- Travel and Places
Top 10 Chateaux of the Loire Valley
The Loire River Valley Chateaux
The Loire River divides France into its Northern and Southern parts as the climate becomes much more temperate south of the river. The beautiful Loire Valley is known for its pastoral landscapes, historic villages, great architectural monuments, fine wines and of course its many chateaux.
Within the valley, there are well over 300 chateaux built between the 10th century (with castle fortifications) to the 15th century when kings and nobleman found the Loire Valley's moderate climate, proximity to Paris, and fertile landscape quite attractive. They employed some of the world's best landscape designers and architects to build thesegrand 'homes'.
Today, many of the chateaux are still privately held while others are open to the public for tours and still others are operated as hotels or bed and breakfasts.
Here are my Top 10 Picks for the best Chateaux in the Loire Valley (open to the public for tours). Below is a map of the Loire Valley and its Chateaux taken from Wikipedia. Just click through for a larger version.
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Great Loire Valley Chateau Books
#1 Chateau de Chenonceau
If you are visiting France, this unbelievable chateau on the Cher River in the Loire Valley is a must see! Built between 1515 and 1521, ChÃ¢teau de Chenonceau's late Gothic and early Renaissance architecture and extensive gardens make it a showpiece. After being seized by French royalty as a payment for incurred debts, Henry II offered the chÃ¢teau as a holiday gift to Diane de Poitiers (his mistress). Ms. Poitiers added the gardens of vegetables and flowers. Of course, Ms. Poitiers had no legal ownership of the castle so when King Henry II died, his wife, Catherine de' Medici had her expelled and took up residence in the chateau. She is responsible for adding the extensive terraced gardens that tourists can see today. In addition, she added the Grand Gallery which extended the chateau across the Cher River.
Ownership of the chateau has changed hands many times over the years, but in 1914, the Menier family (famous for chocolates) purchased it and still owns it today. Extensive renovations to the exterior and interior were done in 1951. The exquisite interior features many beautiful rooms and a large chapel decorated with priceless art work including works by Ruben, sculpted and painted wood, and period Renaissance furniture. The terraced formal gardens cover the entire bank of the river next to the Chateau.
For more information about visiting the chateau, visit their official website.
My Tips This is the most visited Chateau in France (after Versailles) so be sure to arrive early to avoid the crowds and busloads of tourists. It is well worth the extra few dollars to get the I-pod audio guide with commentary about the rooms, gardens and sites around ChÃ¢teau de Chenonceau. Allow plenty of time to walk around the gardens - they are truly gorgeous. And there is a lovely onsite restaurant as well as a gift shop where you can buy chocolate gardening gifts for all the chocolate and garden lovers in your life.
#2 Chateau de Chambord
As you are driving in the French countryside, you will get glimpses of the gargantuan chateau rising above the forests which surround ChÃ¢teau de Chambord. But until you park and start walking to the building, you can't really appreciate the sheer size and beauty of this architectural masterpiece. Built as a hunting lodge for FranÃ§ois I, ChÃ¢teau de Chambord is one of the finest examples of the Renaissance architecture in France. It took over 30 years to build during the 16th century. Both French and Italian architecture are seen throughout the design which has a central keep surrounded by four towers. One of the most famous areas in the chateau is the double helix staircase which enabled the King to ascend or descend the stairs without running into his servants. You can see someone else on the other staircase, but you will never meet them on the double helix. There are over 440 rooms and 85 staircases in ChÃ¢teau de Chambord making it the largest chateau in the Loire Valley. In the photos below you can see the elaborate rooftop that has over 800 sculpted columns.
The chateau spent many years in disrepair. However in 1930, the French government bought the property and restored it to the magnificent building that you see today. It is surrounded by a walled game reserve called Parc de Chambord. Red deer and wild boar roam freely in the largest walled game park in Europe. For more information about visiting the chateau and game reserve, visit their website.
#3 Chateau d'Usse
If you are looking to see a Sleeping Beauty or Disney fairytale castle, ChÃ¢teau d'UssÃ© should be at the top of the list. Located on the edge of the Chinon Forest overlooking the Indre River, the chateau sits atop the bank along the river and has terraced gardens about halfway up the bank. The current chateau sits on the site of an 11th century fortification that was destroyed paving the way for the 15th - 16th century castle that you can see today. It is occupied by the descendants of the Count de Blacas who inherited the castle in 1885. For more information about touring the castle, adjacent church and gardens, visit this website.
My Tips - The interior of the castle is not as magnificent as that of Chenonceau. However, the exterior and the view from the terraced gardens make this chateau well worth a visit. Across the street are several restaurants as well as some shops that sell things like flower candles, fairytale favors and gifts. How appropriate for this fairytale castle!
