Loire Valley Pictures
Chateaux and Loire River, France
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Best château overall: Château de Chenonceau, aka 'Ladies Castle', Loire Valley, France.
The lush and lovely Loire Valley, just a couple of hours southwest of Paris, was discovered by French royalty in the middle ages as a fertile hunting ground and soon became a competitive building site for extravagant hunting lodges and ever-more fantastic castles.
Now known as the 'Garden of France', the Loire Valley - actually more of a massive flood plain for the largest river in the country - is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its 'exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities and villages, great architectural monuments - the Châteaux - and lands that have been cultivated and shaped by centuries of interaction between local populations and their physical environment, in particular the Loire itself.'
Our favourite chateau in region is Château de Chenonceau (photo above), a magnificent creation both inside and out offering varied attractions - from spectacular room furnishings to canoeing on the River Cher underneath the chateau, wandering the 16thC farm and its massive kitchen garden, and admiring formal gardens designed by Catherine Medici.
Best crazy gardens: Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire and its Chaumont International Garden Festival.
The Loire Valley is still - in spite of its attractions - a delightfully spacious and undeveloped region of sunflower fields, vineyards, massive green forests and over 300 chateaux, a place so large and full of interest that it can absorb many thousands of tourists daily without seeming crowded even in peak season, though some castles do get a bit hectic, notably magnificent Chenonceaux, our personal favourite.
The Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire (photo above) is easy to reach from the central Loire Valley and has not only embraces a fairy-tale appearance but also an unusual and fascinating International Garden Festival, le Festival International des Jardins, that runs annually from the end of April to mid-October.
Best interior: Château de Cheverny, with its stunning, authentic renaissance décor.
Best formal gardens: The amazing conceptual geometry of Château de Villandry.
Villandry's interior is unexceptional other than an odd Ottoman room with golden ceiling, but the Renaissance gardens are outstanding - large, varied, conceptually fascinating, brilliantly executed and well worth the modest entrance fee.
Best Loire Valley town: (tho' admittedly we didn't see many!) Tours.
The spectacular old centre of Tours city is at the heart of the Loire's most striking collection of châteaux. The new town ain't bad either and fast trains and slow planes all arrive here so this makes a great base/starting point for Loire Valley exploration. Alternatively, closer to the châteaux action and smaller are Blois and Amboise towns.
Most impressive exterior: The much-visited Château de Chambord, largest of all Loire castles but actually just a hunting lodge (with over 400 rooms). Incredible exterior, less exciting interior.
The Château de Chambord began as a hunting lodge in 1519 foryoung King Francois I, but became gradually more excessive, ending up with 426 rooms, 77 staircases and plenty of innovative Italian architecture, including a bizarre double spiral staircase that was probably designed by Francis' good buddy, Leonardo da Vinci.
Most disappointing: The popular Château royal d'Amboise failed to impress the bugcrew. Cute town though...
The grounds of Amboise are limited and dull, the interior uninspiring and fixtures and fittings of little interest. We give the place a resounding zero on the must-do meter, the Loire wooden spoon.
Best activity, cycling: Terrific, almost flat Loire River cycle paths but also gorgeous drives for those of a more slothful disposition.
La Loire à Vélo is one of the best: a network of 650km carefully created cycle trails that threads through the château-rich campagne of the Loire Valley. It enables visitors to see the region at the ideal pace, while preserving the planet and getting fit. Using a combination of lightly used minor roads, woodland tracks and dedicated bike paths, the network allows you to explore in safety and serenity.
Château royal de Blois, an interesting mix of classic French architecture with quirky detailing.
Château de Blois is a Loire Valley curiosity as it is built in four distinctly different and evolving French architectural styles ranging from the oldest, 13th century Gothic, to Flamboyant, to Renaissance and finally the newest, least attractive and partially unfinished French Classical lump, similar to many Parisian buildings.
Blois is not one of the big names but it offers unique architecture and detailing,
interesting rooms, a huge collection of art works and - best of all - free and fascinating multi-lingual talks in the central courtyard.
Leonardo da Vinci's last home, Château du Clos-Lucé and fun-for-kids garden scattered with inventions.
Château du Clos Lucé, built in 1471 is much smaller than other Loire châteaux but its main attraction is as the final home of the world's greatest artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was invited to live here in 1516 by his number one fan, King Francis I and travelled to the Loire by mule across the Alps along with several of his disciples and a servant.
These are the chateaux, towns and main sights that the bugcrew visited over a week during July.
There are many more attractions that will have to wait till next time such as the superb medieval town and cathedral of Chartres (better than the Notre Dame apparently, uncrowded and just one hour from Paris by fast train), the similarly historic town of Bourges, taking a wine tour of Loire vineyards with plenty of tasting and someone else driving (the whites are especially notable), and of course checking out a few hundred more chateaux!
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