2006 – Châteaux of the Loire
AT A GLANCE
Welcome to a fairytale land of fabulous, majestic architecture, stunning gardens, hidden treasures and breath-taking scenery.
Welcome to the Loire Valley, from ruined medieval castles to Renaissance Palaces, from Nantes in the west to beyond Sully-sur-Loire in the east, from sparkling Saumur fizz to bone-dry Sauvignon blancs – a week of wonder and exploration.
This tour takes you to a selection of the very finest châteaux, some because of the outstanding architecture, others because of the stunning gardens and a few because of both, and we visit a selection of gardens too, beautiful gardens in their own right, and independent of châteaux.
We take private guided tours of the historic quarters of Loches and Amboise, visit less well known attractions, off the beaten track, stop for photographs throughout the day and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the weekly market. We eat well, and we appreciate the delights of the noble grape too, visiting vineyards and wineries, and arranging wine tastings.
We visit five of the grandest châteaux extensively, allowing plenty of time for each visit and taking guided tours where available, they are the five châteaux that Sofia and I visited on last summer's reconnaissance – Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord, Chenonceau, Villandry and Fontevraud – together with private guided tours of the 'Royal Cities' of Loches and Amboise.
In addition to the stunning gardens at Chenonceau and Villandry, we will visit three private gardens, all of which are designated 'Jardin Remarquable', one international garden festival and Chédigny, an exceptional village, dedicated to roses. We will stop in market towns, at least once on a 'market day' and to wander around on other occasions, enjoy a guided walking tour of the Old Quarter of Tours, and tutored wine tastings of Loire wines from Chinon, Vouvray and Sancerre – wines you can read about on this brilliant website, here.
Apparently, there are some 300 castles and châteaux along the Loire and its tributaries, and of the 41 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France, the Loire Valley is by far the largest. Clearly, we have limited the size of the tour area and the number of attractions we attempt to visit, and I hope we have struck the right balance.
The Loire is France's longest river and was, from earliest times to the advent of the railways, a major transport and trading route. Fortifications, frequently on the sites of earlier, Gaulish or Roman forts, were built along the river in the 9th-century, to protect towns and trade from Viking raids, and these forts became 11th-century castles, built to protect the interests of local, quarrelsome chiefs.
The river formed the boundary between the English and French during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) and, after Joan of Arc helped Charles VII regain the French throne, and after he took up residence in Loches, the Loire became the centre of the French Royal Court. The aristocracy and nobility followed and, with the advent of the European Renaissance, they built châteaux, as a conspicuous display of their wealth. Religious wars and plague followed, all but ending the Golden Age of the Loire.
In this context at least, 'the Loire' includes its tributaries too, especially the rivers Cher, Indre and Vienne, along the left bank.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
In 1516, at the invitation of King Francis I, Leonardo da Vinci, then aged 64, came to Amboise. Appointed 'First painter, engineer and architect to the King', Francis gave him a pension, the Château of Le Cloux (now the Château of Le Clos Lucé) and the freedom to work as he desired and, importantly, Leonardo bought with him the Mona Lisa, several other works and his notebooks and journals.
He died in 1519 and is buried at the Royal Château of Amboise.
Sleeping & Eating
After a not inconsiderable search for the 'right' place, we have chosen the delightful Auberge du Bon Laboureur, as our base for the tour. A 'boutique hotel' with a superb kitchen and on the doorstep of Château de Chenonceau, it is particularly well-placed, geographically, and as central to the tour area as one could hope for.
We shall dine-in, at our hotel's restaurant, on four evenings and dine-out, on the other three evenings, at Les Closeaux, at Le Clos aux Roses, and at one of the many excellent eateries in Amboise. Additionally, we include lunch at Chenonceau, on the first day, and we will arrange a simple picnic lunch, from the provisions of a local market, on another day.
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11 – 18 June 2020 | 8 days
DAY 1 – THU 11 JUN
Tim will meet you in the morning in Tours, at Tours Loire Valley Airport, the local airport, or at either of the two mainline railway stations – Gare de Tours or Gare de St Pierre des Corps – and, once we are all together, we will drive directly to the Château de Chenonceau for lunch and for the whole afternoon exploring this marvel of the Renaissance.
Francis I brought Chenonceau into the Crown Estate as part of a settlement. His son, Henry II, gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, until, on his death, in 1559, his widow, Catherine de’ Medici, promptly turfed Diane out of her home and moved in, herself. From here she ruled France in the name of her son, the five-year-old Francis II. In the 18th century, Chenonceau became home to Louise Dupin, a woman famous for her 'literary salons' and who turned Chenonceau into a centre of the Enlightenment, welcoming the greatest and brightest scholars, philosophers and academicians of the day. Famous for drafting a Code of Women’s Rights, she also saved the château from the ravages of the Revolution by claiming that, as it was the only bridge for miles around, trade would be badly harmed!
