So you’ve been to Paris, Provence, and possibly the French Riviera. Where else in France should you explore next? May I suggest the Loire Valley where you can admire the grandeur and charm of its glorious château and gardens?
The Loire Valley is only about 2 hours by train from Paris, making it a great destination for those flying in and out of the French capital.
For a first-time visitor without a car, the lovely town of Amboise is a good base for exploring this beautiful area of France. It’s home to Château d’Amboise, a favorite royal residence of several French kings, including Francis I, the Renaissance king who invited Leonardo da Vinci to work and live in a château nearby. The town is also the final resting place of the Italian artist.
You can take a train from Paris and stay at a hotel in town. Then take a minivan tour to explore all the famous châteaux like Chambord, Chenonceau, Blois, Chaumont, and Cheverny.
There are several hotels in town, but my favorite is Le Clos d’Amboise, which I blogged about here.
If you only have a few days in the area, here’s the itinerary I would recommend:
Day 1: the town of Amboise
Explore the town to get the lay of the land. You’ll notice some beautiful half-timbered houses dating back to the Middle Ages. Try to be there either on a Friday or a Sunday as they are market days so you can try some local delicacies and shop local products. To me, local markets are a great way to get to know the town and its people. We got there on Sunday, which was the bigger market day of the two.
Then check out Château d’Amboise, a medieval stronghold-turned royal residence on the bank of the Loire River. It was originally built by a noble family but was later confiscated by the Crown and was built upon and renovated extensively. Several French kings were either born, raised, or lived there, including Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici.
Day 2: Chenonceau, Chambord, and Cheverny
Explore other châteaux in the area! To get to these sites, it’s most convenient to take a minivan tour which should be booked in advance. I used a tour company called Acco-Dispo, and they took us to three marvelous châteaux: Chenonceau, Chambord, and Cheverny. The guide/driver talked about the history of the châteaux in the vehicle, and when we got to the châteaux, we explored them on our own.
Spanning the Cher River, Chenonceau is an elegant and romantic château with an interesting past. During the reign of King Henri II, the king gave Chenonceau to his beloved mistress Diane de Poitiers, a beautiful widow and his mentor. Diane loved Chenonceau and helped transform it into a Renaissance gem. She ordered the construction of the arched bridge and gallery over the river, but only the bridge was built. Henri was married to Catherine de Medici but was madly in love with Diane who accompanied him everywhere, causing much heartache to his wife who really loved him despite the arranged marriage.
When the king suddenly passed away in a jousting accident, Catherine became regent as her son was too young to rule. She kicked Diane out of Chenonceau, took over the château, and put her own portrait in Diane’s bedroom.
The queen mother proceeded with the bridge project Diane had started and added two galleries above it. The two gardens that bear their names symbolizing this royal rivalry are still on display today. I had been reading about Catherine de Medici, and a visit to Chenonceau was the highlight of my trip.
Chenonceau is also a good place to stop for lunch as it has a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating.
Château de Chambord, by contrast, is massive and majestic. The biggest château in the Loire Valley, Chambord was built as a hunting lodge for Francis I, Catherine de Medici’s father-in-law. The architectural style is French Renaissance, and it was said that Leonardo da Vinci influenced the design. The construction was not completed until the reign of Louise XIV, the Sun King who built Versailles.
Compared to Chenonceau, Chambord lacks warmth and feels more like a museum. That’s may be because of its size and the fact that it was not designed to be a permanent residence. But I enjoyed learning about the period furniture on display, including the royal toilet, which is a beautiful wooden chair with a built-in porcelain bowl.
Château de Cheverny feels more intimate and warm because of the luxurious interior and the fact that the family who owns the château still lives there. It has been in the Hurault family for six centuries and although it was lost to the Crown at one point, Henri II gave the château to Diane de Poitiers, who sold it back to the Hurault family because she preferred the nearby Chenonceau.
Besides its elegantly furnished rooms, the classically French château is famous for the over one hundred hunting hounds. The dogs can be seen all day long during your visit, but the feeding is at 11:30 a.m. Check out the feeding schedule here, but possibly due to COVID, they’re not currently being fed publicly as of this writing.
In 1922, Cheverny was one of the private châteaux to open its doors to the public. About half of the château is close to the public as it’s the private residence of the family.
Day 3: Château du Clos Lucé
Visit Château du Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s final home before he passed away. Da Vinci was a guest of Francis I who named the Italian Renaissance master the king’s painter, architect, and engineer. The château had been a summer royal residence for French kings, and Francis spent a lot of time at this Gothic-style castle with his family when he was young. When the famed 64-year-old artist came to France, he brought with him what would become the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa.
Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life at the château working on projects for the king. He died in his room there and was buried at St. Florentine on the ground of the Château d’Amboise. But centuries later the church was destroyed during the French Revolution, so his remains were transferred to St. Hubert Chapel on the grounds of Château d’Amboise.
Have fun exploring the Loire Valley! Let me know how you like it.