Feature Travel Archives

France: Exploring the Chateaux of the Loire Valley

By Patricia E. Keegan

Traveling through France’s ever-changing countryside brings unexpected pleasures. For like no other country in the world -- thanks to the French Impressionists -- we have prior knowledge of its exquisite landscape. The colors of the French landscape evoke memories of the first time I stood in a doorway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by the works of Monet, Renoir, Morisot and Pissarro. Without moving, I looked from one to the other in awe; I felt as though I was being transported to a new plateau of awareness.

Throughout the Loire Valley, a myriad of vivid images unfold, all familiar subjects from the Impressionist era. Along country roads and byways nothing has changed. The barns, the golden fields, the villages look the same as the late 19th century. The passage of time has only measured by the changing light between sunrise and sunset when those great masters, were able to capture the image of an object, as one would see it if they caught just a glimpse. Without detail, but with bold colors, they showed the transient effects of light and color, thereby connecting our souls to the land in an eternally new way.

From Paris to Amboise

From Charles de Gaulle Airport, my husband and I drove our rented Peugeot to Amboise, a small town on the Loire several hours south of Paris. Always endeavoring to travel light, we made do with two carry-on bags and a large manila envelope filled with maps and books -- enough information to comb the countryside from north to south. All we really needed was a good map and the excellent travel guide: French Hotels, Inns and Other Places by British writer Allister Sawaday.

Although the drive was long, especially after a sleepless night crossing the Atlantic, it was worth every mile when we caught sight of our first French chateau (castle), the beautiful chateau of Amboise. Situated high on a bluff overlooking the Loire River, rooftops and graceful bridges, it’s no wonder that this was Catherine de Medici’s favorite home.

A Brief History of the Chateaux of the LoireValley

Exploring the chateaux of the Loire opens our minds to an historic era from 1418 to 1517 when the earliest influences of the French Renaissance began to take root, but didn’t actually flourish until the 16th century. To visit this region and see, first-hand, the breathtaking beauty, the variety of immense structures, the great works of art, the bountiful treasures, and to follow in the footsteps of a string of historic characters including Joan of Arc and Louis XIV, is a giant step toward cultural enrichment.

It was purely by chance that in 1418, during the Hundred Year’s War, the dauphin of France, (the future Charles VII), fleeing from hoards of Burgundians, found a refuge in Bourges, thus beginning the lavish history of the Loire Valley as the location of royal residence. Each king was subsequently attracted by the Loire’s mild climate and sunny days, as they constructed royal chateaux along the river.

When the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, and the model of a nation came to the forefront, members of the House of Valois, returning from the wars in Italy, found that ideas of 'residence' and 'court' were no longer the same. Their castles, until then little more than crude strongholds, had lost their 'raison d’être.' A new era of peace was beginning and, with the invention of artillery, the seemingly impregnable walls were now merely fragile screens.

Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I all played roles in assimilating the Italian model in which royal power was no longer measured by armed might, but by elegance, ostentation and pride in culture. The wealthy spent daily life immersed in luxury, outdoing each other in spectacular flamboyance and being noticed. The influence of Italian culture had breached French society. When Charles VIII returned from Naples in 1495, Italian artists followed. Medieval fortresses were opened up and light was finally allowed to enter. Along with the art of living well, gardening became a new art form. The chateaux softened their overpowering magnitude by adding fountains, ornamental waterworks, and sculpted hedges alternating with colorful flowerbeds. All this becomes spectacularly alive for visitors to the Loire Valley today, which has a total of 25 magnificent chateaux.

Amboise -- Burial Site of Leonardo da Vinci

Climbing to the highest turret of the royal chateau of Amboise, and looking across the steep, slanted rooftops to the winding ribbon of the silvery Loire, it’s not hard to see why this was the favorite abode of many kings. It was Charles VIII, from 1483 -1498, who gradually changed Amboise into a dwelling suitable for the tastes and needs of his royal guests. In the following years, arts and letters were held in high esteem. Then tragedy befell the young King Charles, whose health had been fragile since he returned from Italy. He hit his head on a low doorway as he was taking his Queen, Anne of Brittany, to watch a ball game. He died a few hours later. A year later Anne married Louis XII and moved to Paris. Amboise was idle from 1499 -1515 until Francis I succeeded to the throne. Along with a new vibrancy, he brought one of the greatest artistic geniuses of all time, his friend, Leonardo da Vinci. Francis I, with the help of Leonardo, developed the style and grace, not only of Amboise, but also of his other chateaux: Blois, Chambord and Fountainbleau.

Leonardo lived in Amboise for four years where his talents flourished. He organized sumptuous fetes and royal ceremonies that included the baptism of the dauphin and the famous wedding design for Lorenzo de Medici. Although he had only lived in Amboise for four years, his actual residence was in Close-Luce near Amboise. In 1519 he died there, reportedly in the arms of Francis I, who had hastened to his bedside. As requested in his last testament, he was buried in Amboise.

