During our recent trip to the Loire Valley in France, we toured Château de Chenonceau, spending the afternoon and early evening hours here. In this post, we’ll provide a photo tour of this chateau, background information, our review of this destination, and tips for best experiencing Château de Chenonceau based upon our visit.
Let’s start by getting some basic background information out of the way. Château de Chenonceau is one of the smaller castles in the Loire Valley. This can be both a blessing a curse. The upside is that Chenonceau has a charming, intimate atmosphere inside that is not evident in other destinations (such as Château de Chambord). The downside is that we suspect during busier seasons, the interior takes on a claustrophobic feeling. (It’s one of the most-visited chateau in France.)
Admission to Chenonceau is €11 for adults and €8.50 for children and students. This includes a free brochure, or you can do an audio guide for €4 (we didn’t, and I don’t feel we missed anything). All tours are self-guided. If you only want to see the exterior, you can do so for free: an unpaved public foot and cycling path runs along the south side of the Cher River, which offers stunning views of the bridge of Château de Chenonceau that crosses the river. We don’t recommend this, as we think the interior and–more importantly, gardens–of Chenonceau are not to be missed.
As with any popular destination in France, Château de Chenonceau has a rich history. That should come as little shock. In the 13th century, the fief of Chenonceau belonged to the Marques family. In 1412, the chateau was torched to punish owner Jean Marques for an act of sedition. He rebuilt a château and fortified mill on the site in the 1430s. The Marques family was debt-ridden and sold the chateau to Thomas Bohier.
Bohier elected to rebuild. Construction on the current château began in 1514 and was completed in 1522. Chenonceau was later expanded, with a bridge being built over the Cher River (1556-1559) based upon designs by the French Renaissance architect Philibert de l’Orme. Thereafter, the gallery on the bridge was added (1570–1576) based upon designs by Jean Bullant.
However, instead of regurgitating general information that’s readily available, such as delving into the above-mentioned construction and architecture, I wanted to focus on something different, and less commonly known. At some point, I heard Chenonceau described as “The Ladies’ Château.” While researching this post, I didn’t see much written about this, so I dug a little deeper.
It turns out that, in addition to being known as “The Ladies’ Château,” it’s also known as the “Château de Femmes” or “The Castle of Six Ladies.” It turns out that, during the course of the centuries, six women have proven indispensable in the construction and maintenance of Chenonceau. Without these formidable women, Château de Chenonceau would not occupy the same stature in French history.
The first of these ladies was Katherine Briçonnet, wife of Thomas Bohier. With her husband away for long periods, Katherine supervised most of the construction of the new chateau (1514-1522). Much of the building’s Renaissance style are attributed directly to here, and it’s said that the ornate double doors, Italian-style coffered-oak ceiling, and tower out front are all due to her influence.
After Thomas died, the château was seized from Bohier’s son by King Francis I of France for unpaid debts. After Francis’ death in 1547, Henry II took control of Château de Chenonceau. Henry II had two important women in his life both of whom would become significant to chateau’s history: his wife, Catherine de Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
He offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who became attached to the château along the river. She applied her talents for business management to develop a thriving farm at the chateau. She used the farm’s proceeds and the estate’s rents to renovate and enlarge Chenonceau. This led to the construct of the bridge across Cher River and enhanced gardens.
King Henry II died in a jousting accident (1559), at which point his scorned widow, Catherine de’ Medici was able to evict Diane from the property and take control of Château de Chenonceau. On the opposite side of the chateau from Diane’s garden, Catherine built her own, complete with lemon and orange trees. She also built two galleries on top of Diane’s bridge, a project originally planned by Diane.
The Queen also expanded the property’s vineyard, importing silkworms, and launching silk production that produced a fine fabric known as “Queen’s Cloth.” For some 30 years, she entertained from Château de Chenonceau, and ruled France as regent from the Thomas Bonier’s Green Study.
Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife of King Henry III was the next of Château de Chenonceau’s ladies, taking control in 1589. Her influence is…uh…let’s go with “interesting and apparent.” She transformed Chenonceau into something of a somber scene after learning of her husband’s assassination, as she painted her bedchamber black and making other stylistic choices at odds with the chateau’s design.
The next important woman in Chenonceau’s history was Louise Dupin. She hosted the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers, including the writers Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Fontenelle, the naturalist Buffon, the playwright Marivaux, the philosopher Condillac, as well as the Marquise de Tencin and the Marquise du Deffand. More importantly, Mme. Dupin saved Château de Chenonceau during the French Revolution by reminding the revolutionary mob of the castle’s hospitality to those Enlightenment heroes.
In 1864, Madame Pelouze became the sixth and final woman of Château de Femmes. She began restoration work on Château de Chenonceau that would last ten years. She entrusted the architect Félix Rouget with the task of overhauling the interior, and many of the alterations carried out by Catherine dé Medici were destroyed in the process.
While there are certainly men who played important roles at Château de Chenonceau throughout its history, these six women had arguably the biggest influence, which is certainly noteworthy. This is also not to say women didn’t have influence at other chateaux, they undoubtedly did; again, it’s that the significant history of Château de Chenonceau is female-driven that makes it fascinating.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the story of our visit to Château de Chenonceau, and some tips for visiting. This was one of three chateaux we visited in the Loire Valley, and our decision for stopping here was motivated by its later operating hours (relative to other chateaux) and because it looked like a good option for sunset photos.
We arrived around an hour before Château de Chenonceau closed (by which time almost every other chateaux in Loire Valley that interested us had already closed, meaning you can effectively extend your day in the Loire Valley by visiting Chenonceau), which might seem like an insufficient amount time to experience it fully.
