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Visiting Chateau de Cheverny in the Loire Valley of France might just be a highlight of your trip. Known for its richly-decorated interior and its connection to the Tintin comic books – it was the inspiration for Captain Haddock’s Marlinspike Hall – this gleaming French castle is the only family-occupied chateau open to the public. For highlights and my experience, read on. For travel tips and a list of other things to do in Cheverny, scroll down.
Chateau de Cheverny in the Loire Valley of France
It’s one thing when you don’t plan your own Loire Valley itinerary. It’s another when you’re standing by the kennels of a pack of baying hunting dogs on the grounds of a magnificent French chateau, the Chateau de Cheverny, and your guide Guillot, a woman from the town of Cheverny, tells you you’ll be staying here tonight.
My eyes lit up as I looked over to the grand chateau, it’s two identical wings of white stone spreading out from the central entrance. “We’re staying here?”
“No,” said the Marquis de Vibraye, who lives in the chateau and who we happened (fortuitously) to run into. “You’ll be sleeping with the dogs. There are more than 100. You’ll be very warm.”
There’s nothing like a marquis with a sense of humour. Luckily I’m not to be a traveller in the doghouse, although I’m not exactly a houseguest either. The Chateau de Cheverny, one of the most lavishly furnished of the Loire Valley chateaux, has a row of modern vacation rentals that back onto the chateau grounds.
Chateau de Cheverny history
Chateau de Cheverny was built between 1604 and 1644 – no one can quite agree on the dates. Located between Blois and Chambord, it’s made of a special stone called bourré from the nearby Cher Valley. Fragile when quarried, the stone gets whiter and harder as it ages, giving this Loire Valley castle a perpetual pristine gleam. The style is Louis XIII, a classical type of architecture most travellers have never heard of but that is characterized by elegant proportions and symmetrical lines. If you’ve seen the Palais de Luxembourg in Paris, you’ve seen a prime example.
Topping the chateau is a hodgepodge of slate-coloured domes, bell towers and peaked French roofs. It’s so appealing that the Belgian comic book creator, Hergé, used the castle as the model for Marlinspike Hall (Château de Moulinsart) in the Tintin comics, the ancestral home of Captain Haddock. (Although Hergé did leave out the two end pavilions so that it didn’t look quite so imposing.)
Feeling a little like Tintin in The Secret of the Unicorn, the first book Marlinspike Hall appeared in, I stepped inside.
Inside the castle
Unlike some chateaux (ahem, Chambord), the Chateau de Cheverny has a richly-decorated interior with many of its original furnishings. It also has its original family. The Marquis de Vibraye is a descendent of Henri Hurault, the comte de Cheverny, who originally owned the land. But don’t go thinking you’ll be rooting through closets and tripping over toiletries. The family lives in a private section. You will see family photos here and there though, such as family photos and the wedding dress of the Marquis’ bride, Constance du Closel, from 1994 – a real love story, said Guillot – which just adds to the sense that Cheverny is a living home more than an untouchable museum.
Although, I couldn’t help thinking as I wandered through the dining room with its Baccarat crystal chandelier and its 34 panel paintings depicting the tale of Don Quixote, I wouldn’t mind if my home was a little more museum-like, not if it meant I could have a rare Gobelin tapestry of Helen of Troy being abducted by Theseus in my vast and spacious Guard’s room. Never needing restoration, the beautiful tapestry still retains its exquisite reds and blues and greens.
“Because neither sun or moon has every shone on it,” Guillot said.
Diane de Poitiers at Cheverny
Although the moon has shone on Cheverny, at least symbolically. In the 1500s, when an earlier feudal castle still stood onsite, the estate left the hands of the Hurault family after a tumultuous financial falling out with the king, and into the slender fingers of Diane de Poitiers. The mistress of King Henri II, Diane de Poitiers was a fabled beauty who loved to hunt, was 18 years older than her lover and aligned herself with the moon goddess Diana.
She, however, preferred the fairytale turrets of the Chateau de Chenonceau, and the Hurault family was able to buy Cheverny back.
The story reminded me of Captain Haddock in Red Rackham’s Treasure. Marlinspike Hall was originally owned by his ancestor, the Chevalier François de Hadoque, but it ended up in the hands of the disreputable Bird Brothers. It wasn’t until after a great many escapades involving shark-repelling submarines and hidden treasure that Captain Haddock managed to purchase it back.
The King’s Bedroom
While I wasn’t overly covetous of the suits of armour, pikestaffs and crossbows in the Guard’s Room (so hard to dust), I was overcome with redecorating dreams in the King’s Bedroom, which is practically dripping in gilt. There are huge tapestries of Ulysses, a canopied bed with a Persian silk cover that dates back to 1550, a painted coffered ceiling that shows the story of Perseus and Andromeda and a chimneypiece elaborately carved and golden.
“The room was prepared for a king, but not a king ever stayed,” Guillot said.
“I could stay,” I said hopefully. In fact I could move in. Perhaps the family needs a dog walker. Or maybe, like Tintin, I could simply move in and go on madcap adventures.
Mona Lisa at Cheverny
One person, or at least a painting of a person, who did stay at Cheverny was the Mona Lisa. In WWII, the painting was moved to the Orangerie on the chateau grounds for safety along with many other priceless works of art. Today, the Orangerie is a tearoom open from April to November.
The Tintin chateau
Another thing to do on the grounds is to visit Les Secrets de Moulinsart, an interactive exhibit that brings you into the world of Tintin through sound effects, animation and life-size sets. It’s a family-friendly activity and adds a fun Tintin-themed experience to your visit, making you feel, just for a moment, that you’re part of Cheverny or at least of Marlinspike Hall.