Loire Valley

Loire Valley is tranquil and idyllic, especially if visited outside of the peak season. Well-preserved grand medieval castles. Quaint and seemingly deserted villages. Empty narrow roads going across fields. All combine into a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site.

Chateau de Chambord

People come to this area first and foremost to tour castles, of which there are a couple of hundred. The few most popular ones should probably feature on any tour itinerary.

It is important to note that, from a certain perspective, once you visit one castle’s interior, you visited them all. Authentic medieval furnishings consist of beds, chests, chairs, and tapestries, which can continuously fascinate only a connoisseur. Distinguishing characteristics of major castles are normally in the location and exterior appearance. If you are like me, you would still want to visit as many castles as possible. But some people may find it repetitive.

Chambord ♥♥♥, the grandest of them all, is a magnificent piece of work. Its two main features, the double-helix staircase and the ornate roof with hundreds of decorative chimneys, are more than worth a visit by themselves. The castle is vast and monumental. It is really a stretch to call it a castle, to start with; it was certainly built as a palace. Unfortunately, aside from the stairs and the roof, Chambord tends to underwhelm: its rooms are largely empty, decorated mostly by portraits, with an occasional piece of furniture thrown in. Some of the rooms house exhibitions of middling interest, related to the region.

You can also explore Chambord’s immense domaine, which I suspect very few visitors would prioritize.

Cheverny ♥♥♥ is quite the opposite of Chambord. It is not very grand – and even understated – on the exterior, although the fact that it sits on a large expanse of open parkland helps with the impression. On the inside, though, Cheverny is exquisitely furnished in the post-Renaissance style (not at all medieval, which makes it a standout among main destinations).

The mostly-wooded estate is huge. You can tour it via cart and then boat, with some commentary provided by the caretakers. In addition, the estate is famous for breeding hunting dogs; the pen is not far from the castle, and you may chance upon the feeding, which is reportedly very interesting. There is also an exposition dedicated to the comic-book hero Tintin, part of whose adventures happened at the castle inspired by Cheverny.

Another of the most widely-known Loire châteaux is Chenonceau ♥♥♥. Straddling river Cher and fronted by two beautiful gardens, it is a lovely sight, befitting a castle that was shaped by the women who inhabited it – queens and royal mistresses. As you approach the castle via a long straight wooded alley, you can imagine yourself galloping down it for a rendezvous with the queen of your heart.

The Interior here is less striking than the exterior, although a couple of massive fireplaces, the lower-level kitchen and services, and supposedly the very first straight staircase built in any castle are quite interesting. The great gallery that sits right above the river is also unique. The gardens and the surrounding park are worth lingering in.

Much smaller and even more intimate is Azay-le-Rideau ♥♥♥. Surrounded by a pond, it projects the aura of a “real” castle of some minor feudal lord. Again, the interior is somewhat unremarkable, aside from a couple of amazing fireplaces, but on the outside, the castle is nothing short of striking.

Chaumont ♥♥ has just as “proper” appearance as Azay when viewed from inside its grounds. There are a couple of interesting rooms inside. More interesting are the 19th-century stables on the estate. There are no horses, but the exhibition related to horse breeding and -keeping is very nice. Chaumont is also home to an annual garden festival, which sees prominent landscape artists create imaginative gardens on small plots of land. At the end of the summer season (normally, in early October), all gardens are dismantled; starting in April of next year, new gardens are created.

Another of the prime destinations is Villandry ♥♥♥, which is primarily remarkable for its fantastic gardens. The castle, when viewed from the gardens, fits into the landscape quite well, but our recollection of the visit to the château itself many years ago suggests nothing especially interesting. Concentrate on the gardens. There is a vegetable one, an ornamental one, and a water garden. Plus, a maze, a picnic area, a children’s playground, and enough acreage of woodland for hiking. Viewed from the height of the Belvédère, the geometric and colorful layout of the vegetable and ornamental gardens is entirely spectacular.

Langeais ♥♥♥ is a bit less popular destination, but it is one of my favorites. The main reason for that is that the castle is furnished quite well, and you can move around the rooms among the furniture (unlike many other places where you have to shuffle along a path, separated from the exhibits by ropes). There are beautiful tiled floors (likely not original since you are allowed to walk on them), several luxurious fireplaces, and some interesting tapestry. A wax figure composition, depicting the secret wedding of King Charles VIII and Anne of Bretagne, is accompanied by a fine presentation every 15 minutes (but three out of four are in French).

