Castle-hopping the Loire
Seemingly set in a fairy tale, thanks to its unparalleled concentration of castles and palaces and a backdrop of breathtaking, whimsical landscapes, the Loire Valley is the perfect destination for a short break in France.
A bicycle pushes out from among the vineyards to wend its way along the road that meanders next to the river. The dazzling sun projects the milky walls of a Renaissance palace on to the water. This is just a taste of the 1,833 hours of sunshine that the Loire receives a year, casting its silvery reflections along the riverbank dotted with mediaeval villages and palaces with fantasy gardens strolled in by various generations of French monarchs. Declared a World Heritage Site for its colourful landscapes, the Loire Valley offers a leisurely itinerary that transmits its grandeur to all who visit. The route can be completed by bike (meticulously planned via the La Loire à Vélo) or by car, castle-hopping and dropping in to some of the restaurants and wine cellars that hold the key to the French bonne vie.
It’s practically impossible to take in this wealth of heritage and landscapes in one go, but a west-east route stopping at the most important palaces could well start in the Loire-Anjou-Touraine Nature Park, between the mediaeval cities of Angers and Tours. With 271,000 protected hectares set among vineyards and woodland, the area is full of surprises, with miles of visitable underground caves, 396 species of butterflies and 186 different types of bird, including the emblematic osprey that lives on the banks of the multiple tributaries of the Loire that criss-cross the park.
These waters reflect the large-windowed façades and pointy towers of one of the most camera-friendly castles, the Château d’Azay le Rideau, which almost seems to be floating on top of the river Indre on the small island that Francis I ordered it to be built on in the 16th century. Not too far from here, you can visit the long galleries of the Château de Villandry and what is considered to be the most beautiful garden in France, with its historic park and topiary, delicate glasshouse orangery and water garden.
Within the same protected space is the nearby Château de Saumur , a Gothic bastion standing tall over the confluence of the rivers Loire and Thouet, and the small, white, slate-roofed houses of its namesake town. The end of September ushers in La Nuit de la Bulle (night of the bubbles) marking the end of Festivini, a summer festival dedicated to food and wine. A visit to the area can be topped off with a trip to the Châteaux de Ussé – whose blue-coloured spires were Perrault’s inspiration for Sleeping Beauty – and Langeais, whose ruins include the oldest keep in France and whose 15 rooms are decorated with great coffers and lavish tapestries.
Past Tours is Amboise, where two adjacent palaces are the epitome of French history: the Château Royal, former residence of the modernising King Francis I, who had a hand in the palatial creation of the Loire Valley, and Château du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci resided under the patronage of the monarchy. Both buildings embody the spirit of this riverside in their stark contrast: the former is an unassailable fortress of majestic workmanship, and the latter a more modest and delicate palace surrounded by a leafy romantic garden crossed by tributaries. The two are connected by a 500m tunnel through which Da Vinci and the king visited each other daily. Clos Lucé has restored the rooms to how they were when the Renaissance genius worked there, adding an exhibition featuring his creations and tools.
From what was once an old service lodge at the end of its gardens, the Auberge du Prieuré restaurant now serves Renaissance recipes, with costumed staff. One such dish is hocher pot, a combination of pork, beef and 14 different Asian spices, popular when vegetarian Da Vinci was alive [BC: cannot find ‘hocher pot’ anywhere]. From here you can also take a detour to explore some of the unusual wine cellars built in caves in Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire.
To the south of Amboise, the Château de Chenonceau provides a vantage point for the most glorious sunsets over vineyards and wooded landscapes, while at the Château de Montpoupon, owned and inhabited by the Motte Saint-Pierre family since the French Revolution, you can learn about the origin of the luxury design house Hermès.
To the east of Amboise, en route to Blois, the Château de Chaumont sur Loire has a long history of fortification – its original building dates back to the tenth century – and is home to some intricate sculptural details, with fireplaces, staircases and gargoyles carved out of white stone lending it a Gothic air. It is also the venue for the International Garden Festival, held in its captivating smaller ‘Goualoup’ park, which together with its main park contains various specimens of unique trees.
Leaving all this behind, the well-conserved town of Blois, built along the Loire, makes for a restful visit. Its castle of the same name is perhaps what is most impressive, once being a residence for French monarchs and combining flamboyant Gothic, Italian and classic Renaissance styles. Elegant details abound, such as the theatrical and ornate external spiral staircase, protected by an octagonal structure – which was used by Francis I to reach good lookout point over the surrounding scenery. Between April and September it’s worth staying a night at Blois just to witness the evening light and sound show that brings the castle to life.
As you carry on eastwards, the châteaux just keep on coming, each with their own personality: Château de Cheverny, the most finely proportioned of all, with its perfect symmetry; Château de Chambord, the largest, yet still slightly incomplete; and before Orleans, Château de Meung-sur-Loire, the second largest in the valley with 130 rooms. Its underground tunnel is full of secrets, as are many of the castles, charming towns and riverside landscapes that welcome you to explore the 600-mile course of the most heritage-rich river in the world.