whole structure enclosed by a surrounding wall. However, the designs of towers, walls and moats were purely decorative, as the chateau was not built to serve a defensive goal.
The design of the chateau’s central section was inspired by Tuscan villas from the Renaissance era, 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 has 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 77 staircases.
The roof terrace of Chambord
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 of Chambord
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 which 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, and 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 which 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 Chambord
On each floor, the apartments were designed to converge towards the great double spiral stairway.
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.
As for the royal apartments of Louis XIV, they are lavishly furnished with fabulous ancient French and Flemish tapestries which adorn their walls. In the Sun Room are frames depicting hunting scenes, which used to decorate 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 is decorated with paintings and statues of children depicting King Henry IV and the Duke of Bordeaux (the last Count of Chambord).
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 is comprised of 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 forest has been listed as a National Hunting and Wild Game Reserve since 1947 and 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 and 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 and Nicolas Sarkozy recently abolished the tradition.
Chambord has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site since 1981 and was later included into 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 Chambord
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 of Chambord
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 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 runs to Blois, from where you can take a coach to Chambord, 14 km away.
Chambord Official Website: http://www.chambord.org