Visiting the Châteaux of the Loire and their gardens.

Fairytale castles with stories of intrigue, breathtaking gardens, excellent food and wine, charming towns and villages – the Loire valley in central France has so much to offer.

The problem will be, which of the many Châteaux will you choose to visit?

Amboise at sunset.

Amboise at sunset.

We based ourselves in the lovely historic town of Amboise, its clifftop Castle overlooks the Loire river, magnificent at sunset. There are a number of good restaurants to choose from in the evening with views of the imposing presence of the Castle. The town itself is pleasant to stroll in and, whilst there, don’t miss a visit to Da Vinci’s Last Garden, where he spent his final years.

Top Five

The standard of maintenance of the Châteaux and their gardens is variable, but these are my Top Five with Honourable Mention of those others I found worthwhile.

1. Chateau de Villandry (read more here).

Unmissable! The standard of maintenance is unbeatable, the gardens are iconic and there are many charming touches inside the stunning Château.

One of the charming bedrooms in Château de Villandry

One of the charming children’s  bedrooms in Château de Villandry.

There are many lovely flower arrangements picking up the colours of the rooms – a feature of so many of the best Châteaux, which helps make it feel as if its a living, breathing house and not a museum.

Flowers from the Chateau de Villandry

But go to Villandry for its gardens – intricate topiary, terraces and walkways and the most stunning potager you will ever see, laid out with geometric precision. Climb to the top of the tower to really appreciate it.

Chateau de Villandry seen from the extraordinary kitchen garden

Chateau de Villandry seen from the extraordinary kitchen garden

2. Château de Chenonceau.

Timing is everything when visiting this Château in the summer months, as it is very popular with tour parties, so get there at opening time or, at lunchtime when there is usually a lull. But it is worth it. Beautiful setting and a fascinating history.

Chateau de Chenonceau seen from the Renaissance garden.

Chateau de Chenonceau seen from Diane de Poitiers’ garden.

Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, lived here in the 16th century, driving much of its innovative architecture and gardens. On Henri II’s death, his widow, Catherine de Medici, seized possession, forcing the mistress Diane to exchange Chenonceau for her own Château de Chaumont.

The Chateau seen from Catherine de Medici's garden

The Chateau seen from Catherine de Medici’s garden

Wonderful architecture and interiors, interesting history, lovely gardens – Chenonceau has much to offer.

A colourful corner of the kitchen garden, Chenonceau.

A colourful corner of the kitchen garden, Chenonceau.

3. Château de Cheverny.

Beautifully maintained interiors in every detail, makes this one of my Top  5, although it may not have quite the romantic exterior of some others.

Cheverny

Lived in by the same family for over 600 years, Cheverny was the model used by Hergé (of Tintin fame) for his Moulinsart, and there is an exhibition which children and enthusiasts may enjoy.

The interior rooms are exquisite, beautifully decorated and detailed.

Cheverny

For me, one of the highlights was visiting the Kennels, where over one hundred hunting dogs reside – a cross between the English foxhound and the French Poitevin. Each year, visitors are invited to suggest a name for a puppy, starting with a different letter each year. This year it’s the letter “L”, so perhaps you might hear a canine called Lorna being summoned in future years!

The hunting dogs at Cheverny

The hunting dogs at Cheverny

4. Château de Chaumont

Occupying a defensive position on a cliff overlooking the Loire river, the exterior of Chaumont is the stuff of fairytales.

Chaumont

Château de Chaumont

Its fame has grown as it hosts a Garden Festival with a different Theme each year. Some of the gardens are quite innovative, eg, the first vertical garden was shown here some years ago, and many are certainly provocative. Unlike Show Gardens, which are primped to perfection for their week of glory, these gardens last through the summer so don’t expect the same standard of presentation. But interesting all the same.

Chaumont

The recycled garden, Garden Festival, Chaumont.

This is the Château once owned by Catherine de Medici who, on the death of her husband Francis I, forced his mistress to relinquish Château de Chenonceau, mentioned above, and occupy Chaumont instead.

5. Château d’Amboise

Occupying a strategic position on a cliff overlooking the Loire, the site has been occupied since the Iron Age. It rose to prominence in the late 15th century under King Charles VIII who transformed the medieval fortress into an impressive Gothic palace creating two vast towers big enough for his knights to ride their horses up.

Amboise

The Chapel, where da Vinci is commemorated, seen from the Castle.

Later Valois Kings added Renaissance touches and the Château had many famous guests – Mary, Queen of Scots lived here before returning to Scotland, and Leonardo da Vinci spent his remaining years in the patronage of King Francis I.

Château d'Amboise and the Loire river seen from the elevated gardens.

Château d’Amboise and the Loire river seen from the elevated gardens.

Honourable Mention.

Château de Chambord.

The largest Château of the Loire, Chambord’s French Renaissance exterior is spectacular, especially when reflected at sunset; it reputedly inspired the Castle in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”. The amazing double helix open staircase is the showpiece of the Château.

Chateau de Chambord at sunset.

Chateau de Chambord at sunset.

 

Château d’Azay-le-Rideau

This picturesque Château is a popular destination, showcasing an early example of French Renaissance architecture, prettily set on an island on the Indre river.

Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau.

Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau.

To visit all the Chateaux of the Loire would take many visits. All the above can be visited comfortably whilst based in Amboise, with the exception of Château de Chambord, where we stayed overnight in a small inn overlooking the Chateau.

 

And of course we left ourselves plenty of time for strolling in forests, picnics by the river or sampling the local wines.

A really lovely and historic part of France.

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