I admit it. I got sidetracked again. This is my nature, to start off in one direction, take a detour, and yet another. I had barely scratched the surface with blogging about our fabulous adventure in France, and off I go, getting all excited about concerts and holidays. I have returned to pick up our soiree into the Loire Valley. It is fair to say that I have just touched on that lovely time and am now ready to continue the journey on the hunt for those special moments.
Let’s begin with a slight side conversation about the “AHA” or those special moments, the ones that sneak up on you without warning. When we travel we study, plan, and dream a lot. This process includes a set of expectations. We know we will be treated to fantastic sights, and have great moments; so, when I have that “AHA” moment, it is not anticipated, as it is outside the bounds of the blueprint. These are the moments I love sharing, because they catch me off guard and become those memorable surprises. These are the “Aha” moments that send me off on my own personal “flytes of fancy”.
My first “AHA” moment in the Loire came when we visited Chambord. It was the first of the grand residences I was exposed to. I was charmed right away, before I even stepped inside. Chambord is not a castle like Carcassonne, and not a palace like Versailles; it is not like the others. There is an atmosphere about the place that set the mood and tone of my time there. It was a cool wet day; and the mood was heavy and brooding. I was reminded of a little side trip many years ago to the Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia, another flyte of fancy in another time. I promise to revisit and share that experience someday as it is quite worthy of the “AHA” label.
In my attempt to explain why I was so captivated by Chambord, I must borrow from Henry James’ tome, A Little Tour in France. As I read chapter 5, appropriately if not imaginatively called Chambord, I was taken by the duality of his small detour away from the more traditional and beloved chateaux nearby. One does sense right away that Chambord is a bit of a departure from the norm, as if there is a norm for a grand chateau in the Loire Valley. I love the way James uses the language of the time and age to convey the sparse landscape as he crosses the Loire River, leaving the grander cultivated lands and even grander chateaux behind. It really does remind one of a expedition into a time and place that is both minimalistic and lush at the same time. It is atmospheric.
James labors with the bleakness of the landscape and the paucity of grandeur as he travels by carriage through the long entrance to the chateau. The day of his excursion was also damp and cool. The dreariness of it all does not prepare one for the chaotic richness of the roof line as viewed from a distance.
CHÂTEAU de CHAMBORD-LOIR-et-CHER
This is it….the largest of the chateaux in the Loire Valley. It was built as a hunting lodge for Francis I who only occupied the place a total of 78 days. This lovely and unique property was never used as a permanent residence by any of its owners. The location was not as inviting as some of the other chateaux in the area, as it was known to be a damp marshy kind of place where disease lingered, not unlike the early days of our nation’s Republic, when the area around Washington DC and the Potomac was considered to be quite unhospitable. The waters in both these lovely areas was thought to contain the most disgusting vermin and the bearer of terrible sickness. It is probably true that life on these lovely rivers used to be quite unsafe.
Even though it is beautiful now, it was not even tour worthy until less than 20 years ago when it was rescued and spruced up. During the French Revolution it was sacked and stripped of many valuables. Some of the floors were actually torn up and burned to keep the rooms warm during the auction held by the revolutionary guard. After all this and its rich historical beginnings, Chambord was abandoned for nearly a century before it was purchased and the structure finally completed.
The atmosphere and broodiness of the place marked my first impression, but then the architectural quirkiness took over. As I mentioned before the roof line is like the skyline of a village. When describing it, James specifically notes that “the towers, the cupolas, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building.” The whole scene is somewhat Oriental in tone, and one cannot help but wonder what the maintenance might cost in terms of currency and labor. It is no wonder that the place languished, unkept for the better part of a century.
Another structural phenomena is the installation of the double helix staircase in the grand hall, where people can be ascending and descending at the same time and not meet. It is thought that Leonardo di Vinci had a hand in its design. It is certainly beautiful and functional in a way that would confirm that suspicion. When I climbed the staircase and let my hand trace the marble as I made my way up, I was struck by not just the grandeur of it all as much as the whimsey. The staircase and the roof line all seem to be a bit of a conceit to me (a fancy, whim, or fanciful notion).
So, there you have it, my take on Chambord. I have not filled you in on its history, or significance, or lack there of. I have shared what it meant to me on my little tour of this small piece of the Loire Valley. As I look back on it, I am still in awe of the mood it struck with me; and I can still feel the cool damp air inside the walls, and wince at the sharp wind on my face as I wandered among the towers and such on the roof. I will keep this feeling with me when I settle into a brooding quirky book or when I next have the opportunity to visit a place that is not quite like the others.