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Splendour Nobility & Beauty on the Loire

About an hour’s journey from Paris lies the Loire Valley, an area of vital importance in France’s history and one of the country’s fortes when it comes to tourism. The valley played a vital strategic role in the past – while it was there that, in the Middle Ages, defence works were first erected to contain the Vikings, centuries later it was the setting for the bloody battle between the English and French during the Hundred Years’ War. The reign of Charles VII marked a turning point for this beautiful valley as it was then that it reached its moment of maximum splendour and became the favourite haunts of the French nobility. They embarked on a spectacular spree of castle building on rural lands, the castles becoming veritable recreational grounds for giving free rein to their hedonistic urges. Subsequently, the French Revolution wrought havoc among most of them, leading to the loss of a considerable portion of the area’s heritage. The castles were later restored with a view to recovering their bygone splendour and they have now become one of France’s leading tourist attractions.

According to the association, “Châteaux de la Loire, Vallée des Rois” (Castles of the Loire, Valley of the Kings), which is tasked with managing the Loire Valley’s heritage, the region boasts some 70 listed sites which, in addition to castles, also include abbeys, churches and museums. Clearly, it would be madness to attempt seeing it all in one go. Visitors usually make a selection of sites to see before their tour. Here, then, are some of the standout castles:

Château de Chambord This former hunting lodge of King Francis I is one of the kingpins of the French Renaissance in which the medieval tradition blends seamlessly with classical Italian structures. It is one of the largest and most popular castles on the route. The forest of chimneys towering over the rooftop and the double spiral staircase in the interior are absolutely stunning.

Château de Cheverny Belonging to the Hurault family, is also dates from the Renaissance and is noteworthy for its interior decoration. Curiously enough, the building was the source of inspiration for Hergé, the creator of Tintin, when he drewChâteau de Moulinsart(Marlinspike Hall).

Château de Chenonceau Also known as “The Ladies’ Chateau”, it is a veritable icon on the Loire châteaux route and one of the most widely visited. Built in the 16th century, one of its most striking features is its location, spanning the river Cher.

Château de BloisThe official residence of the French Kings during the Renaissance. Of the many tales that arose around it is one that claims Joan of Arc was blessed in its chapel before leading her army out to relieve the besieged city of Orleans. It now operates as a museum.

Château d'AmboiseOriginally a medieval fortress, it was turned into a royal residence during the reigns of Charles VIII and Francis I. Its claim to fame is that Leonardo da Vinci was buried here after spending the last three years of his life in the castle.

Château de Langeais – Regarded as the oldest fortress in France, much of its medieval charm remains intact, including the drawbridge, which strikes a marked contrast with the Renaissance style of the west facade.

Château de Chaumont One of its numerous owners was Catherine de Medici who counted Nostradamus among the many guests she entertained there. The garden, designed by Henri Duchêne, is where an annual International Garden Festival is currently hosted from late April to mid-October.

Five days is considered to be the minimum amount of time you need to spend on a Loire Valley itinerary. You can plan a linear route, starting from a point nearest Paris and ending on the far side (or the other way around), or stay in one of the major cities along the route, like Orleans, Blois and Tours, and make sorties from there to various landmark sites you have chosen. The most comfortable way to get around is by car, although there are other alternatives, including availing yourself of the many bus tours to be had, and combining them to suit your agenda. The fittest among you can opt to tour these lands by bicycle, taking advantage of the comparatively flat terrain.

Be sure to take a flight to Paris and head for one of these valleys with their pedigree collection of castles.

Text by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS

Images by Frédérique Voisin-Demery, Thomas Steiner, Benh LIEU SONG, MFSG, Jean-Christophe BENOIST