For centuries, the Loire Valley has been the favoured retreat of France’s elite and its majestic châteaux are a symbol of its wealthy past. France is awash with magnificent castles and the Loire’s rolling hills and medieval towns are home to more than 300 of them, each revealing histories of passion, treason, murder and more. From fairy tale turrets to eerie dungeons, here are the most magical châteaux in the Loire Valley.
Nestled in a picturesque spot, close to the River Indre and the Forest of Chinon, Château d’Ussé epitomises the image of a fairy tale castle – so much so that it was allegedly the inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty. Families flock to the dungeons, where the main scenes of the story are re-enacted. The site dates back to 1,000AD, when a fearsome Viking warrior known as the Devil of Saumur built a fortress on the site. Over the years it shed its military identity and became an elegant Renaissance residence. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to the Duke of Blacas and his family. The elegant French-style garden features century-old orange trees and each year 10,000 pansies are freshly planted in the grounds.
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Château de Chambord
Surrounded by forests filled with deer and wild boar, Château de Chambord feels beautifully remote, despite being just two hours from Paris. The vast estate has a footprint the size of the French capital and was originally built to serve as a hunting lodge for Françis I. The original architect remains a mystery, but it is alleged to have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and is considered one of France’s finest Renaissance buildings. This property has a wonderful wild side and is the largest château in the Loire Valley.
Château de Villandry
Situated in the heart of the Garden of France, Château de Villandry arguably boasts one of the most famous gardens in France. The 16th-century property was the last great Renaissance château to have been built on the banks of the River Loire and overlooks three terraces of geometric hedging and formal blooms. The romantic estate comprises of six gardens, each with their own theme. However, surprisingly it is the kitchen garden which steals the show, with nine identical squares; each one bears a different motif and is filled with vibrant colourful vegetables such as purple cabbages, jade green carrot tops and blue leeks. Make sure you walk up to the woods – there is a viewpoint offering a sneaky bird’s-eye view.
Château de Montrésor
This quirky châteaux is a bit of a secret, not normally appearing on lists alongside Loire’s bigger, better-known castles. However, it is the picturesque setting of Montrésor which makes a visit here so magical. Listed as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages of France’, the tiny village sits on the banks of the River Indre with weeping willows tickling its surface and cobbled streets knitting together half-timbered houses fringed with blooms. Built on the site of an ancient fortress, Château de Montrésor is still owned by the family of Xavier Branicki; a Polish Count and a friend of Napoleon III. His enormous collection of hunting trophies and impressive art collection remain – this is a château with real character. Don’t just take our word for it, allegedly it is Mick Jagger’s favourite château too.
Château de Loches
This towering medieval castle, residing within Loches’ walled Cité Royale, has a colourful history. Over the years it has been a castle, a military fortress and even a state prison. Today, the museum has one of the most extensive collections of medieval armour in France. Accessed via the town’s royal gates, the Romanesque keep is a staggering 36 meters high (120 ft) and teeters over the fortified town beneath with views of the Indre Valley. Visit on Wednesday or Saturday and you can enjoy Loches’ lively market on the way up.
Perched on a spur above the Loire River, this flamboyant royal residence served as the Court of Kings Charles VIII and Francis I, affording it great political importance. As a result, the royal property welcomed countless academics, artists and royals over the years. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci loved the royal palace so much that he wanted to be buried there – and he was. The rooms house an exceptional collection of Renaissance and gothic furniture and the gardens afford impressive views of the town beneath.
Château de Chenonceau
It may be the elegant arches spanning the River Cher which make Château de Chenonceau one of the most photographed châteaux in France, but it is its passion-fuelled history which make this château a must-visit. The castle was a gift from King Henry II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, but after Henry passed away his widow Catherine de Medici promptly kicked out the mistress, taking up residence herself. Having been ruled by women, this fairy tale château quickly gained itself the nickname, ‘Le Château des Dames’. But this striking property is more than just a love token; during World War I it housed a hospital for the wounded and in the Second World War it became an escape route for those trapped in the Nazi-occupied side of the river. Today you can tour the rooms, gardens and enjoy a meal in the Orangerie – the garden maze is also good fun.
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