The Loire Valley surrounds the Loire river, the longest river in France that flows from the Massif Central mountains northwest towards the Atlantic Ocean.
A popular wine region for its four very distinct wine growing areas along the river, the area is also well known for the numerous chateau of the region built using the same soils that also vinify some of the best wines in France. (See more about Loire Valley wine on Instagram)
With upwards of 300 Château scattered throughout the Loire Valley that range in size and style from simple 10th century fortified castles to massive residences, the structures were built for nobility and royalty who were drawn to the area to build their dream residences, during the renaissance. The one commonality between the many châteaux within the central region of the valley is their locations near the rivers of the region.
Within the Loire Valley, there are many options for towns and villages to visit and experience. From small market towns to large cities, Amboise Angers, Blois, Chinon, Nantes, Orleans, Saumur and Tours are each communes filled offering architectural experiences in the form of splendid residences.
While visiting the Loire Valley and so many choices of Château to visit, these are three royal Château that offer not just stunning beauty and architecture, but also feature some of the best stories which are why they are on our not to miss list:
Château de Chenonceau
Located in the town of Chenonceaux, Château de Chenonceau is the most visited Châteaux in the Loire Valley. The attraction to the property is more than just its stately appearance, but the stories behind the residence. The history reflects on the women who contributed to the building, rebuilding, protection, restoration and philanthropy of the property. If the walls of Château de Chenonceau could talk, the tales would be filled with famous historians, architects, royals, dignitaries, authors and artists.
Originally built in the 12th century in the medieval style, the current complex was rebuilt between 1513 and 1517 by noblewoman Catherine Briçonnet who was influential in the design of the current Château.
In 1559 the widowed Queen of France, Catherine de Medici took control of the property further improving its magnificence by adding and enhancing beautiful gardens that are seen today throughout the property. Making it her primary residence, Catherine used the property as a showground with some of the best celebrations in France.
The home remained in royal control until the 18th century when it was purchased for Louise Dupin by her husband who welcomed many popular French literary figures to the property. Louise was responsible for saving the Château from destruction by the Revolutionary Guard during the French Revolution.
In 1864 Chenonceau was purchased by Madame Marguerite Pelouze who bankrupted her finances refurbishing the property to how it shows today. Passing hands multiple times, until it was sold in 1913 to a member of the Meunier family of French chocolatiers, Henri Meunier who opened the property to visitors. Proudly welcoming guests until World War 1 when it was used as a military hospital, treating 2,254 wounded soldiers led by Simone Meunier, grand daughter in law of Henri at her own expense. Then again in World War 2, because of its location at the border of the “free zone” on the river Cher and Nazi occupied France, the property was used as a safe zone for those who were fleeing the Nazi’s. But not without damage as the Germans occupied the residence in 1944 and the Allied troops bombed the chapel in efforts to retake the region.
If the history alone is not enough to draw visitors to this remarkable location, the magnificence of the Château, the gardens and the stately property makes a visit top of our list.
Located along the river Loire in the commune of Amboise, this luxurious Château is most notable as the residence of French kings starting in the 15th century up to the 19th century.
The property was acquired by King Charles VII in 1434 and later rebuilt by King Charles VIII starting in 1492 in the French Gothic style. After the loss of the Italian war in 1495, and his fascination with Italy, Charles hired Italy’s top designers to create an Italian palace in France. Charles died in 1498 before completion of the palace and without heirs his cousin Louis XII continued the process of completing the property.
Towards the end of the 1500’s King Francis I, who was raised there, made it his royal residence, which continued through the next hundred years. Some other notable residents were King Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici who raised their family and Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) who was betrothed to their son Francis II.
There was a period of time during abandonment of the property that the château was used as a prison under Louis XVI for noble prisoners of the French civil wars from 1648 – 1653.
After almost complete destruction during the French Revolution, King Louis Phillipe began restoration on the property until his abdication of the throne in 1848 when the property was confiscated by the French government. In 1873 the property was returned to Louis Phillipe’s family and rebuilding commenced. Still maintained by the descendants of Louis Phillipe, the Château had been opened for visitation and still is today.
Standing on the balconies overlooking the Loire, the terraced gardens and the surrounding countryside, just as many French royals had for hundreds of years draws visitors to explore the history and beauty of Chateau d’Amboise.
Château de Chambord
The third Château also of royal commission is one of the most recognized of the region for its Renaissance architecture. Unlike the other two previous royal Châteaux, it was not designed as a residence, since he lived at his beloved Château d’Amboise, but as a holiday home for King Francis I.
Located off the river Loire in the marshlands of the central Loire Valley, Château de Chambord is the largest of the Châteaux in the Loire region. Built by Francis I as a hunting lodge it was within a days travel from his royal residences in Amboise and Blois. The design of the property was Italian with rumoured influences from artist Leonardo de Vinci.
The property was built over a period of 28 years with the intention to dazzle sovereigns and foreign ambassadors with architecture unlike anything that had been seen before in France. The rooftop was designed with 11 different towers and 3 chimneys to reflect a townscape with a resemblance to Constantinople in the distance rather than that of a château. Featuring 800 sculpted columns and an open 274 step double spiral staircase that climbed three floors in the main building without ever connecting, was the centerpiece of the château.
Francis passed in 1547 before completion of his showpiece château, so furnishings and wall coverings were not present at the time of his death. The property remained abandoned for 80 years, falling into ruin until 1639 when the Duke of Orleans was given Chambord by his brother, King Louis XIII.
Gaston d’Orleans directed the renovation and restoration of Chambord, acquiring new land to add the 20 mile boundary walls and a park within the grounds. Construction continued until 1680 when then King Louis XIV added the stables and temporarily furnished the royal apartments to use Chambord as originally intended, a hunting lodge and entertainment facility until 1685 when the Château was once again abandoned.
Used sporadically between 1725 and 1750 by King Louis XV, the château mostly sat abandoned.
Spared from destruction during the French Revolution, in 1792 the property was pillaged and vandalized by revolutionaries and post war, the revolutionary government sold off the remaining furnishings, including the woodwork to raise money for the government endeavors.
Final ownership of the property was given to the Count de Chambord who in 1871 oversaw the restoration of the Château, opening it to public access. Upon his death in 1930 when the home once again became government property and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Loire Valley châteaux stand as monuments of the Medieval and Renaissance periods featuring extensive grounds, exquisite decor, colorful gardens and beautiful chapels and each has a different history and elaborate story to tell.
When visiting the Loire Valley, we recommend staying in the commune of Amboise for easy access to the above châteaux, the local vineyards of Vouvray and the towns of Tours and Blois in the central Loire Valley.
You can combine your visit to the Loire Valley with a 7 night river cruise along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in Bordeaux for a full French experience. For more information on river cruising through France, check out our website.