If you've read any of my other posts, then you'll know I love everything about France and French Culture. The people, the food, the landscape, the art and culture, just everything from this region makes me so happy. Whenever I get to go back and visit, I find myself so happy and grateful. There's really no boring or 'bad' place to visit in France, but when thinking about one of my favorite areas I have to talk specifically about the famous Loire Valley. A few years ago (right before COVID hit), I found myself at a conference in the U.K. with some colleagues who are also dear friends. After that conference we decided to road trip through France for a week as well. As luck would have it, one of my best friends (hello Mathieu!) was joining us, and is also French, so he was more than happy to lead the expedition! During that road trip we went to a lot of stunning places in Northern France, but one of my favorite regions was the Loire Valley, it was truly magical. Here's a quick recap of that trip and some of my tips for visiting the area.
But first and foremost, what makes the area in central France known as the Loire Valley so special?
Well, in my opinion it's a lot of things, maybe it's all of the stunning châteaux, the awe-inspiring countryside, or the delicious wine you'll find at every single location, but suffice it to say, there's a lot to be in awe of in this area. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Châteaux of the Loire Valley:
The Loire Valley has over 300 châteaux, many of which were built during the Renaissance. Going to just one will leave you in awe, but several are absolutely amazing and pure architectural feats of strength. If you're into architecture, interior design, or landscaping, you'll also have a field day simply wandering around each of these châteaux. There are so many to see, and honestly you can't go wrong with any of them, but here are some of the most famous (and a few of my mine as well):
Château de Chambord: This is one of the largest and most-visited châteaux in the Loire Valley, and one that will probably leave you speechless! In fact, over 700,000 people visit this château each year! The architecture and gardens are what bring people from all over the world. There are 356 turrets, chimneys, spires, and towers, the interior has 426 rooms, 77 staircases, and 282 fireplaces!
It was originally built by Francis I, who only spent about 72 days at the estate, and never saw it finished; however, his son Henry II, and Louis XIV continued to oversee construction throughout the years. In fact, Chambord was the last residence for Louis XIV before he began construction at the incomparable Versailles. Spend some time wandering the halls and see the rooms and different furnishings!
During the summer Chambord is illuminated at night, where special events are held. You can also tour the château and grounds, and explore the mini village leading up to this area, which include some cute little restaurants that I loved having a snack and glass of wine at!
Clos Lucé: Speaking of Francis I, he was a great admirer and patron to Leonardo da Vinci. Many historians say da Vinci was a sort of father figure to the young King Francis I. They were so close, Leonardo da Vinci actually came to France with Francis in 1515 and lived at Clos Lucé, which is near Francis' other Château d’Amboise, both of which are actually connected by an underground tunnel. When da Vinci died in 1519, some of his most prized paintings were with him at Clos Lucé, including the Mona Lisa, which were bought by Francis I, who was 25 at the time.
Château de Cheverny: This château is famous for its stunning interior, which includes an impressive collection of furniture, tapestries, and art, as well as the national center for hunting with hounds.
Château de Blois: This château is rich with history due to it being home to several French Kings including Francis I, Henry III, and Henry IV to name a few. Like most other châteaux in the area, it has amazing architecture and an impressive collection of art.
Château de Chenonceau: I don't like to pick favorites, but in this case I don't care lol. I'm a major history buff, and French history to be exact. I also love researching famous women throughout history and monarchs to be exact, so with that said, I can't leave château de Chenonceau off my list.
This château is built over the river Cher, and is known for its elegant design and beautiful gardens. It's absolutely stunning and pure magic, but I love the scandalous history behind it. It was owned by a succession of women, which may be why it has a more romantic aesthetic, compared to the massive Chambord.
Francis I seized the château due to unpaid debts to the crown. After his death in 1547, his son Henry II gave the château to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, who was an intellectually shrewd manager that wrote many procolmations for the King as well as signed jointly with him, while also being a great beauty. Diane loved the château and added a five-arch bridge to span the River Cher, which created a grand entryway to the castle, while also designing the elaborate gardens and orchards. Understandably so, Henry II's queen Catherine de'Medici hated Diane and was constantly in contention with her. When Henry II died, Catherine required Diane to give up her beloved Chenonceau and then moved in herself. Catherine continued to add to the estate, including transforming Diane's bridge into a a two story gallery promenade, resembling the Ponte Vecchio Bridge- a tribute to Catherine’s Medici family and the city of Florence.
Catherine also hosted fabulous parties here including the first ever display of fireworks in France in 1560, as well as the marriage between her son Francis II and Mary Queen of Scots.
After Catherine's death, Chenonceau was neglected and abandoned for over 100 years until the estate was purchased by Claude and Louise-Marie Dupin in 1733, who used her money to restore the estate and host Enlightenment philosophers of the day including Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Madame Dupin, was also very generous and much loved by the local villagers, and was protected during the Revolution. Many other estates including Chambord were looted and badly damaged during this time; however, Chenonceau was spared.
Chenonceau is available to visit, there's a nearby wax museum which has former residents of Chenonceau, and you can even rent canoes and kayaks in the surrounding areas on the River Cher. So yes, lots of history to see and experience at this amazing château <3
Château de Villandry: This château is famous for its stunning Renaissance gardens, which include several different styles of landscaping such as formal boxwood hedging, which are laid out in intricate geometric patterns. Truly a wonder to see!
