I’ve had enough education to question blind faith but not nearly enough to give me any answers. Like many others raised Catholic have found, it’s a religion that stays with you once you have been indoctrinated.
Once you’ve started Catholic, frankly, there’s no real way to stop being Catholic. Even not believing in God isn’t regarded as sufficient reason to get out of the Catholic church. You’d think it’d be fairly fundamental to the whole thing, but no. Catholicism: the stickiest, most adhesive religion in the world.
– Dara O’Briain, “Live at the Apollo”, July 6, 2005
When you are visiting Lourdes with children, I think a day trip is sufficient. Most of the things to do in Lourdes revolved around the Lourdes pilgrimage sites which makes it hard for children to sustain interest for a longer period.
Tips on how you can make a pilgrimage to Lourdes if you only have one day.
The little town of Lourdes in the middle-of-nowhere Southwest France is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Approximately 5 million visitors a year come to pray at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The sanctuary is built over the rock formation where Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, an amazing 18 times in the middle of the 18th century.
The statue of Mary above the Grotto at Lourdes.
Lourdes Holy Water
There are lots of miracles associated with Lourdes and the water that flows from the spring where Mary appeared. People bathe in the spring’s holy water or take the holy water from Lourdes in containers all over the world.
You can buy water bottles of all sizes in the stores surrounding the shrine. Technically the Lourdes holy water isn’t Holy Water because it hasn’t been blessed by a priest. Pilgrims either anoint themselves with the water or drink it.
People were filling up with the holy water from the spring at the Grotto.
Miracles Associated With Lourdes
The Roman Catholic church has documented 66 miracles associated with Lourdes. These official miracles are thoroughly investigated by the Church. There are countless other people who claim to have been cured at Lourdes that don’t pass the official testing.
According to official estimates, over 80,000 sick and disabled people visit Lourdes annually. They are assisted by 100,000 volunteers. We saw people of all nationalities – both sick and healthy, young and old.
Sick people being wheeled into the line for the Grotto.
Things To Do in Lourdes
Most of the things to do in the city are based around the Lourdes pilgrimage. If you are doing a Lourdes pilgrimage only for the day, you will have plenty to do at the Sanctuary itself (especially if the lines are long!).
The busiest time of year to visit Lourdes is during the spring and summer months. We went in May which is still early in the season so that it wasn’t too crowded. Our line to see the Grotto only took 10 minutes but I’ve heard it can be one hour+ during peak season.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
The most important thing to do on a Lourdes pilgrimage is to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is open 24/7 and admission is free. The Sanctuary covers almost 130 acres with 22 places of worship.
The gates to the Sanctuary are impressive with three archangels guarding the enormous gates. It was sad to see concrete bollards in the front of the gates because even a place of pilgrimage filled with the sick and disabled could be subject to terrorism.
These 6 sights are the most important in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes:
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is the upper basilica.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the lower basilica. It’s covered with thousands of Venetian mosaics.
The Crypt is the most intimate of the prayer spaces. It has room for only 120 people.
The Basilica of Saint Pius X is underground in the lawned area in front of the two previous basilicas and the Crypt. You think you are walking into a car park but inside the architecture is marvellous. This basilica is massive and can hold 25,000 people.
The Grotto is where Mary appeared to Bernadette. It has the spring from which the water is diverted for people to take away with them.
Underneath the Sanctuary and next door to the grotto are the Pools. They are open in the morning and the afternoon. As is the French custom, they take a couple of hours break in the middle of the day for lunch.
The evening torchlight procession in Lourdes is a famous sight. As day-trippers, we did not stay to see the procession at 9pm.
Visiting the Lourdes Pools
We went to all of the places but skipped the pools because my daughter refused to go inside the pools. No one could answer our question on how often the water in the pool is filtered.
My daughter was convinced she would come down with leprosy (or similar) even if the pools are full of holy water. This fear is probably a side effect of the fact that I am swabbing my kids in hand sanitiser every 10 minutes.
When author Flannery O’Conner balked at going into the pool like my daughter, she said:
I am one of those people who would rather die for my religion, than take a bath for it.
– Flannery O’Connor
There are separate pools for men and women. Even though there were not many people waiting, the wait would have been an hour. The water is supposed to be quite cold (naturally because it is spring water).
