A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
A highlight of any holiday in France is a visit to the elegant châteaux of the Loire river valley. This itinerary suggests a route for visiting the châteaux based on a logical sequence assuming you either begin or end your trip in Paris. There are over 1,000 châteaux along the River Loire between Nantes and Orléans, and over 100 are open to the public. For the purposes of this itinerary, the Châteaux Country stretches from Angers to Orléans. Most of the châteaux were built for love, not war, and they range from traditional castles and grandiose homes to romantic ruins: we try to paint a picture of what you will see when you tour each château. In our opinion the best are Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceaux. Be forewarned that in July and August you will be caught up in a crush of visitors.
Recommended Pacing: Any property along the driving route makes an ideal base for exploring the châteaux country. If you are going to spend just a few days and visit the most famous châteaux, select a place to stay at the heart of the region. If you plan an extensive visit to the valley and numerous châteaux, you might want to consider first stopping en route from Paris along the river to the northeast, then settle at its heart and, finally, continue on to its western outskirts. This region has a wealth of marvelous places to stay and they vary from small country farmhouses or inns to elegant, regal châteaux. In terms of how to pace your sightseeing-please do not try to visit all the châteaux we describe-it would be just too many for one trip. Rather, read our descriptions and choose those that appeal most to you. As we do not tell you how to get from château to château, we recommend Michelin maps 517 and 518 for outlining your route. Three nights in the region should give you all the time you need-one can visit only so many castles. Allow more if you are an avid fan of French furniture, French gardens, or the like, and want to explore properties in depth.
Many visitors spend time in Paris before coming to the Loire Valley and an excellent sightseeing venue on the way is Chartres, about an hour and a half southwest of Paris (97 kilometers). Chartres Cathedral towers high above the town and stands proud on the horizon. Light from three 13th-century stained-glass windows dapple the inside of the church with color. It’s a magnificent edifice and the old city surrounding the cathedral has been lovingly restored. It’s delightful to explore its old winding streets.
From Chartres the N10 takes you to Tours (130 kilometers, about a 2-hour drive). Located at the junction of the Cher and Loire rivers, Tours is a convenient starting point for our itinerary.
Begin your adventures in the Loire Valley by a visit to Langeais, one of the region’s smaller châteaux. Remarkably, it has not been altered since it was built between 1465 and 1471 for Louis XI as a defense against Bretons. It is beautifully furnished and wax figurines commemorate the royal wedding of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany, which took place on a cold December morning in 1491. On a nearby ridge are the ruins of a 10th-century stone donjon or keep, one of Europe’s first. This was a stronghold of the notorious Fulk Nerra the Black, Count of Anjou. (Open all year, tel: 02.47.96.72.60.)
Angers was the former capital of the Dukes of Anjou and is now a city full of factories with an old town and its 13th-century fortress at its heart. During the 16th century many of the 17 massive towers were dismantled, on royal command, to the level of the wall-walk. The castle has some spectacular displays of tapestries, including the Apocalypse Tapestry, the longest ever woven in France, displayed in a special gallery. It was originally 164 meters long but during the Revolution it was thrown over the walls into the street and citizens snipped bits off. In 1843 the bishop managed to repiece two-thirds of it and about 100 meters are on display. (Open all year, tel: 02.41.87.43.47.)
Saumur lies on the edge of the River Loire. Rising from the town are the walls of Saumur castle, a 14th-century fortification built atop a sheer cliff. (Tel: 02.41.40.24.40.)
For horse enthusiasts, on the outskirts of the city of Saumur is an internationally acclaimed equestrian center, L’École Nationale d’Équitation, and school for the famous riders and horses of the Cadre Noir. It is possible to take guided tours of the facility and observe the training. Riding events and staged performances are seasonal. (Open Apr 1 to Sep 30, Tues through Sat, tel: 02.41.53.50.60, www.cadrenoir.fr.)
