The Loire Valley is known for its vineyards, orchards, farms, historic towns and UNESCO listed Châteaux.
French châteaux are slightly different than English castles. Châteaux were not intended to provide any serious form of defense; walls, towers and moats were mostly decorative.
2019 is a year of celebration in the Loire Valley. Its considerable Renaissance heritage is celebrated in part due to Leonardo da Vinci, who lived and worked in Château de Clos Lucé 500 years ago, from 1516 until his death in 1519. 500 years ago this year was also the year one of the first châteaux, the Château de Chambord began to be built. Today there are more than 300 châteaux located in the Loire Valley, and we feel lucky to have visited a baker’s dozen.
Château de Chambord
The first château we visited is said to be the most magnificent, largest and one of the oldest in the Loire Valley. King Frances I built Château de Chambord between 1519-1547.
The King was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and he invited Leonardo da Vinci to France. Da Vinci brought his painting, the Mona Lisa with him, which Francis I had acquired. It is believed that Leonardo da Vinci drew the famous “Double Spiral Staircase” as well as a few other design features that would be used in Chambord after his death, The Château is quite stunning on the outside and although a major tourist site, unlike other châteaux we visited, the gardens felt neglected and the interior rooms of Chambord felt somewhat impersonal like the state owned museum it is. We visited at the end of September, so it is possible the tourist season was winding down.
The elaborate roof line, from a distance was wonderful, reminding us of a cityscape and up close the artistic details and decorations were outstanding. Originally designed as a hunting lodge, the château has an unbelievable 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 84 staircases. The personal emblem of King Francis I was the salamander and we saw many carvings of this charming creature throughout the château.
We were curious about our favorite raspberry-flavored liqueur that comes in a spherical bottle, called Chambord. We asked at the Château and were told that yes, the recipe was modeled after a liqueur produced in the Loire Valley in the late 1600’s and which had been a favorite of King Louis XIV.
Château Royal de Blois
Early records mention that in 854 the Castle of Blois, known then as Blisum castrum, was attacked by Vikings. The medieval castle was purchased in 1391 by Louis I, Duke of Orléans, brother of King Charles VI. The marvelous Château de Blois built on a hill dominating the center of town, was constructed between the 13th and 17th centuries. It has 564 rooms, 75 staircases, 100 bedrooms each with its own fireplace. 10 Queens and 7 Kings have lived at Château de Blois and when King Francois I lived there, (the builder of Chambord) he began renovations and installed the richly decorated octagonal staircase. We also spotted a few of his salamanders.
When we walked through the Louis XII entrance, overtop the doorways we smiled when we saw King Louis XII’s emblem – the crowned porcupine. Love that! The Château is also home to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with 35,000 works in its collection mostly from the 16th-19th centuries.
The more we traveled in the Loire Valley the more often we came across Joan of Arc. Château de Blois was where she, in 1429, was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before departing with her army to drive the English from Orléans.
Blois exudes old-world charm and the peaceful setting makes it an attractive and interesting town to visit. Before entering the Château, we explored parts of Vieux Blois (Old Town) and across from the Château Royal, were stopped in our tracks, by the activity at a unique museum called the Maison de la Magie or Magic Museum
It is the only museum in Europe entirely devoted to magic as a performing art. There were numerous dragons waving their heads back and forth out of the upper floor windows and making all sorts of ‘dragony’ noises.
The magic museum is named after Blois native, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a 19th-century magician. Harry Houdini was such a fan, he created his stage name based on the Frenchman, Robert-Houdin.
On our second day driving the Loire Valley, we began in city of Angers to visit the impressive Château d’Angers. It was built in the 9th century by the Counts of Anjou, was expanded in 1231 by King Louis IX and has changed very little since. There are 17 large bulky two-tone attractive lookout towers spaced along a kilometer long wall. Each tower is nearly 60 feet tall (18 meters) making this one sturdy looking château.
As we explored the town we learned that Angers is the birthplace of the famous orange flavored, Cointreau liqueur. We were able to visit the outstanding 12th-13th century La Cathédrale Saint-Maurice and briefly stop in to Le Palais Épiscopal. Last month we were thrilled to discover and closely examine the Bayeux Tapestry that was created ~1076 after William the Conqueror became King William I of England.
When we heard there was another very old tapestry called the Apocalypse Tapestry that was on display in the Château d’Angers we knew we wanted to see it as well. The Apocalypse Tapestry is actually a large set of tapestries that was commissioned by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou, and created between 1377 and 1382. There were originally six sections, each 78-foot (24 m) wide by 20-foot (6.1 m) high, comprising 90 different scenes. During the French revolution many medieval tapestries were completely destroyed so it is lucky that at least 71 of the original 90 scenes survive today. The tapestries depict the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. We feel truly blessed to have seen and experienced these priceless artifacts.
