Originating in the rugged central Ardèche region of France and emptying into the Atlantic near the shipbuilding port of Saint Nazaire, the 1,000km-long Loire river is as French as the Mississippi is American. This is the river the French love best: for the soft green beauty of the regions it waters and because it has so profoundly shaped their culture and identity. The constellation of magnificent chateaux found in the Loire valley has stoked the world’s romantic imagination, making the area between Orléans and Angers one of the most storied and visited destinations in France.
Beyond their beauty, the chateaux of the Loire are an acute expression of the region’s history, too. During the middle ages, fortified seigneurial residences were the focal points around which towns and villages grew. During the hundred years war between the French and the English the Loire valley was a frontier zone, so many castles transformed into fortresses. When peace came during the mid-15th century, they were remodelled as pleasure palaces for the aristocracy.
Besides castles and spectacular scenery, several lively towns and cities, each with their own charms, add appeal – from Nantes, a thriving cultural hub in the west, to the ancient cathedral town of Tours, the main town in the valley, and Angers with its busy nightlife. The kings of France ditched Paris for the Loire Valley during the Renaissance, leaving the region littered with glorious châteaux. And who could blame them? This lush valley is a regal backdrop for elaborate castles, its fertile vineyards and farmlands supplying royal feasts. Local pears and goat cheese, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé still end up on restaurant tables in Tours. The Loire Valley region was often called “the Garden of France.” It is a region of rich history that predates Roman times and was highly contested for centuries. As a result it is home to numerous Royal Castles, Renaissance era palaces, the French National Museum and numerous Chateaux. A storybook setting could almost never be as idyllic. The local sites range from Roman era fortifications to 17th century estate castles, and a variety of Gothic and Romanesque churches.
And while you’re visiting the Loire Valley you need not travel like a peasant. Many of the castles feature accommodations where you can stay for the night and feel you’re king for a day.
The region is home to numerous cultural events and festivities throughout the year, and just some of these include the Printemps de Bourges, one of the most renowned music festivals in Europe and the August Folklore Festival in Montoire. If it’s the medieval, serf-and-seigneur kind of castle you’re after, head for the imposing fortress of Langeais. Built during the 1460s as a fortress to cut off the likely invasion route from Brittany, the castle still maintains its original battlements and drawbridge.
Stately Amboise was home to a succession of French monarchs including Charles VIII and Louis XI. It also presented a formidable prospect to would-be attackers but in fact saw very little military action; it was more often used as a weekend getaway. Close by in Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci whiled away his final years. For historical significance, include a stop to the royal residence of Blois, which spans four distinct periods of French architectural history.
For literary connections, try Ussé, which was, some believe, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty. It has creamy white towers that jut out from the edge of the glowering forest of Chinon, offering sweeping views across the flat Loire countryside and the flood-prone River Indre. There is a popular local rumour that it was this castle that inspired Disney when he was dreaming up his magical kingdom (check out the Disney logo and you might be inclined to agree).
These places need the life putting back into them. The elegant grandeur – the stateliest statement of French aspirations – needs to be seen as the setting for adultery, murder, intrigue, power-plays, torture, dubious hygiene and epic horticulture … all more or less necessary to keeping France governed, and French kings on top. The Valley of a Thousand Châteaux is also the home to many good wines. As you travel through the Loire, look for dégustation (tasting) signs. Inquire at tourist centers for winery tour and tasting information. The towns of Vouvray and Chinon have many proud and hospitable family wineries.
While less than a thousand, there seem to be countless castles to choose from. Consider visiting the region’s three most interesting châteaux: Chenonceau, Chambord, and Chambord. Don’t go overboard on château-hopping. Two châteaux, possibly three (if you’re a big person), is the recommended daily dosage. These three can be visited in a day by car or local minibus tour:
The toast of the Loire, Chenonceau, is a 15th-century Renaissance palace arching femininely over the Cher River. One look and you know it was designed by women: Diane de Poitiers added the delightful arched bridge across the river. Mistress of Henry II, Diane enjoyed her lovely retreat until Henry died (pierced in a jousting tournament) and his vengeful wife, Catherine de’ Medici, unceremoniously kicked her out (and into the nearby château of Chaumont). Catherine added a three-story structure atop Diane’s bridge, giving the château its unique river bridge charm. She turned Chenonceau into the local aristocracy’s place to see and be seen. Much later, in the twentieth century, Chenonceau marked the border between free and Nazi France in World War II. Dramatic prisoner swaps took place here. And now in the 21st century, it is a delight to explore.
More like a city than a castle, the château of Chambord is huge. Surrounded by a lush park with wild deer and boar, it was originally built as a simple hunting lodge for bored blue bloods. François I, using 1,800 workmen over 15 years, made a few modest additions and created this “weekend retreat.” (You’ll find his signature salamander everywhere.)
Don’t miss Chambord’s huge double-spiral staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo spent his last years as part of the French king’s court and lived nearby on the Loire in Amboise (where you can tour a fascinating museum in his home).
Other Chambord highlights include its second-floor vaulted ceilings, enormous towers on all corners, a pin-cushion roof of spires and chimneys, and a 100-foot tall lantern supported by flying buttresses. To see what happens when you put 365 fireplaces in your house, wander through the forest of chimney spires on the rooftop. Only 80 of the 440 rooms are open to the public — and that’s plenty.
The most lavish furnishings of all the Loire châteaux decorate the stately hunting palace of Cheverny. Those who complain that the Loire châteaux have stark and barren interiors missed this one. Today’s château was built in 1634. It’s been in the same family for nearly seven centuries. Family pride shows in its flawless preservation and intimate feel. The viscount’s family still lives on the third floor — you’ll see some family photos.