The 5 Most Magnificent Castles of the Loire Valley, France
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The fairy-tale châteaux of the Loire Valley were built during the Renaissance era and stretch between the cities Orléans and Angers along the Loire river or its tributaries. These impressive castles are a must visit when exploring Northern France. Nowhere else in the world is there such an ensemble of majestic monuments of fortune and history. Overwhelming is an understatement when describing these castles. Here is our list of the 5 most beautiful Loire Valley châteaux.
Chambord has the most distinctive French Renaissance architecture and is the largest of the castles on the Loire Valley. Chambord was built as a hunting lodge for King Francis I. It was constructed over a 28-year period from 1519 to 1547. This château is one of the best examples of French opulence to the extreme with minimal functionality. The towers, moat, and walls are all for decoration – never meant for defense. The distinct roof-line contains a modest 282 chimneys. The château's 440 rooms rarely ever contained furniture. And in total, Francis I, only spent 8 weeks at this extravagent castle. The main architectural highlight of the castle is the interior double spiral staircase in the center. It was designed so that two people can go down at the same time without ever seeing each other.
Due to its size and sparse furniture, the castle rarely feels crowded. It is truly stunning and a must visit. While some parts of the inside do not match up with expectations set from the grandiose facade, there is so much to explore. Admission includes a remarkable old royal carriage exhibit which is not to be missed. Due to the massive size, half a day is needed to make your way fully around the castle. In the surrounded area there are a few restaurants and ice cream counters to enjoy a meal before or after your tour.
You don't go to Villandry for the Château, you go for the gardens! That doesn't mean the Château itself isn't impressive. Built in 1536, this Renaissance-style castle was the work of Jean le Breton, the Minister of Finances under King Francis I, who laid out the gardens inspired by the design of many Italian Renaissance gardens. During the French Revolution, the property was confiscated by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the meticulous care for the gardens was not kept up. Finally, in 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property and devoted time and money into repairing and expanding the gardens based on their original blueprints. The gardens are still owned by the Carvallo family.
These impressive gardens feature vegetable gardens, four box hedge gardens with symbolic themes, a water garden full of fountains, a herb garden, fruit trees, and a large pond. While the gardens are especially impressive in Summer, if you are coming in the off-season it is still worth a visit. We opted for only touring the gardens, rather than pay for the additional price for seeing the inside of the castle. Believe it or not, you can get tired of seeing castles after a while. The gardens are in a league of their own and well worth the drive!
Cost: 7€ gardens only, 11€ chateau + gardens
Built right above the Loire river, Château d'Amboise was one of the favorite royal residences. It was seized in 1434 by Charles VII of France and was passed down through the Kings. It was rebuilt and expanded by Charles VIII starting in 1492 and involved both French and Italian architects. King Francis I invited Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise, who lived and worked at the nearby Clos Lucé estate, which was connected to the castle by an underground passage. Da Vinci was buried at Amboise castle and his tomb can be found inside the castle's chapel. Several centuries later and following the French Revolution, the castle was left abandoned and in severe disrepair. Only a part of the original castle has survived and maintained.
While little of the original castle remains, there is still so much to enjoy. From the balconies, you can take in the impressive landscape including the Loire and the village of Amboise below. There are many interesting artifacts and a peaceful terraced garden. The city of Amboise is a great place to make a base for your trips out to the other chateau throughout the Loire valley. Seeing the whole chateau and grounds will only take an hour or two, making it a good castle to visit in combination with one of the larger castles in the area. One of our favorite experiences while in the Loire Valley was to take a hot air balloon ride over the Loire and the Amboise castle. You truly appreciate all the Loire Valley has to offer from impressive castles to vineyards and sweeping forests.
Probably the most visited château in all France, Chenonceau is nicknamed the Ladies' Château, due to the influential women that resided there and contributed to its final design. The first part of the castle built in 1513 overseen by Katherine Briçonnet, the wife of a King Charles VIII's Chamberlain. The castle was later seized by the King in 1535, and King Henry II eventually gave it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Diane insisted on adding onto the castle and stretching it across the river Cher. She also oversaw the planting of the extensive gardens. The later residences of the castle include Queen Catherine de' Medici (who added more gardens), Henri IV's mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées, Louise Dupin, and Marguerite Pelouze. The castle has had a rich recent history as well, used as a hospital ward in World War I and bombed during World War II.
Chenonceau, being one of the most visited châteaux, was the most crowded, but for good reason. This castle is an architectural jewel that is well maintained and surrounded by lovely French-style gardens and woodland paths. Nearly all the rooms have beautiful fresh flower arrangements and ornate furniture. Opt for the audio guide to provide background into the extensive history of this castle and the rooms you visit. To beat the crowds, arrive either when it first opens or in the afternoon. We rode bikes from Amboise to the castle and arrived in the afternoon and found manageable crowds. There is a self-service (cafeteria-style) cafe on site with tasty and reasonably priced meals or snacks.
Cost: 14€, 18€ with audioguide
Welcome to Sleeping Beauty's castle. Whether you are a Disney fan or not, anyone can see why the fairytale writer Charles Perrault and Walt Disney were inspired by Château d'Ussé. It was converted into a Renaissance château from a middle age fortress beginning in the 15th century by Jean V de Bueil. As centuries went by, many more renovations were made, often changing to the popular style at the time and becoming more of a residence. It has still remained a private residence for the family of the Duke of Blacas.
We affectionately named this the dummy castle, due to a large number of mannequins dressed in costumes scattered throughout. They outline the story of Sleeping Beauty with these mannequins in one tower of the castle and use mannequins in others parts to bring the rooms to life. On the grounds, there is also a chapel, wine caves, stables, and a greenhouse to visit. This is a great castle to visit if you have children in tow.
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