Loire Valley’s Most Beautiful Chateaux
Visiting the chateaux of the Loire Valley may be the closest thing to stepping into a real-life fairytale. Within the sprawling courtyards and tapestry-laden walls of these stunning Renaissance-era castles – with some even dating back to before A.D. 1,000 – are centuries of royal history, drama, intrigue and romance. Each chateau tells a story, beckoning visitors to forget their modern lives and imagine what it would be like to walk its halls and wander its secret gardens as a king contemplating his kingdom, or a queen entertaining the most respected artists of the day. From Amboise to Ussé – the chateau that in fact inspired Charles Perrault to write the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty – travelers will forever see the world with a little more magic and wonder after a luxury tour of France’s most decadent royal residences.
Here are the chateaux you can’t miss during your private tour of the Loire Valley:
Château de Chinon
While Château de Chinon may not have the Renaissance flourishes and romantic architecture of many of the Loire Valley’s other famous chateaux, it’s a castle of strength, and one of the most important fortresses in France. Rising above the Vienne River, Chinon is over 400 meters long and boasts an array of unique design elements and fortifications typical of the several centuries through which it was constructed and modified. Rumor has it that Richard the Lionheart died at this chateau, though the castle is perhaps best known for its relation to Joan of Arc. It was here that she strode through the halls to convince the future king, Charles the Victorious, to fend off oncoming British forces who sought to overtake France. As such, the country owes a great deal to this chateau’s hallowed halls – and though large sections of the castle are ruins and remnants, it’s not hard to imagine the definitive events in French history that took place here.
Château de Chaumont
As you make your way through the chateaux of the Loire Valley, you will notice a common thread running through the region: the infamous love triangle of Henri II, his mistress Diane de Poitiers and Henri’s wife, Catherine de Medici. The 16th century was no easy time – royals and rivals fought, plotted, schemed and sought to outdo each other in the grandeur of their country estates. Catherine bought Chaumont in 1550, and she was famous for holding large parties there featuring top names like Nostradamus on the guest list. But when the king – her husband – gave his mistress Diane an even more elaborate estate called Château de Chenonceau, Catherine was livid – and as history goes, you do not cross a Medici. Catherine demanded that Diane switch chateaux with her. Diane by no means got a bad deal – Chaumont is a gorgeous storybook chateau nestled on a lush hillside with majestic views of the Loire Valley. The castle is also famous for its enchanting gardens and modern art displays, which are highlighted during the popular Chaumont Garden Festival each year.
Château de Blois
Château de Blois is an architectural marvel, with a variety of design features that span from medieval elements added in the 13th century to the Renaissance flourishes put in place in the 17th century. The most famous of these features is the gorgeous spiral staircase on the exterior of the building. Several kings took up residence at Blois, including Francois I and Henry III, and their stately presence and influence is felt in the chateau’s staggering scale: It contains 564 rooms, including 100 bedrooms. The chateau also played a pivotal role in the journey of Joan of Arc – she was blessed here in 1492 before heading off to battle the English at the French settlement of Orleans. Visitors to Château de Blois should also be sure to visit the Maison de la Magie across from the chateau, another magnificent historic sight, albeit one of different feel. The museum is dedicated to the memory of the father of illusions, Robert Houdin, and the art of magic. The exterior of the house is an impressive sleight of hand itself: A mechanical six-headed dragon winds its way through the windows on the hour, every hour to the wonder of awestruck visitors.
Château de Chenonceau
Built partially over the Cher River, the Château de Chenonceau is unlike any other castle in the Loire Valley and cannot be missed. But it’s not only its breathtaking design that sets it apart – Chenonceau is especially notable because of its legacy of being owned by a series of strong, history-making women. Nicknamed the “Château des Dames,” Chenonceau was originally constructed by Katherine Briconnet in 1513. It was then given to Diane de Poitiers, Henri II’s mistress, who was forced to give up the castle to Catherine de Medici. Catherine then gave her daughter-in-law Lorraine the estate, and it was later bought by Madame Dupin, a cultured woman whose literary salon hosted the who’s who of the artists and intelligentsia of the day.
Visitors will feel like royals as they walk the grounds of the stately Château d’Amboise, which looks over the charming nearby village and has uninterrupted views of the Loire Valley. One of its most famous residents was Leonardo da Vinci, who was invited to stay at the chateau in 1515 by King Francis I. Travelers should explore the interactive museum dedicated to da Vinci and visit the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, where he is believed to be buried. Château d’Amboise was also the place where Henri II and Catherine de Medici raised their children as well as Mary Stuart – the future Mary, Queen of Scots.
Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord is the definition of regal elegance and sophistication, boasting intricate, white-stone towers that reach toward the sky. It’s the largest chateau in the Loire Valley at 156 meters long and 56 meters tall. Another hallmark of the castle is its unique architectural style, which combines Italian Renaissance influences with French medieval design. Château de Chambord is a sight to behold, and King Francois I, who constructed the castle, certainly thought so – he invited over his fierce rival, Charles V, so he could show off the place.