Château de Montreuil-Bellay
The Loire Valley really is quite spectacular. Driving through the valley, we spotted dozens of church spires in the distance announcing the presence of and tempting us to explore each charming village or slumbering town. The entire Loire Valley is referred to as both the Cradle of the French and the Garden of France due to the abundance of foods that are produced here. We drove for miles catching glimpses of the herds of white and tan colored Charolais cattle. Sheep and horses were everywhere and we even caught sight of a few goats and donkeys. It is always so rewarding to see animals with plenty of room to roam and graze in the open fields.
We had not initially planned to visit Château de Montreuil-Bellay but its profile from the road encouraged us to make a stop. Another old castle originally built in the 10th century. In the 15th century it was completely renovated and the massively high walls with 13 interlocking towers were added. Ownership of the castle has changed several times over the centuries and it is currently privately owned.
Château de Montreuil-Bellay is also the name of a premium wine made on the property today.
Château de Brézé
Our third stop of the day was the château with the deepest moats in France and nicknamed “A castle under a castle”; the intriguing Château de Brézé. The existence of a castle at this location has been written about as early as 1063. The moat surrounding the castle is 30 feet deep (9 meters) but it is a dry moat that has never been filled with water.
Brézé is unique from other châteaux we toured because of its remarkably preserved underground network. Tuffeau stone is a type of limestone found in the Loire Valley of France. It is a chalky or sandy, fine-grained limestone, white to yellowish-cream in appearance with flakes of white mica running through it and it was used as the building blocks for many of the châteaux throughout the valley. Carved into the tuffeau stone beneath Château de Brézé in the 15th and 16th centuries are miles of tunnels and caves. We found stables, skylights, an underground bakery, a 17th century silk factory, a large wine press room, the castle kitchens with massive ovens, even an underground bakery with a large warming room the size of a bedroom overtop the ovens.
This Château is privately owned and the owners continue to restore this ancient piece of history.
Château de Saumur
Château de Saumur was not initially on our radar but a gal in a local winery in Chinon recommended it and we are so pleased we took her advice.
The Château de Saumur was originally built as a castle or fortress in the 900s, however, it was destroyed in 1076 and rebuilt by the powerful King Henry II of England (1133-1189) as a château in the 12th century. Saumur changed hands many times over the centuries and has been used for multiple purposes from the residents of Kings, to army barracks. Napoleon Bonaparte used it as a prison and today the restored Château has within a Museum of Decorative Arts and a Horse Museum of the famed “Cadre Noir”. The prestigious French military riding academy, founded in 1828, today performs as an equestrian display team. The third museum housed within the Château is the Museum of Figurines and Toys – a collection of antique toys, soldiers, kings and clowns.
Once upon a time there was a fairy tale castle overlooking two Rivers, Indre and Loire. It was so marvelous that Charles Perrault (1628-1703) the French author who is credited with inventing fairy tales, used it as inspiration for his fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty.
Other well known tales of his are Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. Some of Perrault’s versions of the old stories influenced the German versions published by the Brothers Grimm more than 100 years later.
Inside one of Château d’Ussé towers there are perhaps a dozen or more of the main scenes from Sleeping Beauty that have been recreated in specially decorated theme rooms. We felt they were wonderfully realistic and other guests, young and old, seemed to enjoy them as much as we were.
The Château is privately owned today and houses furniture and art collections from previous owners. The first known owner of Ussé was a fierce Viking called Gelduin I, who built a wooden fortress on the site and which is still part of the present Château. Not until the 17th century did it become the stately home we visited, although there are different wings that were built in the 15th and 16th centuries. (A couple of other noteworthy guests welcomed at Château d’Ussé have been Voltaire and Chateaubriand)
The beautiful gardens were designed by the famous architect who created the gardens at Versailles. This was truly a delightful château to tour.
Our third and final day visiting châteaux began with d’Usse’s Sleeping Beauty castle above and each château got more interesting as the day progressed. We managed to visit a total of five on this day.
There is evidence of a château at Azay-le-Rideaux since the 11th century. That first building was demolished and replaced with a new 16th century Renaissance style château, built on an island in the middle of the Indre river. Although the property has been state owned since 1905, the château retains a sense of warmth and life and beauty.
We will especially remember the picturesque château for its unique ‘Enchantments of Azay’. There are displays of amusing animated musical service dishes in the dining room hall, moving mannequins, mirrored clothing and a captivating musical animated desk-size theatre found in various rooms throughout. They were each very ‘enchanting’.
The Château d’Azay-le-Rideaux is richly decorated inside with a number of rooms displaying 16th and 17th century Flemish tapestries. Most notably are the exceptional wool and silk tapestries that cover the walls of ‘Chambre de Psyché’ narrating The Story of Psyche.
The story of Psyche (and Cupid) was written in the 2nd century CE by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis and is about Psyche, a mortal princess, whose extraordinary beauty earned the wrath of the goddess Aphrodite, when men began turning away from the goddess towards the girl. Aphrodite commanded her son Eros (Cupid) to make Psyche fall in love with the most hideous of men. Eros instead fell in love with Psyche and carried her off to his secret palace. Eros hid his true identity and told Psyche she must never gaze upon his face. Her jealous sisters, however, tricked her into disobeying and the angry god then left her. Psyche searched the world for her lost love and eventually came into the service of the jealous Aphrodite. The goddess treated her badly but Psyche earned Aphrodite’s forgiveness allowing her to be reunited with Eros. Psyche and Cupid were married in a ceremony attended by all the gods and lived happily ever after.