The Life of Bernadette
You can also visit sites associated with Bernadette. Her childhood home is open to visitors for a nominal fee. The visions appeared to Bernadette when she was 14 years old. By the age of 22, as the object of constant curiosity, she fled to a quiet life in a convent 500 miles away. She never returned to Lourdes.
The house were Bernadette was born.
The visitor centre at Lourdes has a walking route you can do that follows the life of Bernadette in the town. There is also screenings of the 2011 French movie of the life of Bernadette shown in cinemas around town. The French movie is [easyazon_link identifier=”B01EDAC2XK” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Je M’appelle Bernadette[/easyazon_link] but the classic English-language movie is [easyazon_link identifier=”B00008LDO7″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]The Song of Bernadette[/easyazon_link] (1943).
Other Things To Do in Lourdes
There is religious shopping galore. People have said how tacky it is. We didn’t think it was too bad (but I did grow up in an Indian Catholic family where religious paraphernalia in the home was obligatory). It’s a bit like any tourist town. Instead of shot glasses and hats, the tacky souvenirs are rosary beads and religious figurines.
My son examines one of the biggest rosaries we have ever seen.
A fortress looms above Lourdes on the edge of the city as the one and only secular sightseeing option in the city. If you make it to the top, there are fabulous views.
The chateau fort that looms over Lourdes.
About 20 minutes outside of Lourdes, you will find the popular limestone caves, the Grottes de Betharram. When we went, the line wasn’t long but there was NO staff around at all. We waited for 1/2 hour expecting someone to show up and tell us what to do and where to go. Nope, nothing.
My husband checked the TripAdvisor Reviews which said the caves were fascinating but service was atrocious. The kids were getting antsy and so we bailed on this attraction. We were disappointed because the dioramas of the caves which we examined thoroughly while we were waiting looked very cool!
Photo Gallery For Lourdes
The Pope Piux X basilica is a cavernous underground place of worship.
At the underground basilica of Pius X, pictures of saints line the underpinnings which are made into an architectural feature.
The statue of Mary above the Grotto at Lourdes.
The view form the upper basilica of the giant dome of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The view of the dome of Our Lady of the Rosary from the inside.
The mosaics of Our Lady of the Rosary were magnificent.
The sweeping arcade of Our Lady of the Rosary is filled with mosaics as well.
Practical Information for A Lourdes Pilgrimage
Tips on how you can make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France if you only have one day.
Getting To Lourdes
You can take the train from Paris to Lourdes relatively easily. The journey can last anywhere between 6-9 hours depending on the type of train. The TGV trains from Paris Gare-Montparnasse to Lourdes run up to 12x a day. The first train is in the early morning around 6AM and the last one leaves Paris around 9PM. Many of the trains involved 1-2 changes but there are up to 3 trains a day that are a direct service.
My parents did the Lourdes pilgrimage via the high-speed train from Paris several years ago. They speak no French. They also have a tendency to get hopelessly lost because map/sign reading is a skill they have not mastered (as I know from my childhood). If they can do it, you can, too!
We stayed an hour away at the Chateau de Projan. The chateau itself was gorgeous and the owners were gracious hosts. They gave us an alternate to the motorway to get to Lourdes which lead us through charming towns and bucolic countryside. We found the Chateau de Projan through [easyazon_link identifier=”B01K3MPNE2″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Alistair Sawday[/easyazon_link] which we love for quirky, cool places to stay.
So many chateaux, so little time. With more than 500 chateaux in the Loire Valley, where does one start exploring this region which has been called the garden of France? Having been to the Loire Valley a few times, we decided to narrow down the geographical area we would visit on our first trip to the area with the kids. We focussed on the area between Blois (the first chateau you meet when you come from Paris) and the city of Tours. Within this limited area, you will find plenty of sightseeing, including (in our opinion) the five best chateaux in the Loire Valley. It also helps that these chateaux are family-friendly!
Why Are There So Many Chateaux in the Loire Valley?
Running for approximately 1000 kilometres, the Loire is the longest river in France. This part of the Loire Valley has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site for its historical significance, charming towns and pretty chateaux.
The Loire River runs for about 1000 kilometres in France.
During the 100 Years War during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Loire valley was strategically important to the French and fortified against the English. After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the English were in control of Paris. The French did not regain control of Paris again until 1436 but the King of France decided to remain with his court in the Loire Valley.
