If Dea Birkett’s Kids in Museums campaign was extended to Europe, the Clos Lucé – the 15th-century mansion in the town of Amboise in France’s Loire Valley where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last three years – would be an obvious contender for the associated Guardian Family-Friendly Museum Award.
Until recently, the Clos Lucé was little more than a medieval manor, albeit an impressive one, with an exhibition on Da Vinci’s daily life (his bed-chamber, study and kitchen) and work (a basement display of models of his inventions). Interesting, but perhaps not the most obvious place to bring kids, and certainly not younger ones. In the past couple of years, however, someone had the bright idea of making the grounds into a kind of theme-park of Da Vinci’s inventions and artworks, and the full-scale working models of military machines (such as his spinning tank and a cannon), the Archimedes screw, the swing-bridge, parachute and so on are by their very nature interactive. So although they’re not specifically set up for kids, younger visitors love them.
I’ll confess we skipped the house itself – it was a beautiful late afternoon in autumn, we’d been in the car for hours, photographing châteaux, and the boys, at six, four and zero, needed to be outside. Spotting the conceptual helicopter first of all, the older ones hared off down the lawn to work out how to get it turning, and then clung on, laughing hysterically, as it span around. As we strolled the pretty pathways winding through the wooded grounds, we gave them a potted biography of the visionary inventor, artist, anatomist, botanist, mathematician, philosopher, town-planner and all round intellectual super-hero, and explained how he understood and imagined his creations by observing nature, here and elsewhere.
Audio-stations set up in the open air filled in the gaps in our knowledge – touch a button and the air is filled with music and then explanations of the various machines and translucent open-air artworks in the language of your choice. Our oldest son, a budding artist himself, found the whole thing very inspiring – and were we to find ourselves in the area between March and September, we’d definitely think about enrolling him on one of the ‘Little Leonardos’ workshops, lasting from one hour to a whole day.
A hall with themed kiosks and hands-on terminals allows older kids to get involved in more detail, but there was plenty to detain us outside. As well as our favourites such as the helicopter and paddle-boat, the Clos Lucé has a suitably imaginative playground, and there’s a crêperie and tea-room among the rosebeds as well as a picnic area. Given how busy the place was on a weekday in the October half-term, however, you’d be wise to plan your visit outside summer.
For those wondering how Leonardo ended up in the Loire Valley, he was invited here by François I, who gave the Renaissance genius the Clos Lucé – where the king himself used to play ball and war games – and the freedom to ‘think, dream and work’ in exchange for his stimulating conversation. Da Vinci crossed the Alps by mule to get to the Loire, bringing some of his artworks, including the Mona Lisa – hence its being in the Louvre in Paris rather than in Italy.
An underground passage connects the Clos Lucé with the town’s gorgeous royal castle, which is also worth a look. Charles VIII, François I, and the children of King Henri II and Catherine de Medici were brought up there: in 2008 a new ‘How to Become a King’ leaflet was introduced for kids 7–14, available in both French and English and containing games, stories and illustrations. Da Vinci’s tomb can be seen at the castle too.