Langeais, unlike all of the previously mentioned castles, sits right in the middle of a small village whose main street is very picturesque.

Château d’Ussé ♥ was reputedly the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty castle. You can see the lineage when looking at it. We never ventured inside, but stopping by for a look is probably worth it, especially when you have daughters in tow. Next to the castle is a great local specialties and gifts ♥ shop, if you want to make your visit to Rigny-Ussé even more worthwhile.

We once also attempted to go to a castle well off the beaten path and selected Champchevrier for that purpose, but it was closed for refurbishment at the time. The middle-of-nowhere location called for some interesting driving on deserted roads.

Two more castles in larger towns are certainly worth a look. Amboise ♥♥ and Blois ♥♥ both boast nice period furnishings, but the exteriors of each are more impressive. Amboise is dramatically located high above the Loire and is home to the Chapel of St-Hubert, which is the alleged burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. Blois is singular in that its four wings are built in four different architectural styles, making for an amazing combination; the spiral staircase on the façade of François I wing is the castle’s most renowned feature.

Both Amboise and Blois dominate nice towns of reasonable size and vibrancy.

Another such town is Chinon ♥♥, whose medieval center is graced by a number of half-timbered houses, a rarity this far to the south of Europe. Loire embankment in the town center is comparatively lively and pleasant. You can also climb to the upper part of the town if you decide to visit the château.

Loches ♥ is a smaller town, with a very compact medieval core and a larger “old town”. The château and Saint-Ours church are best viewed from public gardens on the other bank of the river Indrois; the park also has a playground, which always goes well with children bored by castle-hopping.

On the same little river Indre, an even smaller town is the picturesque Montrésor ♥, deservedly holding a place on the list of the most beautiful villages in all of France. It has its own castle, a couple of churches, and intimate curving streets – truly a step-back-in-time village. Walking along the opposite bank of the river opens up great views of the castle and the village.

Another picturesque village, Rochecorbon, we only drove through along the Loire bank. Hotel rooms that are built into the caves inside white chalk cliffs overlooking the river are a fascinating sight. Definitely a potential stop in the future.

The biggest towns in the region, Orléans and Tours, hold many attractions themselves and may be worth considering for less castle-centric itineraries around the area.

It should be noted that touring castles is not a child-friendly enterprise. No matter how inquisitive or interested in medieval history and architecture your offspring is, the aforementioned repetitiveness will make them grow bored. There are a few family attractions in the region that help you diversify the activities, one of which is Parc Mini-Châteaux ♥, outside of Amboise. The park contains over 60 models of the major Loire Valley castles, and is especially fun to visit towards the end of your trip, allowing children to play at recognizing the places they might have visited.

On a different note, anyone who enjoys self-driving tours will be handsomely rewarded in their exploration of the area. There are many excellent glimpses and panoramic views of castles and towns and exciting passages through villages all over the valley.

Finally, in the summertime, most major castles hold Music and Light shows in the late evenings, which are reportedly spectacular. This is one of the things that we never managed to experience ourselves since our visits to the area occur outside of the summer months. We would if we could.



In the “memorable stays” category, Domaine de la Tortinière (link), close to Tours, was rebuilt to its present form in the second half of the 19th century. It sits on a wooded estate high on the hill above river Indre, with magnificent views towards Montbazon. The location is especially convenient for Villandry-Azay-Ussé-Chinon run, and not bad for many others; Chambord, Cheverny, Chaumont, and Blois, on the other hand, are about an hour away. The grounds are expansive and conducive to hiking. There is plenty of outdoor chairs for idle lounging and a pool that is open in the summer season. There are rooms in the main château and also in the row of cottages nearby; one small drawback of the latter is that the cottages sit against the domain’s wall, with a road on the other side; it is not a busy road, but any car driving on it in the middle of the night may wake up light sleepers.

The lower level of the château is a nice restaurant, serving an excellent breakfast and a very good dinner as well, with people coming in specifically for a meal.


As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal anywhere in France, not just in Loire Valley.

Worthy of specific recommendations are: L’Étape Gourmande (on a farm about one kilometer from Villandry), with a stupendous open fireplace dominating the dining room and the food that is out of this world; Auberge de Launay (on Rue de la Rivière in Limeray, off the main riverside road), which we recalled from our very first visit to France in 2002 as one of the best culinary experiences, and which maintained that level on a return visit a few years later; or Le Cheval Blanc (on Pl. Charles Bidault, the main square in Bléré), which is of more upscale variety on a beautiful square.

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