There are so many chateaux to visit in the Loire Valley that it’s hard to know which ones to choose.
The French monarchy felt Paris was an unpredictable capitol. After all, it was the Parisians who had given Joan of Arc to the English to be executed. Considering the subsequent history of the French Revolution, the kings were right to be wary of the Parisians. In any event, where the king went, the aristocracy followed like lemmings. They, too, built chateaux around the Loire Valley so that they could be near the king and the good gossip.
Our Pick of the Five Best Chateaux in the Loire Valley
You wouldn’t be in the Loire Valley unless you were planning on visiting at least one French castle. The ancient Cathedral town of Tours is a convenient place to divide the Loire Valley if you are limited on time. With a cluster of chateaux on each side of Tours, each chateaux cluster has winners for attractiveness and gardens. Tours is also a good transportation hub with trains and a small airport.
As this map shows, these castles are relatively close to each other.
The Loire Valley tourism board has different types of chateaux passes depending on how many castles you want to see. The 5 Chateaus mentioned below are on their Chateaux Pass No. P which we felt was the maximum our children would visit without open revolt. We stayed near Cheverny and all of these castles are an easy driving distance from each other.
Chateau de Chenonceau is one of the most visited of the castles in the Loire Valley. Spanning the River Cher, it is beautiful and has extensive gardens. During its heyday, it was caught in a royal love triangle between Henri II, his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and his wife, Catherine de Medici.
The gardens and chateau de Chenonceau are both beautiful.
For kids, Chenonceau is fun to visit because it is a small chateau with pretty gardens and a garden maze. There is a handy restaurant as well as a little creperie. You can take boat rides or hire kayaks to go along the river.
The Chateau Royal de Blois was the home of 7 French kings and the centre of a lot of intrigue. Built around a courtyard, each wing has a different type of architecture – Gothic, Renaissance and Classical. Catherine de Medici (she who loved Chenonceau so much) died in the Queen’s Chamber at this chateau in 1589. You can see her study with the secret compartments where she supposedly kept her handy supply of poisons.
One of the facades of the Chateau de Blois.
For children, Blois has a throne they can sit upon and plenty of random things to examine. Francois I liked to put his salamander seal everywhere. My kids went around the castle playing find the salamander. The chateau also has a great sound and light show in the evenings and is located across the square from the highly-recommended family-friendly Museum of Magic.
Someone really liked being a pretend French queen.
Chateau de Chambord is the largest of the Loire chateaux with 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 84 staircases. The most famous of these staircases is the double helix staircase attributed as a design of Leonardo da Vinci. Built at the behest of Francois I as a hunting lodge, he used it for approximately 7 weeks during his reign. For much of its life, the chateau has lain empty because such a massive structure was hard to heat and impractical to live in.
The French Tricolor flag flies high amounts the many chimneys of Chambord.
For children, the highlight of Chambord will be climbing up and down the double helix staircase and walking around the rooftop of the chateau with its hundreds of chimneys (all those fireplaces had to lead somewhere!). Chambord also does regular pageants on its grounds which are geared toward showing children court life during medieval times.
The double helix staircase at Chambord supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. You can climb up one set of stairs and another person can climb down the other set of stairs. Neither of you will pass each other.
The chateau de Cheverny is still inhabited by the family that built it in the early 17th century. When Diane de Poitiers got ejected from Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici, she was housed at Cheverny until she was finally given Chaumont. It’s not bad for temporary housing! You may recognise the middle portion as the model for the chateau that appears in The Adventures of TinTin.
The centre part of the chateau de Cheverny is the model for the chateau in the Adventures of TinTin.
This chateau is not very big but it is an excellent example of how the aristocracy would have lived. It is light, bright and well-furnished. You get the sense that a real family would have lived in this chateau. The royal chateaux leave you with a sense of grandeur but feel cold and barren. My children liked walking in the pretty gardens and watching the French hounds in their kennel.
Cheverny has regularly scheduled tours through its gardens as well as plenty of places to picnic or just sit down.
The Chateau du Chaumont is the home Diane de Poitiers eventually received from Catherine de Medici after being turfed out of Chenonceau. This chateau has beautiful gardens especially if you are skipping Villandry which is well-known for its gardens. The Chateau itself is full of dark furniture from the 19th century . The grounds are well-landscaped with a fabulous view of the Loire valley.
The relatively small chateau de Chaumont is perched on a cliff with a view of the Loire Valley.
Every summer, Chaumont has a well-known international garden festival which is very family-friendly. Weird garden design to explore – what’s not to love?? We all loved the garden festival and could easily have spent the entire day exploring it.
Practical Information for visiting the Loire Valley Castles
We stayed at the Relais de Trois Chateaux which is a 4 star hotel in Cour Cheverny. The family room has a separate room for the children. Although the rooms are compact (you would think you were in Paris), they are beautifully decorated. We shared one bathroom but each room had its own television. Priorities, right?
There is no lounge/reception area worth mentioning at this hotel so you are either on your bed in your hotel room or not at the hotel. There is plenty of parking. The WiFi is excellent. The hotel restaurant, Les Trois Merchands, is very popular in the evening and very good. Located in the tiny village of Cheverny, you are pretty much outside the walls of the Chateau de Cheverny.
You can buy the Chateaux-Pass online which should save you some time. Otherwise, you can buy it at the local tourist office of Blois, Cheverny, Chambord or Chaumont. Keeping in mind that French tourist office hours may not align with your expectations, you can avoid disappointment by just buying it ahead of time.
My husband and I have visited the chateaux on the other side of Tours on previous trips. Azay-le-Rideau is considered a masterpiece of the French Renaissance but has been undergoing renovation the last couple of years. Chateau du Villandry is best known for its French-style gardens (nothing as kooky as you find at the Garden Festival at Chaumont). According to legend, while staying at pretty Chateau d’Usse, Charles Perrault was inspired to write Sleeping Beauty. With Azay-le-Rideau under scaffolding, much of its beauty as a chateau surrounded by water is marred. I personally think Chenonceau is prettier if you are comparing betweens chateaux-on-water. If you have the time (and willingness) this cluster of chateaux is worth exploring, too.
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So many chateaux, so little time. With more than 500 chateaux in the Loire Valley, where does one start exploring this region which has been called the garden of France? Luckily for you, here are the five best castles in the Loire Valley to include in your Loire Valley itinerary. It also helps that these chateaux are family-friendly! Check them all out. #france #loirevalley #castles #chateaux #francetravel
When you think of the Loire Valley, France, one thing comes to mind: magical castles where you can imagine kings and princesses. Here are the 5 best castles to visit in the Loire Valley: these chateaux will make you dream and you should definitely include them in your Loire Valley, France itinerary. #loirevalley #castles #france
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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 Chateau’s position, once defensive, now gives it amazing views.
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.
The Chateau de Chaumont set like a jewel amongst the lawns.
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.
The Catherine de Medici room has tapestries dating from the 15th century.
Catherine de Medici left behind her initials on the stonework.
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.
The small chateau with extensive gardens is great for kids to visit.
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.
A chateau with a view.
The Chapel had a modern art exhibit.
My eagle-eyed kids spotted a Furby in the installation. Can you find it?
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.
The view of the Chateau from the gardens.
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.
The fake rustic bridge really does look like the real thing.
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 great salon recreates the Belle Epoque style of the Princess de Broglie.
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.
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
Fields of flowers in the sunshine
More fields of flowers.
So pretty. Sorry I had to throw in more flower photos.
Lush flowers interspersed with lawns.
My daughter thought someone had gone a little artsy/craftsy to the ends of these flowers.
The gardens are very lush and immaculately maintained. Seating areas throughout enable you to rest and enjoy them.
One very noisy frog in the gardens. I can see why the French like to eat them.
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.
There were three of us in this marriage, it was a bit crowded.
Diana, Princess of Wales in an interview on BBC Panorama (1995)
With those infamous words, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, blew the lid off her husband, Prince Charles’s, long-standing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles on prime-time television to a mesmerised nation.
Royalty in previous years did not have the luxury of a publicly televised tear fest to name and shame. Their marital strife was conducted in private but was no less complex. One of the most beautiful chateaus in the Loire Valley in France, the Chateau de Chenonceau, was caught up in such a love triangle.
The Royal Love Triangle
First, the players in the biggest love triangle of the 16th Century.
