Chenonceau, Chambord, Chaumont, Cheverny. Do these names mean anything to you?
They are just four of the many pleasure castles or châteaux in the rich undulating landscape of the Loire Valley, just 200 kilometres south of Paris, many of them overlooking France’s longest river, which runs from Ardèche in the Massif Central to Saint Nazaire on the Atlantic seaboard.
The Loire, with its many sandbanks, is no longer navigable and much is untamed. Because it easily overflows its banks, a long dyke runs along each side, with very few constructions.
Charming villages dot the countryside in between larger towns such as Amboise and Blois each of which has its own château.
From spring to autumn, the Loire Valley is filled with flowers, starting with wisteria, lilac and irises in early spring, followed by roses and honeysuckle in June, hollyhocks, althaeas, hydrangeas and fields of sunflowers in the summer. In autumn, some of France’s oldest grape vines turn every shade of red and orange. The châteaux of Villandry and Chaumont have beautiful gardens that are not to be missed.
Visiting the Loire, whatever the season, offers a host of possibilities. A four-night stay is probably the minimum you would need to see the major châteaux which fall into two groups: Chenonceau, Chambord, Cheverny, Chaumont, and the royal castles of Amboise and Blois, then Azay le Rideau, Ussé, and Villandry.
The Renaissance king, François I, who lived during the first half of the 16th century, was the man behind many of the châteaux, and the court flocked to the Loire Valley to be part of his retinue. His son, Henri II, continued the tradition, with the help of Catherine de Medicis and Diane de Poitiers.
Each château has its own personality and will appeal to different people depending on taste. Chenonceau, home to Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medicis, spanning the Cher River, is universally loved for its stunning location, sumptuous furnishings and beautiful floral arrangements.
Chaumont stands majestically above the Loire River. Its magnificently renovated rooms, 19th century stables and annual garden festival attract many visitors from across the globe.
François I built Chambord as a hunting lodge so it was unfurnished, but its rooftops and chimneys are a remarkable piece of architecture and its double staircase is famous. On 1st May, a vast antique fair is held in the grounds.
The only château to still retain its original furniture, Cheverny, with its magnificent painted ceilings and fireplaces, is particularly popular with French children as it was used as a model by Hergé for Marlinspike Hall in the Tin Tin comic books.
The royal castles of Blois and Amboise stand in exceptional locations overlooking attractive historical towns built along the river. Amboise is also home to Le Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s last resting place, and contains scale models of many of his inventions. The Sunday morning market is one of the best in the area.
Azay le Rideau, built on an island on the Indre River, is considered to be a jewel of the French Renaissance , while Ussé, with its monumental fireplaces and 18th century furniture and tapestries, was one of the châteaux that inspired Walt Disney.
The Loire Valley is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France and some of its grape varieties are unique. The most popular wines are chinon, vouvray, cour cheverny, sancerre and touraine. All are reasonably priced, often around 8 to 10 euro a bottle and can be easily bought in wine shops and supermarkets. Wine tastings at cellar doors are also possible.
One of the region’s most surprising attractions are the troglodyte dwellings in the tufa cliffs along the Loire, particularly around Vouvray, and the Cher River on the road to Montrichard. The stone is so soft that people simply hollowed it out to make their cellars and homes and added doors and windows to keep them snug!
Thanks to Rosemary Kneipp of Aussie in France for providing this fantastic wrap up of the Loire Valley. Aussie in France is a blog about the French way of life by an Australian living in rural France.