As we quickly discovered, this was (mostly) incorrect. By arriving so close to closing, we had the gardens and interior almost entirely to ourselves. You’ll notice virtually no one in the interior shots in this post. That’s not any Photoshop trickery nor is it good timing: there were maybe 5 other parties at Château de Chenonceau during the entire time we were there.
And, while an hour definitely is not enough time to fully tour the inside and outside, it is enough time to tour the inside. As noted above, Château de Chenonceau is smaller than most chateaux in the Loire Valley, and an hour is amount of perfect time inside.
Ostensibly, this still creates a dilemma: tour the inside, tour the gardens, or split time and do some of each. The reality of our visit was that, while the interior closes (shortly after) official closing time, staff makes no effort to clear the grounds right away. We, along with a couple other families, lingered about the gardens after the official closing time for nearly an hour, leaving of our own volition when we were done.
I’m not sure how much longer we could’ve stayed without anyone saying anything (the grounds are gated, so at some point, someone would’ve asked us to leave), nor am I sure whether this is a foolproof strategy that will work for those of you reading this and planning, but I think it’s worth a shot. With a surplus of beautiful chateaux in the Loire Valley, it’s impossible to have enough time to see them all. Might as well try to “make more time” by trying a strategy like this.
The other upside to timing your visit during the late afternoon hours is sunset photos. As mentioned, this was another motivation for us visiting Château de Chenonceau later in the day, a decision that was also vindicated. On the way to Château de Chenonceau, we saw some hot air balloons firing up alongside the road. At that time, we knew balloon rides over the Loire Valley were possible, but didn’t realize just how much of a “thing” hot air balloon flights are in France. Suffice to say, if you want to fly over anything in France in a hot air balloon, there’s probably a tour that does it!
Those hot air balloons we saw were preparing for flights over Château de Chenonceau. While in the gardens taking photos, we witnessed these hot air balloons slowly rising from behind Château de Chenonceau. Words don’t do justice to how incredible this was to behold, but it was pure magic.
There’s a scene in a film I love, Impressions de France, from Epcot at Walt Disney World, with hot air balloons rising above the Loire Valley. During this scene, the narrator recites the following passage from The Voyage: “Dreaming of faraway places yet unseen, we say in the words of our great poet Baudelaire…’leave for the sake of leaving and without knowing why, they always say we must go.'”
I have always liked this quote for its spirit of wanderlust. Baudelaire’s words deeply resonate with me, as do his actions in graduating with a law degree, but choosing instead to travel extensively and write about his adventures as a vagabond.
Standing there witnessing this fantastical, real-life “scene” from Impressions de France while I heard that quote in my mind was a surreal moment that felt like things coming full-circle.
Above is a video Sarah captured of this moment. The photos and video of the scene are pretty, but I don’t think they can conceivably do justice to how it felt seeing this in person. For me, this was pure magic.
Impressions de France is not the only Walt Disney World connection to Château de Chenonceau…
Disney Legend Herb Ryman painted the first concept art for Cinderella Castle, as well as the first dimensional models, in the late 1960s–after Walt Disney’s death. As he had done with Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, Ryman’s concept work created the foundation upon which other Imagineers would build Magic Kingdom, and this included Cinderella Castle.
It’s unclear when Ryman visited Château de Chenonceau, if he did at all. Unlike Sleeping Beauty Castle, which has overt parallels to Neuschwanstein Castle, Cinderella Castle is a more eclectic style, and Ryman and other designers of Magic Kingdom’s castle reportedly drew the most inspiration from numerous castles throughout Europe. (The internet claims that there were 7-8 sources of inspiration, but none of these claims are corroborated; I think it’s safe to assume several castles inspired Cinderella Castle, and myriad others share design parallels.)
From this perspective, I think you can see the influence Château de Chenonceau had on Cinderella Castle. The tower is reminiscent of Cinderella Castle’s turrets, and the well looks quite similar to the Wishing Well on the side of Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World.
There is also a structural resemblance to the facade of the castle (viewed head on), that gives me the impression that Ryman drew heavily on the lower portion of Château de Chenonceau for the lower portion of Cinderella Castle. Other similarities can be spotted in the windows and artifice, but it’s difficult to say whether this is direct inspiration, or just commonalities shared by many chateaux in France.
In terms of ultimate takeaways, the main one would be: wow, what a region! It’s like French royalty got in a pissing match with one another to see who could have the grandest, most antler-ific castle, with France’s tourists being the real winners in their game of chateau one-upmanship.
If you’re into photography, I’d highly recommend our strategy of doing Château de Chenonceau near closing time. Based upon my research available options in terms of time, the relative photogenic-ness of each chateau, and available angles, Château de Chenonceau is the best option in the Loire Valley.
The sheer beauty and diversity of the Loire Valley, and France, in particular. The chateaux we visited were all different, and there was a ton of beauty in this area outside of what we saw. It was astonishing, really. Even after past visits to Paris, I still had thought California was the most beautiful country on earth. 😉 This trip has me thinking France gives California a good run for its money, especially given that we didn’t make it to Cannes, the French Alps, and numerous other places.
Just looking over a list of Loire Valley highlights is pretty astounding. For all the beautiful sights we have, the United States doesn’t have the number of significant historical residences in the entire country that France has in one small region. As such, it bears mentioning that Loire Valley is not day trip material. You should stay here overnight, and perhaps for 2-3 days. Although it’s really difficult for me to make a value judgment as to everything Loire Valley has to offer since we spent so little time here, I’m fairly confident in recommending Château de Chenonceau as a must-visit point of interest no matter how much time you have. It was absolutely incredible both inside and out, and this was one of the (top 5) highlights of our entire trip to Europe. If you’ve visited the Loire Valley, we’d love to hear some other recommendations. Even if you haven’t, please feel free to share any other thoughts or questions you have, in the comments!