Loire Valley Castles
Updated: Jul 13
Having driven ourselves all the way from London to Bordeaux, via some spectacular Normandy scenery, we had a few days to recuperate and chill chez la (belle-) famille.
In true South West France style, this meant much consuming of local delicacies like fresh fish, foie gras, prunes, asparagus and cheese (the latter being not so much SW France as simply French!). All washed down by nice rich Bordeaux wine. Copious amounts.
We did at least manage to drag ourselves away from all the eating, drinking and chilling for one day, on the recommendation of some friends, for a drive up north of Bordeaux.
Situated on the riverbank in the estuary where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers meet, before finally making their way to the Bay of Biscay and the Northern Atlantic, sits the town of Blaye.
It is best known for its Citadel, and for the famous wines produced in the surrounding region (chateau Margaux, anyone?). The incredibly well-preserved Citadel was built in more uncertain times as a walled city, with the goal of defending Bordeaux from sea invasions.
Today Blaye is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and makes for an impressive visit, as well as a great place to enjoy the views of the estuary, and visit some of the local artisans.
A couple of relaxing days later, and we were back on the road again, slowly making our way back to Blighty, this time via a tour of the Loire Valley.
Arriving in the Loire in time for aperitif hour, once we had left the motorway we wound our way through some charming french towns, all stone houses and church steeples. We even passed by some troglodyte houses - these fascinating dwellings dug deep into the rock faces of the soft tuffeau stone hills common in the area.
Our stay that night was booked at the Chateau de Beauvois, not far from Tours. Stepping into the castle, you are left in no doubt that this is a very french castle indeed, all sumptuous and tasteful decoration. After being escorted to our hotel room by a charming hostess and freshening up, we made our way downstairs for a glass of Kir on the terrace, the sun slowly setting.
Dinner in the Louis XIII restaurant is a gilded affair, the decor about as far from scandi minimalist as you can get. The service was however impeccable, the food solid, and the bread basket to die for!
The next morning, after a slightly uninspiring breakfast buffet, the Loire Valley beckoned.
Now, the only thing I really used to know about the Loire was that they made wine. Good wine! Unsurprisingly, there is much more to the Loire than that. First and foremost - castles!
Loire chateaux are a-dime-a-dozen, and you would need to dedicate a decent chunk of your life to attempting to see them all. Nevertheless, there are a few standout castles, and so for a Loire Valley newbie like myself, that was where to start.
First up on our itinerary:
The Chateau de Villandry, and its magnificent gardens!
While English gardens lean towards chaotic abundance, French gardens are all clean lines and topiary. And the gardens at the Loire Valley's Chateau Villandry are one of the grandest and most stunning examples of these.
For those more interested in nature than castles, you may be tempted to skip entering the castle altogether and head straight for the gardens. And in all honesty we found the castle interior no more interesting than any other french castle, with nothing particular to recommend it. Except for the climb to the keep rooftop, and a bird's eye view over the gardens which will take your breath away, and which is possibly worth the entrance fee all by itself.
Back to the main event - 9 hectares of gorgeous Renaissance gardens - the intricate map of topiary patterns interspersed with flowers. There are water streams running into ponds and fountains, hedges and tree-lined avenues, and a beautifully landscaped vegetable garden, and we spent a happy couple of hours at castle Villandry taking it all in.
We had hoped to have lunch at the La Doulce Terrace, the restaurant attached to the chateau. But it being a long weekend and us not having made a reservation, we were to be disappointed. Fortunately there are a few local Villandry village restaurants not far from the castle parking lot, and we were able to grab a quick bite before heading off to our next castle destination:
The Chateau de Chenonceau
One of the best-known castles in the Loire, and situated in the pretty village of Chenonceau, the Chateau de Chenonceau is unique in that it is built over a river. Sometimes called 'The Ladies Chateau' in honour of the many famous women who have influenced its design across the ages, it is the most photographed castle in the Loire Valley, with very good reason.
On the castle grounds there are landscaped gardens created by some of the castle's noblewomen, a 16th century farm, and even a maze to discover. There are also ample places for a picnic, both inside and just outside the grounds, filled with families over the weekend.
Given the castle's popularity, it can get very busy. We gave the lengthy queue to enter the main castle building one look and decided to forego it, focusing on the amazing views of the castle exterior as well as the grounds. We recommend choosing your day to visit the Chateau de Chenonceau appropriately if you are keen to get inside, or being ready to brave the queue.
2 Castles down, 1 more to review, on our Loire Valley day tour!
The Chateau de Chambord
And it turned out that in this case last was definitely not least. The largest chateau in the Loire, and a piece de resistance of Renaissance architecture, the Chateau de Chambord is a castle nothing short of stunning.
While the grounds and gardens of Chambord are perhaps less impressive than the previous castles on our visit, the same cannot be said for the building itself. The keep with its multiple towers and spires and balconies, and even the battlements and moat which are more decorative than defensive, all combine in a vision of breathtaking and enduring grandeur.
And while the large castle interior is fun to discover, climbing and descending through the various staircases and levels of the keep, touring the historical exhibitions and the changing views, it was nevertheless the castle architecture as a whole which we found most inspiring, and which has left a permanent imprint of wonder on our memory. A suitably grand way to finish a Loire Valley day trip filled with discovery.
Footsore and wearily content, we finished our day trip itinerary on a high with a stay at the historic Chateau d'Audrieu hotel near Caen - a beautiful period property with a quality restaurant (read our review here).
And the next morning, after 9 days of satisfying french food and wine, and having topped up on french culture and quality family time, we were ready to make our way back. A quick drive to Le Havre and an overnight ferry to Portsmouth, our own beds and our London lives awaiting us at the other end.
Travel is food for the soul, and this trip had been full of marvels. In the end though, there really is no place like home.