Day Trips from Paris: Leonardo da Vinci’s Former Chateau Home

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Day Trips from Paris: Leonardo da Vinci’s Former Chateau Home
The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre might’ve closed last month, but that doesn’t mean your journey in his footsteps needs to end. A visit to his former home, Château du Clos Lucé where he spent the last three years of his life at the invitation of the art-addicted King, is available for exploration at any time. An easy day trip from Paris, this picturesque corner of the Loire Valley is less than two hours from Gare Montparnasse. Skip the scenario of potentially cursing your GPS and hurling it out of the window; the best way to arrive is almost certainly by train. Not only is it the quickest way to reach the chateau, but the leisurely walk from Amboise station reveals stunning panoramas of the river too. The town boasts troglodyte cave houses once typical of this region, timber buildings crafted from centuries-old wood, plus characterful modern residences with brightly colored boxes of flowers decorating their sills. Peek inside while strolling along the road to the chateau for small visual pleasures such as vintage lace curtains embroidered with birds. So much is missed when zooming past in a car. The Château du Clos Lucé is just a few minutes by foot from the Chateau d’Amboise, the royal residence where Leonardo da Vinci was buried, so if starting early, a day trip can easily combine both while allowing you to be back in Paris by dinnertime. There was once a clandestine underground passageway used by Leonardo da Vinci himself, which allowed discreet and direct access between the two, by special arrangement with the King. Those without Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrity status, however, were obliged to take the public route above ground, as visitors do today. Here, shrouded in the Clos Lucé, framed by the leafy trees of the valley, lie the secrets of Leonardo da Vinci’s final years. He had made the trip over the Alps from his native Italy by mule, clutching a satchel containing three of his most famous paintings – St John the Baptist, The Virgin and the Child and of course the Mona Lisa. His arduous journey was at the personal invitation of a very insistent King Francis I, and he would soon become “premier painter, engineer and architect” to him. Leonardo da Vinci would work diligently on the legendary Chateau de Chambord, injecting it with the influence of the Italian Renaissance, and at one time — admittedly more frivolously — even designed a mechanical lion which would release a flurry of flowers at the King’s feet. All of this ingenuity and invention took place at his base in the Clos Lucé, where he received a generous pension for his efforts. He and the King were inseparable, with the royal fondly referring to the artist as his “father” in spite of the fact that they hailed from rival nations and that Leonardo da Vinci’s past had been spent plotting military inventions to destroy the French. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had collaborated with his enemies on war machines with menacing names such as the “Assault Chariot” and the “Triple Fire Machine Gun”, (inspired by Stalin and his Soviet weaponry), King Francis was besotted – and he made no attempt to disguise it. Sounding at first like a platonic version of Romeo and Juliet, the passionate friendship between artist and King nevertheless did not end in tragedy. Perhaps it was his talents and skill for entertaining that had caused the King to overlook his controversial past. Either way, there is plenty of evidence within the Château du Clos Lucé of exactly why Leonardo da Vinci was seen as special. The interior boasts reconstructions of his workshops, where he spent countless hours indulging in creative pursuits, while the basement contains 3D animations and models of his inventions. Expect extra quirks such as taxidermy bats, skulls and a flying machine suspended from the ceiling, honoring Leonardo da Vinci’s long-time obsession with birds, and how to replicate their flight. Then there are the insights into his bloodthirsty imagination, courtesy of the prototype for a “Military Armored Tank” surrounded on all sides by guns, which he predicted would “take the place of the elephants”. He added that fighters could “hold bellows in them to spread terror among the enemy’s horses”. On a more personal note, it’s also possible to see his kitchen and on-site chapel, containing frescoes by his disciples. They have been painstakingly repainted with the same pigments used in the Renaissance era to aid authenticity. Then there is his bedchamber, with its distinctive red velvety furnishings. Amusingly, there is sometimes a resident cat lurking here who swans in and out as he pleases and regards Leonardo da Vinci’s original bed not as a place of history but as little more than a convenient place for a nap! A word of warning: Top up your camera or phone fully before you arrive, lest you find yourself in the position I was in, crouching on the floor next to Leonardo’s bed and plugging my charger into the ancient, slightly dilapidated socket beside it. That said, the fact there is even a functional plug socket in a room last inhabited by Leonardo da Vinci just over 500 years…
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Lead photo credit : Leonardo da Vinci's atelier. Photo courtesy of château du Clos Lucé

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Chloe Govan is an award-winning writer and channel-hopping Francophile with a penchant for Parisian life. After achieving degrees in Psychology and Magazine Journalism and working as a travel editor and columnist, she developed her freelance career, during which she authored 11 books. Whether she is sleeping in a bubble under the stars in the forests around Marseille or horse-back riding with the chateaux of the Loire Valley as a backdrop, her heart can often be found somewhere in France.

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Comments

  • Ellen A.
    2020-03-21 09:40:42
    Ellen A.
    Excellent article with delightful details and images - Leonardo clutching his most prized paintings as he traveled by mule to France over the Alps, a present day cat on his bed, and secret tunnels under Amboise chateau. I'm ready to go back and see more of the things I missed! One small item you may want to correct: surely you meant that Leonardo's "Triple Fire Machine Gun" was the inspiration for Stalin's Soviet weaponry - and not that Leonardo's invention was "inspired by Stalin and his Soviet weaponry" (unless you are aware of some time travelling the rest of us are not privy to). :-))

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