Why are there so many Chateaux in the Loire Valley?

The Loire isn’t the only place in France with chateaux (castles) but it does have the densest collection. There are some 300 in the 175-mile stretch of the river known as the Loire Valley.
Some of the earliest chateaux still impress, like the ruined Chateau de Lavardin, built at the start of the 11th century.

Defensive castles

To figure out why they’re all here, it helps to look at a map. The Loire Valley is more than just a pretty face. The river was once immensely important. It’s a fertile region and the Loire cuts through it like a superhighway: the Celts used to trade with the Greeks along its length. Later, as France emerged into nationhood, the Loire Valley became a kind of threshold: the dividing point between the north and south of the country, and thus a fault line between rival armies.

Remember that 'chateau' means castle. The first chateaux in the area were ‘proper’ fortresses which helped armies withstand waves of invaders, from 8th-century Umayyad forces, to 9th-century marauding Vikings. During the Hundred Years War the Loire Valley was a battleground between the French and the English. By this time, the Loire Valley was a thicket of defences, and every town was a fortress.

Beautiful abodes

When the war ended in 1453, chateaux stopped being practical defences and started being palaces of pleasure. At this point Tours was actually the capital of France: Louis XI made his Touraine chateau his permanent residence in 1444. Tours remained a popular permanent residence for kings and court even when the court moved back to Paris in the next century.

The end of war ushered in a century of rapacious chateau-building. When the kings settled in the area, their courtiers swiftly followed suit, buying the ruined castles once owned by medieval counts and dolling them up.

The 16th century was an intense period of chateau construction: in 1519 Chateau de Chambord was built by Francois I, who also finished work at Amboise, giddy from his victories in the Italian Wars. These wars brought a wealth of inspiration to the Loire Valley, including Italian art, Renaissance architecture styles and Leonardo da Vinci, who was invited to the king’s court in 1516.

The French nobility later needed to move closer to Paris. Fontainebleau and Versailles replaced the Loire Valley, but the chateau residences were often used by nobility in the centuries that followed.

The most popular chateaux

Chambord

The famously frothy masterpiece has a surrounding estate as big as Paris. Chambord is the largest palace in the Loire Valley, and its rumoured Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in its design. Its crown of chimneys and towers is said to resemble the skyline of an entire town.

Chenonceau

The one that looks like a bridge: Chenonceau is built over the River Cher. It’s known as the ‘chateau des dames’ thanks to the colourful women who lived here: including the villainous Catherine de Medici and her daughter in law Louise de Lorraine.

Villandry

Villandry, with its famous gardens, was the last great Renaissance chateau in the Loire. Presumably the other garden designers gave up and went home after seeing it. The intricate ‘Garden of Love’ is a highlight. The amazing planting is maintained by 10 gardeners – presumably all armed with nail scissors.

Azay-le-Rideau

It’s all about the setting at Azay-le-Rideau, which sits on a pretty islet in the River Indre, its walls rising right up from the water. Smaller than the other chateau, there’s not much to see, but there is a pleasant ‘English style’ park around the chateau, and the attic of the castle is home to a colony of rare mouse-eared bats which you can watch on CCTV.

Ussé

When Charles Perrault saw this turret-thick chateau, he was so impressed that he used it as the setting for his immortal fairy story, Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au Bois Dormant). Little kids can follow a story trail up through one of the towers, and you can explore the attic, dungeons and gardens as well as a few rooms inside.

Chateau du Clos Lucé

This pink-brick chateau was once Leonardo da Vinci’s house. He came here at the invitation of Francis I and stayed until he died. You can see his bedroom, murals by his disciples, and fascinating models of some of his inventions. It’s a ten-minute walk from Amboise chateau, where Francis I lived... there’s even a secret tunnel connecting the two.

Blois

A few Loire Valley chateaux sit right in the town, and Blois is one of the most impressive specimens. It’s most famous for its spiral staircase, which you can see twisting up the building from the exterior. The chateau has a fine arts gallery with paintings by famous French painters, like Ingres and Boucher.

Amboise

Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the magnificent environs of Amboise, in St Hubert’s chapel. The chateau used to be a bit of a death trap: Charles VIII died when he bumped his head on one of its lintels. Be careful when you’re leaning over the ramparts, admiring the brilliant view of the town below.

Cheverny

This symmetrical chateau was the model for Marlinspike Hall, Captain Haddock’s house in Tintin. There are still kennels on the grounds, housing a pack of long-legged hounds which are still, controversially, used for hunting. There’s a neat Tintin exhibition for kids.

Chaumont

This attractive chateau is overshadowed by its beautiful gardens. Nowadays, Chaumont is famous for the International Garden Festival, which runs from spring all the way to late autumn and celebrates the best of modern garden design and sculpture – take that, Chelsea Flower Show.

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And a couple you don’t know about

Harvey Downard, from our specialist cycling company, Cycling For Softies, recommends his two favourite small chateaux: “My favourite one is called Chateau du Rivau. It’s a really cute, quite small, very medieval chateau. It’s family owned and my favourite thing about it is that it’s on a round trip on a half way point in a day’s cycling, so you can park your bikes up, pay a few euros to go in and wander around these lovely gardens – which are working gardens. You explore them, they’re all beautiful, all pristinely managed, and then you sit down in their little restaurant and you have a salad picked from the garden. And that’s your lunch for the day – it’s super cute.
Another small one is Chateau de l’Islette – just outside of Azay-le-Rideau – which is a big famous chateau. It’s about 4km away, it’s in the same river and stylistically it’s very similar. It’s on a little island. You’ve got the mainstream chateau of Azay-de-Rideau which everyone wants to see but we make people aware of this chateau too. It’s smaller, privately owned – the family still come out and open the doors every day for guests. It’s got its own interesting history, interesting architecture and interesting story.”
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Francois Philipp] [Defensive castles: Daniel Jolivet] [Azay-le-Rideau: xiquinhosilva] [Blois: Stefan Lanz / Reisender] [Chateau de l'Islette: Stephane.gourichon]
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