France’s Loire: Valley of a Thousand Châteaux

By Rick Steves
Château de Chenonceau, Chenonceaux, France
Chenonceau, designed by women, has a striking setting and dramatic history. (photo: Robyn Stencil)

The Loire Valley, two hours southwest of Paris, offers France's greatest array of château experiences. Wander through sumptuous interiors, cared for by noble families who've lived there for centuries and still put out bouquets fit for a countess. View packs of carefully bred hounds yelping for red meat as they await their next chance to hunt. Standing on a rooftop the size of Notre-Dame amid countless chimneys, imagine you're the king's mistress watching proudly as your man's men flush the deer out of the woods and your Louis or Henry or Charles proceeds to shoot them dead. Paddle a canoe along a fairytale château that lopes gracefully atop an arcade over the Cher River. The challenge for any visitor: how to choose among the countless castle thrills of the Loire Valley.

The Loire Valley is carpeted with fertile fields, crisscrossed by rivers, and studded with hundreds of châteaux in all shapes and sizes. Medieval castles are here because the Loire was strategically important during the Hundred Years' War (when France and England battled through the 14th and 15th centuries). During the Renaissance, fortified castles were replaced by pleasure palaces as the Loire became fashionable among the Parisian rich and royal.

The Valley of a Thousand Châteaux is also the home to many good wines. As you travel through the Loire, look for dégustation (tasting) signs. Inquire at tourist centers for winery tour and tasting information. The towns of Vouvray and Chinon have many proud and hospitable family wineries.

While less than a thousand, there seem to be countless castles to choose from. Consider visiting the region's three most interesting châteaux: Chenonceau, Chambord, and Cheverny. Don't go overboard on château-hopping. Two châteaux, possibly three (if you're a big person), is the recommended daily dosage. These three can be visited in a day by car or local minibus tour:

The toast of the Loire, Chenonceau, is a 15th-century Renaissance palace arching femininely over the Cher River. One look and you know it was designed by women: Diane de Poitiers added the delightful arched bridge across the river. Mistress of Henry II, Diane enjoyed her lovely retreat until Henry died (pierced in a jousting tournament) and his vengeful wife, Catherine de' Medici, unceremoniously kicked her out (and into the nearby château of Chaumont). Catherine added a three-story structure atop Diane's bridge, giving the château its unique river bridge charm. She turned Chenonceau into the local aristocracy's place to see and be seen. Much later, in the twentieth century, Chenonceau marked the border between free and Nazi France in World War II. Dramatic prisoner swaps took place here. And now in the 21st century, it is a delight to explore.

More like a city than a castle, the château of Chambord is huge. Surrounded by a lush park with wild deer and boar, it was originally built as a simple hunting lodge for bored blue bloods. François I, using 1,800 workmen over 15 years, made a few modest additions and created this "weekend retreat." (You'll find his signature salamander everywhere.)

Don't miss Chambord's huge double-spiral staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo spent his last years as part of the French king's court and lived nearby on the Loire in Amboise (where you can tour a fascinating museum in his home).

Other Chambord highlights include its second-floor vaulted ceilings, enormous towers on all corners, a pin-cushion roof of spires and chimneys, and a 100-foot tall lantern supported by flying buttresses. To see what happens when you put 365 fireplaces in your house, wander through the forest of chimney spires on the rooftop. Only 80 of the 440 rooms are open to the public — and that's plenty.

The most lavish furnishings of all the Loire châteaux decorate the stately hunting palace of Cheverny. Those who complain that the Loire châteaux have stark and barren interiors missed this one. Today's château was built in 1634. It's been in the same family for nearly seven centuries. Family pride shows in its flawless preservation and intimate feel. The viscount's family still lives on the third floor — observant visitors will notice some family photos.

Cheverny was spared by the French Revolution, as the owners were popular then, as today, even among the poorer farmers. Barking dogs remind visitors that the viscount still loves to hunt, and the château's kennel is especially interesting during their one-daily feeding time. The trophy room next door bristles with 2,000 stag antlers.

When it comes to castle fun, France's Loire — the Valley of a Thousand Châteaux — steals the show.