The Château of Chenonceau is one of the most beautiful castles in the Loire Valley, south-west of Paris. It has been transformed numerous times since its origins in the 11th century as a mill on the river Cher. A new château was built on the site in the 16th century. It was seized by Francis I for unpaid debts. When Henry II came to the throne, he gave the house to his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers who doted on it. She undertook massive renovations, including building an arched bridge across the river and creating the elaborate formal gardens. Upon Henry’s death, his widow, Catherine de Médicis, forced Diane out. She turned the bridge into a light-filled gallery and entertained lavishly in the former home of her rival.
The château passed from hand to hand. Each owner beggared him or herself, entertaining in a matter sufficiently grand for the setting. In World War I, the gallery served as a hospital ward for soldiers. In the next war, the gallery was used by the Resistance to move from Free to Occupied France. Today, the château belongs to Nestlé, the chocolate manufacturers. One of the lovely touches is enormous bouquets of flowers throughout that complement the art and furnishings. Next to Versailles, Chenonceau is France’s most frequently visited château.
Today’s expression, mener la vie de château (menay lah vee duh shatoe) literally means “to lead the life of the chateau.” We’d say “to live the life of Reilly.” The château de Chenonceau is proof that even kings and queens can make themselves house poor.