The gentle River Cher flows so slowly and passively between the exquisite arches of the Château de Chenonceau that you’re almost always assured of a perfect reflection. The château is not visible from the road so you have to pay before even getting a peek at the residence. While the tree-lined path to the front door is dramatic, wind your way through the gardens for a more intimate approach; they were laid out under Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. During summer the place teems with people and it can become uncomfortably crowded, so try to visit first thing. Visits are unguided – a relief, for there’s an endless array of arresting tapestries, paintings, ceilings, floors and furniture on show (although you could opt for the worthwhile iPod guided tour).
On the ground floor, the François I room features two contrasting images of the goddess Diana; one is a portrait of Diane de Poitiers by Primaticcio, and the other represents a relatively aristocratic Gabrielle d’Estrées. The room also features works by or attributed to Veronese, Tintoretto, Correggio, Murillo and Rubens, among others. The tiled floors throughout, many original, are particularly lovely. There are some unique decorative details as well, such as the seventeenth-century window frame in the César de Vendôme room, supported by two carved caryatids, and the moving ceiling in the bedroom of Louise de Lorraine, which mourns her murdered husband Henri III in black paint picked out with painted tears and the couple’s intertwined initials. The vaulted kitchens, poised above the water in the foundations, are also well worth a look.
The section of the château that spans the Cher is relatively empty. The seemingly incongruous chequerboard flooring of the elegant long gallery is in fact true to the Renaissance design, though potted plants have replaced the classical statues that Louis XIV carried off to Versailles. Catherine de Médicis used to hold wild parties here, all naked nymphs and Italian fireworks. She intended the door on the far side to continue into another building on the south bank, but the project was never begun, and these days the gallery leads to quiet, wooded gardens. During the war, the Cher briefly formed the boundary between occupied and “free” France, and the current proprietors, who rode out Nazi occupation, claim the château’s gallery was much used as an escape route. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend in June and every evening in July and August, as part of the “Nocturne à Chenonceau”, the gardens and château are lit up between 9.30pm and 11pm, and classical music is played through speakers. You can take boats out onto the Cher in the summer months, and there’s a self-service café and restaurant on site.