There are magnificent châteaux dotted throughout the Loire Valley (External link) , with 21 of them qualifying as ‘Grands Sites’. These include the famous châteaux of Chenonceau, Chambord, Azay-le-Rideau, Amboise and Blois, as well as those in Saumur, Nantes, Angers and the Abbey of Fontevraud. Great protagonists of the history of France have passed through their doors: Francis I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Leonardo da Vinci and Joan of Arc, without forgetting the Dukes of Anjou and Brittany. You can learn a lot about France’s history by visiting these majestic buildings and their gardens. Don’t miss…
Le Château d’Amboise
Amboise is a charming historic town, its château formerly serving as the seat of the Court of Kings Charles VIII and Francis I. Numerous academics and artists stayed at Amboise at the kings’ invitation; most notably Leonardo da Vinci, who arrived in 1516, died three years later and was buried in SaintHubert’s Chapel beside the château, according to his wishes. Discover the château’s political and artistic importance within Europe in the Renaissance and go behind the scenes into what daily life was like in court. Take a guided tour of the towers and underground passageways, which begins at the Garçonnet Tower at the foot of the ramparts, built in the 15th century by order of Louis XI. You’ll continue on to the Salle des Lys, once the refectory for the guards,and from there make your way along the rampart walk as far as the ditches of the old keep, past rooms containing precious gems. At this point you enter the maze of underground passages which ends up at the Minimes cavalry tower. Tours take one hour for individual visitors in good physical condition (children from aged 7 upwards). Online reservations are available up to 36 hours in advance.
Le Château d'Angers
Another Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, Angers is perfect for strolling around, with a maze of little streets and old wooden houses with pitched roofs, as well as charming manor houses with tuffeau stone facades. Its medieval château looms above the river, ringed by moats, bolstered by 2.5m-thick walls and crowne with 17 enormous round towers… it’s quite a sight to behold. You can also feast your eyes on the Tenture de l’Apocalypse (Apocalypse tapestry), a 104m-long series of tapestries commissioned in 1375 telling the story of the final battle between good and evil, as prophesied in the Bible's Book of Revelation. Make sure you also soak up the spectacular views from the ramparts.
There are three unmissable sites in the town itself: the Saint-Martin Collegiate church, the Galerie David d’Angers and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Plus, of course, the Saint-Maurice cathedral, a local treasure that’s well worth climbing the 103 steps to see.
Le Château d'Azay-le-Rideau
Perched on an island on the River Indre, romantic Azay-le-Rideau was built during the reign of Francis I by a rich financier, Gilles Berthelot, who wanted his fabulous new home to combine the latest technical innovations from Italy with the elegance of French architecture. The château has striking turrets, delicate stonework and perfectly proportioned windows, casting beautiful reflections on the surface of the surrounding water. Perhaps its most memorable feature is the open loggia staircase with its carved salamanders and ermines, coats of arms of Francis I and Queen Claude. Inside, decoration dates from the 19th century and has been recently comprehensively restored. Audioguides are available in five languages; one-hour guided tours in French are free.
Le Château de Blois
Historically home to seven kings and 10 queens of France, the Royal Château de Blois gives visitors the best overview of all the history of the Loire châteaux. Its four wings, each of a different architectural style, bear witness to the evolution of French architecture over the centuries. On entering the courtyard you are greeted by a magnificent Renaissance stairway commissioned by Francis I, and as you wander through the royal apartments in the Francis I wing, historical events and settings emerge from the mists of time: the assassination of the Duke of Guise, the ‘Studiolo’ and its secret panels, Catherine de' Medici’s room and many others. Louis XII had the pink brick and stone wing bearing his name built for himself and his wife, Anne of Brittany,and today it houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts which traces the history of European art from 16th to 19th centuries through over 30,000 works.
Le Château de Brissac
At a staggering 157 feet, Brissac is France’s tallest château and the giant of the Loire Valley, with 204 sumptuously decorated rooms spread across seven floors. Let a virtual 13th Duke of Brissac guide you through the historical spaces and take in the tapestries and gold-leafed ceilings. Highlights include the Grand Salon with its family portraits, the impressive dining table and the bedroom that King Louis XIII used during his visit in 1620. The château is also home to a 200-seat Belle-Époque theatre dedicated to opera, built at the end of the 19th century. In fine weather, stroll through the Anglo-Chinese garden and vineyard on the Brissac estate and, before leaving, meet in the château’s cellar to sample the local Rosé d’Anjou.
Le Château de Chambord
Arguably the Loire Valley’s most exceptional Renaissance masterpiece, this jaw-dropping château conceived by Francis I acts as a gateway to the whole area. The architect is unknown, but this particular project seems to have been inspired by sketches by the Italian master Leonardo da Vinci, particularly the famous double-helix staircase. The staircase ascends to terraces, from which you can enjoy an unobstructed view of the whole estate – which has the same footprint as Paris – across roofs, towers and chimneys. Explore the estate on foot or by bike and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature in the 1,000 hectares of forest open to the public. Animals roam free around the grounds and look-out areas have been set up for you to observe them. Tours can also be made on horseback, by horse-drawn carriage or in a 4x4. There are also numerous concerts, performances and exhibitions held at the château.
Le Château de Chenonceau
Another architectural masterpiece and royal residence, the Château de Chenonceau is a truly exceptional site by both design and history. It was managed and protected by women including Diane of Poitiers and Catherine de Medici, earning it the nickname of ‘Le Château des Dames’. The feminine touch is maintained today in beautiful flower arrangements in many of the rooms and, step by step, a guided tour of Chenonceau takes you through its history and its secrets. The château also boasts a collection of Masters’ paintings and an extraordinary set of Flemish tapestries. Outside, elegant gardens enhance the landscape – the Jardin Vert was designed by Bernard Palissy and the Italian maze is a fun distraction.The Orangerie is an on-site restaurant serving refined cuisine.
Le Château de Chinon
Overlooking the River Vienne, Chinon’s grand château was built by Thibaud I, Count of Blois, and serves as a reminder of the period when the histories of France and England were intimately linked. A historic meeting took place here in 1429 between Joan of Arc and the future King Charles VII – and it was in Chinon in two years earlier, during the Hundred Years War, that the court of King Charles VII was first established. Six years of restoration work on an unprecedented scale has restored the site to its former military splendour: climb the numerous towers that rise up from the ramparts, follow the circuit through the 15th-century lodges and learn about the lives of the great characters that marked this site. Interactive and entertaining modern museography and scenography installed at Chinon bring this historic place to life.
Le Château de Clos-Lucé
It was at Clos-Lucé, at the invitation of Francis I, that Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, devoting his time to perfecting his inventions. Prolific and inspired, he worked as engineer, architect, even as entertainment coordinator, organising lavish festivities for the Court. At his residence just 300m from the château, he drew up plans for a model château for Francis I in Romorantin and designed the double-helix staircase for the Château de Chambord. Clos-Lucé is now a culture park where visitors can gain a better insight into the Italian master’s universe.