Château d'Azay-le-Rideau: This château is known for its elegant design, and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and water features that project out into the Indre River. In fact, it is considered one of the finest examples of French architecture in the 16th century, built in 1518-29 by Gilles Berthelot.
Château de Fontainebleau: This is another famous château that's on par with some of the biggest and best. Only a few miles away from the Palace of Versailles, Fontainebleau boasts 1,500 rooms, a roof that spans 5 acres, and 230 acres of lakes and gardens. On top of this, no other site in France has served as a royal residence longer than Château de Fontainebleau and included monarchs from François I , Louis VII, Napoleon III, and Louis XVI. Napoleon 'Le Petit General' also spent the last days of his reign at the estate before leaving for exile on the island of Elba. It also has the only remaining throne in all of France that wasn't destroyed in the Revolution, and has a long history of housing various invading armies over the years. Fontainebleau was also a favorite of President Charles de Gaulle, who restored the estate, which finally became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
These are just a few of the many châteaux to see in the Loire Valley. Make time for the ones that matter to you (in my case it was Chenonceau because I love seeing history in person, oh and I'm also obsessed with Catherine de Medici), or you could make a road trip and see the ones that fall along your route, or near where you're staying. In any case, you'll be happy to stop and look around. I will note, that many of these (and especially the more famous ones) have tours and require at least a ticket to walk the grounds, so look up their operating hours ahead of time.
Wine, wine, and more wine! If you're in France you'll notice the French love their wine; however, if you're in the Loire Valley this is true tenfold. The Loire Valley is one of France's most important wine regions because it's known for producing a wide variety of famous wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Sancerre (my favorite), and Cabernet Franc to name a few. Thinking of visiting Chenonceau? Try the Touraine Wine; in Chambord, Blois and Clos Lucé, it's Cheverny Wine; Coteaux L'Aubance Wine in Angers (an amazing sweet white wine: http://www.montgilet.com/); and Chinon Wine near Fontevraud Abbey.
The cool (and longer growing season) climate allows this region to produce some of those super delicious crisp, acidic, white wines (my favorite) as well as full-bodied reds and sweet dessert wines as well. The diverse range of soil types and limestone gives the wine a unique character as well as the grape varieties that thrive here. Winemaker techniques in this region also practice hand harvesting, minimal intervention, and oak barrel aging processes to make those high-quality wines we love so much. Here's a great Loire Valley wine guide I found if you'd like to know more. You can also visit several wineries in the area including some of my favorites (thank you again Mathieu for the recommendations): near Amboise https://www.domainedutertre.fr/ and another here Domaine des forges.
Beyond the wine and the châteaux, the Loire Valley is also famous for its stunning landscape and beautiful countryside. You want rolling hills, rivers, and forests? You got 'em, or rather the Loire Valley's got 'em :) If you like great weather and outdoor activities like hiking, boating, and biking then this is the area in France to do that. The area is also home to many UNESCO World Heritage sites, so if you're a fellow lover of history, you'll have lots of options to see.
Where to Stay:
When we visited the Loire Valley, our main home base was in Tours, which is pretty centrally located in the Middle Loire Valley area, and was a short drive to most of the châteaux we wanted to visit. This town also hosts the annual Wine and Gastronomy Fair as well. I already wrote about our stay in another post, but I have to mention it again because it was just so cool!
We stayed in a troglodytic cottage, which is basically an apartment carved into the subterranean cave structure throughout this area. These used to be prehistoric dwellings known as 'Les Mysteres des Faluns." Apparently, this is a pretty unique thing to do in this area, to explore these caves that are all over the Loire Valley. If you have time, you should definitely check them out. It was such a unique place and was actually cool in the summer because of the natural 'air conditioning' produced by the cool rocks, and in the winter the rock serves as natural insulation. This was a completely natural habitat but had been renovated with modern comforts, truly one of my favorite places I've ever stayed.
You can find lots of accommodations in many of the different towns and villages along the way. But I've got to pause here and say that although there are many different types of accommodations and quaint little places to stay in the Loire Valley, one of the most unique (and I have to say magnificent) options is to stay in one of the châteaux themselves! Yes! Several châteaux in the Loire Valley offer accommodations, ranging from 5-star luxury hotels, to more budget-friendly options. Here's a terrific website that lists some of the most popular options for châteaux accommodations. Staying in a chateau can be a unique and unforgettable experience, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the region's history and culture.
And that's about it, there's so much more to the Loire Valley than I can possibly fit into one blog post, but here it is. I love this country and this area in particular. When you're visiting the famous Château de Chambord, Château de Chenonceau, or Château de Cheverny to learn about their history and architecture, exploring nearby towns like Amboise, Tours, Saumur, or Chinon, going wine tasting, exploring the beautiful countryside, forests and caves in the area, or even just passing through the local market to make yourself a picnic, the Loire Valley is the place for all of that. A little bit of aristocratic châteaux, mixed with delicious food and wine, all wrapped up in stunning landscapes seems like heaven on earth to me.
As always, thanks for following along. I hope this blog and these posts bring you some joy and help plan your next trip. I'd love to hear your thoughts or comments in the section below. Happy travels!