Chateaux de Loire, fairytale castles!

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We had never visited the castles of the Loire in France. So when we suddenly had some days of holiday to fill, and passing not so far away, it became our next destination. It was already the end of October, so  the weather could not be predicted, but at least we would avoid the masses that visit during July and August.

First hurdle was finding a nice place to sleep. I decided to look for charming places and found the perfect spot on Tripadvisor in the number one B&B in the Loire valley. The B&B L’Argentier du Roy is housed in a small castle-like house dating from the 15th-16th centruy, renovated in renaissance style, just next to the castle of Loches, a small medieval city in the centre of the Loire valley. I was charmed by the Balzac room with a beautiful library in it, and booked immediately when they e-mailed that this room was still available for the days we came. And we would get a discount for booking for three days. (108 euro per night all taxes and breakfast included).

We were eventually very lucky with the weather. We could never have imagined we would have sunny days and 20 degrees celcius at lunchtime, with steel blue skies.

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We arrived the first evening around 9 PM and impressed by the illuminated castle towering over the small town of Loches.  We found the entrance of the B&B after crossing the old castle bridge just in front of the castle walls. We were welcomed by the owner Philippe wo took us to our room, and enthousiastically told us how they had renovated the house and chose the furniture to fit the rooms. He gave us some tips on restaurants where we could eat in Loches, since we were quite hungry at that hour. Unfortunately it was not very easy to find a decent restaurant still open at 9 PM in the evening and had to settle for a pizza, which was quite OK.

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The next morning we were surprised by the nice view from our window into the garden and the valley. The shower is marvelous, built in one of the small towers, with a view over the valley.  The room is really romantic, maybe a bit stuffy to our taste, but perfectly in synch with the surroundings.

The breakfast is completely in the style of the B&B, served in beautiful ceramics, with a choice of croissants, french bread, a range of homemade jams, yoghurt, fresh fruit salad, fruit juices, fresh coffee or tea, local cheeses, cereals, and Christine who serves the breakfast even surprised us with a fresh pudding. The host gives you a lot of information on the region and you can ask them to advice you on what to visit, and good restaurants to choose from. They will book your dinner if you ask.

We had already read a bit on the castles in the region. And since the Loire valley is quite large, we decided to focus on castles in the vicinity of Loches. Loches is smack in the middle of the Loire region giving you have ample choice of castles to visit. The shortlist of castles we wanted to visit was: Chambord: the largest, Cheverny: best furnished, Chenonceau: the most romantic, Amboise: the mightiest fortress, Clos Lucé: Leonardo da Vinci, Villandry: the most beautiful gardens, Aizy le Rideau: a diamond according to Balzac,  Valençay: where the vol-au-vent was invented, Blois: finest in-town chateau, Ussé: the castle of sleeping beauty, and Tours: the city with a cathedral and a basilique.

How many we would visit was depended of how many we could swallow in a day. We decided to start with Chenonceau and Amboise the first day, and if we had time left could visit Clos Lucé. Experience taught us that two castles a day is more than enough. More and you will get castle weary! The most important thing is to enjoy your visits.

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Arriving at Chenonceau we were greeted with already quite some visitors, and the first sight of the castle is quite impressive. The castle is not very large but very harmonious in design. We took the entrance ticket with an audio guide and were pleased we did. Being our first castle it was good to be introduced to some of the overall history of the time these castles were built and rebuilt over the years. Chenonceau is a very feminine castle and has always been run by women, often by the mistresses of Kings. Diane the Poitiers, the mistress of  Henri II was responsible for the gardens and the beautiful bridge over the river Cher, because she wanted to be able to hunt in the woods on the other side of the river. Once Henri died his widow Catherine-de-Médicis (stout, not beautiful, resolute) evicted Diane, and took Chenonceau for herself as a “permanent theatre of her insatiable vengeance”. She added the gallery to the bridge, so making for the most romantic photos in the Loire. Within, furnishings are sumptuous, the art startling (Rubens, van Dyck, an arresting “Three Graces” by van Loo) and the flowers always fresh.

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You immediately understand why Chenonceau is the most popular chateau of the Loire. We really took our time to visit the castle and the gardens, taking many pictures.

