The chateaux of France’s Loire region are legendary. The images below were taken on a recent trip there where I explored the architecture, food and culture of the region.
A Potted History of French Chateaux in the Loire
In the late mediaeval period and into the early renaissance, the Loire region of France was the heartland of that country; the borders of France today are the result of later expansions under Louis XIV in the 17th C and Napoleon in the 19th C.
The chateaux that litter the Loire region stand testament to the mediaeval French idea of kingship and social organisation, born of a defensive stance in a small territory around and to the south of Paris, harried by the English and a series of powerful independent Duchies.
In consequence many chateaux adopted a defensive and castellated style, moderated flamboyantly in the renaissance as growing territories created greater wealth and internal security. This development is starkly illustrated at lushly theatrical Chenonceau straddling the river Cher, whose life began as a defended and prosperous watermill which was then turned into a noblemen’s chateau before becoming a royal palace with extensive gardens and a vast hunting park.
Chambord by contrast, though built slightly later and all of a piece, has a strong flavour of the castle about it despite the numerous decorative renaissance accretions. Vaux-le-Vicomte is the perfect example of the style so beloved of Louis XIV – though it was built by his chancellor and financier not the roi soleil himself; in fact so jealous of his underling’s achievements was Louis XIV that he had the man imprisoned and his estate sequestered by the crown. The team that built Vaux-le-Vicomte and designed the landscape and setting were put to work on a project that lasted the rest of Louis XIV’s lifetime, Versailles.
Other chateaux like Bloiu, Chaumont-sur-Loire, Labardin, Montoire-sur-le-Loir and Amboise date from the early mediaeval period but fell out of royal favour once the lush delights of Versailles presented themselves.
Following the French revolution many chateaux experienced abandonment or looting with possessions following their owners into exile or dissipation. Some chateaux were repurposed as prisons or became centres of administrative organisation under the revolution, others were reclaimed by their impoverished former owners following the restitution of the monarchy in 1815 or later bought by the richest members of the middle class like the Menier family (Chenonceau/Vaux-le-Vicomte) who were developing France’s industrial potential.