So I’m finally getting around to posting the chateaux part of my trip to France a few weeks ago (seems like I was there years ago and not just a few weeks!).  I was getting ready to head back to the States and then when I got home, the only thing I wanted to do was be lazy (which I am very successful at doing).

Ok so here’s the second post about my trip to France.  After Paris, Katy and I headed to the Loire Valley, famous for its castles and its vineyards.  The whole region is rich with history and probably one of the most visited places in France during the summer when tourists arrive in hordes.  The Loire Valley is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Thursday July 7th, I took a train to Blois, a city located to the southeast of Paris.  I got in to Blois about an hour before Katy so I waited for her train to get in before we both set out for our hotel.  Once we checked in, we decided to walk around the town.  It was too late in the day to set out for the castles so we settled for exploring Blois instead.

Apparently I was in Blois when I was younger but I have zero memory of it so as Katy and I walked around, it was like I was seeing it for the first time. Blois is home to a small castle which can be visited but since it was Katy’s first time in the Loire Valley, we decided to spend time seeing the more famous ones.  Blois has a colorful history which includes noble counts, Jews being burned to death and other religious struggles, and where Joan of Arc briefly took up residence while she was trying to rescue future king Charles VII from the English siege of Orleans (she apparently went to the castle in Blois to ask the bishop’s blessing before kicking English butt in Orleans).  During WWII, the Nazis took over the city but it was eventually liberated by the Americans.

Blois has some pretty gardens and buildings and there is a cathedral but I didn’t go see it.  I don’t remember seeing it in the downtown area where we were staying so maybe it was across the Loire River.  Anyways it’s a cute and quaint little town and just so French.  Little narrow streets, buildings covered with ivy, picturesque bridges and a river, and boulangeries all over the place.  The usual European charm that Americans romanticize. I won’t disagree with them about Blois.

Chateau in Blois:

Pretty garden and some buildings:

Narrow street:

church in Blois:

along the Loire River:

On Friday, July 8th, after a croissant and hot chocolate breakfast (well tea for Katy, as usual) we made our way to Chambord which is a monster of a chateau! From far away, it doesn’t look so bad but up close the castle is rather imposing.  It is definitely one of the Loire Valley’s most visited chateaux and one of the most famous castles in France, if not the world (apart from Buckingham Palace and Versailles).  The chateau has actually never been completed which is probably a good thing because then there would be way too much to visit! Katy and I were there for a good four hours and we didn’t even have time to visit the grounds around the castle.

Construction on Chambord began under King Francois I (so in the 1500s) who apparently wanted to be closer to his mistress but it also served as a hunting lodge.  No one is sure who designed the chateau itself and I’m not about to go over the castle’s intricate architecture (you can either go to Wikipedia or for complete info visit the website of Chambord in English over here: http://www.chambord.org/Chambord-en-idm-171-n-Presentation.html) It turns out you can rent some of the rooms inside the chateau (and the lawns) for different functions, like a wedding reception and the like.  Imagine having a wedding reception in a castle built in the 1500s!! I don’t want to think about the cost of that.

Definitely one of the coolest things about Chambord is the double helix staircase that rises in the center of the building.  These two staircases twist around each other like a double helix but never meet.  So you can walk up one staircase and see the other person across the way but never actually meet them on the staircase.  Rumor has it Leonardo da Vinci may have designed it but no one knows for sure.  Katy and I both had fun with this a lot.

No one ended up living in Chambord long term.  A few kings used it short term for hunting in the spring and summer and a Polish king lived there for a few years.  But the castle’s huge size and the fact that it was freezing in the winter and infested by mosquitoes in the summer made it a difficult place to live.  Construction was abandoned several times due to war, lack of money, and disinterest.

From far away, not so bad:

Up close, OMG!

double helix staircase which is impossible to get a decent picture of:

salamander and F for king Francois I:

After Chambord, we headed to Cheverny.  I had also visited Cheverny with my family sometimes in the late 90s but again remembered very little.  Cheverny is pretty well-known in the French-speaking world for being the inspiration of the fictional chateau Moulinsart, the homebase for Tintin and Capitaine Haddock, two of the main characters in the Belgian comicbooks Tintin.  I grew up with Tintin, we have all of them in my house.  My father used to read them to me and my sister and take on all the characters’ voices.  We even named our dog after Tintin’s dog (which is Milou in French but they translated it to the rather questionable Snowy in English).  Oh and since I’m on a Tintin tangent, there’s an animated movie coming out around Christmas directed by Steven Spielberg.  I don’t think the movie will do very well in the States, simply because very few Americans have heard of Tintin (they were translated in English but I have never seen them in bookstores here).  However Tintin is very famous pretty much every where else so I think it’ll do very well abroad.

