chateau amboise

Chateau Amboise: Death and Intrigue in Loire Valley

Introduction

The UNESCO World Heritage Royal Château of Amboise deserves several days exploring not just the Château, but also Château Clos Du Luce, Château Gillard, and beautiful Amboise on the Loire River. Read about the history of death, intrigue, conspiracy, and decline of the seat of the Valois Kings. Find out the top things to do and see at the Château, and the best places to stay in Amboise.

Chateau Chenonceau is just down the road from Amboise – read a comprehensive guide on visiting Castle Chenonceau: Loire Chateau of Powerful Women.

The Loire Valley

Although the Seine and the Rhone might be better known, the River Loire is the longest river in France. Gathering deep in the Massif Central it meanders in a crescent down past famous towns and cities like Saint-Etienne and then Vichy right in the center of the country before running west to the coast, past Orléans, Tours, and Nantes to drain into the Bay of Biscay at the port of Saint Nazaire. 

The river’s fertile valley has sometimes been called the Garden of France and is a major winemaking region. It’s also home to thousands of châteaux, the fairy-tale castles of the Loire Valley, which hearken back to a time when the area was a strategic frontier between the north and south of France.

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Amboise

Situated just to the east of Tours along the Loire is a town and a commune known as Amboise. Its name probably originates from two old Gallic words, ambi and isara, which together mean something like “fast around both sides” or less literally “between two waters”, as the town was founded on a place of many islands, where the Loire meets its tributary the Amasse.

As you approach the town, the Chateau d’Amboise is clearly visible. Atop its hill, towering over the small town with which it shares its name, Chateau d’Amboise looks like something in between a Disney castle and Colditz Castle. As a brief look at the chateau’s history will indicate, sometimes appearances are not deceiving.

History of Château d’Amboise

Château d’Amboise was built upon a strategic hill over the Loire which had been a strong point for centuries. Before even Caesar wandered into Gaul with his legions, a Gallic oppidum had been built there. 

A castle was built there in the early Medieval period as the Franks were becoming the French. The area became one of the first key possessions of the original House of Anjou, the ancestors of the Plantagenet kings of England. 

The castle at Amboise was even important enough to have a long chronicle written about it in Latin during the 12th Century, which traces the area’s history all the way back to Caesar himself.

The Château Royal

Louis d’Amboise, the Viscount of Thors, was found guilty of plotting against the French King Louis XI in 1431 and was sentenced to execution. On second thoughts, Louis XI decided to pardon him but to take his Château.

But as the bloodthirsty austerity of the Middle Ages transitioned into the more opulent and sophisticated Renaissance, the French Kings decided that their seat needed some reservation. An unsuccessful plot against the king saw the castle seized by Charles VII of France(known as the Well-Served) and passed on to his son King Charles VIII (or the Affable).

The Affable king decided to redesign the castle, turning it from a primarily defensive building into a stately royal residence. In 1492 he began renovations in the late Gothic Flamboyant style popular in France. Then in 1495 he hired Italian architects and artisans and constructed the first Italianate palace in France, pioneering Renaissance architecture and interior design within the country. 

Amboise Castle had become a true Royal Castle.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Chapel Saint-Hubert, burial place of Leonardo da Vinci

But the Château Royal d’Amboise’s Renaissance connection didn’t end with its construction. In 1515 King Francis the First, who had grown up at the chateau invited none other than Leonardo da Vinci to stay there. From the end of 1515 until his death four years later, da Vinci lived and worked at the nearby Château du Clos Lucé (which was connected to Chateau d’Amboise via an underground tunnel). 

During this time da Vinci drew up plans for a huge castle town that Francis wanted to be constructed to the east of Amboise at Romorantin. Though his work was eventually hampered by his infirmity, da Vinci was known to have constructed an elaborate and complex mechanical lion while staying at Clos Lucé. The lion was capable of walking on its own accord and was presented to Francis during one of his pageants. Upon striking the lion with a cane, its chest opened, presenting the astonished king with a bouquet of lilies. 

Leonardo da Vinci would die at Clos Lucé, probably from a stroke in 1519. Da Vinci was buried by a heartbroken king who held the mastermind to be a close friend at his very own Chapel of Saint Florentin.

The Amboise Conspiracy

But the chateau’s history does not end here. Throughout France’s troublesome 16th Century, the castle was the home of King Henry II and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici (along with her once prospective daughter-in-law Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots). Ruling through her three successive sons, Medici desperately attempted to keep the Valois monarchy alive throughout a period of violent religious turmoil, and she has dubbed by many historians as the most powerful woman of the century for her efforts. You can read about the est of her history in the Loire Valley in nearby Chateau Chenonceau.

It was during that time that the infamous Amboise conspiracy occurred, which saw an attempt by members of the Huguenot House of Bourbon (who were Protestants) to kidnap De Medici’s young son and rule through him. The influential and Catholic House of Guise responded mercilessly, executing over 1200 local Protestants and hanging their decomposing corpses from hooks on the façade of the château, forcing the Royal Court to leave Amboise.

