No other part of the world is so full of dreams as the Loire region of France. The winding rivers, the grand gardens, the châteaux themselves are all monuments of greatness - monuments to eras and egos, love and beauty long fled into the mists of the past.
Originally designed to be approached by water (passable roads were in short supply in recent centuries), the châteaux of Loire loom above the rivers like childhood fantasies. Their romance is not lessened, though, if you approach them by road.
Many of the châteaux have little auberges, or inns, nearby, where you can, stay while you explore, some of the lesser ones have been converted into hotels , for the
ultimate luxury stay.
But as a base, I like to stay in Tours, a charming town with a marvellous Gothic cathedral, from where I make daily forays to the châteaux. I buy baguettes and pâté, cheese and wine in Old Tours (where there are patisseries and boulangeries to die for) and lunch by the river between visits to the castles. Tours is so handy to virtually all the châteaux that you can visit at least two each day if time is short.
The châteaux of the Loire region of France are more than just spectacular structures. They're pieces of history: intriguing, edifying, enriching. Here are some of my favourites.
I first visited the Loire valley in winter when the topiary gardens of the châteaux etched themselves against a pale blue sky like a Durer engraving and when I had the castles almost to myself. In autumn and spring the gardens show a different face, gold and crimson, green and white, but there are many more visitors. Summer tours of the Loire are to be avoided, for although the gardens are in full, colourful flight, each castle is packed to its gilded hilt with many thousands of adoring French who have come to revisit their heritage.
The finest châteaux in the region were built in the Renaissance period although some remain from the Middle Ages, including Langeais and the sinister Loches, full of Medieval torture instruments which children love seeing. The elegant château of Cheverny dates from the classical period (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). Here hunting is still a pastime and you can see the hounds and also hallways of stuffed deer heads and antlers, modern trophies that match the sense of history.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries châteaux were the favourite residences of the Valois, who moved their courts from place to place depending on the king's whim. Naturally they lived grandly, and the castles were places of intrigue and music, feasts and hunts, battles and many affairs of the heart.
Probably the best-known and best-loved of all the châteaux, Chenonceaux was completed by a king's tax collector, Thomas Bohier, in 1521. Bohier must have directed some of the taxes into his own hands for Chenonceaux is one of the prettiest and most delightful of castles to visit.
When Henry II ascended the throne of France in 1547 he gave Chenonceaux to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, much to the chagrin of his wife, Catherine de Medici. It was Diane de Poitiers who drew up plans for the château's fine gardens and who built the handsome colonnaded bridge across the River Cher so that she could go hunting in the forest without having the hassle of ordering a boat in which to cross the water. (Incidentally, this bridge was the scene of many an intrigue during the Second World War when the River Cher became the dividing line between Vichy and occupied France. Chenonceaux was used as a military hospital and many patients, when well enough to be moved, were smuggled across the bridge in the dead of night to an uneasy freedom.)
When poor Henry was killed by a lance thrust during a friendly tournament, the cast-off Catherine lost no time in snatching Chenonceaux back into her own hands. Diane de Poitiers was given Chaumont as the booby prize. Throughout its history the castle has been in the hands of some fascinating women, all of whom left a gentle imprint on its beautiful facade. Chenonceaux is one of the few Loire châteaux which remains in private hands; it is now the property of the Menier family, the chocolate makers.
This is where Catherine de Medici consulted her personal astrologer, Ruggieri, as to how to take revenge on Diane de Poitiers for bewitching Catherine's husband, King Henry. It is said that here Catherine and Ruggieri, after hefty star gazing, foresaw the grim fate awaiting her three sons, all of whom were to die violent deaths. But Chaumont, built in the early 1500s, isn't all gloom and doom despite its heavy drawbridge and stone turrets. In the inside courtyard, remade by Diane, it shows a charming, softer heart. Here the victim of a flouted Queen could watch the peaceful Loire gliding by. Chaumont, too, has a superb manege, an indoor riding school with sawdust floor and wooden galleries. Hermes designed the fully equipped saddle room.
A grandiose creation built by François I in 1519, this is the largest of the châteaux of the Loire and certainly the most extravagant. Even when François had no money to pay his sons' ransoms to Spain, the building of Chambord continued. He actually diverted the small river of Cosson so that it flowed by the towering façade of the castle. It was a marvellous place for falconry hunting and the netting of birds, but even these diversions could not make the King fancy his wife. Legend has it that Chambord's extraordinary staircase, consisting of two spirals which intertwined but never met, was built so that the King might never sight his wife on the way to bed. True or not, the story is additional embroidery to a fabled castle.
After a visit to architecturally extravagant Chambord, Cheverny is something of a relief. The clean, classical lines of its façade conceal a seventeenth century interior of great warmth. There is a hunting museum and kennels, with pack of seventy hounds, give one feelings of reality and simple pleasure after the excesses of the stones of Chambord.
