Rising turrets, lavish ballrooms, and beautifully manicured gardens, the castles of Loire Valley offer a glimpse into French high society hundreds of years ago. Kings, queens, and the bourgeois elite erected their own strongholds at this crucial frontier to express their power and affluence.
One step removed from France’s capital, Val de la Loire (Loire Valley) boasted strategic importance in the past centuries. It marks the boundary between northern and southern France and was a frontier zone during the Hundred Years War. After King Charles VII reclaimed the crown during the mid-15th century, the area was transformed into the center of French court life.
Embraced as a safe haven away from intrigues in Paris, the royal family took residence in Loire Valley. Soon, the nobility followed suit because they didn’t want or even dared to be far from the seat of power. Their presence began attracting the very best architects and landscape designers. And in the following centuries, more than 300 châteaux (castles) spawned in this lush, fertile valley.
1. Château Royal d’Amboise
Elegantly settled on a rock cliff overlooking the River Loire, Château Royal d’Amboise (The Royal Castle of Amboise) was a favorite royal residence of many French kings. From Charles VII to Francis I, they all used this Italian-style castle as a frequent getaway from the official royal seat in Blois.
In the second half of the 16th century, Château Royal d’Amboise started falling into demise. The majority of its original structure was later demolished. Only the Gothic wing, the Chapelle St-Hubert, and the outer defensive circuit of towers and walls are still preserved.
Tips: Amboise lies on the train route connecting Nantes and Paris. It is accessible by both TGV (express train) and the regional train. The trip takes approximately 1.5 hours. Aside from the royal castle, Amboise is also known for Le Clos Lucé – the former residence of the Florentine genius, Leonardo da Vinci. He moved to this mansion on the invitation of Francis I and lived there until his final moment on 2 May 1519. The museum displays models of various machines designed by Leonardo, as well as the prestigious history of the region.
2. Château Royal de Blois
Looming on a rocky outcrop at the center of the city of Blois, Château Royal de Blois (The Royal Castle of Blois) provides a magnificent panorama of art and history of the castles of the Loire. It comprises four wings surrounding a spacious courtyard.
Each wing poses a different style, making the château an outstanding example of the development of French architecture from the 13th to the 17th century. The castle was the seat of the powerful counts of Blois. Once in royal hands, it became the official residence of several French monarchs, including Louis XII, Francis I, Henry III, and Henry IV.
Tips: Like Amboise, Blois lies on the train route between Paris and Nantes. Thus, there are frequent trains and TGVs to/from the city. The trip to Paris takes around 90 minutes. Blois is an ideal base to explore nearby castles, especially the grand Château de Chambord.
3. Château de Chambord
If you only have time to visit one castle in the Loire Valley, make it the Château de Chambord. Rising up like Mont Saint Michel, but out of an ocean of trees, Châteux de Chambord is by far the most recognizable French castle. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, making it the world’s most visited châteux. Started as a hunting lodge for Francis I in 1519, this project quickly grew into the region’s largest and grandest château.
It comprises over 400 rooms, 365 fireplaces, and more than 80 staircases. Blending Renaissance features with traditional French medieval structures, the castle is the finest exemplar of French Renaissance architecture. After several setbacks, the gigantic construction was completed 28 years later. But at that time, Francis I didn’t show any enthusiasm for his elaborate building. He kept residing in his royal apartments in Blois and Amboise and only stayed in Chambord on very few occasions.
Tips: The most convenient way to visit Chambord is by using your own vehicle. Shuttle bus 41 (provided by Azalys) is a good alternative. It departs from Blois at 9:30 and 11:30 and passes Chambord, Cheverny, and Beauregard. Please note that Bus 41 only operates on Wednesdays and weekends, with the exception of July and August (the bus runs every day during these months). A round trip takes around 6€. The ticket can be bought by the bus driver.