Twenty kilometres upstream of Tours, Amboise is one of the highlights of the Loire region, with its beguiling mix of beauty, excellent food and drink and a genuine sense of history. The château dominates the town, but there are many other attractions, most famously Leonardo da Vinci’s residence of Clos-Lucé, with its exhibition of the great man’s inventions. Amboise draws a busy tourist trade, which may detract from the quieter pleasures of strolling around town, but does mean it’s a lively destination.
Rising above the river are the remains of the château, once five times its present size, but much reduced by wars and lack of finance; it still represents a highly impressive accomplishment. It was in the late fifteenth century, following his marriage to Anne of Brittany at Langeais, that Charles VIII decided to turn the old castle of his childhood days into an extravagant palace, adding the flamboyant Gothic wing that overlooks the river and the chapelle de St-Hubert, perched incongruously atop a buttress of the defensive walls. But not long after the work was completed, he managed to hit his head, fatally, on a door frame. He left the kingdom to his cousin, Louis XII, who spent most of his time at Blois but built a new wing at Amboise (at right angles to the main body) to house his nearest male relative, the young François d’Angoulême, thereby keeping him within easy reach. When the young heir acceded to the throne as François I he didn’t forget his childhood home. He embellished it with classical stonework (visible on the east facade of the Louis XII wing), invited Leonardo da Vinci to work in Amboise under his protection, and eventually died in the château’s collegiate church.
Henri II continued to add to the château, but it was during the reign of his sickly son, François II, that it became notorious. The Tumult of Amboise was one of the first skirmishes in the Wars of Religion. Persecuted by the young king’s powerful advisers, the Guise brothers, Huguenot conspirators set out for Amboise in 1560 to “rescue” their king and establish a more tolerant monarchy under their tutelage. But they were ambushed by royal troops in the woods outside the town, rounded up and summarily tried in the Salle des Conseils. Some were drowned in the Loire below the château, some were beheaded in the grounds, and others were hung from the château’s balconies.
After such a colourful history, the interior of the château is comparatively restrained, though the various rooms still retain some sense of their historical grandeur. The last French king, Louis-Philippe, also stayed in the château, hence the abrupt switch from the solid Gothic furnishings of the ground floor to the 1830s post-First Empire style of the first-floor apartments. The most recently renovated part of the château are the underground passageways, which have been both dungeons and larders in their time. The Tour des Minimes, the original fifteenth-century entrance, is architecturally the most exciting part of the castle. With its massive internal ramp, it was designed to allow the maximum number of fully armoured men on horseback to get in and out as quickly as possible. These days it leads down to the pleasant gardens, which in turn lead to the exit.