There are dozens of castles to explore in France’s Loire Valley, but the Château de Chambord is one of the most iconic. So, who lived here, and what happened in these halls over the years?
King Francis I’s Vision
François I (Francis, in English) was King of France from 1515-1547. One of the things that characterised his rule was his patronage of the arts. He attracted many artists from all over Europe into France – it was him that acquired the Mona Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci, and housed him in Amboise for a time. Not long after ascending the French throne, he decided to build a new hunting lodge in the Loire Valley, while also continuing work on the Château d’Amboise and renovating the Château de Blois. That ‘lodge’ was to be the Château de Chambord.
François wanted his new hunting lodge to be a symbol of his status and power, a means of showing off to others – like a king doesn’t have enough ways of doing that it? Anyways. So, the design was to be impressive, but did not need to be practical for full-time residency. Historians still don’t know for certain who designed the castle, though most agree that da Vinci was a strong source of inspiration, and possibly the architect of at least the central double helix staircase (more on that later). The work began in 1519, but progress was slow due to the Italian Wars, and lack of funds – castles this big don’t come cheap! By the time François died in 1547, the castle was only partially built, and he had spent just 72 days staying there on short hunting trips.
The Royal Hunting Lodge
After François I’s death, his son, Henry II, continued work on the château for a time, but never actually used it. After his death in 1559, it was left empty and largely abandoned for almost a century. The large rooms were impractical for heating, it wasn’t close to any estate or village, and furniture had to be transported there for each trip. Although, the latter was common with most royal hunting lodges at the time.
It wasn’t until King Louis XIII (reigned 1610-1643) that something was done! In 1639, he gifted the Château de Chambord to his brother, Gaston d’Orléans, who carried out much needed restoration work. Then, Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715), had the castle renovated, and actually completed its construction! Known as the ‘Sun King’, he’s the same guy who transformed the Palace of Versailles near Paris, making it his main residence, and visiting the Loire Valley for holidays and hunting trips. He added huge stables as well, to use it as a hunting lodge, for a few weeks each year. He would host lavish hunts and balls there, making the most of its extravagant design! The French dramatist, Molière, even debuted one of his plays here in 1670.
During the 18th century, the château was actually used as a permanent residence for various people. Although seemingly splendid at first, this might not have actually been much fun for them. As we’ve already mentioned, the castle was not designed practically, and would have been pretty uncomfortable to stay in for extended periods.
The first was Stanislas Leszczynski, the father-in-law of Louis XV. He lived here from 1715-1733, while in exile, after being deposed from his own throne in Poland. Then later, Louis XV gifted Chambord to Maurice de Saxe as a reward for valor and his services to the French army. During his residence, Saxe installed his military regiment there, and adapted the castle to be more suited for living in. He ordered ceiling to be lowered, and added wooden parquet floors, to make it easier the heat the rooms. He lived in Chambord from 1745, until his death in 1750, at which time the castle was abandoned once more.
After the French Revolution
The French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century, was a turbulent period of history for the country, ultimately leading to the deposition of the monarchy. Napoleon Bonaparte would rule over the new French Empire, and the Revolution accelerated the rise of democracies around the world. During that time, many royal châteaux around the country were ransacked and ruined. Luckily, the Château de Chambord escaped more or less intact, though it would never again be used by royalty. In 1792, all of its furnishings, even the wooden flooring, was sold, to fund the new government. Bonaparte gifted Chambord to Louis Alexandre Berthier, but he barely passed through it.
The last significant owner of the château was Henry, Duke of Bordeaux, grandson of Charles X. It was bought for him in 1821, from Berthier’s widow, thanks to a nation-wide fundraiser. He styled himself as the ‘Comte de Chambord’ though he was never able to inhabit the castle, having been exiled in 1830 due to political events. After the defeat of the Second French Empire in 1871, he was offered the French throne. However he refused the tri-color flag and therefore renounced his right to rule, thus reverting France to a republic. After his death in 1883, his nephews, the Dukes of Parma, inherited Chambord. During WWI, since the Dukes were Austrian, it was seized as enemy property by the French state, in 1915. The Dukes sued to recover it, and France eventually paid them compensation. The château has been official state property since 1930.