Château de l’Islette
This smaller privately owned château, built between 1526-1530, is open to the public from May to September each year.
We have all heard of the french sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and the wonderful Musée Rodin (there are 2 separate sites) in Paris. The museum opened in 1919 and is primarily dedicated to the magificent sculptures created by Rodin.
Camille Claudel (1864-1943) was a talented French sculptress. Although when she died she was relatively unknown, her beautiful sculptures have gained the recognition they are due.
Recognizing her talent, in 1882, Camille became a pupil of Rodin. Eventually they fell in love, although he was married and would not leave his wife. The sculptures they created seemed to represent their stormy love affair. The affair of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel would last more than 10 years and whenever they were able to leave Paris they spent time together at the peaceful haven of Château de l’Islette. The château displays a number of love letters written between the two and we recognized a half dozen art books that we were able to browse through of Camille Claudel’s body of work.
While at L’Islette, Rodin is said to have worked on his famous Balzac sculpture and Camille created one of her major sculptures there: La Petite Châtelaine, modeled after the owner of the castle’s granddaughter.
Rodin’s sculpture entitled The Kiss is said to represent the couple as is Camille Claudel’s sculpture called The Mature Age. Both pieces are on display at The Musée Rodin in Paris.
Château de l’Islette is an elegant and welcoming home in a romantic setting. Outdoors was just as alluring. We found grey Touraine rabbits, black Géline de Touraine chickens, a reddish color breed of sheep called Solognot, a donkey named Eliot and a pony named Eclipse, pretty gardens, open fields to walk, the quietly meandering river Indre, a mill covered in ivy, bridges and graceful old trees. It is easy to imagine living here.
Château de Villandry
Villandry was built in 1536 on top of the remains of a 12th century fortress. It was the last of the châteaux to be built in the Renaissance style in the Loire Valley. In 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property and completely restored both the castle and the extremely beautiful gardens. It is still owned by the Carvallo family today and like all the other châteaux of the Loire Valley, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As striking as Château de Villandry is, we elected to stay outside and tour the famous French formal gardens that surround this stately residence.
We walked through or past as many of the gardens as we could but undoubtedly missed some. There are 3 levels of remarkable gardens, 1,015 lime trees, which takes a team of 4 gardeners, 4 months to prune each year. 115,000 flowers and vegetables are planted in the gardens each year with half of them started in greenhouses. In the Kitchen Garden there are two planting seasons. The first in spring (March to June) and the second in summer (June to November) with about 40 species and more than 200 varieties of food planted each year.
The gardens have been organic for the past 10 years and there is a convenient automatic underground watering system. We discovered a small amusing temporary art exhibition in one garden that had sculptures of garden inhabitants – a dancing mouse, a lounging frog and a couple of birds. We loved our visit to Villandry; it was an ideal way to spend an afternoon.
Château de Candé
Another château, another famous love story.
Château de Candé is where American, Wallis Simpson and Edward, Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII of England married in June 1937.
As the British monarch, King Edward VIII was also the head of the Church of England, and the church, at that time, did not allow divorced people to remarry in church if their ex-spouses were still alive. It is said that for this reason King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in 1936 in order to marry the divorced, Wallis Simpson.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived in relative exile in France. They bought an estate called Le Moulin de la Tuilerie near Paris. We read that earlier this spring the 26-acre estate was for sale…..
Charles and Fern Bedaux purchased the lovely Château de Candé in 1927 and had it completely updated. They added a plumbing system, improved the electrical system and installed central heating through the entire building. Each of the 8 bedrooms has a private art deco style bathroom. They claimed that when renovations were finished, each bathtub could be filled or emptied in less than a minute! They also installed one of the first telephones in a french residence with an operator employed full time at the château. Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor lived here for 3 months prior to their marriage and they must have found plenty to do as the lovely grounds have an 18-hole golf course, a tennis court, a gymnasium, a solarium and plenty of horses.
When Fern Bedaux died in 1972, she bequeathed the château to the State.
The Loire Valley is a wonderful place to explore and every château seems to have a story. Documentaries have been produced about the many Châteaux and hundreds of coffee table books have been published. We heard of a book to read called Chateaux of the Loire Valley by Robert Polidori that has favorable reviews on Goodreads. Another book recommended to us, although we haven’t been able to find an English version as yet, was: Le Roman des châteaux de la Loire, written by a prolific and popular French author, Juliette Benzoni.
And in case you are counting our baker’s dozen of visited Châteaux, we will be writing about the final two in future blogs.
Santé from these roamers,
Ted + Julia
View our Châteaux of the Loire Valley photo galleries here:
Château Royal de Blois (104 photos)
Château de Chambord (70 photos)
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau (49 photos)
Château de Villandry (42 photos)
Château de Montreuil-Bellay (26 photos)
Château de l’Islette (21 photos)