Château de Chambord today is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the first stone being set in a massive construction effort that would eventually create one of France’s most majestic castles.
We visited Chambord two years ago during a bike ride across the Loire Valley. This architectural wonder will likely be on any list of Top 10 Must See castles in France, and for good reason. It is a masterpiece of French Renaissance architecture, and the largest castle in a region that was a popular spot over the centuries for royals to build their dream lodgings.
The castle itself sits in the middle of a vast 13,200 forest preserve that is surrounded by a 20-mile enclosure.
When we arrived, we locked our bikes near the castle’s little village where there are several restaurants and shops. We then bought tickets and entered the main castle grounds, a visit that can easily require a whole day, not including the sprawling gardens.
Chambord was the brainstorm of King François I. There were already a couple of royal residences nearby, but he apparently wanted a signature hunting lodge.
The timing of the construction, which would last 28 years and was never completed, marked a shift. While such structures had also traditionally served a practical purpose of offering defense, by the 16th century there was less concern about such attacks. So Chambord was free to be driven more by design and to be more decorative.
Entering the center, we quickly came upon one of its most famous features: a double-helix staircase that was reportedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian painter spent the last few years of his life living not far from Chambord, and died 500 years ago just before construction started.
After wandering through the rooms, we made our way to the roof, which is covered with intricately designed towers and chimneys.
While the structure is mesmerizing, the views from up high are also quite astounding.
This opulence is a monument to the astonishing wealth and power of 16th century France, and a political and economic system that enabled such grandeur. But in its way, it is also a symbol of hubris.
The construction was difficult, facing delays at time due to war. At one point, there were 1,800 people working on site. King François died in 1547, and had reportedly only spent several weeks at Chambord.
From there, Chambord was largely abandoned. Its rooms and layout were designed around the idea that it would be used for short stays, making it unappealing for anyone to live there full time. It was largely abandoned and fell into decay until King Louis XIV took a stab at renovating it in the 17th century, but it was again largely forgotten.
Over the decades, it housed a deposed Polish king, and fell into the posession of an Austrian royal family. It was really not until after World War II when the French government had possession of it again that a full on restoration began, one that continues today, that turned Chambord into what appears to be a flawless work of art that draws swarms of tourists every year.