Topless in Chenonceau

I remember, almost nostalgically, the fuss that was made when the first topless bars opened in Vancouver. It was, we were told, the beginning of the end! But when one of them opened across the street from our ad agency offices, we ignored this dire prediction and the following Friday at lunchtime, we sallied forth to savour this latest fleshpot. But the attraction quickly faded and we gravitated back to our favourite watering holes, feigning indifference to that sort of show, which inevitably became so commonplace.

But the baring of flesh has had a colourful history.

In the Loire Valley of France stands the oldest, and some claim the most beautiful, Renaissance castle, among the several hundred dotted around. And it was there at Chenonceau in the late 1500s that Catherine de’ Medici hosted a party for the Duke of Aragon that hasn’t been equalled since. Her guests enjoyed mock naval battles and a grand regatta staged on the nearby river Cher, plus a bunch of satyrs chasing lightly clad nymphs in a colourful tableau.

But at the banquet, Catherine outdid herself. She had recruited the most beautiful noblewomen in all of France to serve at the long tables as waitresses…. and you’ve guessed it…they were all topless.

This castle already had a history of feisty females. It was largely built by Catherine Briconnet around the time that fat Henry was flexing his Tudor muscles on the other side of the Channel. The estate passed to the French crown, so his majesty gave it to his mistress, Dianne of Poitiers. A little later, he was killed in a boar-hunting accident. His long-suffering wife, Catherine de’ Medici promptly took over, punted Poitiers and turned the place into the hub of high society.

The extravagances she staged are the stuff of legend. In fact one for her son lasted four days and four nights. On her death, the castle was willed to her daughter Louise, who also didn’t have much luck in marriage. Her husband Henry lll was assassinated and she turned the place into a gigantic funeral parlour, hanging black on every surface. The whole of France was virtually stripped of black velvet and damask by the grieving widow. The castle changed its image after Louise passed on, because Duchess Marie of Luxembourg, a very religious lady, turned it into a convent and housed all the nuns in the drafty old attics.

Chenonceau then hit its low point, as all the Court action had by then, shifted to Versailles. So it was plundered, shuttered and headed for ruin. But again a woman saved the day. In 1773, Madame Claude Dupin took possession and nursed it back to its former splendour. Being a kindhearted aristocrat, she earned a reputation for doing good among the local folk and so survived the wrath of the French Revolution. Chenonceau was spared the fiery end of so many noble houses and Madame Dupin avoided the grisly trip to Madame Guillotine! Over the years Chenonceau has mostly remained in the care of determined women.

And if you ever get to visit this magnificent place, like me, you’ll be impressed.

(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)