The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is everything you think France should be. Lovely landscapes, beautiful small cities, and most of all chateaux. The chateaux of the Loire Valley are truly amazing!
We absolutely loved this area of France, it is lovely and peaceful and easy to get around. In addition to lots and lots of castles it also has great food and wine as well as wonderful places to stay.
We look forward to returning and seeing even more of the fantastic chateaux of the Loire Valley!
What is a Chateau
Just what is a chateau anyway? I looked up a bunch of definitions and basically what I found was this:
A chateau is large country house or castle in France, often giving its name to the wine produced in the neighborhood. So, there you have it. I will say that the phrase “large country house” seems a tad understated for most of the chateaux of the Loire Valley that we saw!
Which Loire Valley Chateaux should you visit?
Chateaux are scattered like constellations around the Loire Valley. A southerner might say, “you can’t swing a stick without hittin’ a castle round here.” Many of them are open to the public. The bottom line is that you have a plethora of choices and some decisions to make! My advice? Don’t try to see too many in a day. It would be easy to get chateau overload.
You want to be able to enjoy and remember the ones that you choose to visit.
We stayed in the lovely city of Amboise in the Loire Valley and from there we were able to get to a number of the Loire chateau easily by car. Although we sometimes had to drive an hour or so the roads were easy to navigate and most of the time the chateaux were well marked with signage.
Chenonceau is lovely, elegant, feminine, and…scandalous! King Henry II gave Chenonceau, not to his wife, but to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers. After the kings death his wife Queen Catherine de Medici immediately sent Diane packing and took back the castle.
Many of its owners in subsequent years were exceptional women. Women seem to have always been drawn to the beauty and grace of Chenonceau and because women were the ones responsible for embellishing, restoring, and protecting this amazing place it is sometimes called “the ladies chateau.”
Chenonceau had a particularly harrowing and helpful role during the World Wars. The owners at the time, the Menier family, set it up as a military hospital during WWI and paid for all the operating costs themselves. During WWII the chateau became a point of access to the free zone because of its grand gallery across the river which was the demarcation line. The Meniers helped smuggle people out who were fleeing Nazi tyranny.
It was suggested to us that it was best to arrive in the afternoon for our visit and this ended up being an excellent tip. Parking was easy, there wasn’t a single person waiting in line to purchase tickets and hoards of tourists were departing as we were arriving. We basically had the gardens to ourselves and none of the rooms were crowded.
The chateau has a small maze with a gazebo in the middle and a long and wide tree lined entrance to the home. The castle is surrounded by lovely and interesting gardens. It has a gorgeous position on and spanning the River Cher. We rented the audio guide which was very nice to have albeit a little long winded at times. The rooms are beautifully appointed with the bedrooms of the ladies who lived in the chateau being the most exquisite. The views over the gardens from the balconies of the upper levels are glorious.
Seeing the kitchen and kitchen storage rooms is always my favorite part of seeing old castles and homes. They are always so perfect and pristine, but I enjoy imaging the rooms full of vegetables and meats and steaming pots and people chopping and calling out orders and running to and fro.
To me this is the most beautiful of the chateaux of the Loire Valley and is a must see if you are in the area.
Another chateau of the Loire Valley that you should definitely see is Clos de Luce which is located in the town of Amboise. This one is closer to the definition of a large country house than most. It is smaller, less pretentious, and most importantly it was the final home of Leonardo Da Vinci until his death. This would be an excellent place to bring your children or grand-children although we didn’t have either and still thoroughly enjoyed our visit here!
Leonardo da Vinci was lured here in the last years of his life by King Francis I who lived in the nearby Chateau d’Amboise by the promise of a lovely place to live, a pension, and freedom to think, dream, and work. Oh, and he had to be available to the King for intellectual discussion. Sounds like a deal to me!
Not only do you get to see the house, but you get a glimpse into the private life of Leonardo. You see where he slept and worked and ate. In the basement of the home there are rooms of models of many of Leonardo’s inventions that fully show the genius of the man. There is a sign saying that the models were built by IBM, they include things like locks and dams, guns, car-like machines, and draw bridges.
The gardens of the chateau are not only beautiful, but as you wander you encounter life size working models of some of Leonardo’s inventions. It causes you the realize just how far ahead of his time the man really was. One of the things that our guide book stated was that Da Vinci’s last words were “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
Well. Not sure there is any hope for the rest of us if the quality of his work wasn’t good enough.
This Chateau dominates the town of Amboise with its position high on a hill overlooking the Loire river and the village. I think my favorite things here were the views and the small chapel where Leonardo Da Vinci was buried.
This chateau was all but abandoned in the 17th century after the death of King Louis XIII. It was turned into a state prison for a time and then suffered at the hands of the Revolutionaries and Napoleon. A restoration was begun in the late 1800’s but that suffered setbacks during the World Wars. In 1974 a restoration was begun in earnest.
