Secrets of the Chateaux: Not Just for the Classroom


Ashten Scheller is a student at Denver University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Paris, France.

Picture-perfect Loire Valley goodness.

The background for children’s fairy tales, the sets for historical dramas, the destination for millions of tourists every year–the castle. Large, often imposing, and for most of us (especially we castle-deprived Americans) a foreign concept, these architectural feats are nothing less than awe-inspiring. However, I’ve run across a troubling attitude toward historic sites like the castles of the Loire Valley, for example, or the old canals of Bruges, or the many churches and cathedrals of Ghent: “Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all…do we really need these many?”

I get it.

Castle fatigue is real. With 42 castles in the Loire Valley of France open to the public alone, I can understand how one turret starts to look like the next, and one lord or lady of olde who married a cousin or an uncle or a niece (good job, Europe) begins to sound a heck of a lot like the next. 16th-century tapestries and 17th-century portraits carry a similar tune; you can handle only so many “interesting-looking” medieval baby Jesuses. As someone who has taken it upon herself to study art history, I completely get how the awe you feel when walking where a king walked starts to subside when you realize that hey, a bunch of peasants walked through here too…and horses…and the plague.

But that’s the beauty of it; we don’t need fewer of these experiences, we need more.

We need more historic and cultural preservation so that we can understand not only the lords and ladies, but those peasants–who were people just like you and I are. We need greater understanding of not only ancient castles in Europe, but of the lives of those who lived in North America, the Middle East, Africa, island nations, and Asia.

Walking up to any given castle, I really can’t help but think: “Wow, I’d be impressed by your power and wealth,” so I suppose the castle effect totally works.

Let me take you through just a few recent experiences to show you what I mean. Take the Chateau du Chambord, for example; this is the castle that inspired the setting of Beauty and the Beast, and was originally a hunting lodge to be used only a few weeks out of the year (#HGTVvacationhome). Though only one side remains, a moat originally surrounded the structure, and it’s said that tons of horses were kept here each year. However, after François 1er’s court came under attack, this became the semi-permanent home of the king and his court–the same french king who was best friends with–any guesses? (think Italian)–Leonardo DaVinci.

At Amboise, we stopped by to see an old friend…you might know him?

That’s right: this Renaissance castle is equipped with some modifications by our friend Leo, such as the double-helix staircase, which allows two (or more) people to descend or ascend at the same time without ever crossing paths. Nifty, right? François, “the salamander king” was rather particular about having his initials on everything (see: monogram trend), and hey, he’s the king, so an F on everything it is. Why salamander, you might ask? Well, most kings would choose their emblem based on a fierce or powerful animal–think wolves, lions, dragons, etc. A salamander, you might notice, is not particularly large or fierce; however, at the time, it was thought to have been able to withstand the flames of an enemy and forever rise victorious from the surrounding ashes–a powerful symbol for any military leader. Sneaky, that François.

This isn’t the aforementioned double-helix staircase, but a fabulous one nonetheless.

However, as my fellow ISA students and I were taken on a tour of Chambord by the loveliest Italian historian (shoutout to Gilberto), it was revealed to us that the rooms we were seeing–specifically Francis’ bedroom–was not all that it appeared to be: the current staging was completely incorrect for the time period in which it existed, and what we were seeing was basically a lie.

This is the wonderful Gilberto, who–as an art history major–I aspire to be, not only for his castle knowledge, but personal sense of style. Gilberto, we <3 you.

In other words, it was practically fake.

This admission struck me; how many other rooms, like this one, were incorrect? How many monuments or historic sites were arranged to look fantastic and intriguing, but held little truth?

Please, just try to imagine casually strolling along the op of the castle on your way to whatever important strategic meeting you had on the agenda for the day. Or maybe you just like strolling. I would recommend getting a castle for either scenario.

This is why we need actual preservation, and tour guides like Gilberto. If we are going to base research, literature, history, facts, and evidence in the past, it better darn well be accurate. Otherwise, we begin to form ideas about people and the way they lived on what we would have liked them to be, not as they actually were.

We really couldn’t have gone to the Loire Valley at a better time during the year. ISA, your planning skills are unparalleled and oh-so-lovely. Peep the Chenonceau Chateau at the end of this major curb appeal.

A second castle we toured during this weekend in the Loire Valley was that of Chenonceau–the ladies’ castle. Why, might you ask, is this the ladies’ castle? An excellent question, reader, why thank you! This castle has a reputation for its control by not the men of history, but the women–a bit of a rarity with regard to the time period, region, and general writing of history.

The current castle was built during the 15th century after the original castle was destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War (since, you know, 15th century buildings are totally new and modern, those silly, modern Renaissance architects. Here’s a link to fill you in on the war, if you’re so inclined to know more: ). Because of said war, the principal architect Thomas Bohier was called off to war, so his wife Katherine took over. However, because of some sketchy financial transactions later on, Henri II confiscated it (as kings can do) and gave it to not his wife, but his mistress…Diane de Poitiers. Wife Catherine de Medicis was (evidently) not happy (ahhh, marriage), and reclaimed the castle after good ole’ Henri passed on. *spousal justice*

For any architecture fans out there, I’ll add that you can now see the competing styles of Diane and Catherine throughout the castle–another byproduct of cultural preservation. Their love triangle just wouldn’t be as juicy without details like that.

Though I can’t tell you whose bedroom this was–either Diane’s or Catherine’s–let it be known that both are probably bigger than the average Parisian apartment, so you really can’t go wrong with either.

Later, during the French Revolution, the government threatened to seize the castle, but Louise Dupin used her sleuthing skills to find historical documents that proved the private ownership of the castle–thereby saving it from destruction. #FrenchRevolutionLadyLawyerWin.

The beauty of it is, Chenonceau didn’t stop existing after these ladies and mistresses of hundreds of years ago–it was used during both World Wars as either a hospital (WWI) or passageway for French Resistance soldiers to escape enemy lines. The preservation of this castle not only reminds and informs us of the intricate power play between royals, but of lives saved and practical uses that have allowed families to continue living today. The room where balls were thrown was also where soldiers were tended to and the rich and the poor fought to save lives. That’s not something I want to forget, or think that we–as a society–should forget is possible.

My favorite room of the chateau, this ballroom held both some of the most extraordinary royal events and wounded soldiers during World War 1. Talk about an amazing multi-purpose space.

I could go on and on about the art that adorns the walls of these buildings today, or the minutiae of every square inch of not only these castles but of the castle Amboise as well (thank you, ISA, for such an amazingly full weekend!!), but that would leave you with less incentive to visit yourself (though I’m easily persuaded, so leave a comment or shoot me a message if your curiosity gets the better of you. No shame.). Let me leave you with this: history isn’t just for the textbooks–it’s something that we should encounter on a day-to-day basis. We need to record and preserve history as it actually happened, without glorifying or staging a setting for the sake of pride or aesthetic value.

Though I may just be a silly American with a fascination with castles, I think it’s safe to say that we could all use a little more castle therapy–or just remember that the history what seems to be the few is actually the history of the many.

The world awaits…discover it.

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