Amboise, Royal city and Leonardo da Vinci’s last home – Meanderings through France n° 202
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
French king François I undoubtedly is the symbol of French Renaissance and during his reign he built and transformed many castles to shelter his huge art collections. He fell in love with Italy and Italian arts at a very young age and invited many Italian artists to come and work in France. Leonardo da Vinci of course is the most famous one of them all. François who had lost his father at a very young age became deeply attached to Leonardo that he kindly called “father”. A beautiful love story between a young king and an ageing artist, that has given us some of the most beautiful pieces of French heritage.
Leonardo already is 64 when he arrives in Amboise in 1516. In his luggage are some of his most famous works. Mona Lisa, Virgin of the rocks, St John the Baptist, The Virgin and Child with Ste Anne, La Belle Ferronière, thus entered the French royal collections and can still be seen in the Louvre Museum today. Leonardo died three years later in 1519 and 500 hundreds years later he still fascinates us. Creations of this visionary spirit still inspire contemporary artists and engineers giving us the feeling that he had foreseen our present time. Parachutes, flying machines, diving suits, bicycles, machine guns, paddleboats, tanks, submarines, gliders… he imagined and designed them in his numerous notebooks. You can get a glimpse at one of these incredible notebooks, the Arundel Codex, on the British Library website. ‘Turning the Pages” gives you access to a digitised version of Leonardo’s work. More at www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/leonardo/ttp.html
In Leonardo’s footsteps in Amboise
Amboise is a royal town on the bank of the Loire River and an inescapable stop when touring the Loire Valley chateaux. With no less than three different castles to visit in town you should stay there at least two days to take the most of this lovely royal city. Most of the houses of the town centre are built with the typical white stone of the region, the tufa stone. The contrast between the white walls and the black tiled roofs is the “signature” of the local architecture. After parking your car in one of the car-parks set along the river banks walk up the “François I Street” that will take you to Amboise Castle. If the castle originally was a medieval fortress it has been greatly embellished during the Renaissance by kings Charles VIII and François I. The royal court lived a luxury and joyful life in Amboise and the castle seems to still resound with the happy atmosphere of the time. Unfortunately a large part of the chateau was destroyed during WWII but since the beginning of 2019 we can see it the way it was thanks to the “histopad”, a digital tablet (available in 12 different languages) that brings back to life the entire castle. The highlight of the visit is the richly decorated gothic St Hubert Chapel where Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb is. www.chateau-amboise.com/en/
The Château de Clos Lucé, Leonardo’s last home
The Clos Lucé is a charming Renaissance castle built in the late 15th century. Built with bricks and tufa stone, this elegant pink and white mansion is nestled in a green setting a few minutes walk from Amboise Chateau. An underground passage used to link the two castles so that François I and Leonardo could meet regardless of the moods of the weather! Visiting the Clos Lucé is discovering the rooms where Leonardo worked, dined or slept. The castle is fully furnished in the same way it used to be when the artist lived there.
In this peaceful surrounding he worked on several different projects for the French King with the help of his students: the ideal city of Romorantin that was meant to become the capital city of the kingdom, the double helix staircase of Chambord Chateau (this one was actually built and we can admire this masterpiece in Chambord), a network of canals that would have linked the Loire River to the city of Lyon for a quicker access to Italy, the draining of Sologne’s swamps, the staging for royal celebrations and shows… many different projects that unfortunately Leonardo was never able to carry out himself in the short amount of time he still had. The castle and the vast gardens surrounding it host several replicas of Leonardo’s machines and inventions such an assault chariot, a multi-barrelled gun, a paddle boat, a revolving bridge… A bucolic and instructive walk! More at www.vinci-closluce.com/en
Chateau Gaillard, saved from ruin by a loving and devoted admirer
As amazing as it might seem Chateau Gaillard and its wonderful gardens had been completely forgotten for centuries before Marc Lelandais rediscovered them in 2010, bought them and gave them back all their past glory. When French king Charles VIII went to war in Italy in 1495 he went all the way down to Naples. This journey was an eye opener! He stayed only three months in Naples but that was enough for him to fall in love with Italian gardens and palazzi in particular with the Villa Poggio Reale. He recruited 22 artists and craftsmen who had built the villa and took them to Amboise to build him his dream castle and gardens. Among them was the “most famous gardener of Europe”, a Benedictine monk named Dom Pacello de Mercogliano.
They built a wonderful Renaissance castle nestled in a 15-hectare (37 acres) park at a stone’s throw from Amboise chateau. Dom Pacello lived there, taking care of the gardens. In 1515 king François I offered the estate to “his dear and beloved Pacello” in exchange for an orange blossom bouquet each year. A Royal gift! Five centuries later the gardens had become a jungle and the castle was close to collapse. Today after five years of a Herculean task both the gardens and the chateau have regain all their beauty. A genuine Renaissance! The castle and its orangery have been fully restored and refurnished by talented local craftsmen such as Philippe Audoux who created 6,000 stained-glass windows inspired by 16th century illuminations. This tremendous work took him 3 years. The gardens are extraordinary and propose seven different itineraries to discover and enjoy them. More at chateau-gaillard-amboise.fr/le-chateau/
“Chez Hippeau”, a great place for a great meal
This friendly restaurant is located in Amboise city centre close to the chateau, the lovely Saint-Florentin church and the impressive Clock Tower. It’s a family business since 1965 and the chef, Leopold Fleuriou, makes a simple yet inventive cuisine with amazingly good value for money menus. The three dining rooms have been renovated in 2015 and you will dine in a warm and modern atmosphere. Seasonal and local produce are favoured and you will enjoy homemade gravelax, foie gras, burgers, Angus steak, slowly cooked meat, fish, big bowls of salads… All desserts are homemade.
A menu including a starter, a main course and a dessert starts from 24 Euros, 19 Euros if you choose Starter + main course or main course + dessert. A real and delicious bargain! More at www.brasseriehippeau.fr/english
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny