Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Often referred to as the Garden of France, the Loire Valley is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful areas of the country. Its rolling countryside plays host to a myriad of vineyards and orchards and, along the banks of the river, you can find artichokes and asparagus growing in abundance. The area is of such cultural significance that, in the year 2000, UNESCO added the central part of the Loire Valley to its list of World Heritage sites.

With some of the most stunning scenery in France, it is little wonder that the area was favoured by many of the kings and queens of the country and, of course, wherever you find royalty, you also find their houses.  Although King Francis I moved his court back to Paris in the middle of the 16th century, many lesser royals continued to favour the area and the chateaux which are in existence today are thanks, in part, to their continued affection for the area.

With more than 300 chateaux in the Loire Valley, the region has become hugely popular with visitors who appreciate cultural heritage. Many of the chateaux can trace their origins back to the 10th century and, as renovations and adaptations were carried out over the centuries, the fabulous history can been seen in the way in which the buildings have been manipulated and expanded over the years.

The French Revolution brought with it great changes to the chateaux of the Loire valley. Many were ransacked and some destroyed as their owners faced the guillotine. As time moved on, some of the chateaux once again became private homes, a number of which may be visited today. Others are now hotels and it is possible to stay in the places once occupied by the French nobility. The most noteworthy of the chateaux are now owned by the French Government and have been turned into highly popular tourist attractions. Some of the most fabulous chateaux that you can visit are listed here.

Château d'Amboise

Château d'Amboise

The Château d'Amboise’s enviable position on the banks of the River Loire made it a favourite among French kings as long ago as the Middle Ages.  However, it is the work commissioned by Charles VIII of France which gives rise to much of the impressive structure in existence today. Despite receiving significant damage during the French revolution, and although the Emperor Napoleon had to give orders for much of the chateau to be demolished as it was structurally unsound, today what remains of the chateau is still an imposing and breath-taking sight.

Reputedly the resting place of Leonardo da Vinci, a favourite of King Francis I, the Chapel Saint Hubert within the chateau grounds contains his tomb. Although there is little evidence of da Vinci’s presence at the Chateau d’Amboise, the nearby Chateau de Clos Luce which connects to Amboise by a 500m long underground passage, was da Vinci’s home for the last three years of his life.  Clos Luce now operates as a da Vinci museum and many replicas of his inventions may be seen there.

Arguably the best feature of the chateau are its gardens and the view from the castle walls. There is also an impressive collection of antique furniture and an informative guided tour.

Château de Blois

Château de Blois

Joan of Arc visited the Château de Blois to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before travelling on to Orleans to drive out the English. Located in the centre of the town of Blois, the chateau is open to the general public and is operated by the town as a museum.

Its impressive architecture includes a magnificent spiral staircase which can be seen on the exterior of the Francois I wing and the Chambre du Roi (King’s Bedroom) which is ornately decorated.

Château de Chambord

Château de Chambord

Arguably the most recognisable chateau in the world, Chambord was named a World Heritage site in 1981.  Commissioned by King Francis I, the chateau was never fully completed. However, it is today the largest in the Loire Valley.  Initially designed as a hunting lodge, the chateau is a fusion of renaissance architecture with 11 types of towers and three types of chimneys.

One of the most unusual features is the spectacular double helix staircase – its two sets of staircases ascend the three floors of the chateau but never meet. Among the stunning rooms in the chateau is Louis XIV’s ceremonial bedroom, which is as rich and lavish today as it would have been when he was alive. The impressive grounds, coupled with the knowledge that the chateau was used as the basis for the illustrated castle in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast, make Chambord a must see castle on any itinerary.

Château de Chaumont

Château de Chaumont

Standing high on a hillside overlooking the Loire, the Chateau de Chaumont is one of the most impressive chateau in the Loire Valley. There has been a castle on the site since the 10th century but much of the current structure was built at the end of the 1400’s. Among the distinguished guests to have been associated with the castle are Catherine de Medici who purchased the chateau in 1560 and Nostradamus who visited her.

The chateau is now a museum and a large amount of decorative rooms and furniture can be seen during your visit. Also worth mentioning is that, each summer, the gardens of the chateau play host to a festival displaying the work of contemporary garden designers.

Château de Chenonceau

Château de Chenonceau

The stunning Château de Chenonceau is situated on the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire. Incredible in its design, as an arched bridge across the Cher, Chenonceaux is one of the most iconic of all French Chateaux.

During a visit to Chenonceau you will see immense tapestries, works of art by old masters such as Rubens and Murillo and incredible gardens. The castle is very popular amongst tourists and, if you are visiting in high season, it is recommended that you go early to fully appreciate the design.

Château de Cheverny

Château de Cheverny

The inspiration for Marlinspike Hall in the Tin Tin books by Herge, the Chateau de Cheverny was built by Philippe Hurault in the 1620’s.  Despite losing the property briefly in the early 1800’s, the Hurault family re-bought the chateau in 1824 and have lived there ever since.

Cheverny opened to the public in 1914, one of the first privately owned chateaux to do so. There is a fantastic collection of tapestries, artwork and furniture accumulated over five centuries by the Hurault family. There is also a 700 square metre Tin Tin exhibit for lovers of the cartoon hero.

The magnificent formal garden is a fabulous place to unwind after a tour of the chateau and, while you are there, take the time to visit the hounds - Cheverney has more than 100 and, during the summer months, they may be observed at feeding time which is 5.00pm.

Whichever chateau you decide to visit in the Loire Valley, you can be certain to experience beautiful gardens, stunning scenery and a vast mixture of architectural styles and creativity. Often built on the site of former castles, chateaux came into being at a time when defence was mainly provided by armies and the heavily fortified castles were no longer a necessity.  These beautiful buildings were designed to be aesthetically pleasing, rather than enemy deterring, and the results are breath-taking.

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