And Then There Were Castles – Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is covered in castles, and after my inadvertent indentured servitude, I set out to see several. With dozens of castles, how do you choose?! 42 chateaux make up this UNESCO World Heritage area.
Without a car, I was reliant on either a tour, trains, or buses, so for my first foray into fairytaleland, I opted for a tour. I usually avoid them, but this was a small tour of just 8 in a mini-bus, which stopped at 3 castles, or chateaux, as the French call them, along with lunch at a small local spot. No prince or glass slippers, but some amazing art, architecture and gardens!
We first toured Blois, built in 1214 by a count, which combines 4 different wings, each corresponding to a different period and style – Gothic, Flamboyant, Renaissance and Classicism. We saw furnishings typical of the periods, including beautiful tapestries, and got to play queen for a day, or at least for a moment…
Next stop, Cheverny, which has been in the same family for more than 6 centuries. The descendants still live here in one of the wings. It’s been described as an “enchanted palace,” and you can see why. The interiors are lavish, full of elaborate furnishings and artworks, a castle worthy of Cinderella herself.
An interesting fact about this period is that people slept sitting up – the lying flat position was reserved for the dead. Also, people were afraid of swallowing their tongues!
Last on the tour was Chambord, initiated by King Francis I in 1519, who was only 25 years old at the time. It was intended as a hunting lodge, but grew to chateau proportions, with 426 rooms, including 282 fireplaces and 77 staircases. One of those staircases, in the center of the chateau, is a famous double spiral that links all 3 floors. It’s 2 concentric spiral flights of stairs, independently winding around a central column. Two people can each take a different flight, and can see each other through the openings, but will never meet. It is suggested that Leonardo DaVinci himself may have been involved in the design.
The tour was full of history, about kings and religious wars and assassinations, and royal cousins marrying royal cousins, and how cold the castles were. Personally, I’d much rather have a small cosy cottage than a big elaborate drafty chateau, but then that’s just my preference. They’re certainly lovely to look at, and attending a lavish ball might be kind of fun!
Then there’s Villandry, known for its elaborate gardens, and they truly are magnificent! Full of hedges and mazes, lavender and roses, they are carefully planned out each year to create a painting of plants, with complementary colors and textures. I was glad I took the bus there so I could spend as many hours as I wanted, wandering the grounds.
Stunningly beautiful lavender beds studded the landscape, with 2 kinds of lavender. I didn’t pick any, of course, but I rubbed a little between my fingers to smell, and it was so lovely, one of the few strong scents that doesn’t give me migraines.
I walked up through the area they call Belvedere, through the shady woods, all by myself, except for birds chirping & some small creature scurrying through the underbrush, and I also walked to the sun garden, where I took close up shots of brightly colored flowers, with a strange creature buzzing around the round yellow flower heads. It was too big to be a bee, although it behaved like one, buzzing from blossom to blossom. It had a thick gray body, small reddish-orange wings, and a long proboscis like a hummingbird! It was eventually identified by a friend in California, via Facebook, as a hummingbird hawk moth.
The interior of Villandry is also worth exploring. The chateau was built around 1536, the last of the great castles built along the Loire River in the Renaissance. You can view many elaborately decorated rooms, as well as the only rustic room, the kitchen.
But I have to say, it’s the gardens that truly steal the show at Villandry – the Ornamental Garden, the Woods, the Water Garden, the Sun Garden, the Maze, the Herb Garden, and the Vegetable Garden, a living rainbow tapestry.
I’d been to Chenonceau, many years before, in fact had painted a scene viewed from it’s bridge. It was so stunning that I had to go back, and it was just as beautiful as I’d remembered it, with its arched gallery spanning the river, once a place where balls were held, and with rose trees dotting the grounds in front of the castle and tower.
Chenonceau is known as the “women’s castle,” as it is the only one that was built, decorated, inhabited and saved by women.
In 1547, King Henri II gave Chenonceau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, 20 years his senior, much to the dismay of his wife. When he was killed in a jousting tournament, Catherine de’ Medici, his widow, wanted Chenonceau back, and eventually got it, but only by trading a more valuable property. Diane was not invited to the King’s funeral.
Boats lie tied to the dock waiting for passengers to take them for a row on the river…
…and if you’re lucky, you may even see a conservator restoring a painting inside.
Furnishings here are fittingly elaborate, and you can tour everything from the kitchens to the bedrooms to the wine cellar.
If you aren’t castled out by now, make sure to make a stop at Chateau du Clos Luce, home of Leonardo daVinci in his later years, by invitation of the king. Built in 1471, it was a royal residence of the Kings of France for two hundred years. In 1516, King Francois I invited Leonardo to Clos Luce, as “First painter, architect and engineer of the King.” He was given residence, a large allowance, and his works were financed. All the King asked for in return was “the pleasure of hearing him talk.”
At the age of 64, Da Vinci crossed the Alps on a mule, bringing with him 3 of his favorite paintings, including the Mona Lisa. You can see where he slept and dined, and his chapel, as well as several of his amazing inventions. He truly was a genius and Renaissance man.
The extensive grounds are also worth a visit, including the garden and the dovecot, where 1000 boulins, or niches, can each hold a pair of pigeons.
Princes may be in short supply, and glass slippers too uncomfortable to wear while walking, but the castles in the Loire Valley make for a land of fairytales, and are worth spending several days to explore.