LOIRE VALLEY CHȂTEAU or CHȂTEAU de la LOIRE: I have been longing to go to this place for a while. It’s about little less than 2 hours south of Paris. If you are in Paris and want to get away from a crazy city-life, Loire Valley can be a great escape. You will find contemporary and bustling city life coinciding with century old French Royal history and culture by the river Loire and Cher. There are about more than 300 chateaus all together in this central part of France, starting from Samur to Gien. Each of them has its own inside story to tell and fine beauty to display.
You do feel like you are in the time of Kings and Queens looking at their hints of tasteful and wealthy life-styles. These chateaus are some of the best sites where “tranquility of the soul” meets “aristocratic serenity”. They guide you through the history, their dreams, and their secrets step by step. Every château tells its own history of wealth, power, drama, family, politics, murders, tortures, love, mourning, and death. I was absolutely enchanted by the richness of their furnishings and decorations.
TRAVELING TIME: We drove to Loire Valley, France end of November, 2012 from Tervuren, Belgium. It took us about 5 and half hours including the traffic jam around Paris. It can get a bit cold and windy this time of the year. Chateaus in Loire Valley are very lively and full of activities in the summer time, until September. You get to enjoy the night walk in the chateaus, light shows, other exhibitions, and…the crowd. Yeh, we couldn’t enjoy all those but at least the chateaus weren’t jam packed with tourists. There were no lines either in the ticket offices or inside.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel de France et de Guise in the heart of Blois. It was an awesome place for shopping and exploring the historic part of Blois. Our room had a partial view of Château de Blois. This was a 2-star hotel but we loved the old-styled interior, spacious room, and fantastic customer service. They gave us coupons for some chateaus; in fact we got in Chaumont-Sur-Loire for free with one of their passes. Paid street parking is available here as well as paid garage (2 minutes of walk from the hotel). The hotel doesn’t have free breakfast (you can get it for 7 euros per person just to get you start the day) but it does offer free Wi-Fi.
EATING & SHOPPING IN LOIRE VALLEY: Most of the chateaus do offer some kind of cafeteria or restaurant within their perimeters. But I am sure there are more options to eat in summer when most of the tourists are here. We had few meals in Blois. There was a very good pizzeria near our hotel. Some other eateries in the old town of Blois include Subway, Chinese cuisine, and other local foods.
Château’s souvenir stores are great places to buy cheap or expensive gift items. Other than t-shirts, magnets, and key-rings you can get very nice looking tapestries, pillow covers, ceramics, books, and etc. from any store inside or outside chateaus.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Val de Loire has been in the list of UNESCO World Heritage since 2000 for its rich cultural landscape. We spent 3 whole days here and managed to visit 2 chateaus per day. You can spend a whole day in some chateaus like Château de Chambord, which has vast landscape with one of the Europe’s biggest enclosed forests. Summer days offer more activities around the chateaus, like light show, night walk in the gardens, and much more.
1) CHȂTEAU de CHAMBORD: This is the largest château and jewel of the French Renaissance in Loire Valley. With more than 4500 works of art: paintings, tapestries and furniture, this matchless example of architecture doesn’t disappoint its guests in any ways. The estate of Chambord is the largest enclosed forest park in Europe with many types of animals living completely wild. Bring your spirit and your camera for some of the fascinating shots you can capture in Château de Chambord.
Exterior of Chambord is definitely more prominent than inside with elaborately developed roof line. This distinct French Renaissance architecture is probably one of the best looking chateaus (from outside) in this region. Although from outside the château appears graceful and well-balanced, the vast dimensions of inside have 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces, and 426 rooms. The state apartments, King Francis I’s room, Queen’s apartment will take you back in the Middle-ages. The decorative carvings on the vaulted ceilings are fabulous. The highlight of this building is the phenomenal double helix staircase which takes you to different floors and to the roof-terrace. View of Chambord estate is fantastic from top of the roof.
Château is open all year-round except for January 1st and December 25th. Entry fee is 9.50 euros per adult and 5 euros extra for audio tour. We took about hour and half to explore the inside thoroughly and little bit of in the garden.