Decline and Emprisonment

As the French Wars of Religion ended and the House of Valois fell Chateau d’Amboise became gradually less important. By the time of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, much of the chateau and its surrounding buildings were in a dilapidated state and had to be demolished.

Tourists came and went, and various attempts were made by subsequent Kings of France such as the liberal Louis-Philippe to restore what was declared a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture.

In one final historical cameo, Chateau d’Amboise was the prison of the widely respected Algerian resistance figure the Emir Abd el-Kader (Abd Al-Qadir) between 1848 and 1852.

Visiting the Chateau Amboise

Today the Chateau d’Amboise is maintained by Jean, the Comte de Paris via the Fondation Saint-Louis, and has been restored to an excellent condition for the benefit of the French people and visitors from across the world. 

Once you’ve arrived your experience begins with an interactive video tour of the castle’s premises detailing an overview of its illustrious history. After that there’s an hour-long guided tour of the site (though its currently only available in French and Italian), through some of the chateau’s most stately rooms. 

Of course the chateau we see today is only a fifth of the size that it was in its prime, leaving many visitors a little underwhelmed that this storied place is not really a second Versailles. To compensate for this, Fondation Saint-Louis has created the Histopad, a “tablet-based visitor experience” that with the aid of modern technology, brings to virtual life the opulent Chateau d’Amboise of the Renaissance.

What to See

In addition to the small Chapel of Saint-Hubert and its underground passage, make sure you see these Amboise Castle highlights:

The Royal Lodge

Home to the chateau guards, including the three musketeers and a visit from the well know French musketeer, D’Artagnan.

Drummers Room

A high and vaulted ceiling with large windows, dances were held here.

Oratory of Anne de Bretagne

This looks very much like a small chapel, but masses were not said here, it was instead designed to reflect the piety of Anne de Bretagne. The ceiling is beautifully painted.

Council Chamber

Another large vaulted room where the King received envoys and where he held celebrations.

Gothic Wing

This is the wing of the chateau that faces the Loire River.

Orléans Apartments 

These royal apartments are lavishly decorated and furnished with Empire-style furniture. You can’t miss them because they are a rich red color.

Henri II’s Bedroom

The King’s chamber has a four-poster bed, a common site in the royal apartments of the castles of the Loire Valley.

Tour des Minimes and Heurtault Tower

My favorite part of the Chateau – this is the tower of the horsemen which is the chateau’s original entrance. It is a circular ramp (a bridle ramp), allowing riders to enter the castle without having to dismount.

Don’t miss the Gargoyles on the Tower, and the rooftop offers wonderful views over the castle grounds, the town, and the Loire.

Garden of Naples

A beautiful part of the chateau, the smell of lavender is intense on hot summer days in this Renaissance garden. The Italian style of landscape architecture brings a sense of grandeur to what is now quite a small castle on a dramatic site.

Festivals and On-site Experiences

In addition to the main tour, there are few others that occur upon special occasions. A tour commemorating the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci has been operating recently, with a special look at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert. The Château Chapel is where da Vinci was reinterred following the destruction of his original burial place by Napoleon’s engineers. 

There’s also a Christmas-themed tour that runs throughout the festive season focusing on how Christmas was celebrated throughout French history. Grand (though entirely French) shows are also put on in the evenings during peak times, but make sure to check out the website if you want to know what’s on offer. 

Finally, a relatively new tour has been added to the repertoire that runs through the less glamorous side of the chateau and is well worth the money. Through underground passageways, tall ramparts, and high towers we are reminded that although Chateau d’Amboise was designed as a place of luxury, it was still a nexus of power to be defended, with its fair share of intrigue and foreboding.

How to Get to Amboise

Since modern times, France has been known as a centralized country, but its population is far more spread out than you might think. As a consequence, it’s lucky enough to have good regional infrastructure, meaning your trip to rural Amboise can be undertaken in a variety of different ways. 

First of all, there’s the two hour and forty-minute train ride from Paris Austerlitz to Gare Amboise. The station in Amboise is across the Loire from the chateau and is either a brisk twenty-minute walk or seven-minute cab drive away. 

A bus from Paris to Amboise takes an impractically long time and is only a little cheaper than the train, but if you’ve got a hire car, you can cut the trip down by at least half an hour. 

Simply take the A-10 Paris-Bordeaux Autoroute out of the city and flick on the cruise control. Zoom through the outskirts of Orléans, past Blois before exiting left on to the D31 just past the little village of Morand. From here you’ll cross the Loire near Les Fougerets and approach the Chateau d’Amboise from the east via the D751 running down the river’s south bank.

Chateau Chenonceau is just down the road from Amboise – read a comprehensive guide on visiting Castle Chenonceau: Loire Chateau of Powerful Women.

Where to Stay in Amboise

This is a tough one – a manor house, a chateau, or a 17th century mansion? Accommodation in Amboise is fantastic – it’s just so hard to choose – a few of my favorites are below.

Check reviews, availability, and prices of ALL Amboise accommodation here

Best Airbnb’s in Amboise

One of my favorite Airbnb stays in the world is here in Amboise at The Blue Door. The view of the castle from my bedroom was spectacular!

Links and Further Information

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