It doesn’t take long to drive the 20 miles of straightaway road that runs beside the Loire River from Blois to Amboise, but I was in a hurry that afternoon. After three days of rain, the sun had finally shown its face giving me a chance to take a few shots of 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.
When you are approaching the town of Amboise and see the castle for the first time you’ll notice that it’s completely different from the the stylish Chenonceau or the fairytale aspect of Chambord. Surrounded by 10-foot-high walls, the luminous limestone façade of Château d’Amboise rises above the river, behind a row of ordinary houses that rest at its foot. Constructed in the 11th century by the Count of Anjou, the castle was erected on the foundation of an old Gallic fortress and was expanded many times over the centuries. Its strategic position –up on a promontory overlooking the Loire– offered a solid defense against any attackers.
A Royal Residence
Château d’Amboise was home to many kings of France who were born, lived and died there. 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 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, when Charles VIII brought Italian architects, painters and sculptors with him from his Italian campaigns. He embellished the château, building the great towers, a wide ramp for horses and carriages, and designing the beautiful garden. Château d’Amboise was the first to have gardens laid out in the formal style that came to be known as ‘French style gardens’. Tragically, it did not occur to him to enlarge the château’s doors and at age 28 he died an unfortunate death when he hit his head on a castle doorframe and fell into a coma. His successor, King Louis XII, built a gallery around the terrace and extended the gardens.
Amboise reached the peak of its glory during the reign of François I. François I who grew up at Amboise as a ward of Louis XII, was a great fan of Italian art and architecture. So the sooner 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, who was invited to Amboise in December 1515. The royal castle was a major source of inspiration for Leonardo da Vinci, who resided in the nearby Chateau Clos Lucé, a manor house located only 500 m away from Château d’Amboise. The king so admired Leonardo’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 and his original burial place was in a chapel on the other side of the castle complex. But that chapel was later demolished and his remains were moved to the St. Hubert Chapel, which is also on the castle grounds.
The little Chapel of Saint Hubert is a gem of Amboise. Its commending location –perched high on the southwestern side of the castle wall– makes it visible from all corners of the garden, the terrace and from the town below. The building is a fine example of Gothic architecture. Although it is attached to the massive castle wall, the chapel seems very delicate and refined. The doorway is adorned with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the life to St. Hubert.
The Amboise Conspiracy
Perhaps the darkest moment in the castle’s history was in 1560, during the Wars of Religion. The Conspiracy of Amboise was an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Guise brothers –violent suppressors of Protestantism during the reign of Francis II. 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 the Château served as a prison, then 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 as a historic monument and attempted to restore it, but 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.
Although what is left of the Château is only a fifth of what Amboise once was, the castle is still an impressive site to visit. Besides the great collection of renaissance furniture and tapestries, the castle’s carefully maintained gardens and the magnificent views of the entire region make the visit a very enjoyable one.