2) CHȂTEAU de CHEVERNY: The original land was donated by King Henri II to his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers. But she preferred Château de Chenonceau and sold this property to former owner’s son. Château de Cheverny was built here in 1630. This was one of the first stately homes to open to the public in 1922. This château is also famous for being used in Belgian comic books “The Adventures of Tintin” and is known as “Marlinspike Hall”. Writer Herge didn’t use the outer two wings of the château but the central tower and two adjacent wings are almost identical in the book. The south façade of Cheverny’s is decorated with sculpted Romans style busts which has been fashionable since the Renaissance. The whole design of this château is one of the original examples of classic French architecture.
This château actually has the homeliest feeling and is fully decorated with the way Royals lived once. This is known to be the most magnificently furnished château in the Loire Valley. The ceilings are beautiful as well as the walls and paintings. The luxurious upholsteries in all the rooms give a sense of nobility all around the château.
The landscape all around Château de Cheverny is mysterious and ornamental. You will find a combination of French classical geometry and English-style perspective on its ground. Two of my favorite parts of this garden were the Kitchen Garden (in front of the Trophy Room) which was decorated with mostly fall pumpkins & colorful flowers and the garden in front of the south façade. If you are a Tintin fan this château gives you a peak to the secrets of “Marlinspike Hall”. The special Tintin exhibition allows the visitors to participate in the Tintin Adventures which occurred, so to speak, on these premises. Visit his life-size events and adventures thru this exhibition…fun for adult Tintin fans and kids as well.
Parking for Château de Cheverny is absolutely free. It’s very close to Château de Chambord if you want to combine the trip. The entrance fee is 8.70 euros per adult for just visiting château and free for kids below 7 years old. If you combine chateau and Tintin exhibition then it is 13 euros per person and well worth every penny.
3) CHȂTEAU de CHENONCEAU: Originally, this was a mill, which was later turned into a Renaissance château on the Cher River in 16th century. In 1547, King Henri II donated Chenonceau to his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers. After King’s death, his wife Catherine de Medici took over the château from King’s mistress in exchange of Chaumont-sur-Loire.
The Renaissance style Marques Tower on forecourt and the old main door are noteworthy. This probably has one of the most unique exterior designs in Loire Valley, with several arches, for being built right on Cher River. Two floors of this place are accessible to tourists. There are lots and lots of Belgian tapestries from the 15th and 16th century on display in most of the hallways and rooms. The big baskets of floral displays add more sense of elegance in each room. It’s very beautiful to see River Cher and the woods from almost any of the chambers. All the rooms here are very modestly furnished and decorated. Out of all the rooms we’ve visited (guard’s room, chapel, library, gallery, several bedrooms, King Louis XIV’s drawing room, hallway, staircase, exhibition room) in Chenonceau the kitchen area downstairs was my favorite one. The odd-sized pots and pans made with brass, original oven, old kitchen utensils are fun to see.
Being right on the river, Château de Chenonceau is probably one of the best exterior designed chateaus in Loire Valley. Diane de Poitier’s Garden and Catherin de Medici’s Garden, on either side of the château, are pleasant to walk around anytime of the year, probably better in summer with more colors. Other than these 2 gardens, there is also a maze, a vegetable and flower garden, 16th-century farm, and a playground for kids, Donkey Park, picnic area, and Wax museum for visitors to enjoy.
This is was about 45 minutes of drive from Blois. Admission to enter Château de Chenonceau is 11 euros per adult (below 7 years is free). Audio guide is available in many different languages and costs extra. Opening hour during winter time is 9:30 to 5 pm every day. The cafes and restaurants inside the perimeter of château are not open in winter.
4) CHȂTEAU d’AMBOISE: This medieval fortress made way for a royal residence during the reigns of King Charles VIII and Francois 1st (late 15th – early 16th century). Amboise was the first expression of Renaissance in the Loire Valley combining with French late-Gothic style. One of the key facts of this château may be is that Leonard da Vinci stayed in Amboise manor for few years until his death and was buried in St. Hubert Chapel (inside Chateau de Amboise perimeter) according to his wishes.
Château d’Amboise has some great collection of Gothic and Renaissance furniture as well as some great art works and paintings. All the rooms are very lightly furnished and decorated with bare minimum items.
After visiting the Royal apartments and two imposing Cavalry towers, we took a stroll in the panoramic gardens. The château rises over its surrounding town and therefore, gives an overlooking view of the Loire River, buildings from the 15th/16th centuries, and the city of Amboise. Do go inside the small, square-looking chapel, St. Hubert Chapel, with a Gothic spire and an old entrance with Late Gothic carvings. Leonard de Vinci’s tomb is located in this chapel, as I mentioned above.