Poor Little Rich Prince
When Henry II was a prince, he was the spare living in the shadow of the heir, his older brother. His father, Francis 1 was a larger than life figure. Francis I brought the Renaissance to France, waged war to all and sundry, was a notorious playboy and met Henry VIII of England on the Field of The Cloth of Gold. Henry II knew his father preferred his brother. Worse, his mother, the queen, died when he was a child. Amidst this family dysfunction, Francis I lost a war to the Holy Roman Emperor and had to send his two sons (aged 7 and 8) off as hostages until he could pay the ransom. It took daddy 4 years to pay the ransom while his sons languished as foreign prisoners.
When the boys finally returned to France, Francis I gave his younger son into the care of a court noblewoman, Diane de Poiters, a woman almost 20 years older than him. She cared for him so well that they became lovers while he was still a teenager (because he didn’t have enough parental issues). As was the custom of the day, he was married off in a political alliance to Catherine de Medici.
Little Orphan Medici Maiden
Orphaned as a baby, Catherine de Medici was a rich heiress and a pawn in her relatives battle for power. Although the Medicis controlled Florence, they were not royalty themselves but merely glorified bankers. Catherine’s ‘safe spot’ became a convent where she was left in relative peace. Her relative, the Pope, secured a great marriage for her to the second son of the King of France.
Henry II and Catherine de Medici were married in Marseille to much celebration when they were both 14 years old. Henry’s randy old father stayed in their room on the wedding night to make sure the dirty got done. Can someone say awkward?!
Anyway, Catherine de Medici loved Henry II but he was under the thrall of Diane de Poitiers. And, to make matters worse, poor Catherine was hardly a looker and Diane an unrivalled beauty.
Diane and Catherine were both strong women who carved their own future during a period of history when women had little power.
So at age 14, Catherine de Medici found herself in a loveless marriage surrounded by French courtiers who were unimpressed with her lack of royal blood. If you remember the movie, Dangerous Liaisons, the French court really was a nest of vipers. Worse, it took Catherine almost 10 years to have children. Although the French courtiers blamed her, it was likely that Henry had some performance issues. After a doctor was able to solve the couple’s problems, Catherine went on to have 10 kids, making up for lost time. Three of her sons became Kings of France and one of her daughters became a Queen of France.
Despite Catherine’s best efforts, the throne passed onto Henry IV (pictured here as a boy). Although Henry IV was married to Catherine’s daughter, they were childless and he chucked her aside. Henry IV went onto marry another Medici heiress, Marie de Medici.
You can almost forgive Catherine for being bitter and living through her children. If the excellent film, La Reine Margot, is to be believed she may have loved her sons a little too much. French courtiers were convinced that she was a schemer and poisoner, but Catherine came across as positively nice in comparison to her relative, Marie de Medici.
This panelled room was Catherine’s study. The panels hid drawers which is where she is rumoured to have hid her poisons.
The Cougar With the Golden Body
Diane de Poitiers was an acknowledged beauty who had a tendency to make the best of any situation in which she found herself. At the age of 15 she found herself married to a relative of the French King who was 40 years older than her. After his death, she wore black and white for the rest of her life. Not only were these mourning colours, they looked good on her.
Diane’s beauty was immortalised in both sculpture and painting. She reputedly drank liquid gold every day as an elixir to keep herself attractive. A modern-day analysis of her body indicated really high levels of gold which is probably what killed her in the end.
As soon as he was made king in 1547, Henry II gave Chateau de Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers even though Catherine de Medici wanted it. Diane adored Chenonceau and went about sprucing it up.
The Love Story
As is usual in those days of high mortality, the heir to the throne died and Henry II ascended to the French throne. You can only imagine how thrilled the Medicis were. They had only aspired to be related to royalty and hadn’t expected to have Catherine ascend the throne herself. Unfortunately, as the King’s official mistress, Diane de Poitiers had a lot of power and influence. Catherine de Medici found herself sidelined by the king and court. Henry II even gave Diane the French Crown Jewels (and not just metaphorically).
Catherine de Medici took as her personal motto odiate e aspettate (hate and wait). I’d be so afraid of anyone with that sort of motto rather than say something positive like, Every Day is A New Day or Don’t Worry Be Happy. It was probably good propaganda though to scare the French courtiers a bit.
Happily Ever After is for Fairytale Endings
So the hating and waiting paid off. Henry II died from injuries sustained in a jousting tournament where Diane and Catherine were onlookers. He had chosen to honour his mistress by wear Diane’s colours for the tournament. Coincidence? Who knows? Maybe Prince Philip really did have a quiet word with MI5 about his scene-stealing ex-daughter-in-law.