Anyways, Cheverny was built sometime in the 1600s and was never owned by any member of the royal family.  The Hurault family bought the land and built the chateau and I’m not sure if it has stayed within the same aristocratic family or just been sold from rich person to rich person.  The family opened Cheverny to the public sometime in the early 20th century and has only been closed for 3 reasons: the visit of the Queen Mother (Elizabeth the II’s mom), when one of the owners died for a funeral, and the current owner’s wedding in 1994.  Katy and I liked Cheverny better simply because it’s a lot smaller! The family still lives in the chateau so only part of it is open to the public.  For pictures of the interior, you can visit the French entry on Wikipedia.  It is really beautiful inside and not overwhelming like Chambord.

Katy and I wandered the grounds for about an hour surrounding the chateau (and actually saw a squirrel which are not very common in France!).  Part of the grounds are restricted and you can only visit them by this little train touristy thing which you have to pay for.  But what we got to see was good enough.  The chateau is also home to about 70-100 basset hounds that go out on hunts twice a week in the grounds (what they hunt, I have no idea).  At 5 PM every day, the dogs are fed and it’s such an ordeal! The dog master person has complete control over the dogs as the food is brought out and while the dogs bark and howl, they don’t start eating until they get the ok from the dog master.  It’s definitely super loud, even when they’re not eating, because you always have two or three dogs barking or getting riled up (sometimes by visitors).

Cheverny:

The wedding dress the wife of the owner wore in 1994:

The front of the Tintin exhibit:

Some of the basset hounds:

On Saturday, July 9th, Katy and I took the train to Tours, where my dad’s cousin Dominique and her family live.  Katy really wanted to visit the Chateau d’Ussé.  Apparently she did some kind of project about it in high school or something.  Anyways, Dominique was gracious enough to drive us to the chateau and also fed us lunch afterwards! It’s just so awesome having all these connections in France–I joke a lot I’m related to about half the country.  I hadn’t seen Dominique since I was little but I recognized her right away when she came to pick us up at the train station, she just had the family resemblance.  If Dominique hadn’t driven us to Usse, I seriously have no idea how we would have gotten Usse.  Unlike Blois which had this chateau shuttle bus, I think Tours didn’t offer any kind of chateau shuttle.  So Katy and I were definitely very grateful to have Dominique drive us!

Like Cheverny, Usse is also a private residence with part of chateau open to the public.  Construction on the chateau’s foundations started in the 1400s and I think the castle was completed in the 1600s or 1700s.  The land and the chateau passed through several aristocratic families.  Charles Perrault, a French writer, supposedly used the setting of Usse for the fairytale Sleeping Beauty (though I don’t think he actually invented the story of Sleeping Beauty.  I think some version of the story already existed and he simply wrote his take on an already popular fairytale which then became enormously popular with children and then turned into a Disney movie).  In fact in one of the chateau’s towers, there is this awesomely cheesy Sleeping Beauty tour in which there’s these wax figures that reenact the story of Sleeping Beauty based off the Disney movie.

The Wikipedia entry in French has some pictures of the inside of the chateau (which also has got underground secret passageways!).  In the entire chateau, there are also mannequins dressed up in I suppose period clothes? Apparently the clothing on the mannequins get changed a few times a year which must be a huge ordeal! It was interesting to see the clothing but so many mannequins in one room kind of freaked me out.  I’m not a big fan of mannequins and dolls.

Usse gardens:

One of the rooms of the Sleeping Beauty reenactment.  Here the princess is being awakened by her prince.

All of the Chateau d’Usse:

After Usse and lunch at Dominique’s, Katy took a train back to Rennes and I took a train back to Paris.  I spent the night at my friend Alex’s apartment in the Marais neighborhood.  I’ve known Alex since high school and she is a huge Francophile and somehow managed to snag an internship on the Champs-Elysees! I hadn’t seen her in about a year so it was nice to see her briefly and catch up.

Then Saturday July 10th, I caught my flight back to Madrid where I was for another ten days before packing up and heading to New York for about five weeks which is where I still am.  I just got back from a week in Martha’s Vineyard and a few days in Boston and I might blog about my family vacation and the interesting things I’ve done since being home (which are not many but I did go see the Alexander Macqueen Savage Beauty exhibit at the Met before it closed and the Chihuly glass exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).  I’m heading back to Madrid in two weeks and I’m getting excited for teaching for next year with Nicole! But until then I’m enjoying my time with my family and catching up with friends.