Chateau Hunting in the Loire Valley, France!
I’ve travelled to France many times now and have always enjoyed every visit. I think part of the reason why I keep returning (apart from it being so close!) is that every area is unique. I love Paris and we make a point of taking at least a couple of days there every time we go to France. I must admit the first time I went to Paris, I enjoyed it, but didn’t immediately fall in love with it like I have some cities. I think this might have been because I approached my visit in a real focussed tourist kind of way, I had a list of sights I had to see and tick off and spent my time rushing between them making plans on how it could all be fitted in.
It can become intense and there is so much to see that you can become overawed by it all. Then when I went back the second, third and fourth times, it was much more relaxing and things seemed to really sink in, the beauty and the charm of this amazing city really hit me. The experiences as much as the sights are something I love here, having a picnic under the Eiffel Tower, enjoying a coffee and croissant on the picturesque streets of the Île de la Cité, sipping wine on the banks of the River Seine. These are the moments that make me want to return over and over again.
If you’ve read some of my other posts you’ll now I love taking a stroll around cities after dark when so many the sights are lit up and take on a different personality. Paris comes alive after dark! It really does, you can see the Eiffel Tower lit up with its rotating light at the top, the sparkling lights, The Louvre and it’s grounds, the banks of The Seine and the bars along it. Incredible, I LOVE it!
My favourite part if Paris though is definitely Montmartre, I love the views, the brilliant white cathedral the Sacré-Cœur at the top of the stairs, the narrow streets and independent shops, this atmospheric area is really worth going to. I don’t even mind paying the slightly expensive prices in the restaurants in the pretty square, it’s worth it! Each time we have been I can’t resist eating at Chez la Mere Catherine. Founded in 1793 and with a claim to be the first bistro in Paris, it’s great. Its set in the really pretty Place du Tertre surrounded by people painting, and you can eat outside in the square when the weather is nice, it’s a great experience. I recommend the Beef Bourguignon!
The one thing that does get me about the place though are the crowds around the major attractions. At peak times it is a fight to get any where near the Mona Lisa, I really would recommend pre booking tickets to the major sights and attractions and avoid peak times at all costs. It really can spoil the moment. On one of our trips we visited the Palace of Versailles, it is spectacular, there is no doubt about it, but my experience was really spoilt by the crowds and people especially in guided groups rushing from one point to another trying to get a photo. This was the first place I saw so many people with cameras in both hands as they went round!! I saw so many people with IPads in one hand videoing or whatever and a camera in the other…are they really taking anything in? It is worth a trip if you have time and the grounds are serene especially after the crowds inside!!
Hang on, this was supposed to be a post about the Loire Valley, but I mentioned France and just could not help but talk about Paris! Sorry!
The Loire Valley!!
This area has a real peaceful feel to it, I’ve been twice now, both times we have gone by car taking a ferry to keep the costs well down. We have stayed at holiday parks or camp sites again keeping the costs down, and because it is such a rural natural area it’s a lovely way of staying and enjoying the country side. Our favourite site is the Chateau des Marais, it’s a pretty small site with a nice pool and really pretty grounds, it has static caravans and pre-pitched tents with all the mod cons. It also has a really nice log cabin style bar and restaurant. I don’t usually stay at these kind of places but in this area I find it a really relaxing and cost effective way of enjoying the countryside. For those with families it’s great too. It’s good fun as well picking up freshly baked baguettes and croissants from the shop for breakfast!
The main draw of the Loire Valley are the amazing Chateaux dotted around, some, for example Chateau de Chambord are set in their own beautiful grounds out on their own in the countryside. Some others though have had pretty, atmospheric towns grow around them and are really cool places to spend days.
My favourite of these is Amboise, partly because of the history of the place and partly because of it being just so picturesque! The Chateau Royal d’Amboise is set in the middle of the town which rises up from the Loire river banks, the chateau is the highest point around and it seems like all views lead to it!
The chateau was built in the early 15th century on what was already a naturally good defensive outpost on top of a rocky spur with views all around. On 4th September 1434 it was seized by the crown, King Charles VII, following Louis d’Amboise being convicted of plotting against King Louis XI. This is when it became a royal residence and was a favourite of many of the French kings. Charles VIII was responsible for a major rebuild of the chateau in 1492 and added much of it’s ornate Italian decoration. There are two people who had major impacts on the history of Amboise, the surrounding area, and in fact the world. Francois I, king of France 1515-1547 was a great fan of the Italian Renaissance and was responsible for inviting Leonardo da Vinci to live in Amboise in 1516. He gave to him the manor house at Clos Luce and named him “First Painter, Engineer, and Kings Architect”.
Da Vinci was already 64 by the time he took up residence here and three years later he passed away and is buried in the Chapell St Hubert inside the Chateau Royal d’Amboise. He and Francois I became great friends and there is even a tunnel linking Da Vinci’s home to the royal chateau so the pair could easily meet.
Da Vinci spent his last days making sketches and coming up with new inventions, inside the house there is a section where scale models have been made of contraptions Da Vinci dreamt up. These include machine guns, a spring powered bike, bridges, and a tank! Amongst many many more, there are also models throughout the pretty grounds as well.
It’s amazing that so many of these ideas Da Vinci came up with would actually have worked, he was so prolifically creative it is incredible. Walking around the house really feels like following in the foot steps of greatness. His bedroom has a window which looks out over to the royal Chateau, it’s a special place.
