Today I’m going to flash back to a trip we took in November. We spent a long weekend exploring north central and northwest France, including Mont-Saint-Michel and Normandy. The final part of our trip about which I have not yet written was a jaunt through the Loire Valley to tour some of the châteaux (or castles) there.
There are varying counts on the number of châteaux in the Loire Valley (ranging from 42 to 300)—probably due to the various definitions of a “Loire Valley Château.” Wikipedia notes that the main criterion for inclusion is that the château must be located on the Loire River or one of its tributaries (below the commune of Gien). Check out this great map of the châteaux here.
Whatever the definition, there are way too many to visit in a day—or even a long weekend. We researched various itineraries and read many reviews on the châteaux before our trip and ultimately settled on the following: Chambord, Chenonceau, Usse and D’Amboise.
We booked a hotel in Tours and decided to tackle Chambord, Chenonceau and D’Amboise on the first day and hit Usse on the way home on Sunday.
Unfortunately, we discovered Usse (the castle that is rumored to have inspired Sleeping Beauty) was closed for the winter (whoops–missed that on the website!), but we did manage to sneak in two other unplanned châteaux on Sunday before we headed back to Toulouse: Château de Langeais and the Fortresse Royale de Chinon.
Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord was the furthest château northeast from Tours on our list, so we decided to start there. Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley and it was originally built to serve as a hunting lodge for Francis I. Construction on the building began in 1519 and continued for several decades. It passed through many hands over the years and saw many well-known visitors (including Louis XIV and Molière). Rumor has it Leonardo da Vinci may have even had a hand in the initial castle design.
Today, the château is owned and managed by the state. It’s open pretty much every day of the year with slightly shorter hours in the winter (be sure to check before you visit).
The château is in remarkably good condition and features exhibits on some of the previous owners and visitors, as well as rotating art exhibitions. The exterior is stunning and the sweeping, double helix staircase inside is amazing. The views of the gardens from the top of the château are equally beautiful and worth a peak, even for those frightened of heights (I can say that because heights terrify me).
We opted to try out the virtual reality tablet which allowed us to scan rooms with the tablet camera and see what the room might have looked like back in the day, as well as get a little additional information about various pieces of furniture and paintings. It was a little cheesy, but we still had fun using it. It would be great for families with children as it includes a treasure hunt of sorts encouraging you to find and collect various “relics” throughout the castle (all virtual of course).
The day was very cold and we had more châteaux to visit, so we didn’t end up strolling around the gardens, but for those visiting on a warmer day and with more time, I’m sure they’re worth touring.
Château de Chenonceau
I absolutely loved this castle. It is referred to as the “Château des Dames” in honor of the many strong and historically significant women who loved, administered and protected it.
Built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, it was later embellished by Diane de Poitiers and then Catherine de Medici. During the revolution it was protected by Madame Dupin.
The rooms have been lovingly restored and display gorgeous paintings, tapestries, furniture and other original decorations. From the chapel in the front of the castle to the incredible kitchen beneath, it’s obvious how well the construction and design were thought out.
Of course, who wouldn’t love the beautiful gardens overlooking the river and the strong arches allowing the house to perch above the river itself? Truly a castle for fairytales.
We started our visit with a quick, warm bite from the self-service cafeteria in the old Royal Stables (which has been charmingly converted). As with most places in France, the word cafeteria doesn’t do it justice. The meat was carved fresh in front of us and the desert display looked like something out of a high-end bakery.
Because of the chilly weather, we once again spent very little time exploring the sprawling gardens (though they looked pretty amazing to go through in warmer weather), but we did opt to do the self-tour using the iPod audio guide.
I would rate this castle a “must see” on a Loire Valley Châteaux tour.
Château Royal d’Amboise
Driving into Amboise, this castle looks like it might be perched in the clouds. It towers above the surrounding town from the rock spur on which it was built. The location’s importance dates back to the Iron Age when the site was a place of craftwork and commercial exchanges.
The château has passed through many hands over the years, but one of its most famous guests was Leonardo da Vinci. He came to the château in 1515 and lived and worked in the smaller Château du Clos Lucé, which is connected to d’Amboise by an underground passageway. One of the other famous residents? Mary Stuart who is more popularly known as Mary, Queen of Scots. As a lover of the Philippa Gregory’s “Tudor Court” novels, I was super excited about the connection.
We did not make it to Clos Lucé, but we did duck into the chapel of Saint-Hubert where Leonardo da Vinci is buried. Christmas lights had already been strung at the château, making the chapel, grounds and castle itself even prettier.
Best parts about visiting this château? The sweeping views from the roof and the connection to history. Be sure to bring your walking shoes if go—there are plenty of stairs and ramps to keep your heart pumping.
Château de Langeais
As I mentioned, we discovered a little too late that Usse was closed for the season (actually when we were sitting in the empty parking lot), but we weren’t going to let that stop us from checking out a couple more chateaux before we headed back to Toulouse.
We saw Château de Langeais from the road on our way from Tours to Usse and decided it might be worth a quick look.
Situated in the middle of Langeais, the castle dates back to 992. Though the original castle was destroyed during the Hundred Years War, you can still see the ruins of the original keep on the castle grounds. King Louis XI rebuilt Château de Langeais in the mid-1400s and today it is owned by the Institut de France.
We were very impressed by the amount of detail put in during the restoration. The rooms were decorated as close as possible to what they would have looked like in the medieval times and wax figurines in the “great hall” even portray the marriage of Anne of Brittany to King Charles VIII in 1491.
The creepiest part about our visit was walking along the parapet at the top of the castle. At least a dozen pigeons roost along the parapet walkway and they were not too happy to see us.
Aside from that, though, it was a really fun and unexpected find on our châteaux journey.
Fortresse Royale de Chinon
The Fortresse was the last stop of our Loire Valley tour. For all you history or Catholic saint buffs, this is the castle where Joan of Arc came to meet Charles VII and convince him to get crowned in Reims.
Though perhaps in less repair than the other châteaux we toured, it was still fun to literally walk in the footsteps of a saint. The castle was built around the 10th century and became the property of the counts of Anjou in the 11th century. It was actually one of the residences owned by Henry II of England—and the place where he died.
The French took back control of Chinon in 1205 and it has remained under French control since. After its use by Charles VII, the castle became a prison, but eventually fell out of use and was left to decay. The years of vacancy are clear in the crumbling buildings and ruins, but there is still plenty to see and it’s an easy, quick visit if you’re trying to squeeze in “just one more château.”
Now I know some of you may be wondering, with all the touring we did around the Loire Valley, was there any wine involved? Well, I was already two months pregnant at this point, so we had to make this one a dry trip. We did pick up a bottle to share after the baby is born, though, so not all was lost.
One final note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout out to my wonderful husband for taking a lot of the photos and doing all the driving on our Loire Valley tour. I underestimated how wiped out I’d get doing a whirlwind tour during my first trimester of pregnancy. Luckily, Matt is amazing and let me take all the naps I needed in between châteaux. Guess no fairytale tour is complete without a Prince Charming!