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Once Upon a Time in France

Celebrating its 500th anniversary, Château de Chambord is an enduring and exuberant architectural masterpiece

A drive of about two and a half hours from Charles de Gaulle Airport, past a scenic countryside with windmills and birds that raced alongside our vehicle, brought us to one of the most distinctive châteaux in the world. We were in the humble commune of Chambord. As we closed in upon Château de Chambord, the sights and sounds slowly seemed to rewind into another era. Horse drawn carriages rode along pathways lined with manicured greenery and minuscule lakes, strutting toward a magnificent estate. The French renaissance-style palace we had eyed from afar, finally stood before us, the nearness of its architecture magnificent and overwhelming.

This year marks the 500th anniversary celebration of the Château de Chambord, a mounumental fact you cannot escape as you enter this quintessentially classic French château. Designed by Francis Pombriant, its construction was begun in 1519, ostensibly for use as a hunting lodge for King Francis I. Since it served as a holiday home to the king, for many decades it remained partially unfurnished.

After the death of Francis I, the royal residence was unoccupied for 80 years until 1639, when Louis XIII handed over the keys to his brother Gaston d’Orléans, who took up the responsibility of its restoration work — thus saving it from falling into ruin. For centuries thereafter, a series of owners and various residents followed.

Today, this UNESCO World Heritage site attracts visitors from around the world. Apart from families and tours, Chambord hosts avant-garde events of varying size and grandeur as well.

Before venturing into the fortress, we checked into our vintage rooms situated in the right tower. We were told that while it wasn’t common practice to give out accommodation at the château, special requests had been made for our stay. If that wasn’t exciting enough, my room had a mesmerizing view of the forest around. I dug out a sweater to keep me warm in the plummeting temperatures and joined the group to explore this enchanting royal house.

Our expedition began at the central building of the château, also known as “the keep.” This square structure has four corner towers and is built in the shape of a Greek cross. The showpiece of the room is the famous double-helix staircase, one of the foremost attractions of the palace. It is said to have been conceptualized by Leonardo da Vinci, although there is no real evidence of this.

The unique staircase is constructed in such a way that two persons using the opposite stairs can see each other through the openings, but will never cross paths. Festooned with tapestries depicting stories from centuries gone by, this room can accommodate up to 600 people for an event. In winter, fireplaces warm the space, creating an idyllic atmosphere for casual gatherings.

On the ground floor is the 1,200-square-foot Room Of The Renowned. Adorned with spectacular chandeliers, this white-beamed space displays portraits of major figures from the château’s regal past. Gold paneling around frames and patterned wallpaper add a rich touch to the room that can accommodate up to 150 people.

The ground floor of the château also houses Room Of The Game Trackers. It brings to life the time when royalty reveled in the glories of the hunt. This hall with its tapestries and lively hunting trophies can fit up to 80 people. Room Of The Bourbon Dynasty and The Commons Of Orleans are two more rooms on the ground level, while on the second floor, Under The Coffered Vaults and The Gallery Of Trophies two additional meeting spaces.

Our next stop was the enchanting terrace of the château, where large scale galas can be hosted with room for up to 700 people. Behind us stood an imposing lantern tower rising up among ancient gables and smoke-charred chimneys, turret-like structures that teleported us into another era in French history.

A salamander, the king’s emblem, made frequent appearances in the midst of the palace’s fairy tale-like architecture. Enjoying this moment of calm, we stared out into the wilderness of Chambord. The gardens, manicured to perfection, were surrounded by the forest – an endless palette of green and brown.

We made our way down to the ground floor and relaxed for a bit before embarking upon our next adventure. Lying down on the South Lawn of the palace, we soaked in the enchanting surroundings – blossoming flowers on shimmering grass against a backdrop of the descending sun.

With great expectation it was time to hop on to our designated ride for the day. I was told my trip to Château de Chambord was about to get even more enthralling, and I wasn’t disappointed. I took my place in the back seat of an SUV, and we drove happily into the woodlands of Chambord. Due to its rich array of flora and fauna, these were the preferred hunting grounds of King Francis I.

Driving around the forest, we spotted a pair of stags and a few wild boars. Chambord’s bird population consists of 150 species that made their presence heard with incessant chirping. A charming picnic lunch followed, as we sat in an observatory overlooking a stretch of grassland. A herd of deer arrived to graze and thereafter had a siesta, and we sat in silence observing the ways of nature.

Dinner that night was an exquisite set-up at Room Of The Hunters, where we were joined by the château’s management. Chandeliers brightened this chamber, and game trophies alongside artwork that depict the hunting parties of kings made up the room’s decor.  

Useful Information

Devices called HistoPads are included in the admission fee of the château. They are programmed with information on the château along with detailed commentaries. Upon holding them up in any room here, they show you what it looked like during the reign of King Francis I — adding a charming historic touch to the château experience.Hours: April through October 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, November to March 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission €13/$15; HistoPads are available for an additional €6.5/$7.40.