Visit Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley

Photo of Chateau de Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau visitor guide and history

Chenonceaux itself is a small village in the Loire Valley - best known for the very popular and highly regraded chateau that stands nearby.

Chenonceau Castle has a magnificent structure, with a rectangular main body and angular towers, decorated in the north façade by a range of Renaissance motifs, which welcomes visitors after a long entrance of shady plane trees.

The visit to the Castle can start from the famous gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. The ancient garden of Diana is remarkable in all respects; apart from the water features, Diane selected an amazing variety of plants and flowers, such as yews, boxwood, laurel, yellow violets, blue petunias and an infinite series of flowers. No less well-kept is the garden of Catherine de Medici, who planted petunias, yellow and white roses, begonias and tulips, to name only the most popular flowers.

Catherine also built the famous circular ‘Labyrinth’ with hundreds of yews of about one metre high, with 5 entries, of which ways lead to the bathing-hut placed in the centre, and surmounted by a statue of Venus.

For a quick overview see the Gallery on the Cher River, about 60 meters long and with a beautiful floor in black and white, from the time of Diane de Poitiers, and which was used as a hospital for soldiers during World War I.

Leading us into the interior of the castle, on the ground floor the old guard room is decorated with Flemish tapestries of the XVI century. In the vault, we see a beautiful ‘Madonna and the Child’ in marble (XVI century). From the hall we can get to the chapel, attractive with its stained glass windows, which were lost during World War II and then completely rebuilt in the mid-1950s.

The room used by Diane de Poitiers has a fire-place that was executed by Jean Goujon (1510 ca.-1565 ca.), a French sculptor. Above the fireplace there is a portrait of the same Catherine de Medici.

gardens at Chateau Chenonceau, Loire Valley castleIn the ‘Green Office’ there is a tapestry of the sixteenth century, inspired by the discovery of the Americas, and their fauna and flora, depicting pheasants, pineapples, orchids and pomegranates. In the rooms of Catherine de Medici, in addition to classic furniture, are Flemish tapestries with mythological scenes and several copies of paintings by Rubens (1577-1640) and Pierre Mignard (1612-1695). The Vestibule (1515) has an ogival vault and is of great artistic importance.

In the hall of Francis I (1494-1547) stands a beautiful painting by Van Loo [1719-1795] (The Three Graces). On the ground floor you can also see the living room, which houses a work by Rubens (Jesus and Saint John), and a portrait of Louis XIV.

Upstairs, which you enter by a straight staircase (a real novelty style for the period) in the various rooms there are tapestries with hunting scenes and portraits of Roman emperors in marble from Carrara, which were sent from Florence. The hall, renovated in the nineteenth century, is remarkable and the bedroom of Louise de Lorraine is striking for its many funeral symbolisms, and furnished in the style of his days, with a four-poster bed, fireplace, and the heavy tapestries and paintings.

Finally, a welcome visit is to the large and bright kitchen, which has an extraordinary set of kitchenware pots and pans.

Chenonceau history

Tour des Marques at Chateau Chenonceau, Loire Valley castleThe area where Chenonceau  was to develop, in the Province of Touraine on the banks of the River Cher, was inhabited in very ancient times, dating back even to prehistoric times, as evidenced by the objects of common use such as axes and arrowheads that have been found here.

In more recent times the area was certainly inhabited by Gaul people engaged in agriculture, given the soil fertility and, later, the territory was inhabited by the Roman aristocracy who enjoyed the favourable climate and built several villas – as evidenced by both testimonies and archaeologist excavations. One of these Roman villas was certainly at Chenonceau, and some evidence of it has been discovered, such as bronze bracelets, ornaments and various potteries.

From Roman times and throughout the early Middle Ages we do not have any documentation about Chenonceau. We have the first vestiges of a village and a church in the eleventh-twelfth century, when some documents of the Abbey of the Villeloin start talking about a place called ‘de Parochia de Chenuncelis’, which belonged to a local lord named Thomas de Chenumcello. By 1209 a document speaks of  the Archbishop of a Parochia de Chenoncello or even Chenoncellum.

