It takes only half an hour to drive the 20-miles road that runs from Blois to Amboise. But that afternoon it seemed to take forever. The sun was finally shining after three days of rain, so we were rushing to finally see the beautiful Château d’Amboise. We had been circling the château for the past two days waiting for the rain to stop, so I wasn’t going to miss this chance.
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Château d’Ambroise – First Impressions
As you are approaching Amboise, you’ll see the château on your left hand side, across the Loire River. The first thing that will strike you when you see Chateau d’Amboise is how different it is from the stylish Château de Chenonceau, or the fairytale aspect of Château de Chambord. Surrounde by 10-foot high walls, the castle rises like a somber shadow behind the row of ordinary houses that rest at its foot.
A Brief History of Chateau d’Amboise
Chateau d’Amboise sits on the foundation of an old Gallic fortress. Its strategic position above the Loire River, offered a solid defense against any attackers. The structure that you see today suffered many expansions and alterations since the Count of Anjou erected it in the 11th century.
A Royal Residence
Many of the Kings of France were born, lived and died at Château d’Amboise. The castle first became a royal residence in the mid 1400s, when Charles VII seized it from Louis d’Amboise who was involved in a plot against the monarchy. Once in royal hands, the Château d’Amboise became a favorite of the French kings who began rebuilding and extending it.
The first great wave of changes came towards the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. At that time, Charles VIII brought Italian architects, painters and sculptors with him from his Italian campaigns. He embellished the château’s building the great towers. He also built a wide ramp for horses and carriages and redesigned the castle grounds with French style gardens.
Tragically, it did not occur to him to enlarge the château’s doors as well. As a result, he hit his head on a doorframe and died at age 28, after getting into a coma. His successor, King Louis XII, built a gallery around the terrace and extended the gardens.
Château d’Ambroise in its Heiday
Château d’Amboise reached the peak of its glory during the reign of François I, who grew up at Amboise as the ward of King Louis XII. François I was a great fan of Italian art and architecture. Therefore, as soon as he became king he employed several Italian artists from whom he commissioned exquisite paintings to decorate his luxurious interiors. One of these artists was Leonardo Da Vinci himself, whom he invited to Amboise in December 1515.
The royal castle was a major source of inspiration for Leonardo da Vinci, who resided in the nearby Château Clos Lucé. Clos Lucé was a manor house located only 500 m away from Château d’Amboise.
The king so admired Da Vinci’s art and wisdom, that he ordered an underground tunnel built between his castle and Clos Lucé for his secret visits. Da Vinci spent only three years at Clos Lucé before he passed away. His desire was to be buried at Château d’Amboise, so his first burial place was in a small chapel on the other side of the castle. Later on, when that chapel was demolished, Da Vinci’s remains were moved to St. Hubert Chapel, which is also on the castle grounds.
Gems of Château d’Amboise
The little Chapel of Saint Hubert is one of the gems at Château d’Amboise. Its delicate and refined silhouette with bas-reliefs is a fine example of Gothic architecture.
The chapel sits high up on a cliff, on the southwestern side of the castle wall. Its commending location makes it visible from all corners of the garden, the terrace and from the town below. Although it’s practically part of the castle wall, the chapel has very distinctive structure.
The Dark Days of Château d’Amboise – the Amboise Conspiracy
The darkest moment in the history of Château d’Amboise was undoubtedly the Conspiracy of Amboise, an unhappy event that took place during the Wars of Religion. The Conspiracy of Amboise was an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Guise brothers, who were violent suppressors of Protestantism.
A group of about 1,200 protestants, all members of the Huguenot nobility, besieged Amboise, trying to kidnap the King and arrest the Guise brothers. But the plot was poorly organized and failed. The bloody massacre that followed went down in history. The conspirators and their troops have been disemboweled, decapitated or hanged from the castle walls.
It’s hard to imagine what a terrible site the castle must have been during that time.
From the 17th century onward Château d’Amboise served as a prison. In time, the castle began falling into disrepair. After the French Revolution in 1799, the castle was partially demolished.
In the 19th century, King Louis-Philippe declared Château d’Amboise a historic monument and attempted to restore it. Unfortunately, the king’s abdication in 1848 put a halt to the works.
Today, the castle is being administered and maintained by one of the descendants of King Louis-Philippe, through the Fondation Saint-Louis.
Château d’Ambroise Today
In its days of glory, Château d’Amboise was about five times bigger than what you see today. When you tour this majestic fortress, it’s hard to imagine how it must have looked back then. But even though it’s not as big as it once was, the structure is still very impressive.
The castle has a wonderful collection of renaissance furniture and tapestries and also a beautifully maintained garden.