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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

France: Chenonceau, A Castle Where Water Meets Stone

Updated: Mar 6

The Château de Chenonceau, nicknamed the "Château des Dames" (Castle of the Ladies) for its history marked by influential female figures, is a jewel of the French Renaissance. Located in the Indre-et-Loire department in France, it spans the Cher, a tributary of the Loire, and stands out for its unique blend of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

France: Chenonceau, A Castle Where Water Meets Stone

© O. Robert

History of the Castle and its Gardens

The construction of the current castle began in 1513, initiated by Thomas Bohier, General Receiver of Finances of Normandy, and his wife Katherine Briçonnet. They demolished the old fortress to erect a Renaissance-style chateau. However, it was Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henry II, who deeply marked the history of the castle.

Upon Bohier's death, the king confiscated the castle and presented it to Diane de Poitiers in 1547. Passionate about architecture and gardening, she constructed the bridge connecting the chateau to the other bank of the Cher and created magnificent gardens.

After the death of Henry II in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, forced Diane to exchange Chenonceau for the Château de Chaumont. Catherine de Medici then transformed Chenonceau into a place of grandeur and receptions, enlarging the chateau by building the gallery over the bridge.

In the 17th century, the chateau came into the hands of Louise Dupin, who saved it from destruction during the French Revolution by declaring it essential for river traffic. She hosted literary salons frequented by the great minds of the time, such as Voltaire and Montesquieu.

The chateau changed owners several times in the 19th century. The Pelouze family restored it, and it was finally acquired in 1913 by the Menier family, known for their chocolate industry, who continue to take care of it today.

My equipment: MANFROTTO Pro Light Frontloader. The sturdy and waterproof backpack. Practical and stylish for short photography trips.

My equipment: MANFROTTO Pro Light Frontloader. The sturdy and waterproof backpack. Practical and stylish for short photography trips.

Chenonceau is also known for its role during both World Wars. During World War I, it served as a military hospital. In World War II, the gallery over the Cher marked the demarcation line between the free zone and the area occupied by Germany.

Today, the Château de Chenonceau is the second most visited castle in France after Versailles. It is famous for its gardens, remarkable architecture, and wax museum. The faithfully restored gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici offer a memorable stroll. The gallery, 60 meters long and 6 meters wide, is an architectural feat and a venue for temporary exhibitions.

Chenonceau is also known for its art collections, featuring tapestries and paintings by masters from the 16th to the 18th century. The castle also possesses remarkable Renaissance furniture.

The architectural uniqueness of Chenonceau, its rich and varied history, and its key role at different times in French history, make it an essential part of French heritage.

Today, the castle continues to dazzle visitors with its beauty and elegance, testifying to the richness of French history. It has become a renowned location for landscape and architecture photography for its unique situation on the Cher.

France: Chenonceau, A Castle Where Water Meets Stone

© O. Robert

The Gardens

The gardens of the Château de Chenonceau are among the most remarkable of the French Renaissance, having evolved over the centuries while retaining their beauty and historical character. Here is a summary of the main stages of creation and renovation of these gardens.

Garden of Diane de Poitiers (1551)

When Diane de Poitiers received Chenonceau from Henry II, she initiated the creation of her garden. Located to the west of the castle, this garden is characterized by a symmetrical and formal arrangement, typical of the Renaissance. It consists of carefully arranged flower beds, bordered by boxwood and adorned with sculpted fountains. This garden reflects Diane's passion for order and nature and is designed to be an extension of the castle, emphasizing its elegance and grace.

Garden of Catherine de Medici (1559)

After taking possession of the castle, Catherine de Medici commissioned her own garden to the east. This garden is more sophisticated and sumptuous, reflecting the queen's status and taste. With its tree-lined alleys and geometric flower beds, Catherine's garden stands out for its greater ornamental richness, including sculptures and more elaborate water features. This garden symbolizes the power and influence of Catherine de Medici.

My equipment: GITZO Traveler. The ultimate and compact carbon tripod for traveling light without compromising stability. With shoulder strap.