In the 1st World War it was a hospital and, during the 2nd World War, despite being bombed by both Germans and Allies, and occupied by the Germans, it was used to escape the Nazi occupied France, to the north, by crossing the River Cher to the 'free' zone, in the south.
Our hotel, the Auberge du Bon Laboureur, is probably no more than five minute's drive away, where we will retire to, later in the afternoon, to check-in and relax, before drinks and dinner at the hotel.
Todays total driving is about 50 kms.
DAY 2 – FRI 12 JUN
We start the week with a morning visit to Château de Valmer, to explore their superb gardens and enjoy a guided tour of its cellars, and a tutored tasting of their delicious Vouvray wine. The Château, which once belonged to Charles VII, and tragically burnt down in 1948, was a 16th-century Renaissance house, of which its terraces and chapel both survive, together with 17th-century gatehouse and outbuildings.
The gardens, with its walls, balustrades and statues, comprise eight individual areas, beautifully terraced on differing levels, and including a one-hectare, checkerboard vegetable garden, flower gardens, fruit trees and topiary, all surrounded by the estate's 32-hectare vineyard.
From Valmer we drive through Amboise, for a glimpse of this Royal Town, to which we will return, before lunch and the rest of the day at Château Chaumont-sur-Loire. The site of a medieval fortress, confiscated and razed to the ground by Louis XI in 1465, it was rebuilt as a Renaissance Château by Charles I d'Amboise, completed by his son, and acquired by Catherine de Medici in 1550. It was here that she entertained Nostradamus and, when her husband, Henry II, died, forced his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to accept Chaumont in exchange for Chenonceau. In 1750, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray, a "Father of the American Revolution", purchased the castle, only to have it seized in 1789, in the French Revolution!
We have lunch at Chaumont, and plenty of time to explore the house and the gardens – some 32 gardens recreated each year as a part of an International Garden Festival – before dinner, en route home to our hotel.
Todays total driving is about 100 kms.
DAY 3 – SAT 13 JUN
Our day starts in Montrichard, for a stroll around this pretty medieval market town, historically an important crossing point on the river Cher, where its castle stands guard over the historic town below. Two 11th-century churches, Notre-Dame de Nanteuil and St. Croix, where the daughters of Louis XI were married, and plenty of historic houses add to the charming atmosphere.
After coffee in Montrichard, our day continues in the Royal City of Loches. Built on a rocky outcrop, overlooking the Indre, Loches is one of the best preserved medieval fortresses in Europe. Count of Anjou, Fulk the Black, built the 11th-century keep, Richard the Lionheart and Philip Augustus did battle here in the 12th-century and Joan of Arc met Charles VII here, to persuade him to be crowned in Reims. It was a state prison, for high-ranking political prisoners, before its 15th-century restoration to a Royal residence. We will have lunch in Loches, before a private guided tour of the lower town and the Royal citadel above.
After a little free time exploring the lower town, we drive north, to near-by Chédigny, where, the weekend beforehand, some 15,000 visitors will have descended on this unique village 'Jardin Remarquable' for its annual Rose Festival, and to admire its remarkable collection of roses. Don't worry, there will still be plenty to see, there are roses everywhere, adorning every house and growing in every garden – it is a community dedicated to roses! You have plenty of time to stroll around at your will, visit one or two of the gardens which may be open, before we meet up for a drink and dinner, in Chédigny, at Le Clos aux Roses.
Todays total driving is about 100 kms.
DAY 4 – SUN 14 JUN
We spend today in and around Sancerre, starting with a visit to the private gardens of Château de Pesselières, the first of our two 'Jardins Remarquable'. Pesselières is first mentioned 1170, and the house follows the 14th-century plan, but the garden was first laid out in the 18th-century, on the bones of a 17th-century park, by the Marquis des Puységur. It was restored by the Collard family in the 19th-century and, again, by the present owners since 2008. It is undoubtedly a 'romantic' garden, gardened organically, with traditional lawns giving way to wild flower meadows, and a great many new trees, including a labyrinth of over 1000 hornbeams in front of the house!
Famous the world over for its dry white wines, the name Sancerre needs little introduction. A Celtic Gaulish settlement before the Romans arrived from whom, possibly, it derives its name, after a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar – 'Sacred to Caesar' or 'Saint-Cere'. Its heritage is dense with important events in French history, which you can read here. We will have lunch in the busy market square and time to to take in the magnificent views across the Loire, east to Pouilly and beyond, before an organised wine tasting at the village centre shop of the Fournier Père et Fils winery, a family business dating to 1950, when Paul Fournier started his business activities.
