Touring Chateau de Chambord, a place so elaborate it makes Downton Abbey look down at heel!
- Chateau de Chambord is located in the Loire Valley, two hours south of Paris
- It is one of 300 or so chateaux along a Unesco-listed, 174-mile stretch
- It’s the oldest – currently celebrating its 500th anniversary – and largest
The nocturnal noises coming from the French forest make it sound like there’s a grand prix for combine harvesters going on in there.
The bizarre braying sound of stags in the mating season can come as quite an assault on the senses. But this strange soundtrack seems suited to the other-worldly presence directly in front of me, glowing magisterially under a full moon — the Chateau de Chambord.
Of the 300 or so chateaux along a Unesco-listed, 174-mile stretch of the Loire Valley, two hours south of Paris, Chateau de Chambord stands apart as the oldest (currently celebrating its 500th anniversary), the largest and probably the strangest.
Majestic: Chateau de Chambord is located in the Loire Valley, two hours south of Paris
Most chateaux sit right on, or close to, the river, craning their aristocratic necks, almost daring the French Revolution to turn up with the guillotine. Chambord, though, was deliberately constructed by King Francis I away from public view on an inaccessible, mosquito-infested swamp. Part-chateau, part-cathedral, this was Francis’s private portal to paradise, allowing him to claim direct communion with God.
Appearing out of marshy mists as if from Arthurian legend, it would have terrified the few people ever allowed near it. Of the 28 years of his life devoted to building Chambord, he spent just 73 days in it. And it’s hardly been lived in since.
Today, just 50m from the chateau, a 100-year-old disused hunting lodge has been transformed into a stylish, 55-room boutique property, Le Relais de Chambord, following a £12 million makeover.
Imagine sloping off for a weekend inside Hampton Court, or stepping outside your hotel straight into the grounds of Blenheim Palace. Amid the swarms of afternoon coach parties, it’s difficult to reconcile the air of calm to which the hotel aspires — but, come closing time, visitors (who exceed 9,000 a day in the summer) simply vanish.
Like a change of scenery in a historical drama, a different atmosphere descends upon the chateau and grounds, although ‘grounds’ is a relative term.
This is the largest enclosed forest park in Europe, the size of central Paris, encircled by a 20 mile-long wall. For those wishing to heed the call of the wild from the deer and head into the forest, there are no restrictions on access. Personally, I am feeling the call of the wild sea bass on the seven-course tasting menu.
Chateau de Chambord is so elaborate it makes Downton Abbey look down at heel
But, first, I spot a dozen supercars lined up next to the hotel. The Brittany Ferrari Owners’ Club, no doubt having returned from an afternoon chasing each other around the chateaux, are busy babbling away over aperitifs. Last week, apparently, it was Lamborghinis. A car of any kind is essential, and renting one at Gare du Nord after that incredible Eurostar whoosh straight into central Paris (I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed by it) was as free of complication as it was free of Stansted.
The French Government-backed Domain of Chambord was keen from the outset that the new hotel would not become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.
As such, this is not only an innovative and alluring invitation into perennially beautiful rural France, it’s also pretty good value.
Room at Le Relais de Chambord start from £175 B&B (relaisdechambord.com). The Eurostar from London to Paris costs from £29 each way (eurostar.com). Rental car with Avis from £40 per day (avis.com).