According to the French, the best wine in the world is produced in the Loire Valley. Though I don’t agree with them, their wine is still delicious, and the region is worth visiting for its beautiful medieval towns, its green flowery countryside, and its châteaux. Because of its landscapes, people also know it as the Garden of France.
I made a five day trip to the Loire Valley to visit the châteaux. Though there are around 300 hundred in the region, you can access the ones open to the public by the train that travels parallel to the Loire River, the largest in France.
If you are visiting France, the first thing that you should know about châteaux is that they are not the same as castles. If you ask where the castles are at the local tourist offices, they’ll tell you there are none around, even when they know that’s exactly why you came to see.
While castles served mainly as defense points during the Middle Ages, the châteaux were residences for royal and noble families. Therefore, their architects focused on making them ostentatious rather than fortifying them. The châteaux are also self-sufficient and depend on their states to produce wine, fruits, vegetables, and flowers to sell across France.
If you translate it into English, a château is a palace in the countryside, while a palais is a palace in the city, and a château fort is a fortified castle. Château is for singular and châteaux is for plural. Also, knowing all this won’t make people point out the direction to the châteaux. If you don’t ask the question in perfect French, people are still going to pretend they don’t know what you are talking about.
I started my trip in the city of Nantes and visited the Château of the Dukes of Brittany, built in the 13th Century. Different to the rest of the châteaux, this palace didn’t stand just for noble and royal residence over many generations, but also served as a military fortress, a prison, and even as a German bunker during the Second World War.
After a long time of abandonment, the palace open to the public as a museum on 2007. All the rooms tell the detailed history of the castle, and after visiting them, you can take a walk along the wall where you can get a beautiful view Loire River, that once worked as the main commercial route to Paris until the train was built.
Personally, if I were to travel to the Loire Valley again, I wouldn’t stop at Nantes. The city doesn’t have any big tourist attractions, but the chateau and a giant mechanic elephant, and people are unfriendly to foreigners.
The next day I traveled to Tours, a medieval city that was pronounced capital of France by Luis XI, and has a lot of history, starting from its foundation over a Galo town in the Middle Ages and named after Saint Martin Tours, famous for offering his robe to a homeless man.
I chose to stay here because it was the most centric city to all the châteaux I wanted to see.
I first took a train to Amboise, which is less than half an hour away from Tours. As in all medieval cities, the Château d’Amboise is at the center of the town, no more than 15 minutes walking from the station. Outside, the main street is full of shops and cafes. And if you keep walking on that road, you’ll find the oldest part of the town, where the houses are carved into the stones of the hill, making it look like a fairy tale town.
By the end of the 15th Century, King Charles VIII confiscated the château from Louis d’Ambois for plotting against him and made it his new residency. The royal family rebuilt several parts, bringing Italian architects, who were considered the best and more expensive at the time for their innovative designs. Amongst the many guests the château held, the most important was Leonardo DaVinci, who’s tomb lies in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert across the garden.
DaVinci died at Château du Clos Lucé, just five minutes on foot from Château d’Amboise. It is way smaller, but the garden is enormous and features an exhibition of several inventions and paintings DaVinci worked during his stay in the chateau. If you don’t feel like making your way through the crowd in the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, DaVinci painted an identical copy that you can see in here.
The next day I went to Chenonceau, my personal favorite of all the châteaux.
Built in the 16th Century, it’s the second most visited in France after Versailles.
As I learned, it was a trend to confiscate castles if you were a king, as Henry II seized this chateau from its original owner and gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. It was her that sent to build the gardens and the bridge with two floors that stand over the river.
When Henry II died, his widow, Catherine de Medici, claimed the castle back and sent to build even a bigger garden. She also planned to build an extension of the chateau at the opposite shore of the river, but she died before she could begin to do so.
The château kept changing owners to various nobles and their mistresses until it came to the power of Louise Dupin. She was famous for hosting the big Enlightenment Era thinkers like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau at the palace, as well as saving it from its destruction it during the French Revolution, arguing that it had the only bridge to cross the river in the area.
Years later it served as a hospital on World War I. It was bombed by the allies during the Second World War, as it had been occupied by the Germans and it was until 1951 that the last owners restored it to turn it into the museum it is now.
On my last day, I took a minibus that takes you to the farther châteaux that are not reachable by train.
My first stop was Chambord, the biggest of the châteaux in Val de Loire.
This palace was not built as a royal residence, but just as a summer house and a hunting stop for King Francis I in 1519, who only went there twice in his life.
It’s said that Francis I wanted the château to resemble the cityscape of Constantinople. That would be the reason for its beautiful and decorated towers, pillars, and spiral stairways. Another legend says that Leonardo DaVinci was involved in the original design of the building. Either way, it is massive and stylish at the same time.
It’s a shame that the château was inhabited for most of the time. None of the families who owned kept it for long, and only a couple of them resided in it for a small time. It seems that its most useful time was during World War II, when a lot of art collections from the Louvre were stored in there.
I hopped on the mini-bus and went to my next stop: the Château of Cheverny.
I’m sorry, but there’s not much history about this particular palace. From all the ones I visited, this one was the smallest and less splendorous of all. It is built with a more modern architecture, and looks more like a mansion, as the architects didn’t give it the medieval style other châteaux have. Even Diane de Poitiers wasn’t amazed by the building. When Henry II gave it to her, she preferred Chenonceau (I would have too).
However, I found the garden around way prettier than the palace. It has a vegetable and flower garden, and you can visit the seventy hounds at the nursery or the ducks on in the river that runs along the property.
I finished my château tour at Blois. It was originally a fortified castle, but later on, it became the favorite residence of the French Kings during the Renaissance.
Many kings, queens, and members of the royal family inhabited the châteaux from its construction at the beginning of the 13th century, until 1660, when its last owner, Gaston d’Orleans died. This is why the place it’s not just one massive castle, but instead, there are several buildings of different styles around a courtyard.
The palace contained one of the most complete libraries of France. Sadly, the French revolutionaries stole all the furniture, decorations, and book that made it so unique.
After the revolution, the chateau was in such a bad condition, that it was about to be demolished. But the city kept it to turn it into a barrack and years later, it was proclaimed as a historical building.
I had enough time to have a crepe and try some Loire wine before going back to Tours. I’d recommend that if you want to make a château tour like mine, you take at least three days so you can enjoy everything with time. I felt five days might have been too much, as I wasn’t considering that the towns were so small and the châteaux so close to each other. Luckily, Blois and Tours are big enough to keep you entertained if you have an extra day.
People is the Loire Valley don’t shower often, so be prepared in enclosed spaces.They’ll also push you and get into your pictures as if you weren’t there, but don’t take it personal, they do that with locals too. Even with them, this zone of France is exceptionally beautiful. If you get a chance to travel by train, do it! I went all the way to Paris, and it was the fanciest train ride of my life. The towns in the countryside kept their medieval architecture, and the tallest constructions you can see are the châteaux and fortresses.