If you had been a king or someone with noble standing in 15th century France, you would have wanted to have a nice home in the Loire Valley (pics). This part of France was very fertile and yielded some of the best grapes in the world as well as a variety of vegetables. The valley has a moderate climate, there was ample game for hunting and the Loire River was there to provide transportation for whatever could not be had locally. The result is a concentration of lovely châteaux, the vast majority of which are still privately owned while, fortunately for us, others are open to the public to gawk at.
First up, Château de Cheverny, quoting now from the Lonely Planet: “Thought by many to be the most perfectly proportioned château of all, Cheverny represents the zenith of French classical architecture, the perfect blend of symmetry, geometry and aesthetic order.” It was constructed between 1625 and 1634 by Jacques Hurault who was in the court of Louis XII and today the château has some of the most spectacular furnishings, tapestries and art objects anywhere in the Loire Valley. Shockingly, after six centuries it is still owned by the Hurault family. Referring back to the story of Diane de Poitiers and her “banishment” from Château de Chenonceau, for a brief time she lived here in Cheverny in order to supervise the remodeling of her next residence, Château de Chaumont. I’d say she landed on her feet.
Next, Château de Villandry, one of the last major Renaissance châteaux to be built in the Loire Valley, it was completed in 1536. The château itself is not currently open for tours but the big draw here is its gardens. Jean le Breton originally built Villandry and designed the gardens. He became enamored with the art of Italian Renaissance gardening while serving as ambassador to Italy and built this one with lime trees, box hedges, ornamental vines, a vineyard, kitchen gardens and water fountains.
In the town of Amboise, you can find Château du Clos Luce, built in 1471 on 12th century foundations. Also in Amboise, a mere 400 meters away is Château Royal d’Amboise. Clos Luce was purchased by the royal family in 1490 and the future King Francois I was raised here. Later, as king, he was a great fan of Leonardo da Vinci and in 1516 Francois invited him to come live at Clos Luce. Da Vinci lived the last three years of his life here and he spent that time painting and working on his architectural and engineering designs. On the grounds of Clos Luce there is an extensive exhibit showing many of Leonardo’s designs for items that were decades or centuries ahead of their times. A very interesting visit.
Château de Langeais was built in 1460, first and foremost as a fortress. This you can clearly see, it is a very imposing structure and is found right in the middle of the village of Langeais.
Château d’Ussé is considered to be the inspiration of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty and is rumored to be one of Walt Disney’s inspirations when he dreamed up the Magic Kingdom. The castle mainly dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. Other notable châteaux that we were able to photograph are: Château de Champchevrier, Château de Villesavin, Château de Meung-sur-Loire and a few others that we didn’t get the names of.
Last, but definitely not least there is Château de Chambord. With some 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces and 84 staircases it is hardly small. It was begun in 1519 by Francois I (remember him from Clos Luce?) as a weekend hunting lodge but grew over the next 30 years until it was finally completed. Chambord has some interesting architectural features including a double-helix staircase, reputedly designed by the king’s friend, Leonardo da Vinci. Chambord is one of the few châteaux that is owned by the French government and is perhaps the most visited in the Loire Valley.