Catherine wouldn’t let Diane say her final farewell to Henry II even though he kept asking for her. Catherine also chucked her out of the Chateau de Chenonceau and took it for herself. Diane retreated gracefully. First, she took up temporary residence at the beautiful nearby Chateau de Cheverny. Then Diane gave her Chateau de Chaumont as a trade for Chenonceau. Chaumont is a beautiful chateau but its no Chenonceau.
Even though this is the Queen’s bedroom, Catherine preferred another bedroom.
The only way a long-standing love triangle ends is when one of the members of the triangle dies. In the medieval version, it was Henry II in a jousting accident and his two women were left to spar on their own. In the modern day version, Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car accident and Charles and Camilla went on to get married. I guess it is a happily ever after of sorts.
The bedroom of Catherine de Medici.
The History of Chenonceau
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Chenonceau several times. I took a tour with Context Tours with atour guide who gave a colourful explanation of its history.
There has been a chateau at Chenonceau since the Middle Ages. One of the owners rebuilt the chateau in the 16th century. A small portion of the 15th century chateau was kept to let people know that the chateau may be new but the family weren’t. French King Francis I took Chenonceau in 1535 as payment for debts owed him. In 1547, Henry II gave it as a gift to Diane de Poitiers even though his wife wanted it. I can’t decide if Henry II was brave or foolhardy.
The little stump of the medieval keep was kept so people wouldn’t think the owners were new money.
Diane de Poitiers undertook extensive renovations to Chenonceau building both the bridge across the river and an elaborate garden.
These gardens were created for Diane de Poitiers. She had great taste as well as beauty and brains. Pretty much a nightmare mistress if you are the wronged wife.
Diane’s garden was laid out with borders, fountains, and topiary.
Once Henry II died, Catherine turfed Diane out. Catherine loved Chenonceau, too, and undertook renovations as well. She added rooms over the bridge and an Italian garden on the other side of the Chateau. Diane liked to put her initials everywhere but Catherine changed the lettering to make them look like her initials, sort of like people do with tattoos nowadays.
Henry II really liked to have his initials everywhere – walls, floors, ceilings. In the last one you can see how easy it would be to entertwine the initial H with both a C and a D.
Anything Diane could do, Catherine wanted to do better. She even staged the first fireworks display France had ever seen at Chenonceau when her son Francis II ascended the throne.
Even Catherine’s Italianate garden was less interesting than Diane’s.
Catherine had grand plans for massively enlarging the chateau. For example, she wanted to add service buildings to each side of the chateau. Unfortunately only side got built. Nowadays, the chateau’s cafe is on that side.
Catherine’s extra buildings can be seen behind the sphinxes at the gate.
After Catherine, Chenonceau passed through a series of owners, royal and otherwise. It survived the French Revolution because it was one of the few bridges crossing the River Cher. During World War II, the Chenonceau was the link between Nazi-occupied France on one side of the River Cher to the other side which was part of the resistance forces.
Inside Chenonceau and its Gardens
The chateau that the Queen and the mistress both coveted is indeed beautiful. It is one of the most popular chateaus in the Loire Valley and gets hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. I would suggest you go early or late in order to minimise the tourist crowds. Even when I have been there in the early spring when the gardens were not in bloom, Chenonceau had its fair share of tourists.
Take a walk in the woods to avoid the masses and appreciate the beauty of the estate.
Although the Chateau is pretty, our favourite part were the gardens. My children especially enjoyed the maze.
It was a race to see who could finish the maze first.
I am not affiliated with Context Tours in any way, nor did I receive compensation of any type from them in exchange for writing this article. I paid for the Chateaux of the Loire Tour because I genuine love Context Tours.
Turning disused city train tracks into urban parks are all the rage these days. The grandaddy of them all, the Parisian Promenade Plantee was opened in 1993. Other city railway gardens around the world now include New York City’s The High Line, Sydney’s The Goods Line, and Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail. Philadelphia has set in plans in motion to create City Trail Rail Park. On the other hand, Paris has yet another disused railway track, the Petite Ceinture, which lies abandoned and unloved. It is a Parisian tale of two city railway gardens creating the best of times and the worst of times (with apologies to Charles Dickens).