Because of the neglect and lack of ownership this chateau is sparsely furnished and definitely doesn’t contain the types of masterpieces of Chenonceau. Still it was interesting to visit. There is a fascinating large spiral passageway up the tower into the castle which allowed carriages to be able to drive right up inside. The views from the balconies and the beautiful terraced gardens are worth seeing.
Chateau de Chambord
The largest. The grandest. The most majestic.
Over the top.
Chambord has 426 rooms, 83 staircases, 282 fireplaces…with over 800 sculpted columns to keep it all standing.
You will be able to see 60ish of the rooms with your ticket and believe me, that is plenty! Although some of the rooms are furnished they are not the original furnishing of the castle. They are however pieces from that era. Apparently the French kings only had their castles furnished when they were actually in residence and Chambord was not one in which they regularly lived. It’s not like the castle has been emptied of furnishings. It was never full to begin with!
King Francis I built this castle as a hunting lodge in the 1500’s. He had done some campaigns in Italy and the renaissance style that he saw there greatly influenced the architecture of Chambord.
The architecture is stunning to see. One of the most famous focal points is the double helix staircase which some believe was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
I found the terraces to be a highlight of our visit! Not only can you see the views through the countryside, but you can view all the towers and chimneys and turrets that make up the roofline of Chambord.
Chambord is definitely not to be missed when you are in the area. Be prepared to spend some time here.
Chateau de Blois
This is another Loire Valley chateau located right in the small French town of Bloise.
Blois is a pretty town and its castle was a busy place in its hey-day. When you do a little research you realize that kings and queens were forever coming and going from this place over the decades and centuries. In fact, 7 kings and 10 queens lived here and it seems that most managed to leave their mark on the architecture…not always to the benefit of the appearance of the castle.
Francois I had the flamboyant and somewhat nutty looking exterior staircase built in the courtyard. You will see the fire breathing salamander that represented his royal reign carved into the marble.
It began as a medieval castle but as wings were added they drew from gothic, Renaissance and classical styles. To be honest, the castle can look a little higgledy-piggledy, a tad thrown together. That might be why this chateau is often overlooked by visitors for some of the more…well… photogenic castles.
I admit that it’s not as fairy-tale like as we might prefer our castles to be…but it has character. It actually feels like a place that was lived in and evolved through the ages.
If you are at all interested in history or architecture I think that Blois Castle is worth a look!
Chateau De Villandry
The Chateau de Villandry has lovely architecture, but it is mostly known for its gardens!
It was the last of the grand chateaux built during the renaissance. The architecture is rather serious and elegant, like the grand old dame that she is. Many of the chateaux drew heavily from Italian style in their architecture but Villandry is very French.
The owner and architect of this home, Jean Le Breton, was very interested in gardens and gardening. He wanted the gardens to be almost entirely ornamental and to provide a transition between the house and it’s natural setting on the river Cher. These gardens were famous even back during the renaissance period for their beauty.
These gardens are glorious! We were in France in the spring, but I think that they would be beautiful in any season. The high point are the kitchen gardens. These aren’t your typical patches of herbs. The ornamental kitchen gardens consists of nine patches all of the same size, but each one is different! Each patch has a different geometric shape made of vegetables and flowers. In addition they are done with alternating colors. The whole thing has the effect of a modern and glorious patchwork quilt. It is really something to see!
Villandry was one of my favorite of the chateau of the Loire Valley. I highly recommend a visit on a nice day when you can spend some time in the gardens.
Chateau De Chaumont Sur Loire
Chateau De Chaumont is very castle-y looking. It has rounded towers on each corner and flanking the entrance which has a drawbridge. It has steep, pointy, peaky roof lines. It has a bit more of the feeling of a fortress than many of the other Loire Valley chateaux and in fact did start out as a It started out defensive castle!
As there were different owners the chateau began to take on a more renaissance style. Diane de Poitiers who originally lived in Chenonceau came to this chateau after being encourage to move from (kicked out of) her previous home. She was the one who brought in most of the renaissance elements. Probably to make it feel as it she weren’t living in a fortress.
Chaumont Sur Loire sits on the banks of the Loire River near the town of Blois. Note that if you are using a GPS to get there be sure and put in the full name because there are several “Chaumonts” in the area.
The rooms of the castle are carefully restored and furnished. Not all of the furnishings represent the renaissance era although the Chamber of Catherine de Médici and the Chamber of Diane de Poitiers are furnished in the 16th century style. Much of the house is decorated in a more recent style that represents those who owned the house through the early 1900’s.
One of the fun things about this chateau is that you can see the stables, the original farm and various other buildings. The stables are incredibly lavish!
There are so many more Loire Valley Chateaux that you can visit! I think that the ones mentioned above will get you off to a great start! Enjoy castle hopping!
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