My equipment: GITZO Traveler. The ultimate and compact carbon tripod for traveling light without compromising stability. With shoulder strap.

Evolution and Restorations (17th - 20th Century)

Over the centuries, the gardens underwent several modifications and restorations. Under Louise Dupin in the 18th century, the gardens were adapted to the taste of the time, introducing more naturalism. However, these modifications respected the original plan and spirit of Diane's and Catherine's gardens.

In the 20th century, the gardens were meticulously restored to their Renaissance glory. These restorations were guided by historical documents, ensuring the authenticity of the gardens. Today, the gardens of Chenonceau are famous for their beauty and historical preservation.

They are carefully maintained to reflect their original 16th-century state, with seasonal flower beds that change throughout the seasons, creating a constantly renewed experience for visitors. A hint for photography enthusiasts fond of symmetries... These gardens are inexhaustible sources of inspiration, especially in winter.

Unique Characteristics

The gardens of Chenonceau are unique in that they reflect not only the art of Renaissance gardening but also the personality and preferences of the women who created and remodeled them over the centuries. Each garden, with its fountains, sculptures, pathways, and flowerbeds, tells a part of the story of the castle and its illustrious residents.

In summary, the gardens of Chenonceau, through their design and evolution, are a living testament to the history and art of gardening in France, representing both the power, elegance, and sophistication of the women who shaped the history of this emblematic place.

France: Chenonceau, A Castle Where Water Meets Stone

© O. Robert

The Estate of Chenonceau and Photography

The Château de Chenonceau and its gardens offer exceptional photographic opportunities, particularly for photographers specializing in architectural landscapes and minimalism. Here are, in my opinion, a few aspects that make this location particularly interesting for photography.

1. Architectural and Natural Contrast

The elegant architecture of the castle, with its clean lines and symmetry, harmoniously blends with the surrounding nature. This combination creates a striking visual contrast, ideal for photographic work focused on composition and form.

2. Reflections on Water and Long Exposures

The castle is famous for its bridge spanning the Cher, providing beautiful reflections in the water. These reflections can be exploited to create symmetrical images or to play with perspectives.

It's obviously an ideal subject for long exposure, which I have not had the opportunity to test. The restrictive visiting hours and the constant flow of visitors in the gardens are constraints that require a lot of time to manage! And unfortunately, I did not have that time.

However, it's worth noting that the best views for long exposures are from the forest side of the riverbank. And this forest is public and accessible at all times. There's no need to pay an entrance fee and wait for opening hours. Therefore, plan to stay nearby. Even though hotels are rare, there are several superb guest houses nestled in old estates.

My equipment: URTH Filter Kit. High-quality filters for landscape photography.

My equipment: URTH Filter Kit. High-quality filters for landscape photography.

3. The Gardens

The gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici, with their flower beds and orderly paths, offer a multitude of textures, colors, and shapes. The play of shadow and light through the trees and bushes adds an extra dimension to your images.

4. Light and Atmosphere

The castle and its gardens can present varied atmospheres depending on the light and weather. For example, morning mist can give an ethereal and mystical touch, while the golden evening light can emphasize the majesty and elegance of the site.

France: Chenonceau, A Castle Where Water Meets Stone

© O. Robert

Photographic Interest in Every Season

1. Spring: With the flowering of plants and the emergence of new leaves, the gardens come to life. The soft light and vivid colors of spring are ideal for photography that is fresh and dynamic.

2. Autumn: Autumn offers a palette of warm colors, with yellow, orange, and red leaves. This season is perfect for capturing the transformation of the landscape and the play of light through the foliage.

3. Winter: Winter can provide a minimalist and tranquil setting, especially if the castle is covered in snow. The clean architectural lines stand out starkly against a winter landscape. It is also in this season that the structure of the trimmed plant pathways is most pronounced. Especially in the early morning, once the vegetation is covered with frost.

4. Summer: Although this season is often marked by harsher light and larger crowds, the gardens are at their peak, offering an abundance of colors and textures.

Each season brings its own challenges and unique opportunities in photography. The key is to visit the site at different times of the day and year to explore all its facets and capture its essence through the lens.

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