The Chateau de Chaumont sur Loire doesn’t immediately impress you with its grandeur. Instead you are struck by the country garden charm of the place. Right behind the entrance office, there is a giant rabbit topiary. Garden paths meander past contemporary art and view points onto fields with wonderful views of the Loire Valley. Almost as an afterthought, the Chateau de Chaumont appears on the side, a fairytale vision of silver-tipped turrets on top of alabaster walls. Chateau de Chaumont was where Diane de Poitiers was banished after her lover died. His vengeful wife, Catherine de Medici, wrestled Chateau du Chenonceau at long last from her rival and gave her Chateau de Chaumont as a consolation prize. Nowadays the gardens of Chateau de Chaumont and the internationally-renowned Chaumont Garden Festival are the main draws for its visitors.
The History of the Chateau
There has been a chateau on the site since 1000 A.D because it was a good lookout point over the border territories of two powerful noblemen. The chateau was part of the influential d’Amboise family holdings for hundreds of years until Catherine de Medici bought it in 1550. The current Chateau de Chaumont architecture is a mix of the defensive style of architecture of medieval times and ornamental features dating from the Renaissance period.
When Catherine de Medici owned the chateau, she had elaborate parties at the chateau and hosted famous people, like the astrologer, Nostradamus and Cosimo Ruggieri. If the legend is to be believed, Ruggieri showed Catherine the death of her three sons in a mirror at Chaumont.
Eventually though Catherine forced her love rival Diane de Poitiers to exchange it for the grander Chateau de Chenonceau. Diane de Poitiers only lived at Chaumont a short time even though. As pretty as Chaumont is, it’s no Chenonceau.
In the 18th century, Chaumont was the beloved chateau of a French merchant who rose up the ranks, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. Le Ray was instrumental in providing French support for the American Revolution. He housed Benjamin Franklin at one of his Parisian homes when Franklin was sent to Paris to drum up support for the American cause. Le Ray not only got the French King to cough up money but also provided money and equipment from his own funds. For example, he sent a gift of a warship to John Paul Jones who is credited with being a founder of the U.S. Navy.
Le Ray’s son moved to the United States and married an American. The Chateau survived the French Revolution because it was seized by the French Revolutionary government from the absentee landlord. Post-French Revolution, one of the sides got demolished so that you could get a better view of the Loire Valley. Oh, the irony.
The chateau has an amazing panoramic terrace overlooking the Loire valley.
The Gardens of Chateau de Chaumont
The chateau is set in 52 acres of parkland which were created by famed 19th century French garden designer, Henri Duchene. Until the time of Duchene, there was actually a little village of approximately 100 houses located right near the chateau. The Chateau’s owners, the Prince and Princess de Broglie, had all the buildings demolished and then had the village relocated closer to the Loire. Presumably, they had learned nothing from the French Revolution.
Unlike in the movie Poltergeist, even the village church’s cemetery was moved. Duchene, then, created an English style manor-house parkland that affording fabulous views over the Loire Valley and was more befitting a prestigious residence. Taking four years and costing 560,000 francs at the time, the project was a massive endeavour.
One of his Duchene’s innovative designs was the Rustic Bridge which spans a ravine between ornamental gardens. The bridge is actually made of cement and then covered with iron and wood. This creative idea brought the French concept of trompe l’oeil to a garden environment.
In 1877, the Princess de Broglie instructed an architect, Paul-Ernest Sanson, to build her some stables. These stables were considered the most luxurious in all of Europe at the time. The de Broglie horses were seriously pampered and even had Hermes saddles.
Sadly for the de Broglies, the good times ended. The Princess de Broglie blew through her fortune and the French government had to take over Chaumont in 1938. Even impoverished, the Princess lived among the Ritz and the George V hotels in Paris and her own private Parisian apartment.
The Chaumont Garden Festival
Chateau du Chaumont is known for its international contemporary garden festival which started in 1992. Running annually from June to October, it has approximately 30 gardens spread throughout the grounds of the chateau. This year is the festival’s 25th anniversary.
The gardens are designed by artists and landscape designers from all around the world. Over the years, the people who’ve worked on the 700+ gardens that have appeared in the festival is a who’s who of art and garden design. They are internationally renowned big names like Shigeru Ban (Japanese architect), Peter Walker (American landscape designer who was part of the design team for the National 9/11 Memorial) and Ernesto Neto (Brasilian artist).
According to the festivals rules, the gardens are in bloom in 6 months with the best of the display supposed to occur in the autumn. Approximately 400,000 people visit the garden festival every year.
The exhibits are kid-friendly. It’s like a contemporary open-air art museum. My kids really liked the garden of the mists which is a permanent exhibition. During July and August evenings, the gardens are lit up at night.
Every year the garden theme changes. In 2016, the gardens’ themes are about the issues facing the world today – climate change, rising sea levels and the link between people and their environment. The festival was overseen in 2016 by Maryanne Pinault, the wife of French retail billionaire, Francois Pinault. The Pinaults know a thing or two about modern art because they have an extensive renowned collection of contemporary art which is housed in its own Venetian palazzo.
I thought the International Garden Festival was fantastic and will dedicate a separate post to them. Not only were they attractive, but they raised a lot of issues about our environment.
Photo Gallery: Gardens of the Chateau de Chaumont
Visiting the Chateau de Chaumont
The Chateau de Chaumont is open seasonally. You can easily spend a day here. There are several restaurants on site, too, which are only available to chateau visitors. We liked the garden restaurant which serves sandwiches and salads in an alfresco setting with a pretty view.