It is said that France contains over 1000 châteaux, about 300 of which are situated in the magical Loire Valley in central France. Of these, about 100 are open to the public. Can you imagine just how rich this country must have been to have over one thousand castles scattered through its terrain. It’s mind boggling.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my parents came to visit me from Dubai a few weeks ago and it was just wonderful. I took two days off work for a long weekend that we spent exploring Vallée de la Loire. With the exception of Azay-le-Rideau, the map above is pretty much what our route through the Loire Valley looked like. Dad rented a car making this trajectory otherwise impossible to do. I highly advise this if you decide to explore this magnificent part of France. Do not rely on trains or tour buses, it’s too much of a hassle and way too limiting.
The main advantage of the Vallee de la Loire region is its proximity to Paris. In less than an hour and a half we were almost at Orléans. Because we didnt want to lose the day however we decided to save hotel check-in’s for later that evening and headed straight to one of the Big C’s about 30 minutes drive from Orléans. There are three huge castles in the Loire Valley that are must-do’s: Chambord, Cheverny and Chenonceau and we were lucky to explore them all in addition to a few others. There is so much to share which is why this post is so overdue. I really wanted to give each château the proverbial “face-time” it deserved. They are all so beautiful and so unique in their own way.
Chambord was definitely the more grandiose and “show-off” of the three sisters. It sits in a now-enclosed woodland area and feels self-contained in that there was a hotel on the grounds, restaurants, shops, a chapel, etc. Still walking towards it was breathtaking because it stands on a massive expanse of grass surrounded by nothing but the sound of the wind. There is no wall, no enclosure, no security, nothing. It’s quite humbling.
I must mention that the time of your you visit will influence your impression immediately. It was freezing when we were there. Incredibly windy, bitter cold and quite humid with frequent showers. Suffice to say, April is not the best time of year to be exploring outdoor areas of France. Still, we managed to find solace in the few crowds of tourists that made picture taking and admiring (two shockingly strenuous activities in summer) very pleasant. Chambord is made of stone and this meant that it was just as cold inside, if not colder, than it was outside. They had a few fireplaces burning in some of the rooms which we ran to as often as we saw them.
For those interested in the history… Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley and served as a hunting lodge for François I. Today it’s one of the most universally recognizable châteaux because of its distinctly French architecture which marries traditional medieval structures with classical Renaissance ones. The interior design of this château is profoundly unique and a labyrinth that leads you from inside to outside on every one of its floors. It is most renowned for its double-helix staircase. The original building, before the posterior addition of the wings and the enclosure, centered around this staircase and each floor was organized with four ‘identical stately dwellings’ or wings designed to host a lord and his followings. The original design of the château has been attributed to several architects, while many strongly believe that Leonardo di Vinci was the mastermind behind it. It was fascinating to explore and a real step back in time imagining royalty socializing on the massive grounds and engaging in game hunting. Definitely one of the must-do châteaux!
As we didnt get a chance to explore Orléans the day we arrived, we took the opportunity to walk through the city center the following morning before taking off for Tours and a new set of châteaux. The city felt bare. Very wide streets, very few people and very artsy boutique shops. I was magnetically drawn into the purple one you see here which sold chocolate and tea – 2 particular favorites of mine! Naturally I emerged with something but not chocolate as you may have assumed! But a beautiful round tray with yellow and white stripes and butterflies that I am in love with. We also waved hello to Jeanne d’Arc whose statue sits in the centre ville.
Stay tuned for part two of our Vallée de la Loire adventure!