Chinon is a huge crumbling fortress set high above the River Vienne, with a medieval town and tree-lined boulevard at its feet. Henry II of England died here, his son Richard the Lionheart owned it, King John lost it to the French, and Joan of Arc came here to plead with Charles VII for an army. It is an interesting walk around the skeleton of this fortification, but be prepared to fill in large chunks of the interior with your imagination. There is an interesting museum celebrating Joan of Arc. (Open all year, tel: 02.47.93.13.45.) Fax: 02.47.93.93.32
Ussé overlooks the River Indre and is everything you expect a château to be, with turrets, towers, chimneys, dormers, and enchantment. The house is completely furnished in period style, illustrating the way things were in the 16th and 17th centuries, complete with wax figurines dressed in period costume.
Magnificent Flemish tapestries grace the Great Gallery of the Château d’Ussé and while you are waiting for your guided tour (narrated in French with English description sheets), you can climb the tower whose turret rooms are furnished with scenes from Sleeping Beauty. Conjecture has it that Ussé was the château that inspired Perault to write the famous fairy tale. (Closed Nov to mid-Feb, tel: 02.47.95.54.05.)
Azay-le-Rideau and its elegant Renaissance château are not far from Ussé. Azay-le-Rideau’s graceful façade is framed by wispy trees and is reflected in its lake and the River Indre, from whose banks it rises on one side. It was built by Gilles Berthelot, the treasurer to Francis I between 1518 and 1527. Francis accused Gilles of fiddling the nation’s books and confiscated this ornate château. It was not until the 19th century that it was completed. You can accompany a knowledgeable guide on a detailed tour or explore on your own, walking from one showpiece room to the next, admiring the fine furniture and tapestries. This is one of our favorite châteaux. (Open all year, tel: 02.47.45.42.04.)
Villandry is known for its formal, geometric French gardens-even the paths are raked into designs. While you can tour the house, the real reason for visiting Villandry is to spend time in the gardens wandering along the little paths between the neatly clipped box hedges. Even the vegetable garden has been planted to produce geometric patterns. Be sure to capture the bird’s-eye view of this colorful quilt of a garden from the upper terrace. (Gardens open all year, house open mid-Feb to mid-Nov, tel: 02.47.50.02.09.)
Southeast of Montbazon is the town of Loches, found in the hills along the banks of the Indre, and referred to as the “City of Kings.” The ancient castle is the “Acropolis of the Loire;” the buildings around it form what is called Haute Ville. It was a favorite retreat of King Charles VII and here you will find a copy of the proceedings of Joan of Arc’s trial. The king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel, is buried in the tower and her portrait is in one of the rooms. (Open all year, tel: 02.47.59.07.86.)
Chenonceaux almost spans the River Cher and is without a doubt one of the loveliest of the Loire’s châteaux. This château owes a great deal to each of its six female occupants. Catherine Briconnet built Chenonceaux as a home, not a fortification, and sexy Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II, added a garden and the bridge between the house and the banks of the River Cher. When Henry died, his jealous wife, Catherine de Medici, took Chenonceaux back and consigned Diane to Château de Chaumont. Catherine had the gallery built on the bridge, laid out the park, and held decadent parties. She bequeathed her home to Louise de Lorraine, her daughter-in-law who, after her husband’s death, retired here and went into mourning for the rest of her life. In 1733 it passed to Monsieur Dupin whose intellectual wife was so beloved by the locals that it escaped the Revolution unscathed. In 1864 it was bought by Madame Peolouze who made it her life’s work to restore her home. The château is now the home of the Menier family. Chenonceaux merits a leisurely visit: you want to allocate at least two hours for wandering through the park, gardens, and its elegant interior. The grounds also contain a wax museum with scenes from the château’s history. (Open all year, tel: 02.47.23.90.07.) Fax: 02.47.59.01.36
Just a few kilometers north of Chenonceaux is the striking castle of Amboise. A tour of this large property will fill you with tales of grandeur, intrigue, and gruesome history. Francis I loved to party, reveling in grand balls, masquerades, festivals, and tournaments. He invited Leonardo da Vinci here and the artist spent his last years at the neighboring manor Clos Lucé. You can see his bedroom, models of machines he invented, and copies of his drawings. Catherine de Medici brought her young son Francis II and his young bride Mary, later Queen of Scots, to Amboise when the Protestants rose up after the Saint Bartholomew massacre. The Amboise Conspiracy of 1560 involved a group of Protestant reformers who followed the royal court from Blois to Amboise under the pretense of asking the king for permission to practice their religion. However, their plot was betrayed to the powerful Duke of Guise (Scarface) and upon arrival they were tortured, hung from the battlements, and left twisting in pain for days-the court and the royal family would come out to watch them. (Open all year, fax: 02.47.57.62.88.)
