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Picture of the castle of Amboise : Click to enlarge picture
Twenty kilometres upstream of Tours, AMBOISE is a prim little riverside town trading on long-gone splendours, notably its impressive but disappointingly empty Château and Leonardo da Vinci's peaceful residence of Clos-Lucé, with its exhibition of the great man's inventions. If looking for a Amboise hotel, have a look at this website.

The one concession to modern art in Amboise is a twentieth-century fountain by Max Ernst of a turtle topped by a teddy bear figure, standing in front of the spot where the market takes place every Saturday and Sunday morning by the riverside. Behind, rising above the river, are the remains of the Château (daily: Feb to mid-March 9am–noon & 1.30–5.30pm; mid-March to end March & Sept to mid-Nov 9am–6pm; April–June, Sept & Oct 9am–6.30pm; July & Aug 9am–7pm; mid-Nov to Jan 9am–noon & 2–4.45pm; €6.50), once five times its present size, but much reduced by wars and lack of finance. It was in the late fifteenth century, following his marriage to Anne of Brittany at Langeais that Charles VIII decided to turn the old castle of his childhood days into an extravagant and luxurious palace, adding the Flamboyant Gothic wing that overlooks the river and the chapelle de St-Hubert, which perches incongruously atop a buttress of the defensive walls. But not long after the work was completed, he managed to hit his head, fatally, on a door lintel. He left the kingdom to his cousin, Louis XII, who spent most of his time at Blois but built a new wing at Amboise (at right angles to the main body) to house his nearest male relative, the young François d'Angoulême, thereby keeping him within easy reach. When the young heir acceded to the throne as François I he didn't forget his childhood home. He embellished it with classical stonework (visible on the east facade of the Louis XII wing), invited Leonardo da Vinci to work in Amboise under his protection, and eventually died in the château's collegiate church.

Henri II, continued to add to the Château, but it was during the reign of his sickly son, François II, that it achieved notoriety. The Tumult of Amboise was one of the first skirmishes in the Wars of Religion. Persecuted by the young king's powerful advisors, the Guise brothers, Huguenot conspirators set out for Amboise in 1560 to "rescue" their king and establish a more tolerant monarchy under their tutelage. But they were ambushed by royal troops in woods outside the town, rounded up and summarily tried in the Salle des Conseils. Some were drowned in the Loire below the Château, some were beheaded in the grounds, and others were hung from the château's balconies.

After such a history, the interior of the Château is a letdown, though there's a fairly atmospheric progression of large rooms hung with tapestries. The last French king, Louis-Philippe, also stayed in the Château, hence the abrupt switch from the solid Gothic furnishings of the ground floor to the 1830s post-First Empire style of the first-floor apartments. The Tour des Minimes, the original fifteenth-century entrance, is architecturally the most exciting part of the castle. With its massive internal ramp, it was designed for the maximum number of fully armoured men on horseback to get in and out as quickly as possible. These days it leads down to the pleasant gardens which in turn lead to the exit.

Following his campaigns in Lombardy, François I decided that the best way to bring back the ideas of the Italian Renaissance was to import one of the finest exponents of the new arts. In 1516, Leonardo da Vinci ventured across the Alps in response to the royal invitation, carrying with him the Mona Lisa among other paintings. For three years before his death in 1519, he made his home at the Clos-Lucé, at the end of rue Victor-Hugo (daily: Jan 10am–6pm; Feb, March, Oct & Nov 9am–6pm; April–June, Sept & Oct 9am–7pm; July & Aug 9am–8pm; €6.50). Leonardo seems to have enjoyed a semi-retirement at Amboise, devoting himself to inventions of varying brilliance and impracticability, and enjoying conversations with his royal patron. The house – an attractive brick mansion with Italianate details added by Charles VIII – is now a museum to Leonardo, and if you can ignore the persistently piped Renaissance music it's interesting to browse through the forty models of his mechanical inventions. From the suspension bridge to the paddle-wheel boat and turbine, they are all meticulously constructed according to Leonardo's plans and sketches.

If you take the main road south out of Amboise and turn right just before the junction with the D31, you'll come to an unlikely-looking eighteenth-century pagoda, which once formed part of the enormous but now demolished Château of Chanteloup. You can climb to the top for fabulous views and also explore the grounds of the surrounding park (April Sat & Sun 10am–noon & 2–6pm; May & September daily 10am–6.30pm; June daily 10am–7pm; July & Aug daily 9.30am–7pm; Oct to mid-Nov Sat & Sun 10am–5pm; €4.50).

Amboise draws a busy tourist trade that may detract from the quieter pleasures of strolling around town, but makes it a good destination for children. In July and August, son-et-lumière shows are held around 10pm at both the châteaux (Wed & Sat; adults €12, kids €6; and Clos-Lucé (Thurs, Fri & Sun; adults €15, kids €10). Just south of town on the D751 to Chenonceaux, near the pagoda, the park Mini-Châteaux (April, May & Sept 10am–7pm; June–Aug 10am–8pm; Oct to mid-Nov 10.30am–6pm; €10) houses more than forty surprisingly good scale models of the chief Loire châteaux. At Lussault, 5km west towards Tours, the mammoth Aquarium de Touraine (same hours as Mini-Châteaux; €10) boasts 10,000 fish, along with turtles, alligators and a tunnel through a large shark tank.

Pages in section ‘Amboise’: Practicalities.

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