I’ve heard it said that a man’s home is his castle, but it’s not that often that someone’s home really is a castle. That’s the case at the Château de Cheverny (pictured above), which has been continuously inhabited by the same family for over 600 years. Cheverny was one of six châteaux (castles, broadly speaking) that I visited in the Loire valley on a two-day extravaganza with Loire Valley Tours, starting out from the beautiful town of Amboise each morning, then spending the day exploring castle after castle in the frankly stifling heat of a French summer heatwave (40oC each day). The weather was hot, the walking distances were long and the schedule was busy, but these castles, brimming with history, were worth it (the air-conditioned van also helped).
Six castles in this tiny area of France may seem like quite a lot, but that’s nothing really. The Loire valley has over 50 châteaux in an area of just a few hundred square kilometres. Why so many? In the 15th and 16th centuries, the French royal court moved from Paris to the Loire, prompting the building of a huge number of châteaux to house both the itinerant royals and their retinue of thousands, and the nobles who flocked to the Loire in order to be close to the king.
I had worried that visiting six castles over two days would become repetitive – seen one castle, seen them all, right? Fortunately I was wrong. Each château had its own quirks, its own stories and a flavour all its own. I was also very impressed with the friendly and knowledgeable Loire Valley Tours staff, who really went out of their way to ensure we had a great time and learnt a lot about the châteaux we visited. I highly recommend them if you happen to be travelling in this area.
So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to just six of the châteaux of the Loire valley…
Château de Blois
The Château de Blois is a brilliant architectural introduction to the châteaux – different sections of the château were built consecutively, meaning that the main architectural styles seen in most of the other châteaux are all represented here in one building. Centred around a huge cobblestoned courtyard where jousting matches were held in the château’s early days, the gothic wing showcases an enormous, intricate semi-open staircase, while the Renaissance-style façade opposite is all columns and symmetry (though you will notice that some of the columns are unfinished – this is because the royals ran out of money before the job was complete, so the workers downed tools there and then!). Most of the remainder of the château is built in the transition style, intermediate between the other two.
Inside, visitors are guided through the rooms of the gothic wing where our guide took the opportunity to explain to us this interesting and turbulent period of French history – the Protestants and Catholics were battling it out and assassinations and intrigue were rife, as so often seems to be the case with historical monarchies. The interiors were richly restored and in the great hall, the final room we passed through, there was even a throne the visitors could sit on, which made for a great photo opportunity (admittedly it was not the original throne – it was an historically accurate replica built for a recent French television show – but fun to sit on nonetheless).
Château de Cheverny
Are you a Tintin fan? I certainly am. That was why I was particularly excited to visit the Château de Cheverny (shown in the cover photograph) – it was upon this château that Hergé modelled Marlinspike Hall, the ancestral home of the irascible Captain Haddock. In honour of this there are a few tiny Tintin-themed touches, though the château itself is still front and centre.
As I mentioned before, this château is particularly fascinating as it is still occupied, though the family live in one wing and the other is open to the public. The now-public rooms were also occupied by the family up until 1985, and even through their occupation had been maintained in the original style – it’s amazing to think that these rooms, decorated as though from hundreds of years ago, were in use only 30 years ago! Suits of armour, a glorious, intricately decorated piano, children’s toys and even the wedding dress of the lady of the château – all was on display, and all were glorious! The château even maintains a pack of 100 hunting hounds, and hunting takes place on the grounds. There is also an orangerie behind the château, which is apparently where the Mona Lisa was stored during World War II for safekeeping!
Château de Chambord
Chambord is the largest château in the Loire region and boasts a game park the size of Paris! What I think is even more amazing than this, though, is that within a period of several hundred years this château was only ever inhabited for a mere few months! Chambord was built as a hunting lodge and, as such, was not practical for long-term living. It was never fully furnished and was quickly abandoned, despite its huge size and the ridiculous amounts of money that went into building it! Its most notable feature, apart from just generally being huge, is a double-helix staircase, which is thought to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
Château de Chenonceau
Chenonceau is a glorious château with a unique feature – it’s built across a river! An amazing chimera of fairytale castle and bridge, the history of this château centres around two women – Catherine and Diana, the wife and mistress respectively of King Henry II. The Château de Chenonceau was originally given as a gift to Diana by the king, and she loved the castle and made it all her own, influencing much of the design and decoration of both the château and the extensive gardens. Upon Henry’s death, his widow, Catherine de Medici, evicted Diana from the château, taking it over and attempting to outdo Diana in every way possible, placing her own mark on the château, though today the personalities of both these women still shine through.
As in several of the other châteaux, however, much more modern history has also made an impact. The River Cher, which the Château de Chenonceau crosses, marked the border between Free and Vichy France during World War II. During this time the château was used as a means of escape to Free France for those threatened by the Vichy regime, as well as having been used as a hospital for injured soldiers during World War I.
At Chenonceau it’s possible to visit ‘downstairs’ parts of the château, such as the extensive kitchens, as well as the ‘upstairs’ rooms, giving an insight into the lives of the not-so-royals who also lived here. The gardens would also make for a lovely stroll if you have the time.
I don’t really have a lot to say about the Château d’Amboise, because by the time we visited I was so worn out by all the walking and the hot weather that I didn’t actually go inside – I rested on a seat outside in the shade, attempting to cool my aching feet and taking in the view of the lovely manicured hedges and leafy arbours of the château’s grounds. A number of famous royals spent their childhood at this château (including, oddly enough, Mary Queen of Scots), and it is the presumed burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. The remains thought to be da Vinci’s were exhumed from the château grounds in the 1800s and moved to the tiny St Hubert’s Chapel, located beside the château.
Château du Clos Lucé
Leonardo da Vinci arrived in France at the behest of the king at the age of 64 and spent the last few years of his life living here at the Château du Clos Lucé. While perhaps not as grand as some of the other châteaux, this château has a slightly more homely feel. Our tour led us through da Vinci’s bedroom (the bed is still there), the kitchens, and a display of models of just some of da Vinci’s hypothetical inventions, including a car (which didn’t really look like a car), a bicycle (which actually did look like a bicycle), multi-directional field artillery, a catapult, several ingenious bridge designs, a paddle-wheel boat and many more. It was impossible not to be amazed at the breath of his genius. Outside was a lovely garden (though somewhat wilted due to the heat) and extensive grounds, perfect for walking, if your feet are not too sore!
Six châteaux, six very different experiences. Which one would you choose?