A Renaissance masterpiece, the château is best known for the dames de Chenonceau, who once occupied it. Built first for Katherine Briçonnet, the château was bought in 1547 by Henri II for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. For a time, this remarkable woman was virtually queen of France, infuriating Henri’s dour wife, Catherine de Médicis. Diane’s critics accused her of using magic to preserve her celebrated beauty and keep Henri’s attentions from waning. Apparently, Henri’s love for Diane continued unabated, and she was in her 60s when he died in a jousting tournament in 1559.
When Henri died, Catherine became regent (her eldest son was still a child), and one of the first things she did was force Diane to return the jewelry Henri had given her and abandon her beloved home. Catherine then added her own touches, building a two-story gallery across the bridge—obviously inspired by her native Florence. The gallery, which was used for her opulent fêtes, doubled as a military hospital in World War I. The gallery also played a crucial role in World War II, serving as the demarcation line between Nazi-occupied France and the “free” zone.
Gobelin tapestries, including one depicting a woman pouring water over the back of an angry dragon, and several important paintings by Poussin, Rubens, and Tintoretto adorn the château’s walls. The chapel contains a marble Virgin and Child by Murillo, as well as portraits of Catherine de Médicis in black and white. There’s even a portrait of the stern Catherine in the former bedroom of her rival, Diane de Poitiers. In François I’s Renaissance bedchamber, the most interesting portrait is that of Diane as the huntress Diana.
The château boasts some of the loveliest grounds of the whole Loire that include a maze, a vegetable garden, and a beautiful jardin à la française. At the end of your visit, stop in at the new Cave des Dômes, located near the Former Royal Stables, to sample wines produced in the vineyards surrounding the castle (extra fee applies).