The Château de Chambord, François I’s little “hunting lodge”, is the largest and most popular of the Loire châteaux and one of the most extravagant commissions of its age. If you are going to visit – and it’s one of the region’s absolute highlights – try to arrive early, and avoid weekends, when the crush of visitors can be both unpleasant and overwhelming. Its patron’s principal object – to outshine the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – would, he claimed, leave him renowned as “one of the greatest builders in the universe”; posterity has judged it well.
Before you even get close, the gargantuan scale of the place is awe-inspiring: there are more than 440 rooms and 85 staircases, and a petrified forest of 365 chimneys runs wild on the roof. In architectural terms, the mixture of styles is as outrageous as the size. The Italian architect Domenico da Cortona was chosen to design the château in 1519 in an effort to establish prestigious Italian Renaissance art forms in France, though the labour was supplied by French masons. The château’s plan (attributed, fancifully, to da Vinci) is pure Renaissance: rational, symmetrical and totally designed to express a single idea – the central power of its owner. Four hallways run crossways through the central keep, at the heart of which the Great Staircase rises up in two unconnected spirals before opening out into the great lantern tower, which draws together the confusion on the roof like a great crown.
The cold, draughty size of the château made it unpopular as an actual residence – François I himself stayed there for just 42 days in total – and Chambord’s role in history is slight. A number of rooms on the first floor were fitted out by Louis XIV and his son, the Comte de Chambord, and as reconstructed today they feel like separate apartments within the unmanageable whole. You can explore them freely, along with the adjacent eighteenth-century apartments, where the château was made habitable by lowering ceilings, building small fireplaces within the larger ones, and cladding the walls with the fashionable wooden panelling known as boiseries.
The second floor houses a rambling Museum of Hunting where, among the endless guns and paintings that glorify hunting, are two superb seventeenth-century tapestry cycles: one depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt; another, based on cartoons by Lebrun, tells the story of Meleager, the heroic huntsman from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The Parc de Chambord around the château is an enormous walled game reserve – the largest in Europe. Wild boar roam freely, though red deer are the beasts you’re most likely to spot. You can explore on foot, or by bike or boat – both rentable from the jetty where the Cosson passes alongside the main facade of the château.