Nowhere is the sheer opulence of French life in centuries past more apparent than in the chateaux of the Loire Valley. Each year, more than 3.3 million travelers visit the 42 chateaux that comprise the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, there are more than 300 chateaux scattered across the Valley. It’s no surprise that the region is the nation’s second-biggest tourist attraction behind Paris.
Most of the chateaux were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. They offered royalty and noblemen a welcome escape from Parisian politics. Over Bastille Day weekend, they offered 26 Expat Club members a romantic glimpse into the past.
We were ready to start on a “chateaux sampler,” discovering the magic and mystery of these elegant edifices. Our luxury coach arrived at Schuman to whisk us from Brussels to Blois. The trip was a bit longer than usual due to holiday traffic. However, by mid-afternoon, we reached Blois, a beautiful hillside city that lies along the Loire River in central France. It was the perfect base for discovering French chateaux.
After settling into the Hotel Mercure Blois, Claire, our vivacious and well-informed guide, took us on an inspirational and educational walk through the cobblestone streets of the city. Before heading to the castle that was once home to seven kings and 10 queens, we toured the historic city. Quaint, half-timbered, stone buildings and beautiful townhouses flanked the narrow, cobblestone alleys. While many of the buildings date back to the 1500s, some actually date back to the 12th century!
High above the Loire
We strolled to the hilltop, pausing to gaze at the historic buildings and sites on our way to the rose gardens of the Terrasses de l’évêché. The sweet aroma of blooming flowers and the vibrant colors were captivating.
Above us stood a statue of Joan of Arc, commemorating where she went for a blessing by the Archbishop of Reims before driving the English from Orleans. Further up the hill, the late-Gothic Blois Cathedral towered majestically over the city.
Views over the Loire River were impressive! Of course, we stopped for photos!
A Few Surprises
Heading back into the center of town, we walked above the iconic Blois staircase, which leads to the main shopping area. The city stairs look like any others from above, but from below, we had a surprise!
Hundreds of small, colored stickers cover the stairs. The result: a giant portrait of the Mona Lisa. Cameras instantly appeared to capture this urban art. It is part of the city’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance. What an amazing transformation, which you’d never suspect looking down from above.
A Royal Residence
We headed to the Château Royal de Blois after our city tour, climbing a long, stone staircase from the streets below. This chateau has a rich pedigree. It began its life as a feudal palace. The chateau offers a glimpse of royal life centuries ago, from its 13th-century main hall to a mid-15th-century gallery to the exquisite Louis XII wing that marks the move from the Gothic to Renaissance era. The external, octagonal stone staircase, which spirals upwards for five stories, is especially impressive.
You can easily see four, clear architectural styles here, from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.
Inside the chateau, we discovered ornately furnished rooms with rich furnishings, lush fabrics and exquisite paintings. Wallcoverings, decor and flooring were colorful, rich and eye-catching.
After our Blois Castle visit, we enjoyed free time for dinner. Then, we explored the town before returning to the Castle for an impressive late-night sound and light show.
Day two meant more adventure and more castles! Château de Cheverny, one of the largest chateaus in the Loire Valley, was first on the list. It almost looks new, thanks to the gleaming white stone that was harvested from the Cher Valley quarries.
This stunning chateau has stayed in the same family for more than six centuries. It is still inhabited by descendants of the Huralt family: Marquis and Marquise de Vibraye. Looking for Princess or Prince charming? Some of the young royals are still single!
All in the family
Just to give you some history on the chateau, it was built in the 16th century and given to Diana de Poitiers, King Henry II’s mistress. She later sold it to the son of the previous owner and his wife. Their son, Henri Hurault, and his wife Marguerite Gaillard of La Morinière, constructed the castle between 1624 and 1630 with the assistance of an architect who also worked on the Castle de Blois.
The interior was completed around 1650 by Élisabeth, Marquise de Montglas. In 1825, Anne-Victor Hurault, Marquis de Vibraye, bought the property of his ancestors.
We walked through the palatial home before discovering the green, tranquil gardens. Watch out, though. You can get caught in the tricky maze behind the chateau! Luckily, I found my way out with just two minor detours. Not all the visitors were that lucky on Saturday morning.
Calling the Canines
The castle of Cheverny has been open to the public since 1922 and welcomes nearly 350,000 visitors every year. One of the special attractions of the castle is the daily feeding of the hounds. More than a hundred hunting dogs charged to the feeding troughs for a late breakfast as hundreds of onlookers watched. I made friends with a few of the four-legged ambassadors before their lunch and watched as others got a few kisses from the canines, too.
