the greatest chateau in the universe, home

Advice ignored: don’t do the Loire valley’s most popular Chateau on a Saturday; make sure you arrive early.

We’d paid for the buffet, Q. was free, so we made sure we were downstairs for the buffet breakfast – hot food, I’d been assured the night before as we arrived – and there was hot food. There was rindless bacon and scrambled eggs sweating in separate compartments of a bain-marie. (Is it so called because of Marie-Antoinette’s penchant for eating in out of the way places on the estate, where food had to be brought in and ‘rechauffee’ – reheated – in what looked distinctly, at Le Petit Trianon, like bains-marie? So the word could be translated: M.A.’s baths.) The rest of the ‘hot’ food was DIY. A clever bubbling stainless pool fitted with baskets for boiling eggs. A toaster for toasting albino bread.

Undeterred – except for being still packed with French beef, eaten raw and minced, the night before – we set upon the cold pancakes, the nutella, evidently a staple throughout Europe, the yoghurts and so on, and juiced our own oranges on the apparatus kindly provided, with oranges. Squeeze your own. But soon we soon ran aground. With DIY brilliance, we made up and pilfered, hiding them in Q.’s toybag under the table, inside a plastic bag, we’d thoughtfully retrieved from our room, filled baguettes, with emmental and ham and salami, and pains au chocolat for snacking on.

We escaped without harrassment the clutches of Mercure and Buffalo Grill land, and circled the backroads of Chartres, by way of losing our way, and reorientation in right-hand driving for J.

More wind-turbines, this time close enough for us to venture out into the vast flat fenceless plain, leaving the car, onto a dirt road, to get closer to them. These were close to Bonneval. Forty-four metre long vanes, three of them, like giant Mercedes logos, on 136 metre towers. Called in French picturesquely ‘eoliennes.’ Eery out here on the unending plains. The vanes turning slowly and pivoting to catch the wind, as if communicating rather than generating power.

We stopped at Meung-sur-Loire. The town sits on a drained swamp, the groundwater gathered into tributary streams, running into the Loire, called Mauves. But in actuality weedy green with many small fish. Here Francois Villon was once imprisoned. Freed, I think by Henry IV? The town features, allegedly, in the work of Georges Simenon. And Joan of Arc had a battle. The bishops of Orleans took up residence at the Chateau for a very long time. In other words, Meung-sur-Loire has an historic significance entirely out of proportion to its size, so little next to Orleans. Where the Maid came from.

We followed some discreet signs, small, faded, to Beaugency. We were taken along the narrowest roads in France. Cart tracks, really, paved, except for one short section just before the Loire. Off-roading in our C3! Not what we expected to be doing.

Lunch beside the Loire of stolen buns. No one near. No buildings or industry visible on either bank. The deep slow rolling river, wide, a big river. Nothing, apart from steam rising, from the tops of nuclear silos, just able to be seen, above the trees.

Beaugency we saw from the 26 arched bridge, thrice, once on the way out, on the way back, circling the town, out into the McDonalds hinterlands of light industry, which provided the clue we were going the wrong way, or at least had taken the less scenic route, the third time heading back out. It is where the marriage of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who pops up everywhere in medieval history, was annulled so that she could marry Henry Plantagenet, the future English king, Henry II. This move initiated the torrid wars for control of much of Southwest France, which she took with her into the marriage, and Normandy, which England already possessed, Maine, Anjou and Touraine, between the French and English royal houses, continuous for centuries after.

We reached Chambord, entered the gates into the National Park of Chambord, the biggest such park in Europe and Q. spotted a red deer. The Chateau rears up at the end of the entrance road, before you turn off to the carparks, bristling with spires, chimneys, points and turrets, a startling confection of – as the guidebooks say – Italianate inspiration on a medieval footing. One can’t quite believe it. Numbers: 365 chimneypots; 426 rooms. And the mad aspiration of King Francois I to be known as the greatest architect in the universe. Imaginable. That he could so imagine.

Again, as with the best architecture it is the proportions that are pleasing, however blown up. Apparently successive occupants have found the interiors too large. Too costly to heat. Francois the First didn’t stay much. 42 days in total. After all, it was only his hunting lodge. But I loved the big rooms. The double helix staircase: Leonardo da Vinci had come to France at Francois’s invitation in 1516.

It served, finally, before nationalisation, as accommodation for the Count of Chambord, the Sun King’s son, who waited there, with his gilded coaches and private army of assistants, butlers, servants, stablehands, footmen and so on, and waited. He was the last of the line of the Bourbons and expected one day to ride triumphant back into Paris to be crowned king. There’s a subject: the king in waiting. We felt strangely at home.

The smell helped. It smelt of woodfire. And sitar techno was playing ambiently, testing the radio-linked speaker system, and vari-lights flamed up the side of the interior pillars of the central stairwell. I finally asked, who could be having a party here? The Belle of the Renaissance. The do attracts the grand personages who pay hundreds. And dress in renaissance gear. We saw the staff arrive to run the kitchens and the front of house, all dolled up, fagging up in the courtyard. There was an army of them. Over 600 guests expected.

We’d picked our destination for the night, Amboise. A busy little town. Behind us the Chateau and in front the river. Less traffic now. I can hear the Loire flow out from under the arched stone bridge that crosses it to the island. We’ve been lucky. From our room, I can climb out the window onto the terrace and watch it. A warm night. 20 degrees outside.