The later document is important because it is the first time the place is called by its present name and according to French pronunciation, i.e. ‘Chenonceau’. Chenonceu, as far as we know, is the oldest form of the ancient Gallo-Roman town name, but in the eighteenth century it was also written with the ‘x’ (‘Chenonceux’).

As for etymology, there is great uncertainty about the history of the name. The ancient medieval Latin form was ‘Chenumcello’, ‘Chenoncello’ and ‘Chenoncellum’ - the suffix ‘-ellum’ seems to refer to something small but what is referred to is not clear - perhaps a ‘small arm’, now disappeared, of the river ‘Cher’, where the city stands. Alternatively the word may refer to small trees, e.g. small oaks (in French ‘Chêneau’); which could make sense because even today the Castle gardens are shaded by ancient oaks; but in truth these origins of the name are largely guesswork.

From the early thirteenth century Chenonceau belonged to the Marques Family, who held the domain until the early sixteenth century, when the city was acquired by the wealthy Thomas Bohier (1470 ca.-1524) in 1513. Bohier had served Charles VIII (1470-1498) and Louis XII (1462-1515) as General Counsellor for Finance, and in the process acquired a considerable amount of lands and cities, including Chenonceu and the right to build a castle. According to some evidences, Thomas Bohier himself supervised the beginning the construction work of the castle, later leaving his wife, Catherine Briçonnet, a woman of considerable intelligence and culture, with the the task of carrying  forward the building of the castle. Begun in 1513 the Chenonceau castle was completed in a few short years, with most of the work completed by 1517.

Later the descendants of Thomas Bohier were involved in serious financial problems, until Antoine Bohier donated the castle of Chenonceau to Francis I (1494-1547), who visited it three times (1538, 1539 and 1545). In the following years, at the time of Francis I death and to the coronation of Henry II (1519-1559), the castle of Chenonceau was given to Diane de Poitiers [1499-1566] (1547), the mistress of the king, who was also awarded the title of Duchess of Valentinois.

Diane de Poitiers often went to the castle, where she started an impressive array of works of embellishment (the Parterre and gardens), which were continued when the castle was bought by Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), who enhanced the garden even more by including new plants carefully worked by in the most strange shapes, and enriching it with fountains and water features, created by the ‘master plumber’ Picard Delphe. The queen also enriched the Library, Lodge and ‘Grand Galerie’, the privileged place of sumptuous feasts, with many statues imported from Italy in the Renaissance style, tapestries and precious furniture that made the Castle of Chenonceu a real royal residence. The library was enriched with rare books, and new rooms were added, such as the ‘Domes’, also accredited to Catherine de Medici.

The castle next passed to Louise de Lorraine (1553-1601), the wife of Henry III (1551-1589), and a woman of great devotion to the reading of sacred texts. After the death of Henry III (1589), she retired to private life in solitude at the Chenonceau Castle, especially taking care of the Library and enriching it with more than a hundred readings of devotion like ‘The Lives of the Saints’, ‘The Vanity of the World’, ‘The Big Help of Sinners’,  ‘The Strait Way of Salvation’, and also numerous classical and scientific texts.

The seventeenth century was not a happy period for the Castle, which fell into decline for more than a century after the heyday of Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, Duke of Lorraine and Louise. The Renaissance of the castle occurred in the eighteenth century, when the wealthy Dupin family, and especially Madame Dupin (1706-1795), liked to gather the most eminent artists and writers of their age at the castle, such as Buffon (1707-1788), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-1778), who was his secretary . Later the castle passed to a nephew of Madam Dupin, René de Villeneuve. In the nineteenth century the castle belonged to Madame Pélouze, and today is owned by the Menier.

Map of Chateau de Chenonceau & places nearby

Castle Town village

Selected places to visit in or near Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley