The Château de Chambord is one of the most recognizable palaces in the world. It's particularly fascinating for its very distinctive architecture which blends traditional French medieval forms with classical Renaissance structures. The building, which has remained incomplete, was constructed by King Francis I of France.
Chambord is nestled in the hilly area of the Loire Valley - a region famous for its historic towns, hundreds of beautiful castles and massive wine production. Annually, thousands of people go on biking tours for days, sightseeing through the entire valley and numerous castles at a time. That's one experience I missed on for lack of time. Instead, I booked a train trip to Blois-Chambord with the idea of visiting the largest and perhaps the most famous palace in central France, the Château de Chambord.
Much like Versailles, this palace was built to serve as a hunting lodge. The original design of the building is attributed, though with some doubt, to Domenico da Cortona. Leonardo da Vinci is also believed to have been involved. The internal layout is an early example of the French and Italian style of grouping rooms into self-contained suites, a departure from the medieval style of corridor rooms. This made for quite a long and confusing visit, as all rooms are identical and built in a circle.
The massive château is composed of a central keep with 4 immense bastion towers at the corners. It features 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases. One of the architectural highlights is the spectacular open double-spiral staircase that is the centerpiece of the château - the one detail attributed to da Vinci. The two spirals ascend the 3 floors without ever meeting, illuminated from above from the highest point of the château. It is devised with 4 entries or ascents, which cross one another, so that you never meet but only see those who climb up and down through the small loopholes.
The château was never intended to provide any form of defence from enemies. Consequently the walls, towers and partial moat are decorative. Some elements of the architecture - open windows, loggia, and a vast outdoor area at the top - borrowed from the Italian Renaissance architecture - were less practical in cold and damp northern France.
The roofscape of Chambord contrasts with the masses of its masonry and has often been compared with the skyline of a town. It shows 11 kinds of towers and 3 types of chimneys, without symmetry, framed at the corners by the massive towers. The palace also boasts more than 800 sculpted columns. When Francis I commissioned the construction of Chambord, he wanted it to look like the skyline of Constantinople.
The château is surrounded by a 13,000-acre wooded park and game reserve maintained with red deer, enclosed by a wall. King Francis I spent barely 7 weeks there in total, that time consisting of short hunting visits. As the château had been constructed with the purpose of short stays, it was not practical to live in on a longer-term basis. The massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings meant heating was impractical. Similarly, as the château was not surrounded by a village or estate, there was no immediate source of food. This meant that all food had to be brought over by a group typically numbering up to 2,000 people at a time.
As a result, the château was completely unfurnished during this period. All furniture, wall coverings, eating implements and so forth were brought specifically for each hunting trip. It's for this reason that much furniture from the era was built to be disassembled to facilitate transportation. For more than 80 years after the death of King Francis I, French kings abandoned the château, allowing it to fall into decay. Finally, in 1639 King Louis XIII gave it to his brother, Gaston d'Orléans, who carried out much restoration work.
King Louis XIV had the great keep restored and furnished the royal apartments. The king then added a 1,200-horse stable, enabling him to use the château as a hunting lodge and a place to entertain a few weeks each year. From 1725 to 1733, Stanislas Leszczyński, the deposed King of Poland and father-in-law of King Louis XV, lived at Chambord. In 1745, the king gave the château to Maurice de Saxe, Marshal of France who installed his military regiment there. Maurice de Saxe died in 1750 and once again the colossal château sat empty for many years.
In 1792, in the wake of the French Revolution, some of the furnishings were sold and timber removed. For a time, the building was left abandoned, though in the 19th century some attempts were made at restoration. During the Second World War, art works from the collections of the Louvre and the Château de Compiègne were moved here.
My visit to this famed landmark was accompanied by rain and I didn't get a chance to walk through the gardens. I did, however, enjoy a delicious lunch at the restaurant next to the sight’s entrance. On my way back to Blois, I hopped off the bus in Cheverny. I didn't get to see its châteaux, located right next to the bus stop, as I had to hurry back to the train station. The square across the street, though, was alive with jazz music - the reason why I got off there. I stayed awhile along with the entire town to enjoy the group of musicians who'd come from New Orleans to entertain us. I'm hoping to return on a bike in spring to this magical place!