The Promenade Plantee
We have walked with the children on the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Promenade”), also known as “La Coulée Verte”, a disused above-ground railway line which has been converted into a beautiful urban garden. The promenade runs along the Rue Daumesnil in the 12th arrondissement.
The Promenade Plantee served as the model for the fabulous High Line elevated garden in downtown New York City which was opened in 2010. Having walked both the High Line and the Promenade Plantee with the children, each park has a totally different feel. The Parisians have made the Promenade Plantee gracious and elegant with lots of plantings, archways etc. The High Line by contrast has a more contemporary garden design and feels more casual.
This Parisian promenade runs for almost 3 miles from the Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes. My children loved it and wanted to keep walking all the way to the end. We turned back half way worried they’d be exhausted and need to be carried back. Next time, we should bring scooters so they can zip along even further.
The views of the tops of the Haussman houses and the boulevards below are lovely. The zinc roofs of the Parisian buildings shimmer in the sun. The Parisians who are lucky enough to overlook the Promenade must have a fabulous view.
There were lots of locals out and about on the Promenade Plantee. Blending effortlessly into the city landscape as if it had always been intend to be a viaduct garden, I could see what attracted the planners of the High Line into creating a New York version. By the way, if you are a fan of Julie Delphy, you may recognise this park from the romantic film, Before Sunset (2004).
Contrast this urban oasis with the Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture (“Little Belt Railway”) nearby in the 20th arrondissement. The Petit Ceinture is a railway that loops around central Paris for 17 miles. The precursor to the Parisian Metro, it was abandoned in 1934 when the Metro came into existence and proved to be so much more efficient.
Recently plans have been proposed for things to do with the Petite Ceinture. Plans to sell off bits of the Petite Ceinture (which sits on valuable land) are contentious many consider the railway to be part of the nation’s heritage. I’ve read there are over 200 species of flora and fauna that live along the rail tracks. I would think the Petite Ceinture would be a perfect film location for a post-apocalyptic movie.
One entrance is on Rue Florian right across the Philippe Starck’s budget-friendly design hotel, Mama Shelter. In fact, parts of the railway tracks are visible from the terrace of the hotel restaurant.
I had read about in in a post by Messy Nessy Chic, one of my favourite blogs. Unlike when Nessy went, the day I was there, the gates were open but no welcoming flea market was about. I wandered in and up the makeshift ramp of compost to get to the tracks. I didn’t get very far before I found homeless people bunking down and a group of teens smoking stuff. It seemed sensible to leave since I was alone. Apparently in some parts the views are as good as on the Promenade Plantee.
You could tell some people were trying to grow vegetable patches. Someone had even planted a sedum garden on the bottom of an overtuned car. There is a desolate beauty about the place. Once the area turns trendy (usually not far behind a Starck hotel) the French authorities may finally decide to fix it up.
I wandered back to the former train station entrance, the Gare de Charonne, which is now a cafe and music venue. The grandiose architectural details and soaring ceilings of the station are perfect for a grungy gig venue.
One city, two city gardens both made from disused railroad tracks. They could not be more different from each other. Interestingly, the Promenade and the Petite Ceinture intersect in South-East Paris. Perhaps one day their paths will cross with both of them properly beautified.
Depending on where you want to sightsee, you will want to stay nearby if you are short on time. These two city gardens are in different arondissements – the Promenade Plantee is in the 12th arrondissement and the Petite Ceinture section I saw was in the 20th arrondissement.
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If you’ve seen the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Disneyland Paris, maybe it’s time to see something in Paris off the beaten path. The Promenade Plantée (“Planted Promenade”), also known as “La Coulée Verte” is one of the coolest gardens in Paris, France, a disused above-ground railway line which has been converted into a beautiful urban garden that not many know about. Check it out and discover an unusual Paris! #paris #gardens #france
Want to see something in Paris off the beaten path? Check out the Promenade Plantée (“Planted Promenade”), also known as “La Coulée Verte” and one of the coolest gardens in Paris, France, a disused above-ground railway line which has been converted into a beautiful urban garden. This garden was the inspiration behind the High Line garden in New York. Discover an unusual Paris! #paris #gardens #france – via @justgoplaces
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“Are you sure this is it?” I remarked to my husband. “It doesn’t look very fancy.”
“We have a weekend without the kids. That’s luxury in itself.” He responded.
