Set on a strategic bluff with sweeping views along the Loire, Chaumont-sur-Loire is known for three things: the château itself, which has a medieval exterior (cylindrical towers, a sturdy drawbridge) and an interior courtyard that is very much of the Renaissance; world-class exhibitions of striking contemporary art; and the Festival International des Jardins, for which 30 magnificent gardens are created each year by jury-selected teams led by visual artists, architects, set designers and landscape gardeners.
A defensive château was first built on this spot in the late 900s, but most of the present castle was constructed between 1468 and 1566. Following the death of Henri II in 1559, Catherine de Médicis (his widow) forced Diane de Poitiers (his mistress and her 2nd cousin) to accept Chaumont in exchange for the grander surroundings of Chenonceau. Savvy Diane earned considerable sums from Chaumont’s vast landholdings but stayed here only occasionally.
In the second half of the 18th century, the château's owner, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray, a supporter of the American Revolution and an intimate of Benjamin Franklin's, removed the decrepit north wing. In 1875 Princess de Broglie, heiress to the Say sugar fortune, bought the château and thoroughly renovated and furnished it.
The most impressive furnished room is the Council Chamber, with its series of eight 16th-century tapestries and a 17th-century majolica-tiled floor from a palace in Palermo.
Don’t miss the brick Écuries (stables), an outbuilding constructed in 1877 to house the Broglies’ horses in equine luxury. A fine collection of 19th-century equestrian gear and horse-drawn carriages of surprisingly varied design, and installations of contemporary art, are displayed inside.
It’s a good idea to rent an informative audiovideo guide (a tablet computer; €4), available in 10 languages for adults and four languages for kids; the app can be downloaded from iTunes and Google Play.
The Château de Chaumont is 19km southwest of Blois. Trains link Onzain, a 2.5km walk across the Loire from the château, with Blois (€3.70, eight to 12 minutes, nine to 19 daily) and Tours (€8.80, 28 minutes, 10 to 18 daily).