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.
The second floor up has beautiful coffered ceilings (notice the “F” for you-know-who) and holds a series of ballrooms that once hosted post-hunt parties. It’s been closed for restoration, but when it’s re-opened you should find a museum with finely crafted hunting weapons and exhibits on myths, legends, traditions, and techniques from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries--but, unfortunately, little information in English.
To see what happens when you put 365 fireplaces in your house (used to heat the palace in winter even today), climb to the rooftop. A pincushion of spires and chimneys decorates a viewing terrace, where the ladies would enjoy the spectacle of their ego-pumping hunters. On hunt day, a line of beaters would fan out and work inward from the distant walls, flushing wild game to the center, where the king and his buddies waited. The showy lantern tower of the tallest spire glowed with a nighttime torch when the king was in. From the rooftop, view the elegant king’s wing--marked by FRF (François Roi de France) and bristling with fleurs-de-lis.
Finish your visit back on the ground floor, and take a quick spin through the classy carriage rooms and fascinating lapidary rooms (in the far right wing of the château, as you face the château from the courtyard). Here you’ll come face-to-face with original stonework from the roof, including the bulky lantern cupola. Imagine having to move that load. The volcanic tuff stone used to build the spires is soft and not very durable---particularly when so exposed to the elements.
For all the details on the Château de Chambord, please see Rick Steves’ France.
Excerpted from Rick Steves’ France.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2010 Rick Steves