France has more than its share of wonderful sights, from Nôtre Dame to the Giverny and Versailles. But for a display of natural and man-made beauty, it’s hard to beat the Loire Valley. Magnificent white palaces rising up amid a green countryside dotted with vineyards, boaters floating by on lazy rivers: it’s a place like nowhere else on earth.
From the 15th century, the Loire was the playground of French kings and aristocrats. It was here, only a few hours from Paris, that they found refuge from the heat and the political strife of the city. And with the Renaissance in full bloom, they did their part by building beautiful, elaborate châteaux, or palaces, along the rivers.
Today, the Loire Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And happily, most of those châteaux are still standing – more than 80 of them across the valley. Some are owned by private families, others by the state, and many of them are open to visitors. So visiting the châteaux of the Loire has become one of the great experiences of a trip to France.
I visited the Loire on my trip to Paris for a Viking river cruise, and took a full-day tour that included visits to several châteaux — including two famous and significant ones – and a visit to a wine négociant to taste some of the region’s famous wines. Here’s a look at some of the wonders I saw.
Château de Villandry
The first stop of the day was Château de Villandry – ironically, since this was the last of the great châteaux of the Loire Valley. Built in 1532, it was originally the residence of Jean Le Breton, minister of finance for King François I. But during its lifetime it has been owned by a number of people, including the younger brother of Napoleon I.
The château itself, remodelled several times over the centuries, is a bit simpler than many in the valley, and the furnishings are not original.
What Villandry is famous for is its gardens, an amazing expanse of formal flower gardens, vegetable and herb gardens, water features, natural gardens and woods, spread out along the Cher River. The gardens are amazing, especially when seen from the heights above the chateau (see above). And a wander along the many paths could keep you occupied for hours if gardening was your interest.
The second stop was Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, considered one of the jewels of the Loire Valley. Perched on an island in the Indre River, it is a perfect portrait of the Loire châteaux: an ornate white palace sitting majestically above the shining waters, with its round towers and banners flying. Balzac described it as “a faceted diamond framed by the Indre”.
It has a dramatic history, too. The building stands on the ruins of an earlier castle that was burned to the ground in 1418 by the future Charles VII, killing the 350 Burgundian soldiers inside. The current château was built between 1518 and 1523 by Gilles Berthelot, mayor of Tours and the treasurer of France. He went into exile, and the new owner never finished it, so the building ended up with an odd “L” shape, missing two of its four intended wings.
Today, the château is a historic monument of the French state, and a dramatic sight – at least, it would have been if it hadn’t been shrouded in construction hoardings. A picture of the central gallery was painted on the hoardings, a tactic I’d seen in other places in France, but in the end, it looked more like a billboard for the site.
Inside, the château was interesting and impressive, with sumptuous drawing rooms and its signature escalier d’honneur — a stone staircase that rises straight up through the three floors rather than spiralling, as most did in its day. The rooms are decorated in the neo-renaissance style, with huge, ornate fireplaces, antique furniture and beautiful paintings, including a number of portraits of former kings and other French notables..
The more private rooms featured 16th- and 17th-century Flemish tapestries, a common sight in Loire châteaux, for a good reason: stone walls are cold, and living in these buildings in winter could be a frigid affair.
I found the best view of d’Azay-le-Rideau, however, when I ventured outside and wandered around the side. There, unexpectedly, was a lovely view of the château rising out of the water (see above). The water was a bit green, but even so, I got a glimpse of what it should have looked like.
However, with more than 80 châteaux in the Loire Valley, I was puzzled that the tour company had chosen to bring us to one that was under construction and half-obscured. Still, I knew that better was coming in the afternoon.
Château de Chenonceau
The first two châteaux of the day had been handsome but not amazing. But the third more than made up for the slow start: Chenonceau, known as “the ladies’ château”, and the one you see most often in the brochures luring millions of tourists to the Touraine.
Its reputation is well deserved: as we walked down the roadway leading to the château, it rose up like a Disney castle, with its round white turrets and the conical roof of the ancient keep (on the right, below), retained from an earlier medieval castle. And as we cleared the trees, I could see the huge gardens stretching out on both sides. This was the real thing.
Built in 1513, Chenonceau is special in a couple of ways. It’s called the ladies’ château because it was lived in by a series of notable women, starting with Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henri II, and Catherine de’ Medici, the king’s widow, who ruled France from the château after his death. The last was Simone Menier, who oversaw a hospital set up in the building by her wealthy family during the First World War.
It’s also famous for its unique “bridge” (seen above) — actually a two-storey wing of the building with a long gallery that stretches across the Cher River, supported by a series of five arches. As we toured the building, windows opened onto beautiful vistas of the river and boaters enjoying a day on the water.
The château has many rooms, most of them associated with some famous figures. One of the most intriguing was the small green study from which Catherine de’ Medici ruled the whole of France (sadly, it was too crowded with tourists for a photograph). The study and attached library are just off Catherine’s bedroom (below), which wasn’t quite as sumptuous as I would have expected — but then, I guess she preferred her bedroom to be restful after a day of national affairs.
Louis XIV – the “Sun King” – also makes an appearance, with a study named after him. The room features a portrait of himself, given to the château after he paid a visit in 1650. The room also features several other portraits and a handsome Renaissance fireplace with the symbols of the salamander and the stoat, for François I and Queen Claude.
The 60-metre gallery spanning the river was impressive as well, bright and airy and set off by a tufa-and-slate-tiled floor. Today it’s filled with tourists, but the gallery has a history of its own: built on the orders of Catherine de’ Medici, it was originally a magnificent ballroom. However, in the last century it was used for the World War I army hospital mentioned above, and during World War II, the French Resistance used it to spirit people from occupied France into the free zone.
The basement kitchens were open for inspection, including the ovens and cooking utensils. Things were surprisingly automated in the building’s heyday, by the look of this pulley system for roasting meat on the huge fireplace.
When you were finished touring one luxurious room after the other, you could take a stroll through the woods across the river. Or you could wander the elaborate gardens. On one side was Diane’s Garden, somewhat spare and geometric, punctuated by shrubs here and there. On the other was Catherine’s Garden, seen here, a little more lush and colourful, and backed by the green woods. And it offered some classic views of the château, as you can see from the photo at the top of this post (if you’re reading this by e-mail, click on the headline to see it).
The day wasn’t over: in fact, there was a an amazing find still to come, and some good wine. But that’s all the opulence I can fit into one post. Next time, the royal Chateau of Amboise, and a visit to the cellars of a Loire wine négociant. Stay tuned.