What is a trip to France without a visit to a chateau or two?
With 42 UNESCO World Heritage listed castles spread across 280km of French countryside, the Loire Valley appears on many traveller’s lists of “must sees” in France. However, as very few of us would have the luxury of parking ourselves in a French farmhouse for three months and exploring each and every one of these of beautiful palaces, I thought I’d give you my picks of which chateaux (pronounced sha-toe) to see and why.
So come travel with me as I take you through my Top 6 Chateaux of the Loire Valley…
6/Blois (Chateau Royal De Blois)
Blois is a great starting point in the Loire as it is readily accessible by train. A direct service from Paris Austerlitz to Blois takes just under an hour and half. The chateau itself is located within the city centre, so not having a car isn’t a problem. Built from the 13th to the 17th centuries, it is an elegant castle with ornate staircases, decorative archways and parquetry and a grand inner courtyard. For more information, see the chateau’s website.
5/Amboise (Chateau d’Amboise)
This chateau’s picturesque setting on the banks of the Loire is one of its main draw-cards for visitors. It is a rebuilt medieval fortress and was converted to a royal palace in the 15th century. Amboise is furnished with Gothic and Renaissance pieces and the interior is plainer than some others in the area. I found it elegant and charming and its views across the river and the township make this chateau a highlight. It is also easy to get to by train – only another 15 minutes on from Blois. You can find the chateau’s website here.
4/Villandry (Chateau de Villandry)
Visitors head to Chateau de Villandry not so much for the castle itself but for its sprawling gardens. Complete with boxed hedge mazes, a water garden filled with fountains and a mirror-like pool, not to mention two and half acres of decorative vegetable gardens – Villandry is a garden lover’s paradise. It is a short 20 minute drive out of the city of Tours – for more information see the chateau website.
3/Chenonceau (Chateau de Chenonceau)
Chenonceau is everything that a French chateau should be in my mind – a grand and elaborate 15th century building with a highly decorative interior and expansive gardens. Interestingly, of all of the Loire valley’s castles, Chenonceau is the only one that was built, decorated, inhabited and ultimately preserved by women. For this reason is it often referred to as the “Women’s Castle”. I particularly love that it doesn’t simply have a moat – it is built on the moat! A car is the best way to get to Chenonceau – it is about 20 minutes drive south of Amboise – however there are regional trains that service Chenonceau from Saint Pierre Des Corpes if you don’t plan to have a vehicle in the area. For more information on this wonderful castle go to their website.
2/Chambord (Chateau de Chambord)
The one chateau on everyone’s list when they come to the Loire valley is undoubtedly Chambord. With a property boundary of nearly 5500 hectares in size, Chambord encompasses an area equivalent in size to central Paris. It includes the extraordinary chateau, farms, a forest and even its own village. This former hunting lodge exhibits French Renaissance architecture at its best, with spires, copulas and towers creating an elaborate roof-line. For lovers of the grandiose, Chambord is for you – 440 rooms, 242 fire places and 84 staircases. One of its most impressive features for me is its famous Double Helix staircase the weaves through the centre of the palace. The two sprials rise through three floors without ever meeting. Check out the castle’s website here for more detailed information. The chateau is about 20 minutes by car from the town of Blois.
So if Chambord is the bees knees of Loire chateaux, why isn’t it my top pick? Because it’s too predictable – it is amazing and grand and should be on everyone’s top list of French palaces, but to me it takes something unique and unexpected to be numéro un… and I think that this next chateau is exactly that.
1/Azay le Rideau (Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau)
Grand? Nope. The public can access fifteen rooms from a total of around twenty in the chateau. Big, expansive grounds and gardens? No, none of that either. Think sculpted English gardens and lots of trees. So why do I love it enough to make it my number one? Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is charming and picturesque. It sits like a jewel on an island on the Indres River within the township of Azay le Rideau. Its carved stone facade is reflected at you as you look down on the water from the chateau above. While its proportions are small, it still has a magnificent entry hall and a sweeping Italian-inspired staircase sweeps upwards through the three floors of the palace. The rooms are beautifully decorated with 16th century Flemish tapestries, ornate carvings and portraits in gilded frames. It is tasteful yet majestic and charming all at the same time.
Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is such an underdog in the top chateaux stakes that it doesn’t even have its own website! Refer to the French National Monuments page here for current information on this special piece of the Loire. It is about 25 minutes south-west of Tours by car.
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So what do you think of the Loire? What was your favourite and why?
Which other gems should I know about for the next time myself or one of my clients heads on a chateaux hunt?
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