Visiting the Loire Valley was something that I had never considered before temporarily moving to France. In fact, I don’t even think I had ever heard of it before. But upon first arrival, several Parisians had it on their “must-do” list for me when I asked about the best weekend trips from Paris. It was hard to narrow down which regions I would visit in my short time in Paris. France has so much history and culture to offer, nevermind the fantastic natural landscapes as well. I decided to put off the Loire Valley until my last trip, knowing that it would provide a laid-back weekend in the country. After visiting this weekend, I must concur with those wise Parisians. If you have the time, you simply must visit this exquisite land of rivers, wine and châteaux.
The Loire Valley consists of an 800 square kilometer area surrounding the middle part of the Loire River. The building of châteaux in the Loire Valley was first initiated by French royalty in the 10th century. Attracted by the moderate climate and rich agricultural land, it was the perfect place to build country palaces, hunting lodges, and vineyards. The nobility soon followed the royalty, creating an area so rich in châteaux that they number above 300. Nicknames of the Loire Valley include “Valley of the Kings” and “The Garden of France”.
When deciding to visit the Loire Valley, we simply chose the cheapest drop-off point, which is the first large town the train from Paris stops in: Blois. A once-thriving medieval village, Blois began constructing its own château in the 13th century. During the 16th century, the Château de Blois served as a resort for French royalty. The château has an unusual location, directly in the center of town, whereas most Loire Valley châteaux are country homes. Although the town was largely destroyed in WWII, there are other surviving historic features of Blois such as the bridge over the Loire River and several fantastic churches.
Besides it’s economical advantages, Blois also presents a central location to some of the best châteaux in the region, which provided a secondary reason to make that our home base. Initial plans were to rent bikes and ride to neighboring Chambord on Sunday but the weather forecast prevented us from following through. Instead, we rented bikes on Saturday and did an easy ride along the river, catching sight of fields of flowers, ancient ruins, and the neighboring Château de Menars. This château is only about 8 kilometers from the center of town and provided a perfect backdrop for our picnic lunch of baguette, cheese, apples, tomatoes, cookies (for me), and wine.
Although your time is best conserved by renting a car in the Loire Valley, it is highly advisable to rent a bike and take advantage of the convenient trails and gorgeous views instead. In previous trips, I would have been tempted to use trains, buses, or whatever means necessary to cram as much of the Loire into one weekend as possible. But I have learned a few things from my time in France. It is much more enjoyable and memorable to slow down the pace and really soak in one or two things rather than jumping from one thing to another rapidly. The websites suggested not trying to see more than 3 châteaux in a day, and I even think that sounds extreme. I originally planned to see one château each day but was happy to change plans when it seemed to be too much work and stress to make it happen.
The château that we did decide to visit was well worth the trip and in my opinion, served as an excellent ambassador for the Loire Valley. Château de Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley with some staggering statistics: 156 meters long, 56 meters tall, 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms. It was built to serve as the hunting lodge for King François I who initiated the construction in 1519 at the age of 25. The construction took 28 years to complete, although it was never properly “finished”. Built in a very distinct French Renaissance style, Chambord has been attributed to architect Domenico da Cortona, although with some doubts. Theories abound claiming the French Renaissance architect Philibert Delorme was primarily responsible for the design while others suggest it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Regardless, it is somehow both astounding in size and yet graceful in design.
François I reigned for 32 years and yet he only spent 72 days of that time at Chambord. Designed specifically for short hunting stays, the château was not practical for long-term living due to its massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings that made heating it a challenge despite the numerous fireplaces. Also, the lack of proximity to a village made food sourcing a challenge other than game hunted on the 13,000 acre enclosed park. It is still the largest enclosed forest in Europe. The typical outing at Chambord would have included up to 2000 people and since no permanent furnishings were installed, they had to bring everything with them each trip.
Knowing the logistical nightmare that Chambord was, it is no surprise that when François I died, the château remained unused for nearly a century. At the time of his death, only the keep and royal wing had been finished. His son, Henry II, and Louis XIV, who were both also fond of hunting, were responsible for making Chambord look the way we see it today. The main double-helix spiral staircase stands as the central body connecting 3 floors, a central keep connects four towers. The staircase is designed so that two people could each take one flight and see each other through the openings in the central column but never meet. The ingenious plan is the main reason many suggest Leonardo da Vinci may have helped design Chambord. He had, after all, came to live in France in 1516 at the request of François I.
After the French Revolution, Chambord fell into disrepair again and was actually used as a prison for a time. The furnishings were sold and timber was removed. It had a turbulent past, never sustaining considerable use in any century. The longest continual use was for only 12 years during the 18th century. During World War II, the art collections of the Louvre (including the Mona Lisa) were stored in Chambord. It has since become an icon of French architecture, serving as the inspiration for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast castle and welcoming many tourists annually.
Although the interior rooms are impressive, the best part of the tour was the roof terraces. Spectacular views abound in every direction, including up at the various towers. During our 4 hours at Chambord, we spent only 1.5 going through the château and the rest lounging and picnicking on the grounds. A late afternoon sunshine-filled rest on the front lawn was one of my favorite experiences in France so far. It wasn’t the most active weekend of my life, but the Loire Valley offers experiences that will make you want to slow down, savor the sights, and be glad that you did.