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Deeply satisfied we headed for Amboise, a medieval town, with the castle of Amboise towering above it. We first took our lunch at the famous Patisserie Bigot enjoying the midday sun on the terrace with a view of the castle. You can take a light lunch with a quiche or a salad, and the pastries; especially the chocolate ones; are mouth watering. The prices are very correct and the service super friendly.

For Amboise castle we decided not to take the audio guide, but just the brochure to guide us around. Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the small St Hubert’s chapel. We discovered that my husband is born on the same day as Leonardo (explains his genius!) Stand on the terrace of the Amboise château and you will feel a manifest destiny to rule France. It’s inescapable. It’s also traditional. A couple of Louis, a brace of Charles and two François spent much time at the place, both as children and as kings. Charles VIII, though having six toes-per-foot, being prone to convulsions and “of startling ugliness”, brought the Renaissance back with him from Italian campaigns, much embellishing the château. He created the great towers whose ramps could, car park-like, swirl horses and carriages up to château level. He tragically died after cracking his head on a door lintel. A great many more deaths followed after the 1560 Tumult of Amboise. Protestants aimed to kidnap Louis XII, to subtract him from Catholic influence. They failed. Hundreds were hung from the château railings. Others were chucked in the Loire. We walked the gardens in the evening sun, and I am sure you can enjoy a marvelous sunset on a beautiful day here.

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We were thirsty and stopped at Bistrot L’atelier, for a glass of wine. I can greatly advice the Vouvray moelleux, great aperitif or dessert wine. The place has a great atmosphere and they play the right music! (they have a good choice of wines and beers.)

Because it was sunday evening we had trouble finding a good restaurant, so decided to return to Loches and try our luck there. Most restaurants were also closed here, but relying on the good reviews on tripadvisor we decided to try our luck at La loire en tonneaux, a wine bar, serving cheese and meat platters together with a good glass or bottle of Loire wine.  We decided to take a large platter of local cheeses with bread and asked the owners to advice on a glass of wine. After asking our preference in wine they gave each of us a different glass of red Loire wine. Mine was lighter and more feminine with less tannines, my husband got a sturdier red wine. We were happy with our choice and really enjoyed the local flavours and the friendly chatter of the hosts.

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The next morning we headed out West and our first castle was that of Azay le Rideau. The trees in fall colours framed the smaller castle set and reflected on an island in the river Indre. The castle was first built in 11th century but burned during the hunderd year war. It was later rebuilt during the reign of François I. Balzac described it as a facetted diamond set in the Indre. We first visited the inside of the castle and the royal appartments and kitchen are worth the visit.

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We looked forward to the gardens, where the back of the castle reflects in the river, but they were doing large works in the garden, which was therefore blocked of to the public, a real pity! We decided to take a coffee on a terrace in the little town, with the sunshine warming us.

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Our next stop was the castle of Villandry, a little more to the north and west of  Tours. Villandry is a beautiful renaissance castle set in three levels of terraced gardens. It is the last of the great renaissance castles built on the banks of the Loire. Next to the harmoniuous architecture of the castle itself the gardens are of an extremely high ‘waauw’ level. The castle was neither the residence of  a king nor a courtesan, but of Jean le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I. The Villandry estate was purchased in 1754 by the Marquis of Castellane, ambassador of King Louis XV and a member of a very old, very illustrious family of the Provençal nobility. He set about renovating the interior, with a degree of success, so as to make it inhabitable, incorporating standards of comfort approaching those of today – in particular, the installation of wood panelling for soundproofing and thermal insulation – while the neoclassical style lent it unquestionable charm. In the early 20th century, Dr Joachim Carvallo and his wife Ann Coleman, heir to an American iron and steel empire, purchased Villandry. Carvallo put all his energies and fortune into restoring Villandry to its former glory. With the help of a team of 100 stonemasons, he gave the chateau’s façades back their Renaissance beauty. Between 1908 and 1918, he devoted himself to recreating the Renaissance gardens. True to Joachim Carvallo, his descendants have undertaken to preserve and develop the Villandry estate with the rigour and selflessness that are the making of outstanding gardens. The castle is still owned and used by the same family and has a very homy feel inside. From the inside you get glimpses from different sides of the impressive gardens, and especially the view from atop the tower is worth the climb.