It probably took us about two hours to visit inside and outside of the château. It’s 10.20 euros per adult (below 7 years old is free) and 14.20 euros if you want to include audio guide. Parking here is totally free and within 7-8 minutes of walking distance. The château is open all year round but make sure to check the hours before visiting. This is about 35 minutes away from Blois and about 10 minutes of drive from Château de Chenonceau.
5) CHȂTEAU de CHAUMONT or CHAUMONT-SUR-LOIRE: Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire was founded around the year 1000 but the major developments were done in the 15th century by Pierre I d’Amboise and his son, Charles I. This château was given to Diane de Poitiers in exchange of Château de Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici after her husband King Henry II’s death. This château tells the stories of Royals from the Middle Age to Renaissance time and was an eventful place in the history of France. Some of the brilliant minds who lived at Chaumont-sur-Loire are Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, Nostradamus, and Benjamin Franklin.
The ornamental garden of Chaumont, resembling English countryside, is nice to walk around and get panoramic view of Loire River from up above. The hundred-year-old cedars and its beautiful landscaped park are quiet and calm during off-season and give a chance to reconnect with history. The walkways to the château were decorated with different sizes of pumpkins when we visited. The stables for horses and donkeys can be seen from outside near the entrance.
Château de Chaumont took the least time to visit among all 5 other chateaus we visited, may be little more than an hour or so. The ticket is 15.50 euros per adult and 5.50 for children 6-11 years. Château is open all year round but the hours change depending on the season of the year.
6) CHȂTEAU de BLOIS: Blois Royal château is built on high above the River Loire and forms the heart of the urban community. Around it is a bustling old town shaped by its history as a 16th century royal town. This was the residence of several French kings. Joan of Arc came here in 1429 to be blessed by the Archbishop before driving the English from Orleans. Also, this is where Queen Catherine de’Medici (wife of King Henri II) died in 1589.
The main façade of this château is very artistic. Interior of Château de Blois combines 4 distinct wings around a single courtyard, each one featuring personalities of different period and style. The inner courtyard forms a unique panorama of French architecture with these 4 wings: Gothic (from the 13th century), Flamboyant (from late 15th century), Renaissance (from early 16th century), and Classicism (from about mid-17th century). The staircase tower of the Renaissance wing is definitely one of the highlights of the inner courtyard.
Interior of Blois is probably one of my favorites among the 6 chateaus we visited. Go inside each of the wings to experience different era and style. Copula of “Classicism” wing of Blois is a masterpiece of French Classical architecture. The staircase of the Renaissance wing with its spectacular double vault is decorated with few sculptures. Chapel St. Calais at one end of “Flamboyant” wing was consecrated in 1508 but the stained-glass windows are rather new from the mid-20th century. Inside Château de Blois, all the rooms are very gorgeously and elegantly decorated with artistic ceilings, rich furniture, large portraits, paintings, luxurious upholsteries, and table tops. My favorite was the exquisite wall-papers in all the rooms. They are not too brightly colored; just perfectly graceful and royal to display the utmost sophistication.
We paid 7 euros per person with a discount deal from our hotel to enter the château. There is a parking garage very close to the site and charges only 5 euros for 24 hours parking. This is about 20 minutes of drive from Chaumont-Sur-Loire and less than an hour drive from Château de Chenonceau.
OTHER ATTRACTION IN BLOIS: Blois is a nice, little French town by the river Loire. Apart from its well-known château, the town has some beautiful medieval churches and a historic center thriving with modern components of life. Walking around the old part of Blois is relaxing and fun. Other than the below 2 churches we visited, Blois Cathedral or Cathedral St. Louis is a famous landmark here.
ST. NICOLAS CHURCH: Building of this church began in the 12th century combining work of Romanesque and Gothic. Inside the church has a typical Gothic look too with giant stone pillars and old walls. The floor is probably as old as the church itself. The altar was simple but the stained-glass windows were pretty. You can see its spires from far on the other side of Loire River. The church is open from 9 – 5 pm and free to enter.
Another old church in Blois we saw was St. Vincent Church from the 16th century. It’s free to enter too and was located right in front of our hotel room in the old town.