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Imagine a region that boasts rich history, peaceful valleys, flowing rivers, authentic old towns and a series of châteaux that will inspire you. Imagine a king’s residence château in the middle of a town or a magnificent hunting lodge where horsemen still train on beautiful mounts. Imagine a region of food, wine, wind surfing, ballooning and plain and simple living. Let’s look at the region from Orléans to Chinon. Let’s examine the riches of royal fantasy, court life and French splendor. We will cover that special land where sophisticated cities, great landscapes, gentle people and marvelous food dominate a peaceful life.
A tour from one end of the river to the end would be advised, but I travel by car. I like to take the time to see these unique buildings, and I do it year after year. It’s great for people of all ages. I brought my daughter here when she was 12. She’s never forgotten it.
Head west on the road from Orléans. You’ll still be thinking of the Maid of Orléans, who, in 1429, led French troops to victory over the British. Before long you will see the first of the many châteaux that await you. As you pass Beaugency, you might hear the famous bells ringing. But, our first stop is the gigantic 16th century hunting lodge built under the direction of Francois I. Started in the Foret de Boulogne and possibly designed, in part, by Leonardo da Vinci, the 440-room hunting lodge was completed in 1665. The grand double staircase, supposedly the brainchild of da Vinci, was a structure that insured that people going up would not see the people coming down. Since there was many a tryst at Chambord, this allowed for a certain degree of privacy. On top were roof terraces and a forest of chimneys that are visible from afar. Here, the kings lived in splendor. A visit to their bedchambers or a study of the detail proves that money can buy the best. Chambord, while almost empty, still rings of the glory days of France. It fell into decline in the mid 1700s but later was declared a historic monument and rebuilt in the 1970s. Look for the Francois I emblem: the salamander. It appears more than 700 times. Watch the display of modern horsemanship.
Then, if you have time, head west to the charming city of Blois. While more somber than Chambord and only partially open to the public, this domain dominates the top of Blois on the north bank of the river. You will marvel at the Francois I staircase in the courtyard and the detailed work. It is an octagonal-shaped masterpiece, ideal for watching shows and jousts in the courtyard. This is a château of intrigue, where le Duc de Guise was murdered for his suspected Catholic plot against Henry III. Here, you’ll see an emblem of Louis XII: the porcupine. Royalty used Blois until Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles in the 17th century.
Blois is a pleasant, lively and picturesque town worthy of a stay, but I chose to go on to Chenonceaux, the jewel of them all. It was a pleasure palace created and changed by a number of ladies. Henry II’s mistress, Diane of Poitiers, added formal gardens and an arched bridge over the Cher River, but Queen Catherine de Medici transformed it into an Italian gallery, which still is used today. On Henry II’s death, Diane was sent off to Chaumont, not nearly as pretty. The widow of Henry III, Louise de Lorraine, had the ceilings painted black and white, the colors of royal mourning. It was saved during the Revolution and restored in the 19th century. A walk from the parking lot down the tree-lined roadway opens on the guardhouse, moat and turreted pavilion. One has to experience this fairytale-like structure. Words cannot adequately describe the building, gardens and setting. The kitchens, different bedrooms and guardroom are memorable. You won’t want to leave.
On the way westward, you must turn back to the river and discover the city of Amboise. While the château hardly rivals what you already have seen, you’ll enjoy this city of troglodyte dwellings carved in limestone along the road on the western side of the castle. Continue up this road and you arrive at Clos Luce, the last home of Leonardo da Vinci. Lured here by Francois I, the aging Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked in the region until he died. In his home, you can see models made of his designs. Amboise was always famous as a bridgehead across the river, but, with the château, Charles VIII created a new style of Renaissance architecture. The view from the courtyard is inspiring. The town is a busy center of farming, wine sellers, craftsmen and tourism. The pedestrian street parallel to the river boasts an arched tower, clock and bell, and part of the old city wall worthy of a sketch board or camera lens.
From Amboise, it’s a short drive to Tours via Vouvray. Here, you can sample some of the best wines of the region and visit an actual cave dug out of the limestone cliffs. I found the people here friendly and willing to share. They have the best of all worlds in a place close to a big city but far enough away to enjoy their peaceful setting and highly productive land.
Tours is another story. Don’t get me wrong, I love coming to Tours and the wonderful Hotel de l’Univers near the Hotel de Ville. Even if you decide not to stay here, go into the sumptuous lobby. There are very few like it in France. I’m always in awe of the stairs and statues going to the mezzanine. This is the best of the 4* hotels that I know. But, compared to where we’ve been, we’re now in what feels like a big city. Here, you have everything from great restaurants, hotels, bars, shops and fountains to make the city sing. You also have the old Place Plumeruau with beamed buildings reminding us of a bygone day. Tours was once the royal capital. Now, it is the capital of the region called Touraine.
You can enjoy a typical dinner at the Hotel de l’Univers’ La Touraine, or you can go just around the corner and have a drink or local meal at the Brasserie de l’Univers. I usually eat in the main dining room under the 19th century stained glass ceiling. Then, I walk north past the shops to the Place Plumereau, where hundreds of locals and visitors eat and drink in the square. Place Plumereau is happening. You’ll want to go back. The square goes back to the days when feather merchants set up their shops to serve the fashion of the day.
At the end of a long day, I consult my map. I am only halfway through the Loire. More châteaux of all sizes await. Although some are lit up at night and have sound and light shows, I cannot visit tonight. The tour will have to continue tomorrow.
Important Contact Information
Chambord (+ 33) (0)2 54 50 40 00
Blois Château (+ 33) (0)2 54 78 06 62
Chenonceaux (+ 33) (0)2 47 23 90 07
Amboise Bureau Municipal de Tourisme
(+ 33) (0)2 47 57 01 37
Clos Luce (Closed in January)
(+ 33) (0)2 47 57 62 88
Tours Office of Tourism [email protected]
Hotel de l’Univers www.hotel-univers-loirevalley.com.
Brasserie de l’Univers 8, Place Jean Jaures