#4 Chateau de Villandry
Gardeners like me go weak in the knees at the mere mention of the ChÃ¢teau de Villandry. Completed in 1536, the chateau was built in a Renaissance style by Jean le Breton, one of FranÃ§ois I's Finance Ministers. Dr Joachim Carvallo (the great-grandfather of the present owners) purchased the chateau in 1906 and created the formal gardens that surround the chateau today. For more information about visiting the garden and chateau, go to their official website. For a virtual tour of the garden, check out the video below.
Villandry Garden Tour
#5 Clos Luce
Connected by an underground tunnel to the castle in Amboise (see photo from across the river below), Clos LucÃ© mansion is where Leonardo Da Vinci lived and worked during the last 3 years of his life. He died in 1519 in his upstairs bedroom. Leonardo was brought to Amboise by King FranÃ§ois I who resided in the nearby castle. He enjoyed chatting with Leonardo almost daily and paid him a 700 golden Ecus a year pension to leave Da Vinci "free to think, dream, and work". The mansion itself was built in a Renaissance style out of brick and tufa stone (from nearby quarries). In the 1960s, Clos Luce underwent extensive renovations to restore the look of the house as well as the frescoes in the chapel.
Da Vinci was not only a great painter with works like the Mona Lisa, but also an extraordinary inventor of machines and discoverer of scientific phenomena. The basement of the home and the garden park house 40 of his military, aeronautic, hydraulic and mechanical inventions. They were constructed from his detailed drawings by scientists and engineers at IBM. You can see some of these inventions in the photos below.
My Tips - One of my great regrets in visiting the Loire Valley is that I didn't allot enough time to fully explore the garden park around the Clos Luce mansion. Many of Da Vinci's inventions are actually displayed in the park itself. So be sure to give yourself plenty of time to take it all in and even enjoy a cookie or cup of coffee in the little tea room directly behind the mansion.
#6 Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau
Built on an island in the middle of the Indre River, the Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau seems to just rise from nowhere. The chateau features both French and Italian style architecture and was built between 1518 and 1527. Corner turrets, a walking path around the external wall, and the water surrounding the chateau give it a medieval or fairytale castle feeling. Be sure to allot enough time to visit both the chateau and the surrounding grounds. For more information, visit the tourism website.
My Tips Be sure to invest in an audio guide or take a fully guided tour in order to appreciate the exterior and interior features of this magnificent chateau.
#7 Chateau de Blois
Comprised of several buildings, the ChÃ¢teau de Blois sits right at the Blois' city center. The wings and buildings were built between the 13th and 17th century and they surround a lovely central courtyard. The FranÃ§ois I wing houses the chateau's most famous feature - a spiral staircase. The chateau was the location where the Archbishop of Reims blessed Joan of Arc before her march on Orleans in 1429 and has also served as the residence of many French kings. You can get more information at France-for-Visitors.com.
My Tips - If you speak English, visit the chateau on a Wednesday evening for a classical music concert and light show in English. Other evenings, it is presented in French only.
#8 Chinon and Its Castle
Chinon is one of the best preserved medieval towns in France. The town itself is situated on the Vienne River just before it reaches the Loire River. This location at the intersection of two major rivers put Chinon on major trade routes making it an excellent location for a fortified castle on the highest point - the mount. In the 12th century, Henry II built the massive chateau that extends a full 1300 feet parallel to the river bank and 250 feet wide. Over the years, many notable figures of history have lived in or visited the chateau including the Huguenots, Charles VII, and Joan of Arc in 1429 just before she began your quest to liberate France from England.
Today the chateau is owned and managed by the town of Chinon. You can obtain more information about visiting on their Chinon Tourist Office website.
#9 Chateau de Cheverny
Owned by many noblemen and military leaders over the years, Chateau de Cheverny was built the chateau between 1624 and 1630 by Philippe Hurault. Renowned for its exquisite interior which was renovated in 1768, the chateau holds a large collection of tapestries, furniture and artwork. The coffered ceilings and wood paneling are beautiful. For more information about visiting the chateau, visit their website.
My Tips - If you have time, stay for the daily feeding of the 70 hunting dogs that are housed at the Chateau. The dogs are taken out on hunts on the grounds surrounding the chateau a few times a week.
#10 Chateau de Chaumont - In French (not English)
Built on the 10th century remnants of a fortress built to protect Blois, the Chateau de Chaumont was built in the years between 1465 and 1510 by Charles I and Charles II d'Amboise. The original fortress was destroyed in the mid 15th century by King Louis XI in an act of revenge.
The chateau was built with 4 sides centered around a courtyard, but in 1739 the back wall was destroyed to obtain a better view of the Loire River below. You can see the photo below which shows the back side of the chateau as seen from across the river.
For more information about the chateau's annual Festival des Jardins (June to mid-Oct) or daily tours, visit France-For-Visitors.com You can also opt for a hot air balloon ride in this area...what a perfect way to capture a special moment for a newlywed couple's photo frame wedding favor or their mantel! Some local artisans were selling photos of the hot air balloon with the chateau in the background. They were magnificent.