The Loire Valley is also known as the Valley of the Kings and so it comes as no surprise that their former residences and follies feature heavily in all of the tours to the region that we have been asked to put together.
But for a first time visitor, what is the best approach? Cram as many châteaux as possible into the programme? Mix things up with some of the other diverse riches available or take your time and keep to no more than one a day?
Of course, there is no right answer and our role at JacTravel is to follow the lead of our clients. However our experience as guests of the Departmental Tourist Boards of Touraine and Loir et Cher was highly revealing. What is beyond doubt is that each of the chateaux that we were privileged enough to visit has evolved into a more diverse and deep experience over time.
The Domaine de Chaumont, as a leading example, has hosted an international garden festival competition every year since 1992 – each year with a new theme. This year the theme is ‘Ideal Garden’ and we were amazed by the unique bodies of work housed within the verdant and expansive grounds. The Domaine also holds a number of permanent gardens and many outbuildings that have been enhanced with modern art installations. Don’t forget the u-shaped Chateau de Chaumont itself with its courtyard offering up a spectacular and rare clifftop view of the river.
If sheer grandeur is important then the Chateau de Chambord is unmissable. Commissioned by Louis I and realised by Leonardo DaVinci, a short walk from the entrance suddenly reveals the enormous structure standing proud within 5442 hectares of grounds and 32 kilometres of walls. The principle here is very French. ‘Nothing is impossible’.
We were lucky enough to climb up and onto the magnificent rooftop which has been designed in the style of a magical cloud-based city. The rooftop tower itself is taller than the main chateau it sits upon – such feats of architecture unheard of in the 16th century when built.
If the region were holding a beauty contest then the Chateau de Chenonceau would win. This is the most distinctive of chateau as it was built in 1513 on a bridge traversing the Cher river (a Loire tributary). For aspiring photographers, there are alternative ways of viewing the chateau from the river with boat trips or kayak hire available.
Perhaps the most suitable for families, the Chateau de Cherverny is more relaxed in atmosphere but no less impressive. The grounds here are wonderful – a country park with countless glorious spaces for a picnic or quiet stroll. The Jardin Potager (kitchen garden) is the dream of many a foodie – wander freely amongst the fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables – all which are used in the restaurant and Orangerie snack bar. Cheverny is also known for being the most furnished of the chateaux and the rooms are ornately decorated with antiques and jewels from the era.
We were privileged to be shown around the Chateau de Villandry by one of its owners, M. Henri Carvallo. The highlight, the seven-acre spectacular and symmetrical gardens take their design lead from the chateau itself and are a fragrant mixture of herbs, fruit, vegetables and flowers. Much of the vegetables are given away for free when ripe so be sure to grab yourself a healthy souvenir!
The clifftop Fortresse Royale de Chinon dates as far back as the 11th century and differentiates further by being partially ruined but a hired Histopad (think tablet) boosts the experience, bringing medieval images and sounds back to life. Part of the refurbished chateau houses various costumes and props from more modern films and television series.
There are of course many others that we did not have time to visit – smaller and more intimate chateau such as Chateau de Troussay (the smallest), Chateau de la Bussière (housing old fishing paraphernalia), or the Chateau de Clos Lucé – DaVinci’s home. Ideal for those returning to the region or seeking to avoid the crowds in the height of summer.
This is a truly unique region and for enthusiasts of French history, architecture, wine and culture, a must-visit.
Contact us to learn how we can create the perfect programme for your audience there: [email protected]