The last-built of the Renaissance chateaux is worth visiting even in summer if you stand the crowds, for the garden is ravishing. While only the keep from the original sixteen century building remains, the gardens, Ia scaped in the nineteenth century, are among world's most celebrated. Villandry has three races; the highest a water garden, the n a most intriguing ornamental garden and the one below, a kitchen garden. All the geometric shaped flower beds are accentuated by yew trees and box borders, each border represent an arrangement of hearts, symbol of love (well, the nineteenth century artist garden were incurable romantics - Villandry is clear proof)
In the museum of Villandry are a Spanish Moorish ceil and a selection of paintings by Goya.
This chateaux is said to be the inspiration for Perrault's fairy story, 'Sleeping Beauty', is certainly romantic enough, perch above the River lndre, but one château whose exterior better-looking than the interior. Very much
restored, it's a strange mix of Gothic, Renaissance classical architecture, but the chapel is in the purest Renaissance style and remains almost intact, with sculptures and decorations of period. Ussé also remains in private hands. The estate belonged to the Comte de Blacas, grandson of the founder of Louvre's Egyptian department.
The chateaux is surrounded by a pretty moat and has a long history of incidents, the last occuring in 1870 when Prince Frederick CharIes of Prussia was living in the castle. One day a chandelier crashed down on to his lunch and Prince, thinking this was an attempt on his life had to be talked out of destroying the chateau. Like Chenonceaux, Azay is of manageable proportions -- one of the more intimate of great castles.
This castle has harboured a history of bloody deeds and great romances within its towering walls since the Middle Ages. Later, King Charles VI's brother, the Duke of Orleans, conducted many racy liaisons here. When Louis d'Orléans was assassinated in Paris, his widow carved on the walls of the château the words "plus ne m'est rien, rien ne m'est plus" (nothing means anything to me any more).
In summer the son-et-Iumière performances here encapsulate a fascinating history, for this château was both a palace and a fortress. Begun in 1492 by the youthful Charles VIII, the castle was finished in record time. The young King was so anxious to get Amboise built that he had workmen heat the stones to make them workable, then labour through the night by torchlight. Charles had a taste for luxury and during a jaunt to Italy bought many Italian artefacts, furniture, pictures and sculptures. Enchanted by the gardens he saw in Italy, he had his master gardener, Pacello, lay out an ornamental garden on the terrace of Amboise. But he was not to enjoy his château's delights for long, for the poor boy accidently banged his head on a lintel in the castle and a few hours later collapsed and died.
When Francois I moved in, Amboise saw a glittering period of court life. Also influenced by Italian culture, Francois brought the great Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise and da Vinci spent the last years of his life here. Indeed, his bones are buried in the north transept of the little Chapelle St Hubert which strides the ramparts of Amboise. In the nearby fifteenth century manor house of Clos Luce, visitors can see many souvenirs of da Vinci, including models of his revolutionary machines.
At the end of the Second World War, local collaborators and members of the German High Command were hanged from the balconies of Amboise, concluding another violent episode in the extraordinary history of this château.
Incidentally, don't miss the huge spiral stone ramp in the interior of the castle - it was once used for galloping horses to the ramparts high above the river where the mounted soldiers could have first go at the enemies below the walls.
Although it is much smaller than Amboise and Blois, this chateaux is also steeped in drama. The original keep, dating from the tenth century, is said to be the oldest in France. Langeais was the scene of many battles fought between the English kings (who had become the counts of Anjou) and the kings of France. Richard the Lion-Heart once conquered the keep, but subsequent French kings made very sure that Langeais remained in their hands once Richard disappeared.
The 'new' castle, built in the fifteenth century by Louis Xl, was originally used as a grace and favour residence by those whom the King felt deserving of his reward. Because of the way the apartments within the castle are furnished, Langeais today feels the warmest and most lived in of all the older châteaux. It shows a very real picture of fifteenth century domestic life and appears surprisingly comfortable to the twentieth century eye.
Each of the Loire châteaux brings its own rewards to travellers. Some people have special favourites, others love them all. Some might prefer the extravagant gardens, others the halls and guard rooms, or the intimate bedrooms festooned with drapes and tapestries -- but all the châteaux have magic. Centuries of living, scenes of love and lust (one Tours woman, long dead, claimed her châteaux nights included rendezvous with Francois I, Pope Clement, and Emperor Charles V as well), accoutrements for the pleasure of a hunter king, feasts and feats of valour are all entombed in the pale stone walls of the châteaux.
Check opening hours of the castles. They are rarely consistent and some close during winter's darkest months. Son-et-lumière summer performances are usually at the best-known châteaux, but are often scheduled at the lesser ones as well. It is best to see them the night before a planned daytime visit, as these sound and light shows give you romantic glimpses which place in perspective a château's history. Good, comfortable shoes are an essential. Those looming stone staircases can carry you up three or four seemingly endless flights. If you are in the Loire in winter, wear twice as many clothes as you think you'll need. The stone walls make the temperature inside the castles very chilly indeed.
Buy a copy of Michelin's Green Guide to the châteaux of the Loire. It's full of historic detail, lists the contents of the rooms you'll visit, includes opening hours and nearby places of interest. shops in Australia.
Words: Jill Mullens. 15/4/10
Photos: Frank Mullens, Michel Angot, P. Duriez, Catherine Bibollet, Léonard de Serres