Among the castles of the Loire in an on the road that we have been planning for some time. We have organized this trip as part of an itinerary that took us from the south of France, with stops in Carcassonne and Castelnaudary, to the extreme north between Normandy and Brittany with a view beyond the blue border of the Channel, passing through the heart of country: that Loire Valley famous for its more than 300 castles.
In the Loire Valley for castles
But the Loire Valley is also called the “garden of France”. Rich in watercourses, it is a very fertile land with production of vegetables, fruit, flowers and wine. Greenery, from that of woods and forests to the well-kept parks and gardens, is everywhere and it is not lacking even around the castles that emerge like enormous and beautiful stone flowers among meadows, centenary trees and colorful flowerbeds.
Defined as our first stop in a place rich in history and atmosphere at the Château-monastère de la Corroirie, strategically located in the center of an area full of fairy-tale manors and wonderful villages, we have compiled a short list of which to visit without haste, taking everything time to enjoy the experience by making our own the concept of French art de vivre.
It was not easy to choose which ones to give preference to: the Loire Valley, declared a living cultural landscape as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, houses along the river that gives it its name and its tributaries, some of the most beautiful castles in the world.
We decided to start from the most visited and majestic one, the Castle of Chambord, the hunting lodge of François I which enchanted us not only because it condenses all the glories of the Renaissance, from its incredible architectural harmony to Leonardo da Vinci’s double helix staircase up to the panoramic terraces, but also for its gardens and the forest of over 5 thousand hectares, populated by deer.
Its “strong points” remain the grandiose staircase, which allows two people to climb at the same time without ever crossing each other, and the enormous segmental arch vault decorated with the symbols of Francis I, i.e. the letter F and the salamander.
The curiosity? During the Second World War, Chambord served as a storage center for the preservation of works of art in museums, including the Mona Lisa.
Another impressive staircase is that of the Castle of Blois which contains the best of French architecture in the various eras: in fact, its four facades represent different styles between Gothic and Renaissance. It was the residence of 7 kings and 10 queens of France and stronghold of the Counts of Blois and the Duke of Orléans. It was later abandoned and even risked being demolished until in 1845 it was one of the first national monuments restored.
Opposite the castle, in the beautiful square where we stopped for a cheese snack, is the House of Magic, inaugurated in 1998, which sports six dragon heads that come out of the windows every 30 minutes paying homage to the great French conjurer Robert Houdini, originally from Blois.
We then walked with Otto in the King’s Gardens around the castle which are due to Louis XII and were the first Renaissance gardens in France intended for the cultivation of fruit, vegetables and medicinal plants.
The upper part of the town is connected to the lower part by the staircase dedicated to Denis Papin, the inventor of the steam engine, while the river is crossed on the spectacular Jacques-Gabriel stone bridge.
The third castle we chose to visit was that of Amboise in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci who finished the Mona Lisa here and who is buried there in the Flamboyant Gothic-style Chapel of Saint-Hubert, currently closed for restoration work.
The castle dominates the course of the Loire with all its magnificence which is due to the various alterations and expansions made by Charles VIII in 1492 and by Frederick I. From the Charles VIII Wing in flamboyant Gothic style, which contains the rooms of the King and Queen , we move on to the Louis XII Wing in the Renaissance style and with the apartments dating back to the 19th century.
The most fascinating part is that of the beautiful garden terraces overlooking the river from which you can admire a magnificent panorama. The gardens were commissioned by Charles VIII in the Italian style and created by a gardener monk, Dom Pacello. On the highest part stands out the vineyard, one of the most beautiful in Touraine, from which Amboise Blanc is produced, a wine obtained from the Pineau de la Loire vine, which we tasted at the castle’s refreshment point together with a quicle lorraine: which best way to savor the essence of douce France?
From the castle you reach the village below via the helical ramp of the Heurtault tower which, like that of the Minimes tower from which you enter, allowed knights and noble carriages to reach the terraces directly from the banks of the Loire: a sort of lift with raised parking of the time!
We ended on a high note with the Château de Chenonceau, called the castle of women: in spring its incredible gardens on the river Cher, one of the main tributaries of the Loire, are a true marvel. But everything, from the towers to the gallery that is reflected in the water, looks like something out of a book of fairy tales!
The large tree-lined avenue leads straight to the Marques Tower, separated from the rest of the building which is what remains of the first medieval manor house from the 12th century. Behind the “new” castle that seems to float on the water and was built in Venetian style by Katherine Bricconet, wife of Thomas Bohier, finance secretary of King Francis I.
Followed by Diana of Poitiers, the favorite of King Henry II, who had spectacular gardens and the famous bridge that crosses the river built. But the great protagonist of the residence and of its golden age was certainly Caterina de’ Medici: widowed by the king, she drove away her rival Diana and had the two-story gallery built. Her son Henry III’s wife, Louise of Lorraine, who was widowed, spent her days reading and praying there. During the Age of Enlightenment, Louise Dupin became its owner, who transformed it into a brilliant living room, frequented by philosophers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. The last women of the castle were Marguerite Pelouze, who after having spent a fortune to restore it, ended up in poverty and Simone Menier, head nurse, who transformed the two galleries of the castle into hospitals, where more than 2,000 war wounded were treated until 1918.
The gardens are spectacular: in the part designed by Diane de Poitiers there is a fountain that sprays a six-metre high jet of water, while the one designed by Caterina de’ Medici boasts an area of 5,500 square metres, a labyrinth of over one hectare and a botanical garden.
Inside, the eyes are “nourished” by equal beauty from the vast collection of tapestries, furniture, paintings and period objects to the masterpieces of Murillo, Tintoretto, Poussin, Correggio and Rubens, among large fireplaces and majestic four-poster beds. The kitchens are also very beautiful, located in the bases of the first two pylons of the bridge where there are all the tools and objects of the time, the large fireplaces used for cooking, the utensils used for preparing meals, the butcher’s shop, the pantry and docks for unloading food.
From the Medici gallery where Caterina de Medici used to organize sumptuous parties, there is an enchanting view of the Cher river and access to the wood of the Francueil public park on the opposite bank which allows another splendid view of the castle. Around the 80-hectare park, populated by animals and birds, where you can walk freely together with your four-legged friend.
Our fairy tale had a continuation during the night spent in the magnificent and elegant suite in the tower of one of the most beautiful and romantic castles in the Loire Valley, the Domaine de la Tortinière which we tell you about in our Sognidoro.
And if Chambord, Blois, Amboise and Chenonceau are the most famous of the Loire Castles, even the smaller sites are worth the trip: we’ll talk about them in the next post.