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The kitchen gardens are a mix of coloured flowers and vegetables, set in geometrical colour schemes. The water garden is a very peaceful place to sit down for a while. The ornamental garden shows love in all its forms. There is a herbal garden, a sun garden and play corner for children. I stood eye in eye with a robin readbreast in the garden. It is a good idea to take a good book and just sit down a while and enjoy the peacefulness of the gardens if the weather allows it.

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Energized by the beauty, we drove to Tours. We parked our car close to the city hall, which is a very impressive building with huge sculptures on the façade. We started walking and followed the signs pointing towards the old town and the cathedral. We eventually found, after passing the Museum of beaux arts, the cathedral of Saint-Gatien, and felt dissapointed by the although enourmous building, grey architecture of the buidling itself and the surrounding area. We saw the Loire and walked towards the river, with on one side the castle of Tours. Well, castle is a big word… We continued and eventually walked through the dreary shopping street and ended up at the basilique St-Martin, a smaller but more pleasing church. Getting desperate we eventually found a restaurant close to the very beautiful railway station, restaurant L’odeon, quite classic and formal but if you go for the menu you get very good quality for 40 euro a menu for 3 courses and 33 euro for 2 courses. We took a glass of Vouvray bubbles and a glass of local wine, which were all very good. You get two appetizers, both really good, without being blasé which is often the case in French restaurants. The restaurant filled completely up on a monday evening. I took the foie gras and the fish of the day which were coquiles saint-jaques. I decided against the dessert, and went for a coffee which came with a small dessert glass and some sweets. It was a very pleasing experience in all, but I still think France is missing the boat of young bistrot restaurants which offer the same high quality of food in a more relaxed, less formal environment.

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We drove back to our romantic B&B room and after a last breakfast a la campagne, headed out to the biggest castle of the Loire: Chambord. Chambord is the largest and most prestigious of all castles of the Loire. It was meant to impress, and show the greatness of the King of the moment. Chambord is set in a large natural area and forest, filled with wild life. Chambord was born from the dream of King François I who brought back from his battles in Italy numerous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci. The architect of Chambord remains unknown, but this masterpiece seems to have been inspired by the sketches of da Vinci himself (particularly the famous double staircase).

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Louis XIV stays at Chambord nine times, one hundred days in all. His last stay is from the 6th of September to the 28th of October 1685. Molière creates and stages the first performance of the ‘bourgeois gentilhomme’ and ‘monsieur de Pourceaugnac’ at the château. Chambord was not designed to be a permanent residence, merely a hunting lodge. Because of its size, it was not very friendly to its inhabitans and most owners spend very little time here. In 1981 it is  registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the roof stands the beautiful lantarn tower and you are surrounded by towers and chimneys while the view over the river and land is stunning.

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Before going in we took a coffee in the bar of the little hotel at the entrance. After our visit we took lunch at the wine bar in the sunshine. We got a lovely salad with a good glass of wine and fresh bread. We crossed the bridge and took some pictures of the great castle reflected in the river in front of it.

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I think we got a good first introduction to the castles of the Loire valley in just three days. Next time we plan to visit some smaller, lesser known castles, which are also in the high season a lot less crowded than their more famous big brothers. Low season in late spring or early autumn is a great moment to visit the very famous castles in a relaxed way!

Château de Chenonceau, 37150 Chenonceaux, France, there is a trainstation just in front of the castle, Tel : 02 47 23 90 07, Email : info@chenonceau.com, open all year, ticket with brochure: 12,50 euro, ticket with audioguide: 17 euro

Château royal d’Amboise, 37403 Amboise, France, Phone : +33/(0)2 47 57 00 98, open all year, ticket: 10,70 euro, ticket with audioguide: 14,70 euro

Château Azay-le-Rideau: rue Pineau, 37190 Azay-le-Rideau, France, T 33 / (0)2 47 45 42 04, open all year, ticket: 8,50 euro

Châteatu Villandry: 37510 Villandry, France, Tél : 02 47 50 02 09, The gardens all open all year, the castle from february 15 to november 16th, and during the christmas holidays, ticket: 10 euro for castle and gardens, ticket gardens only: 6,50 euro.

Chambord: 41250 Chambord, France, Tél : +33 (0)2 54 50 40 00, open all year, ticket: 11 euro, ticket parking: 4 euro

B&B l’Argentier du Roy: 21 rue Saint Ours 37600 Loches, France, 02 47 91 62 86,

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