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France’s Château of Chenonceau (2:53)

Loire, France

Arching over the Cher River, the French Renaissance palace of Chenonceau has a graceful, feminine touch. Famous as Europe’s first great “pleasure palace,” it is decorated today as if Queen Catherine de’ Medici still lived there.

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The pastoral Loire Valley hides countless castles (or “châteaux”). While you’ll likely visit several, it’s important to choose wisely. Rather than seeing a string of similar palaces, we’ve lined up a variety — several distinctly different châteaux. While Chambord was grandiose, our next one is graceful.

The château of Chenonceau is the toast of the Loire. This 16th-century Renaissance palace arches gracefully over the Cher River. Its formal garden, combined with the delightful riverside setting, makes it one of the great sights in all of Europe.

The palace is lovingly maintained with bouquets of fresh flowers adding fragrance, and an included audioguide making sure visitors understand what they’re looking at. Big fireplaces warmed big beds while portraits of illustrious owners give the place a certain pedigree.

While the tapestries kept the rooms cozy, they also functioned to depict recent history — to the king’s liking, of course. These 16th-century tapestries are among the finest in France.

Chenonceau was the first great pleasure palace. With its ravishing grand gallery spanning the river, it was designed for high society. Nicknamed the “château of the ladies,” Chenonceau housed many famous women over the centuries. In 1547, King Henry II gave the original castle to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. She added an arched bridge over the river.

When the king died, his wife, the queen, Catherine de’ Medici, took over the château. She threw out the mistress, converted Diane’s bridge into a fancy ballroom, and, according to legend, put her own portrait above the fireplace of her rival’s bedroom.

Big personalities like kings tickled more than one tiara at a time. Mistresses were a routine part of the mix. Louis XV decorated this palace with a painting of the Three Graces — featuring his three favorite mistresses. Now that’s the arrogance of power.

A powerful queen or mistress often managed to get her own private palace, even when the king’s romantic interest shifted elsewhere. In many cases, the king or nobleman would be away on work or at war for years at a time — leaving home-improvement decisions up to the lady of the château, who had an unlimited budget.

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