Choosing Your Château
If you're keen to see castles, the Loire Valley is definitely the place to go, but with so many glorious options, what's the best way to spend your limited time? Here’s our whistle-stop guide. Les Châteaux de la Loire (www.leschateauxdelaloire.co.uk) produces an excellent map, available at local tourist offices and online.
For sheer architectural splendour, you can’t top the big three: François I’s country extravaganza Chambord; Renaissance-era, river-spanning Chenonceau; and the supremely graceful – and superbly furnished – Cheverny. Unsurprisingly, these are also far and away the valley's most visited châteaux.
If it’s a medieval, Monty Python and the Holy Grail kind of castle you’re after, head for the imposing fortress of Langeais, complete with original furnishings, battlements and a drawbridge; or the austere, ruined 11th-century citadel of Loches.
For historical significance, at the top of the list are the royal château of Blois, spanning four distinct periods of French architecture; stately Amboise, home to a succession of French monarchs, including Charles VIII and Louis XI; the Forteresse Royale de Chinon, where Joan of Arc held her momentous first rendezvous with the future King Charles VII; the forbidding Château d’Angers, with its fantastic, 14th-century Apocalypse Tapestry; and pastoral Le Clos Lucé in Amboise, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years.
Looking for a picture-perfect setting? Our choices are the moat-ringed Château d’Azay-le-Rideau and the Château de Sully-sur-Loire, or visit the stunning gardens at the Château Gaillard (Renaissance style), Villandry (French style) or Chaumont-sur-Loire (contemporary).
For literary connections, try the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty, the Château d’Ussé; Balzac’s residence, Saché; La Devinière, childhood home of François Rabelais; the Château de Montsoreau, setting for a classic Alexandre Dumas novel; or the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, whose harsh prison served as a setting for Jean Gênet's Miracle de la Rose. The Château de Cheverny has a museum dedicated to Tintin.
Top Châteaux Tips
- In summer, go first thing in the morning or late in the day to avoid the coach-tour crowds.
- Buy multi-château combo tickets, or pre-purchase tickets at tourist offices, for slight savings and to avoid queues.
- Remember that ticket offices close 30 to 60 minutes before château interiors do.
As you visit the Loire’s splendiferous châteaux, you may see some surprising zoological emblems on the walls, ceilings, doors and floors. See if you can spot:
- Porcupine Louis XII
- Flaming salamander François I
- Ermine Queen Claude
- Stag Jean II
- Winged stag Charles V and Charles VII
- Genet (sort of like a spotted civet) Charles VI
Don't Miss: The Loire’s Top Gardens
- Château de Villandry Six glorious gardens à la française.
- Château de Chenonceau Formal gardens on the banks of the languid Cher River.
- Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire Magnificent gardens are created each year for the Festival International des Jardins.
- Château de Chambord A French-style formal garden opened here in 2017.
- Château Gaillard Harmonious, Renaissance-style gardens laid out by master gardener Dom Pacello (1453–1534).
Don't Miss: Troglodytes: Cave Life
For centuries the creamy-white tufa cliffs around Saumur have provided shelter and storage for local inhabitants, leading to the development of a unique culture troglodyte (cave-dwelling culture). The naturally cool caves were turned into houses (habitations troglodytes) and incorporated into castles (as at Brézé), and some are still used by vintners and mushroom farmers. Many of the Loire’s grandest châteaux were built from white tufa, and the quarrying, naturally, created caves.
Lots of caves can be found along the Loire east and west of Saumur (eg around Turquant), in Amboise and around the town of Doué-la-Fontaine. Stop by the Saumur tourist office for a complete list. Bring something warm to wear, as caves remain cool (13°C) year-round.
- Rochemenier Explore the remains of two adjacent farmsteads, complete with dwellings, stables and a chapel, that were originally excavated to provide lime fertilizer. A film and an interactive map of troglodytic sites around the world were added in 2017. The printed guide is available in 18 languages.
- Troglodytes et Sarcophages At this Merovingian-era mine, stone coffins were produced from the 5th to the 9th centuries and exported all over western France. Tours, in French with printed information in six languages, last one hour.
- Le Mystère des Faluns Creative lighting and sound effects illustrating the origins of falun stone and its fossils turn the entire 600m walking route, though ancient quarries (nicknamed ‘cathedral caves’ for their lofty sloping walls), into a glowing, ever-changing work of art.