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Château de Chambord has 440 rooms and a fireplace for every day of the year. (Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door)

Château de Chambord: 440 Rooms of Royal Opulence

Though it began as a simple hunting lodge, this chateau grew to six times the size of others in the Loire

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With its huge scale and prickly silhouette, Château de Chambord is the granddaddy of all châteaux in the Loire. It’s surrounded by Europe’s largest enclosed forest park, a game preserve defined by a 20-mile-long wall and teeming with wild deer and boar. Chambord (shahn-bor) began as a simple hunting lodge for bored Blois counts and became a monument to the royal sport and duty of hunting. (Apparently, hunting was considered important to keep the animal population under control and the vital forests healthy.)

The château, six times the size of most, has 440 rooms, and a fireplace for every day of the year. It consists of a keep in the shape of a Greek cross, with four towers and two wings surrounded by stables. It has four floors, with many stairs in between thanks to the high ceilings. The ground floor has reception rooms, the first floor up houses the royal apartments, the second floor up is mostly a hunting museum, and the rooftop offers a hunt-viewing terrace. Because hunting visibility is best after autumn leaves fall, Chambord was a winter palace (which helps explain the number of fireplaces). Only 80 of Chambord’s rooms are open to the public--and that’s plenty. This place would be great for hide-and-seek.

Cost and Hours: €9.50, daily April–Sept 9:00–18:15, Oct–March 9:00–17:15, last entry 30 min before closing (but you’ll need more time there anyway), parking-€3, tel. 02 54 50 50 40, www.chambord.org. There are two ticket offices: one in the village in front of the château, and another inside the château. Call ahead to verify hours, guided tour times, horse shows, and evening visits.

Information and Tours: This château requires helpful information to make it come alive. All rooms except the hunting museum have good English explanations (the free brochure is useless). Overachievers can rent an audioguide for a thorough history of the château and its rooms (€4, two can share one audioguide with volume turned to max). Free 30-minute English-language introductions to the château are given a few times a day from May to September (call ahead for times—11:00 and 15:00 in 2009).

Views: For the best views, cross the small river in front of the château and turn right.

Background: Starting in 1518, François I created this “weekend retreat,” using 1,800 workmen over 15 years. (You’ll see his signature salamander symbol everywhere.) François I was an absolute monarch--with an emphasis on absolute. In 32 years of rule (1515–1547), he never once called the Estates-General to session (a rudimentary Parliament in ancien régime France). This grand hunting palace was another way to show off his power. Charles V--the Holy Roman Emperor and most powerful man of the age--was invited here and was, like, totally wowed.

Self-Guided Tour: This tour covers the highlights.

The ground-floor reception rooms offer little to see, except for a subtitled video with helpful information on the château’s construction and, of course, the magically monumental double-spiral staircase (read the wall banner’s description to the right of stairway). Climb the staircase, which was likely inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who died just as construction was starting. Allowing people to go up and down without passing each other (look up the center from the ground floor), it’s a masterpiece of the French Renaissance. Peek at other visitors through the openings as you climb, and admire the ingenious design.

The first floor up offers the most interesting rooms. Tour this floor basically clockwise, starting in the room behind the loom display (where you’ll enter the very royal apartments in the king’s wing). You’ll pass through the grand bedrooms of Louis XIV, his wife Maria Theresa, and at the far end, François I. Gaze at their portraits and get to know them. I liked Louis’ commode shortcut, but overall I’m partial to François’ bedroom--because he was a traveling king, his furniture was designed to be easily disassembled and moved with him (seems pretty thrifty for a king).

Find your way back to the stairway (expect to get turned around a few times, particularly if you explore the balcony walkways), and visit the rooms devoted to the Count of Chambord, the final owner of the château. This 19th-century count, last of the French Bourbons, was next in line to be the king when France decided it didn’t need one. He was raring to rule. You’ll see his coronation outfits and even souvenirs from the coronation that never happened. Check out his boyhood collection of little guns, including a working mini-cannon. It was during this period that Chambord was lived in and enjoyed the most.

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Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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