Off to Chenonceau
Our next stop was Château de Chenonceau. Exquisite is the word that best describes this amazing residence, a late Gothic and early Renaissance masterpiece. It’s the most visited private chateau in France next to Versailles. And it’s my personal favorite!
Upon arrival, we were treated to an amazing lunch in the château’s gourmet dining restaurant. What was on the menu? A tantalizing salad was followed by a pork steak and a baked Alaska dessert with ice cream in a meringue shell.
The Ladies Castle
Our guide explained that this was a chateau led by an uninterrupted succession of women! They were the ones responsible for building, designing, protecting and restoring it. It has a special feminine feel with lots of intricate design and flowers.
The first building on the site was a medieval château dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Thomas Bohier and his wife, Catherine Briçonnet built the current chateau between 1513 and 1517.
After lunch, we toured the chateau, discovering its collection of tapestries, furnishings and paintings by some of the greatest European painters of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries!
This chateau celebrates women of history through architecture and design. A bright white exterior facade is augmented by lavish, flower-filled interiors. This year, the chateau marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Queen Catherine de Medici, the builder queen, who is credited with for the chateau’s style and design. In her honor, Gardens were ablaze with black and white flowers.
This chateau also has played another role in 20th-century history. It served as a military hospital during wartime and as a refuge for those escaping the Nazi regime.
Ah, but our discovery of luxurious castles was far from over. Next on the agenda was Château d’Amboise, a medieval fortress dating from the dawn of the Renaissance. It features an impressive collection of Gothic and Renaissance furniture from the French Renaissance.
Kings of France Charles VIII and Francis I reigned here, and many of Europe’s top artists and writers visited the chateau, including Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci worked in the nearby Los Luce, which was connected to the chateau by an underground passage. Da Vinci actually lies in rest at the Chapel of Saint Hubert at the chateau. Some of us took advantage of our free time to visit da Vinci’s home, just a short walk from the castle. The home pays homage to the genius of da Vinci with an art studio, scientific room, gardens and life-size models of some of his inventions. Impressive, to say the least! You’ll see some of his inventions in the garden below the house, including interesting bridges.
Amboise History Lesson
Château d’Amboise was seized in 1434 by Charles VII of France after its owner Louis d’Amboise, Viscount of Tours was convicted of plotting against Louis XI and condemned to death. While the king pardoned him, he took over the Château d’Amboise. It was a favorite of French kings from Louis XI to Francis I. In 1492. Charles VIII rebuit the chateau with help from two Italian mason builders. The builders added Renaissance decorative motifs, helping make it the first Italianate palace in France.
King Francis I grew up at Amboise, which belonged to his mother. Henry I and Catherine de’ Medici raised their children at the chateau, as did Mary Stuart, the young Queen of Scotland who was betrothed to Francis II.
Bastille Day in Blois
Filled with new insights on French history, we headed back to Blois for an early Bastille Day celebration. Much to our surprise, the city had a parade of men in uniform, firefighters and police. Fireworks rivaling any major city’s holiday celebration followed.
Before we knew it, Sunday morning had arrived. Before heading back to Brussels, we had one last stop: Château du Chambord, the grandest chateau of all. King Francois I created this magnificent edifice at the dawn of the French Renaissance as a hunting lodge. It’s a castle fit for a king with architecture rivaling Versailles. There are 426 rooms, 83 staircases and 282 fireplaces, and a roofline with a wide variety of towers and turrets. Yes, we learned lots of fascinating facts.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site calls the site “the architectural equivalent of the Mona Lisa.” The incredible double-helix staircase is just one reason. It is a world-renowned, architectural marvel!
Expat Club travelers broke into two groups, each taking a different side of the staircase. We ascended the stone stairs without meeting , marveling at the design. We could see each other through openings along the way but never met on the stairs. Incredible!
On the first floor, we toured the royal furnished apartments and the 17th-century chamber, 18th-century bedchambers and guest bedrooms. We only saw a tiny fraction of the castle.
On the second floor, we discover vaulted rooms with barrel-vault ceilings bearing emblems of King Francois I and hundreds of salamanders bearing his initials.
We climbed to the top for spectacular vistas from the terrace roof. More photo ops! The castle lies on a parcel of park land measuring about 5,500 hectares (13,590 acres) and is surrounded by a 31-kilometre wall.
After a walk through the gardens, a look in the market area and a quick lunch, we headed back to our bus for the return to Brussels, feeling like we had a brush with royal life. We can’t wait for our next adventure!