We had found Maison Laurent on the main road in the town, a four-story cloud grey townhouse with sage green shutters and an unobtrusive sign announcing its name. We were in the Carcassone area sans children to take advantage of a long weekend stay my husband had won at Maison Laurent as part of a charity auction. Maison Laurent is a boutique B&B in the Languedoc countryside in the southwest of France.
Maison Laurent, A Luxury Boutique B&B
The smooth grey of the flagstone floor and whitewashed interior was a welcome relief from the heat outside. A wrought iron and grey stone staircase beckoned us up to the main living floor. We were greeted by the cheery English owners, Anthony and Rachel, and their exuberant English Spaniel, Bella.
Bella, the undisputed star of the show
They ushered us out of the large French doors leading to a landscaped rear garden. Under the intense French sun, the greens and pinks of the lush planting in full bloom were a kaleidoscope of colour. The gravel-covered paths crunched under Bella’s paws as she trotted off at regular intervals to inspect her domain.
Sheltered under a canopy, we relaxed in the dappled sunshine with glasses of the local white wine. The plain-fronted buildings in Pieusse had held their secrets close – beautiful interiors and large private back gardens! There’s a pool in the back of the garden perfect for relaxing in the sunshine.
Our room, located on the top floor, was a perfect mix of traditional decor with modern conveniences. The open windows let in a gentle warm breeze which ruffled the pale linen curtains. We could see over the orange-tiled roofs of the town and, in the distance, the vineyards and the church steeple. You always knew what time it was because the church bells chimed the time on the hour 24/7.
We sank onto the restored Louis XV bed and, hurrah, our WiFi reception was great! I knew any concerns I had about the quality of our boutique B&B were unfounded.
Maison Laurent is a traditional Maison d’Maitre in Languedoc close to Carcassone, the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. Anthony and Rachel bought the house from the previous owner, Laurent Sanchez, whose family had held it since it was built in the 1870’s. They painstakingly restored and modernised the house five years ago. The house was christened Maison Laurent because Maison Sanchez didn’t sound very French!
Breakfast in the morning was an elegant affair. The smell of toast hung in the air of the open plan kitchen dining room. Although I was tempted by the freshly baked croissants and baguettes on offer, I opted for a small bowl of grapefruit and orange slices with creamy local yogurt. I knew breakfast would most likely be my lightest meal of the day! Anthony made me a happy woman when he brewed me a pot of English breakfast tea with teabags imported from Yorkshire.
Apparently, one of the reasons Anthony wanted to run a B&B is his love of cooking. His hobby is to your benefit because Anthony and Rachel offer dinner at the hotel several days a week if you are so inclined.
The Carcassone Region of the Languedoc
The hamlet of Pieusse has one main road with pastel-coloured houses bleached by the sun standing like soldiers to attention. The buildings were stark in their wood and stone simplicity adorned only with colour-coordinated wooden shutters. At the end of the main road, there is a triangular roundabout spruced up with flowers, a bench and a monument of Jesus hanging on the cross.
The roundabout lead to the road out of town in one direction and fields of wine-growing grapes the other way. I wondered how many teenagers had sat under the Jesus statue with a bottle of local wine and prayed to get out of this one cheval town. Unlike those teenagers in my imagination we thought Pieusse was the perfect escape from our hectic lives.
Between Maison Laurent and the roundabout, the main (probably only?) restaurant in town, La Taverne a Bacchus, serves up rustic French food cooked on an open spit. I think the delicious food, quirky restaurant and opportunities for people watching deserves a post in itself.
Armed with helpful tips from Rachel, we set off every day after breakfast in our rental car to explore the nearby vineyards, canals, rolling hills and stone villages. Maison Laurent was perfectly located to take advantage of all that this gorgeous pastoral region of France has to offer.
If you are after sophistication and cultural things to do in the south of France, there are plenty of things to do in Nice and its environs. If you are after a quieter, more relaxed charm, go a bit further Southwest and bask under the Languedoc sun.
Good To Know:
Maison Laurent, in the village of Pieusse, is located bout 15 minutes from Caracassone and 90 minutes from the international airport in Toulouse. The accommodation comprises of 4 double bedrooms which range in price currently from Euro 105 to 145 a night. There is a pool and loungers available for use during the summer season. Children over the age of 12 may be accommodated upon request.