The Loire Valley is France’s “valley of the kings”, and in my last post I took you on a tour of three of the grand châteaux that make the valley a major tourist attraction: Château de Villandry, Château d’Azay-les-Rideau and the iconic Château de Chenonceau. But the day ended with a visit to a château that towered over all the others in importance: the Château Royal d’Amboise. And it was a place that held a mind-boggling surprise.
While most of the châteaux in the Loire were the homes of nobles and lesser royalty, Château d’Amboise was the home of kings. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Loire Valley was the seat of power in France, and when the kings of the day weren’t off trying to conquer Italy or Brittany, they spent their time in this fortified stronghold in the small town of Amboise.
A succession of kings called the château their home, but the most famous was François I, who ruled from 1515 to 1547 and came to symbolize the French Renaissance. His name and his emblem, the salamander (seen at top and at right), are found in châteaux across the valley, but Amboise was the place where he grew up and later lived. And there he established a centre for the new art, science, philosophy and architecture that was sweeping Europe.
Amboise sits on a rocky outcrop right in the middle of the medieval town with the same name. And in earlier times it was a true castle, with thick defensive walls and trenches. Many of the original structures have now been demolished, but the château is still an imposing sight on its elevated perch. And what’s left is still pretty massive, as I discovered as I made the steep ascent.
Stepping out of the entrance, my sight was immediately drawn to the main building left in the complex, and happily, the most important one: the L-shaped Royal Lodge where François held court. The lodge was built in two stages: an early gothic-style wing built by Charles VIII, on the left, and a second wing on the right, built by François in the style of the Renaissance.
On the way to the lodge, however, my attention was captured by a small building on the left. I wandered over and looked inside, and discovered something that left me truly amazed: have a look at this video, and you will be too (excuse the wind noise).
François I had a keen interest in all the arts and sciences that were blooming during his reign, and he invited prominent thinkers to his court – including the foremost thinker of the time, Leonardo da Vinci. He arrived in 1516, at age 64, bringing with him a few things. One of them was a small painting we know today as the Mona Lisa. François installed him in a nearby château, now called Clos Lucé, where he spent his last years teaching, designing architecture, devising town plans and creating grand events for the king.
Leonardo wished to be buried at Château d’Amboise, and his original burial place was in a chapel on the other side of the castle complex. However, that chapel was later demolished, and his remains were moved to the St. Hubert Chapel, where they are marked by a plaque and a marble slab on the floor – a humble resting place for perhaps the greatest genius of human history. I guess the moral is: if you want to be remembered with a grand monument, better to command an army.
From the chapel, the path leads straight to the Royal Lodge, which is built on the grand scale you might expect. And as with any good castle, there’s a guard’s room, and a sentries’ walk, with a view over the town and the Loire to spot any invading armies. Fun fact for fans of The Three Musketeers: the captain of Louis XIV’s musketeers once stayed in the castle. His name was d’Artagnan.
The first major room was the Council Chamber, centred by the royal throne. François required high-ranking lords and their ladies to live near him at Amboise, and this room was the site of a regular round of audiences and festivities. The chambre is not that big, but the white stone and vaulted ceiling give it a feeling of grandeur.
There was also a look at the cupbearers’ room, where the drinks were served. At the time of François I, French dining was undergoing a renaissance, too — people were even beginning to eat with a fork.
The Renaissance wing of the Royal Lodge is mostly given over to glimpses of life through the history of the château, including the bedroom of Henri II, François’ successor. The room features his impressively large bed: there were no king-size (or even queen-size) beds in those days. As well, there are beautiful 16th- and 17-century Belgian tapestries.
The royal court moved to Paris around 1600, and Amboise was used as a waystation by French kings over the centuries, finally becoming the property of the House of Bourbon. When the monarchy was temporarily restored after the revolution, King Louis-Philippe renovated the château in the style of the époque – a little too much red for my taste.
Finally, I emerged on the rooftop of the Tour des Minime, from which you can get a beautiful view of the river below, and the château’s gardens, planted with green oak, box trees, cyprus and muscat vines.
Outside, I spotted an incongruous-looking piece of machinery, a model of the planets on their route around the sun. It seemed an odd addition to an ancient site – until I realized it was very near the spot where Leonardo was originally buried. I’m sure he would have appreciated the thought, if in fact he didn’t design the model himself.
The way out led through a spiral stone tunnel, and looking on the walls I could see graffiti left by former visitors, some of whom had been there close to 200 years before. The walls were also studded with little gargoyles which seemed to lampoon every aspect of life in the time of kings. I left amazed at what I’d found, and a little amused.
The wines of the Loire
Touring historic châteaux can be thirsty work, so I made sure to include a rest stop on my day tour of the Loire. And it happened to be a visit to a local wine négociant, for a taste of the region’s wines. The négociant was called Duhard, and if there was any doubt about its authenticity, it disappeared when we drove up the rural road and saw the rustic entrance.
If you read the label on a bottle of wine, it very often says something like, “mise en bouteille dans nos caves”: bottled in our caves, or cellars. In the Loire, the word “caves” means just that – caves, but not natural ones. In medieval times, the locals needed stone for their buildings, so they carved into the area’s natural rock shelf to get it. That created man-made caves, some of which ran for kilometres.
The local wine makers soon realized these empty caves were the ideal place to store wine, with a cool, even temperature year-round. So they moved their wines, and often their wine-making operations, underground.
Entering the caves of Duhard on a sunny summer day was a bit like stepping into a meat locker, without the bright lights. We had been warned to wear a sweater, and it came in handy. But any discomfort was soon forgotten as we investigated the equipment and racks of wine that lined the long cave chambers.
After a short introduction, Cesar, the Duhard guide, led us past hundred-year-old artifacts, including a huge concrete tank that’s not in use any more: apparently there’s just not the demand for the big quantities of wine it can hold. The house of Duhard, which made wine here for five generations under the same family, is now under new ownership, he explained. Today it specializes in turning smaller batches of local wines into proprietary house blends: bottling is done using a mobile machine that arrives on a truck.
Tastes have changed, and while most Loire wine was formerly made as regular table wine, the majority is now sparkling wine. However, the Duhard caves still hold sizeable stocks of vintage wines from the earlier days, and while I’ve always been taught that white wines have a lifespan of only a year or two, he turned that notion on its head.
The whites Duhard produces are primarily made from chenin blanc grapes, and the local soil and cool weather conditions produce wines that are high in sugar and acidity, both excellent preservatives. With the proper vinification, the Loire producers can make white wines that can last 100 years – longer than the average lifespan of red Bordeaux, known for their great aging ability.
One last stop, where our guide explained the different wines of the Touraine region: the white Vouvray and Montlouis, and light, fruity reds such as Chinon, Bourgueil and St-Nicolas de Bourgueil. And of course, after a long afternoon and the sight of all that wine, we were ready for a drop or two.
Cesar poured a Vouvray from the most recent vintage: it was fresh and fruity, tasting of apples and pears, with a bite of acid on the finish. Then a second wine, served “blind”, without telling us what it was. It was the opposite of the first, heavier in the mouth, with much less fruit but a depth of complex flavours. Cesar revealed the vintage: 1989 – we had tasted a 26-year-old white wine.
On the way out, I purchased a bottle of Vouvray as a souvenir, and it came home to Canada with me. I could drink it on a special occasion, maybe New Year’s Eve. Or, I could keep it for my 100th birthday. The wine will last – I wonder if I will.