An interesting fact is that when invited to France by Francois I, Leonardo da Vinci took his beloved painting La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa with him. It is thought that he even continued working on it whilst in France. When he died Francois I acquired it and it remained in the possession of the French monarchy being moved to the Palace of Versailles and then to The Louvre.
The grounds at Clos Luce are really nice to wander and relax with ponds and Peacocks and great views of the house and up to the royal Chateau.
Something else which I found really cool in Amboise is that there are houses built into the rock underneath the grounds of the Chateau where people still live! These houses are carved caves in the rock and some have some really decorative fronts, they are eye catching as you walk down from the town centre towards Clos Luce.
Blois is another town with it’s own royal Chateau filled with history and famous names. Catherine de Medici, described as the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe lived some times inside the chateau and eventually died there. It is also in Blois where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims and rallied the troops in 1429 before riding into Orleáns to defeat the English siege.
The Chateau de Blois has four different wings which have been added to over hundreds of years and show the differences between architectural periods and fashions at the time. In the evenings there is a brilliant light show inside the chateau which is well worth seeing. Headphones with radio receivers are handed out to everyone who enters and are available in most languages, these along with brilliant lights projected onto the wall of the chateau around you as you stand in the court yard tell you the stories of the chateau’s history, including the treacherous and murderous acts that have taken place inside over the years. It is something different, although a lot of the chateaux have there own versions, this was a unique way of learning about the history.
Blois is another nice town to spend some time in, like Amboise it is right on the banks of the Loire River, it has atmospheric narrow streets and is unmistakably French! A visit here is a must during your time in the Loire valley.
Catherine De Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo II de Medici the very wealthy ruler of Florence. She was married to Henry, Duke of Orleáns aged 14, Henry went on to become king of France and the couple had 10 children together, however only eight of them survived infancy, three of the childrens, three of Catherine de Medici’s sons went on to become kings of France still in her lifetime and she acted as queen regent alongside them. During Catherine de Medici’s first year of marriage to Henry she was pretty much sidelined, the Medici’s had been thrown out of Florence, the new Pope refused to pay her dowry, and Henry took many mistresses. Her main love rival though was Dianne de Poitiers who for many years played centre stage.
It is said that Catherine de Medici’s favourite chateau was the Chateau de Chenonceau pictured at the top of the page. However Henry had handed this to Diane de Poitiers which angered Catherine. Following henry’s death Catherine promptly kicked her out and gave her the less grand Chateau de Chaumont, and made Chenonceau one of her own official residences, she spent a fortune on it and was renown for throwing wild parties there. In more recent history during world war one its gallery on top of the bridge was used as a military hospital, during world war two, when the two sides of the bridge were still connected to the land either side it was used as an escape route from the Nazi occupied area.
Its an amazing Chateau and is really unique spanning a bridge across the river. Again the grounds and ornamental gardens are lovely to wander around in the nicer weather.
The biggest and what most people call “The chateau not to be missed” whilst visiting the Loire Valley is the Chateau de Chambord. It was originally built as a hunting lodge with wild boar and deer present in great numbers in the surrounding woods.
This place is really regal, and you can imagine the pomp and pageantry taking place here when Francois I came to visit! It has all the architectural intricacies inspired by the renaissance and is everything you imagine of a palace! Again the grounds are really cool, it is set on its own in the country side. Here they have kept a tradition of keeping horses and do a brilliant Equine display with people riding horses bare back doing somersaults off their backs, spectacular!
Renaissance artists and engineers are said to have worked on the building, inside is a double helix stair case where two open flights of stairs wrap round each other, so two people could go up or down without actually crossing paths, this may have been based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci.
Another experience I REALLY enjoyed in the Loire Valley was the wine! The road in between the Chateaux is lined with wine caves where you can try local wines and other produce, I love trying the local wines when travelling and in France, it HAS to be done!
Two other towns we spent time in during our stay in the Loire valley are Orleáns and Tours. Like I explained earlier Orleáns is the scene of Joan of Arc’s heroism, riding in with her army and defeating the British siege of the city.
Unsurprisingly there is more than a tip of the cap to her in this city…and understandably so, her story really was one of heroism and then to have been executed for being a witch?? Can you catch your breath? These times were treacherous with schemers always working away in the background towards their own ends.
Orleáns in it’s own right is a lovely city to visit and has a cosmopolitan feel about it. I really enjoyed many a coffee looking out at the amazing cathedral here, it’s right up there with Notre Dame.
While we were there we were lucky that there was a medieval festival being held with loads of craft stalls and food and drink stands, every now again people in fancy dress would dance around the square playing music as well. There was also a small stage where medieval style instruments were played. There was a really nice atmosphere there and we had a great time!
Tours is another cool town with lots of vibrant café and restaurant filled squares and sometimes spoken of as the capital of the Loire valley. It has a great art museum with pieces by Monet and Rembrandt.
Travelling around the Loire valley is a pleasant, laid back and relaxing experience and I wouldn’t mind going back some day at all!
I recommend the Lonely Planet Guide to France for your trip, full of insights and stories you may otherwise miss! Click on the image of the book to take you straight to the page on Amazon, or click on the Lonely Planet advert on the right on desk tops, or at the bottom if on mobile. This will take you straight to the Lonely Planet store where they have got a great offer on 3 for 2. You can also buy individual chapters here.