Castles of the Loire Valley

Posted October 20th, 2013 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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France-LoireValley-Chosen-45Loire Valley lies in central France about a two hour drive to the south of Paris. Situated on the banks of the river Loire, this is prime wine and Chateau territory.   I am not sure how many castles are in this region—the guidebooks varied from 50 to 300. Most of these were built or rebuilt during the 1400s to the 1700s and served either as primary homes or hunting lodges or summer residences to the various monarchs that ruled France during that time.  Many of these chateaux are still standing and now are open to the tourists for sightseeing.  These chateaux vary in size and shape and original purpose but were presumably built with no real budget limit.  They are magnificent structures and each of them has its own characteristic feature and so it is difficult to choose the best one among them. And in many cases these chateaux are surrounded by  splendid gardens. Infact you could easily spend a day just in one of the gardens!

France-LoireValley-Chosen-3Given that we had limited time—it was a day trip from Paris on the TGV, we decided to focus on just two of them.  The first castle we visited was the Chambord.  With its majestic external façade,France-LoireValley-Chosen-56-Double helix staircasetowers and chimneys and grand windows decorated with fleurs-de-lys, the Chambord evokes the feeling of a medieval castle. Although it is a 16th century castle and was used intermittently by several kings from Francois I to Louis X1V, this sumptuous castle was never really lived in for a long time – just a mere twenty years in over 500 years.  The highlight of the castle is its wonderful façade with walkways made into long promenades leading from the royal apartments on one side to the chapel on the other.  Inside the castle is structured like a Greek Cross with several rooms on the arms of each cross.  A wonderful double spiral staircase is prominent in the center of the castle – allegedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci.  The double spiral is a clever construction and actually weaves in two separate staircases into one structure. When two people are using the staircases, you can see glimpses of each other and you feel like you will meet the person on the next landing but you really never so as they are completely separate staircases.

Another highlight for us was the wonderful gift shops near the Chambord offering different varieties of biscuits and tarts and cookies  with lots of free samples.  The free samples were an excellent idea because once we tasted a few , we just couldn’t leave without purchasing a whole lot more.  WE told ourselves that these were going to be gifts for our friends back home but we pretty much polished the whole lot off ourselves!

France-LoireValley-Chosen-33After gorging on cookies, we went wine tasting at the Caves du Pere Auguste winery near Castle Chenonceau, where the Godeu family have been winemakers for several generations.  We were warmly welcomed by the English speaking host and offered several wines to taste.  He described how the wines are named and the attributes of the wine that we were tasting very informally – even non wine connoisseurs like ourselves could relax and enjoy. It was a very pleasant experience:  the wines were wonderful and affordable and we even got to visit the vineyard and see the grapes.  We did one of their rose wines home as well.

Chenonceau Castle was our next stop. This gem of a castle is actually built on the river Cher and stretches from one end of the river to the other. This castle was actually the residence of several famous women inFrance-LoireValley-Chosen-50 history, It was actually the love nest of King Henry II (interesting titbit about him: he was the first to come up with the idea of a patent) and was the residence of his paramour Diane de Poitiers. It was also the residence of Henry II’s wife Catherine de’ Medici later on after the death of King Henry II. By castle standards it is rather a small castle but makes up for it by the way it is designed.  I especially loved the kitchen, which has steps that lead out  into the middle of the river.  The notes said that produce would arrive in barges and you just open the kitchen door to receive the goods.  The bedrooms have original tapestries and priceless 16th century furniture. They have tried to recreate the bedchambers of the women who lived here and it gives the whole place a curiously homey feeling that I didn’t get at the previous castle.  There are three well designed symmetrical square shaped formal gardens on either side and in front of the castle.  From these gardens you can really see how the castle straddles the river. The view from the castle of the formal gardens as well as the view from the formal gardens of the castle are simply breathtaking and that’s what made our visit worthwhile!

France-LoireValley-Chosen-55-Castle we passed byWe did get a wonderful glimpse of the French countryside while we were driving to these castles. I wish we had more time to really stop and enjoy the view but then we may not have ever reached the castles.  Driving on the banks of the river Loire, we could see several other chateaux (see Ambois in this photo) and vineyards and farmlands and valleys filled with wildflowers.  We drove through tiny picture perfect villages with narrow lanes, pretty houses all lined with beautiful flowers. There were so many Chataeux that it would take us more than a week to do justice to most of them but we were quite happy in getting a small taste of the castles. Not to mention that By the end of it, we were confused by the history of French monarchy with all of the multiple King Louis and King Henrys .  I wasn’t sure how they managed to rule the country when they spent all this time and money on building these wonderful chateaux.

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