Achingly beautiful, the Château de Chenonceau has long been considered the "most romantic" of all the Loire châteaux, thanks in part to its showpiece—a breathtaking galerie de bal that spans the River Cher like a bridge. The gallery was used as an escape point for French Resistance fighters during World War II, since all other crossings had been bombed. Set in the village of Chenonceaux (spelled with an x) on the River Cher, this was the fabled retreat for the dames de Chenonceau, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de' Medici, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Spend at least half a day wandering through the château and grounds, and you will see that this monument has an undeniable feminine touch. During the peak summer season the only drawback is the château's popularity: if you want to avoid a roomful of schoolchildren, take a stroll on the grounds and come back to the house at lunchtime.
by Thomas Bohier, a wealthy tax collector, for his wife, Catherine Briçonnet. When he went bankrupt, it passed to François I. Later, Henri II gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. After his death, Henri's not-so-understanding widow, Catherine de' Medici, expelled Diane to nearby Chaumont and took back the château. Before this time, Diane's five-arched bridge over the River Cher was simply meant as a grand ceremonial entryway leading to a gigantic château, a building never constructed. It was to Catherine, and her architect, Philibert de l'Orme, that historians owe the audacious plan to transform the bridge itself into the most unusual château in France. Two stories were constructed over the river, including an enormous gallery that runs from one end of the château to the other. This design might seem the height of originality but, in fact, was inspired by Florence's covered Ponte Vecchio, commissioned by a Medici queen homesick for her native town.
July and August are the peak months at Chenonceau, but you can escape the madding crowds by exiting at the far end of the gallery to walk along the opposite bank (weekends only), rent a rowboat to spend an hour just drifting in the river (where Diane used to enjoy her morning dips), and enjoy the Promenade Nocturne, an evocative son et lumière performed in the illuminated château gardens.
Before you go inside, pick up an English-language leaflet at the gate. Then walk around to the right of the main building to see the harmonious, delicate architecture beyond the formal garden—the southern part belonged to Diane de Poitiers, the northern was Catherine's—with the river gliding under the arches (providing superb "air-conditioning" to the rooms above). Inside the château are splendid ceilings, colossal fireplaces, scattered furnishings, and paintings by Rubens, del Sarto, and Correggio. The curatorial staff have delightfully dispensed with velvet ropes and adorned some of the rooms with bouquets designed in 17th-century style. As you tour the salons, be sure to pay your respects to former owner Madame Dupin, tellingly captured in Nattier's charming portrait: Thanks to the affection she inspired among her proletarian neighbors, the château and its treasures survived the Revolution intact (her grave is enshrined near the northern embankment). The château's history is illustrated with wax figures in the Musée des Cires (Waxwork Museum) in one of the château's outbuildings. A cafeteria, tearoom, and the ambitious Orangerie restaurant handle the crowds' varied appetites.