A vist to the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, in the Chapelle Saint Hubert overlooking city and countryside, feels like an honor. The lovely chapel looks like a miniature cathedral with vivid stained glass windows, a small nave, and fireplaces in each arm of the transept.

Traveling Along the Loire

From Amboise we headed west to the heart of chateau country, our goal was to visit as many as possible in our allotted six days. Opting for the scenic route, we traveled across flat land, through small, quiet villages without a living soul in sight. The character of the village’s starkly simple buildings, with steep slated rooftops, was softened by the splash of color from flower boxes in windows. Our directions took us across wooden bridges and down country lanes until we arrived at Le Moulin de Saint Jean, recommended in Sawaday’s book as a 'deliciously watery home.'

Le Moulin is a restored mill on its own small island, where the old mill wheel churns the water all day long. We met the proprietor, Sue, in the cozy kitchen where she was busily preparing the evening meal. Out appetites were stirred by the tantalizing aroma of baked breads and apple pies wafting around her. A warm, open-hearted English women, Sue, with her partner Andrew, discovered the mill in its unique and charming setting while traveling through France on holiday. It was for sale. They fell in love with the mill and its surroundings and, a few months later, returned bag and baggage from England, bought it and moved in.

Dinner was superb, shared at a long table with eight other guests, ranging from a college professor to a cross-country cyclist, all British. The atmosphere at Le Moulin is relaxed and casual. The house and its six guestrooms exude a welcoming, homelike feeling.

Le Moulin de St Jean offers Bed and Breakfast for 72-84 Euros, no credit cards accepted. Dinner, including aperitif, wine, coffee and dessert is just 25 Euros.

The Spectacular Gardens of Villandry

Taking the helpful suggestions of John, the English professor, we headed towards Villandry, first of the three major chateaux we wanted to visit. The other two, Chenonceau and Chambord, are the most famous and largest of the 25.

Villandry is an elegant Renaissance chateau standing not far from the Loire; the site where King Henry II of England, and Phillip Agustus, King of France, met to discuss their differences on July 4, 1189. A few centuries later it became the property of Jean le Breton, an architect and minister for Francis I. In 1536 the King put Jean le Breton in charge of construction of the royal palaces of Fountainbleau and Chambord, as well as Villandry. At Villandry he set out to build a palace just the opposite of the foreboding feudal castles.

After razing older structures, a new plan was designed in a U-shape around a court of honor facing the Loire Valley. The two large L-shaped wings have typically Renaissance elements. Partially surrounded by a moat, the castle was landscaped with large gardens laid out on three different levels.

At the first sight of Villandry we were transfixed by the size and beauty of the landscaped gardens, set on three terraced levels. Inspired by Italian Renaissance gardens, the French gardens were designed larger with hedges instead of perimetral walls. Convenient avenues run along the flowerbeds where low hedge borders set off the decorative plants. Water is collected on the uppermost terrace, a middle terrace lies on the same plane as the rooms and the upper terrace extends to a wood of tall trees.

Standing on the middle terrace looking across the lush wide expanse of park, we see the ornamental gardens dubbed the 'gardens of love.' The large squares of boxed shrubs and flowers form motifs which symbolize the allegories of love, from the blood-red heart shapes to yellow and orange masks worn at balls. The gardens create their own geometrical motifs with colors provided by the leaves of cabbages, carrots, beets and lettuce. The gnarled branches of apple and pear trees, laden with fruits, define and separate the beds. Strolling through these magnificent gardens, in the bright sunshine, is an exhilarating experience, much like walking through an open-air art museum.

Each day around noontime, we took out our Sawaday guide to look for a place to stay. Stopping at a village pay phone, we sometimes called two or three recommendations and had good luck in finding what we wanted. Following our map and directions in the guide, we discovered more of the lovely French countryside each day. We stopped at village markets, cafes, and a few wineries along the way to enjoy Loire’s famous vintages and conversations with proprietors.

La Fleuray Hotel, near tiny Cangey, seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Sawaday said, 'It was perfect if you had a helicopter or a hot air balloon.' After a few wrong turns, La Fleuray appeared, a handsome, old manor house in the middle of golden fields of hay. Our room, large and fresh, was in the new section of a renovated barn. Decorated in yellow, it seemed to match the outside environment of flowers and fields with horizon views in all directions.

Proprietors Peter and Hazel Newington work as a team, Peter greets guests and Hazel manages the kitchen. The dining room is elegant, the cuisine excellent, and the service by young French students is tres efficient.

La Fleuray Hotel, with 14 rooms, is priced at 68-100 Euros per night. Breakfast is 9 Euros, dinner is 26.

Chenoceau -- Dream Castle Lying Still in the Past

From La Fleuray we traveled to Chenoceau, one of the largest and most beautiful of all the chateaux. It was originally built in 1243 as a defensive fortress surrounded by moats joined to the banks of the river Cher with a swing bridge. Transformed in 1512 to correspond with the latest Renaissance mode, the only part that remains of the medieval section is the tower of the keep set in front of the castle.

