Standing on a hilltop overlooking the broad sweep of the Loire, in a park of venerable cedars of Lebanon, the Renaissance château of Chaumont-sur-Loire in France has a Disneyesque, fairy-tale aspect. With its round towers and pointy roofs, it is pure Sleeping Beauty, a quintessentially feminine confection, and, fittingly, its history is dominated by remarkable women.
The original castle, or fortress, was built in the 10th century by Eudes or Odo I, Count of Blois, burnt down in 1465 on the orders of Louis XI, and soon after rebuilt.
From 1550, Catherine de’ Medici, wife of Henri II and mother, in their turn, of Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, used the Chaumont property as a hunting lodge as she shuttled between the chateaux of Amboise and Blois, from where she all but ran France. In 1560, following Henri’s death in a jousting match, Catherine gave up Chaumont to Diane de Poitiers, the late Henri’s favourite mistress, though confiscating Diane’s beloved Château de Chenonceau, and it was De Poitier who ordered works that shaped the château we see today.
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In 1810, Madame de Staël, the brilliant intellectual, historian, woman of letters and conspicuous opponent of the Emperor Napoleon, stayed as a guest of James Le Ray de Chaumont, establishing a literary salon here while her host was in America. She was wildly eccentric, a flashy dresser, and notoriously unfaithful to her husband, the Baron de Staël, numbering among her lovers the statesman Talleyrand, foreign minister the Comte de Narbonne, and the liberal philosopher Benjamin Constant.
But perhaps the most colourful of all Chaumont’s chatelaine’s was Marie-Charlotte-Constance Say, heiress to a sugar fortune, who at 17 married Prince Amédée de Broglie, and, as Princess de Broglie, filled the rooms with Renaissance furniture while overseeing extensive renovations. The pair lived the high life and entertained the crowned heads of Europe. They hosted festivals and staged shows, hiring the Ballets de l’Opéra de Paris and the Comedie-Française, while an elephant – a gift from the Shah of Persia – wandered the grounds.
You will not find an elephant at large in the park today, but from late April you can visit the acclaimed International Garden Festival, which has been a fixture at Chaumont since 1992, a showcase for contemporary landscape and garden designs from around the world. Or, if you cannot attend in person, you can, for a justifiably substantial cover price, explore the château interiors and grounds, and discover its history, through the pages of Inspired by Nature; Château, Gardens and Art of Chaumont-Sur-Loire.
Inspired by Nature; Château, Gardens and Art of Chaumont-Sur-Loire, by Chantal Colleu-Dumond, with photographs by Eric Sander, is published by Flammarion on April 4, 2019 and will be available on the Saga Bookshop.
The International Garden Festival runs from April 25 to November 3, 2019.