From Amboise follow the Loire to Chaumont, a château that has more appeal viewed from across the river than up close. Catherine de Medici was reputedly living here when her husband Henry II was killed and she became regent. She supposedly bought the château so that she could swap it with Diane de Poitiers (her husband’s mistress) for Chenonceaux. Diane found it did not match up to Chenonceaux and left-you can understand why. Later Benjamin Franklin paid a visit to sit for an Italian sculptor who had set up his headquarters in the stables. Approached across a drawbridge, the château has three wings-the fourth side was pulled down in 1739-opening up to a fine view of the Loire Valley. You can tour the apartments and the stables. (Open all year, tel: 02.54.51.26.26.)
Blois sits on the north bank of the River Loire. The Chamber of the States General and part of a tower are all that remain of the 13th-century fortification that occupied this site. Much of the magnificent edifice you see today is due to Francis I’s trying to keep his brother Gaston d’Orléans (who was always conspiring against him) out of trouble. In 1662 he banished him to Blois and gave him the project of restoring the château. Gaston hired the famous architect Mansart. The château has its stories of love, intrigue, and politicking, but its most famous is the murder of the Duke of Guise. In 1688 the powerful Henri de Guise called the States General here with the intention of deposing Henry III and making himself king. Henry found out about the plot and murdered the Duke. Who did what and where is explained in great detail on the tour. The most interesting room on the tour is Catherine de Medici’s bedchamber with its many secret wall panels, used in the true Medici tradition to hide jewels, documents, and poisons. (Open all year, tel: 02.54.90.33.33.)Fax: 02.54.90.33.31
Ten kilometers from Blois lies Château de Cheverny, built in 1634 for the Hurault family. It is smaller than Blois and Chambord and more interesting to tour because it still has its 17th-century decorations and furnishings. The Hurault family has carefully preserved their inheritance with its exquisite painted woodwork, tapestries, and furniture-in fact Cheverny is one of the most magnificently furnished châteaux in the Loire. One can also tour the acres of park by electric cart or by boat traveling the canals. Cheverny is also famous for its kennels. The grounds are home to 70 hounds and watching them patiently line up for dinner is a popular event. (Feedings: Apr to mid-Sep except Sat and Sun 5 pm, otherwise 3 pm except Tues and weekends.) In another outbuilding is a collection of 2,000 deer antlers, the family’s hunting trophies. (Open all year, tel: 02.54.79.96.29.)
Standing on a grassy expanse amidst vast acres of forest, Château de Chambord is enormous. Francis I built Chambord as a hunting lodge, but he believed that bigger was better so the vast edifice has 440 rooms and 80 staircases. Francis spent only 40 days at his huge home, which now has far less furniture than many other properties and is owned by the state. Apart from its impressive size and isolated location, Chambord’s most interesting feature is the double-spiral staircase in the center of the building. (Open all year, tel: 08.25.82.60.88.)
The last stretch along the Loire takes you to the lovely old town of Beaugency with its Nôtre Dame Church. A magnificent bridge with 22 arches spans the river. The French blew it apart in 1940 to delay the Germans, but it has been completely restored (the central arches are original) and provides an ideal viewpoint for looking at the river and this delightful little town with its narrow medieval streets.
Orléans is a modern town rebuilt after the destruction of World War II. This was the scene of Joan of Arc’s greatest triumph, when she successfully drove the English from France in 1429. There is little left for Joan of Arc fans to visit except her statue in Place Martoi.
From Orléans it is a 120-kilometer drive on the autoroute A10 back to Paris.