Chenoceau was the scene of hunts on horseback, fetes, suppers and intellectual activities, but it was also filled to the brim with betrayal and intrigue. When Francis I visited, he brought Queen Eleanor, his son Henry, Catherine di Medici, his mistress, Anne de Piseleau, lady of Heuilly, and the infamous Diane de Saint Vallier de Poitier, his son’s mistress.

The interior of the castle is sumptuous, and by comparison, light and airy. Standing in Catherine di Medici’s bedroom, you feel the stillness of time passed but seeming to stand for a moment within the four walls of this very private abode. Rooms and boudoirs are intact with rich furnishings. The works of art are stunning throughout the entire castle. The tiny chapel houses a beautiful Carrera marble sculpture of the Virgin and Child. One can visit the gallery with its great paintings by artists; Rubens, Primaticcio, Van Loo, Mignard, Nattier, and many portraits of Louis XIV adorn the walls of the chateau.

Before leaving the castle we took a trip down the spiral staircase to the basement kitchens in which the original cooking area is characterized by a unique, ingenious spit above the stove and long wooden tables for food preparations.

Chateau Chambord -- A Renaissance Masterpiece

Although Cheneceau was my favorite chateau, Chambord stands as one of the loveliest in the Loire Valley, a masterpiece in Renaissance style. The land was the property of the counts of Blois, Champagne, and Chatillon from the 10th century on. This elegant chateau was built by Francis 1, successor to Louis X11, who came to the throne in 1515 at the age of 20, bringing ideas he had garnered from his time spent in northern Italy. As a great patron of the arts and sciences and, as we recall from Amboise, he succeeded in bringing, Leonardo da Vinci with him from Italy. An analysis of the structures found in the archives do not name any of the architects but find the profound influence of Leonardo da Vinci on the design on Chambord

The king’s desire was to fuse the elements of Italian Renaissance architecture with those of the French tradition. As we see from a distance, the building looks arabesque, the upper part of the keep is crowded with dormer windows with Italianate classicizing superstructures, by small towers, pavilions and elegant chimney decorations with columns, salamanders, miniature pediments, and geometric designs in slate applied to give a two color effect similar to that of the Italian monuments.

In 1947, the state began restoration and today the chateau contains furnishings, including tapestries in the room of Louis XIV, and portraits including the portraits of Henry III and Anne of Austria. Other rooms contain objects which belonged to the Duke of Bordeaux, the Comte of Chambord and last legitimate claimant to the throne of France. The ground floor contains an exhibit of the carriages built by Hermes in 1871, which were never used. They were to have served the Comte de Chambord in making his entrance into the capital to accede to the throne

The chateaux of the Loire Valley stand as extraordinary witnesses of times gone by and gems to a glorious epoch.

France -- An Ever-Unfolding Gift for the Senses

Every mile traveled in France’s unspoiled countryside brings something new ahead. Each region has its distinct character and its own cuisine. A quick side trip into Burgundy produced an entirely new landscape with more hills and rich, fertile soil. One evening we traveled down a country road watching the sunset splash the sky with pastel colors while in the foreground fields of sunflowers, 10 feet tall, nodded their robust heads into the roadway. On the opposite side bundles of ripe grapes, heavy on the vine, spilled invitingly across our path.

In Burgundy we discovered small cities steeped in history and culturally vibrant; Beaune, Villazey and Auxerre.

My first encounter with Auxerre was love at first sight. For a busy city its ambience exudes a relaxed balance of business and pleasure. The river Yonne is the dynamic personality of the city. Its geographical position is centered at the meeting point of roads and navigable waterways. During the first century AD, the river Yonne was a blessing for both man and trade, it was crossed by the Agrippian Way linking the Mediterranean and the North Sea.

Today we see the river is busy with pleasure craft, and along its banks there is a winding bike path. Standing on a bridge over the Yonne, looking in all directions, I get a sense of the history of this great city of castles and cathedrals. Saint Etienne, a spectacular cathedral, stands nobly on a hill. Towards the end of the third century invading Germanic tribes caused the majority of Gallic towns to surround themselves with protective walls. Auxerre withdrew to a fortified hill.

The advent of Christianity to Gaul was marked in Auxerre by the construction of the cathedral in the 5th century. The most famous Auxerre bishop was undoubtedly Saint Germain (418-448). A holy man, but also a skilled organizer, he initiated the movement to build monasteries which soon surrounded the city, forming ‘holy walls’ around Auxerre.

Auxerre is the second largest city in Burgundy and hosts major cultural events throughout the year. In 1995 it was awarded the title of ‘City of Art and History'. It is a city, though encountered only briefly, makes the kind of impression that one feels the need to know it well, and find a reason to return to again and again

GETTING THERE -- Air France from Washington Dulles departs at 5:15 pm, arriving in Paris at 6:30 the following morning. The second flight departs Dulles at 10:35 pm arriving in Paris 11:50 the following morning.

FROM PARIS -- The first flight daily departs Charles de Gaulle at 10:30 arriving in Dulles at 4:20 pm the same day. The second flight departs Paris at 1:05 pm, arriving Dulles at 6:55 pm the same day.