The Restoration of Chambord
While under the ownership of Comte de Chambord, much restoration work took place, under the supervision of a steward. It was during this time that Chambord became an official French historic monument, and was opened to the public. Since the French state took ownership, this pattern has continued. More restoration has taken place, ensuring the castle resembles its original form as closely as possible.
The work had to be delayed until after WWII, however, the castle was used during the war to house and protect valuable artwork from the Louvre Museum, including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. It reopened and restoration continued after the war, and it is now one of the most visited castles in the Loire Valley. In 1981, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then in 2000, the Loire Valley as a whole, including several other châteaux were also added to the list, meaning Chambord is now considered a part of that site. Due to the size and scale of the property, maintenance work takes place continually, to preserve the château for future generations to enjoy.
The Architecture of the Château
When you arrive at the Château de Chambord, the first thing you will likely notice is the size of the building! With 426 rooms, 83 staircases, 282 fireplaces, 128m of facade, and 800 sculpted columns, it is quite staggering! The rectangular castle has an outer wall flanked by four towers, and a second internal building with another four towers. The château is designed in the Renaissance style, heavily influenced by Italian architecture of the time. Inside, look out for hundreds of salamander carvings, the emblem of Francis I.
In the centre of the castle, as you enter, is one of the most famous sights there, the double helix staircase. This was a piece of innovative architecture at the time, thought to be designed by da Vinci himself. The two spirals wind up through three floors, around a central pillar, but without ever meeting each other.
You can access three floors inside the castle, with about 60 rooms open to the public. Since furniture was only brought to the castle when the king was there, the pieces on display are from that time period, but not originally from the castle itself. The ground floor is mainly reception and service rooms, and houses the coach room. The first floor is where to find most of the furnished rooms, such as the chapel (the largest room in the building) and Royal Apartments, grouped together in ‘suites’. Less of the second floor is open, and this has exhibitions on the hunting and wildlife. Don’t forget to explore the spectacular roof terraces – the spires, towers, chimneys, and cupolas of the roof are often compared to that of an entire city, not one single building!
The Gardens of Chambord
While the castle is undoubtedly magnificent, the estate also includes 13,000 acres (52.5 square km) of woodland park – after all, it was a hunting lodge! Immediately around the castle, are the formal gardens and canal. The château was not designed with defence in mind, so the outer walls and moat are more decorative than practical. The formal gardens were renovated in 2017, after extensive study, so they look as they would have during the time of Louis XIV.
A grande promenade of walkways around the park was also introduced, which can be walked or cycled. Bikes, pedal cars, and electric vehicles are available to hire. Choose the shorter 4km route along the canal, or explore 23km of routes around the entire park. You can also take a boat ride on the canal, or a horse-drawn carriage ride around the estate. Or even, a 4×4 vehicle drive with a forest guide, to encounter the stags and wild boar that roam throughout the park. During the summer months, there’s even a horse and bird of prey show (in French), with medieval knights in costume! There’s definitely plenty to see, so visitors of all ages can discover this magnificent piece of French architecture and history.
Entry: Adults €13, Reduced rate / groups (see website for details €11, Children under 18 & disabled free
Additional charges apply for car parking, renting bikes or vehicles in the park, and other shows and activities.
Opening hours: Daily except 1st Jan and 25th Dec. The gardens close 30 minutes before the chaâteau.
30th Mar – 27th Oct, 9.00am-18.00pm
28th Oct – 29th Mar, 9.00am-17.00pm
Note that only the ground floor is accessible to visitors in wheelchairs, but they are able to enter for free. The ticket office, toilets, souvenir shop, and restaurant can all be found on the ground floor. Also, just outside the castle grounds you will find Place Saint-Louis, a village square full of shops and restaurants.
The Château de Chambord is relatively far from any other town, with Blois being the closest. You can take a train to Blois-Chambord station, and then catch the shuttle bus (31st Mar – 4th Nov) to the castle itself. Otherwise, the no. 2 Rémi bus stops nearby, or take a taxi from the train station. These each take around 25 minutes to get there. Alternatively, many visitors rent a car to explore the whole Loire Valley, picking a town to stay in and driving to the various châteaux in the region.
Have you visited the Château de Chambord before? Leave a comment about your experience!