Leaving Sancerre, we visit le Jardin de Marie, our second 'Jardin Remarquable', a private 2-hectare garden created 30 years ago and, like Pesselières, gardened organically. It is, I guess, the French equivalent of the English country cottage garden, surrounded, as it is by the beautiful Berry countryside, with a sumptuous collection of over 500 varieties of roses, a lot of viburnums and summer grasses and hydrangeas, together with the obligatory pond, kitchen garden and orchard.
We return to our hotel for dinner.
Today's total driving is about 350 kms.
DAY 5 – MON 15 JUN
We start the day at the fabulous Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, one of the finest examples of early French Renaissance architecture. The original, 12th-century fortress, built by Rideau d'Azay, to guard the Tours to Chinon river crossing, was burnt to the ground by an angry future Charles VII, and remained in ruins until 1518, when Gilles Berthelot, the Treasurer-General, started work on the château we see today, though building on marshy ground, and transporting the stone from quarries over 100km away took its toll, and work was still incomplete in 1535, when Francis I confiscated the château.
Frances gave it to Antoine Raffin, who didn't build the planned south and west wings, giving the château its distinctive L-shape. In 1787, the château was sold to the Marquis de Biencourt, who undertook extensive alterations, and almost burnt down again, this time on the orders of Prince Friedrich of Prussia, when a chandelier fell on him. Suspecting assassination, he ordered the building to be razed – mercifully, his officers convinced him otherwise! Azay-le-Rideau returned to the Biencourts until 1905, when the state bought it.
We have lunch at d'Azay, before visiting its near-neighbour, Château de Villandry. Rightly famous for its stunning gardens, Villandry was the last of the great châteaux of the Loire, though its sober architecture is in stark contrast to its contemporaries. Built in 1532 by Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance to François I, Le Breton was interested in gardening and laid out a garden befitting his status. When the Marquis of Castellane bought Villandry in 1760, he enlarged the gardens and relaid them in the latest fashion, and it wasn't until the early 20th-century, when Joachim Carvallo and his wife, Ann Coleman, bought Villandry that they changed again. Joachim and Ann made Villandry their life's work and the current owner, Henri Carvallo, their great-grandson, continues to develop the garden, adding a herb garden in the 1970s and a sun garden in 2008.
We plan to spend all day at these two châteaux, returning to our hotel for dinner.
Today's total driving is about 100 kms
DAY 6 – TUE 16 JUN
An exceptional day awaits us, as we arrive at the most majestic of all châteaux, Château de Chambord. Built as a royal hunting lodge by Francis I, it has had, to put it mildly, a chequered history. Work started in 1519, took almost 30 years to build and, even then, was neither finished nor habitable. Francis I spent barely seven weeks there. Heating the huge rooms, all with unglazed windows, was quite impractical and, because of its remoteness, everything, including all the furnishings and the food, had to be brought to Chambord – often for parties of up to 2,000 people!
Unfurnished, unloved and a logistical nightmare Chambord was abandoned until 1639, when Louis XIII gave it to Gaston d'Orléans, who carried out much-needed restoration work. Louis XIV added a 1,200-horse stable, but abandoned the château in 1685, and so it continued. Ownership passed from kings, via the revolution, to Napoleon, to the Duke of Bordeaux, to the Dukes of Parma until, finally, it passed to the French state since 1930 and, thankfully, survived an American B-24 Liberator, which crashed onto the lawns in June 1944!
From Chambord, we drive along the Loire to spend the rest of the day in Amboise. Built atop the 40-metre high cliffs overlooking the Loire, Château d'Amboise occupies a strategic site, fortified since the times of earliest man and, for four hundred years, from the mid-16th century, through the golden years of the French Renaissance, Amboise enjoyed a starring role in the nation's history. Non more so than when Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the greatest influence on the European Renaissance, made Amboise his home.
We will plan to take a guided tour of the Château d'Amboise, and visit, independently, its gardens, the Chapel Saint Hubert, erected by King Charles VIII, where Leonardo da Vinci is buried, and Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci's home. We will then have time to explore the town, itself, before meeting in the market square for drinks and dinner.
Today's total driving is about 100 kms
DAY 7 – WED 17 JUN
We spend our penultimate day of the tour visiting l’Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud – the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud – the largest abbey in Europe.
Founded in 1101 by Robert of Arbrissel, the foundation flourished as a new monastic order, the Order of Fontevrault, unique in that it admitted men and women – in separate orders – from a cross-section of society, and it was led by an Abbess. The order spread rapidly, with daughter communities as far as England and Spain, and attracted royal patronage – Henry II, King of England, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and son, Richard the Lionheart were all buried at Fontevraud, and we will visit their tombs.
The last abbess was given her marching orders in 1792, three years after Revolution, when it became a notorious prison, one of the toughest prisons in France, where, during the 2nd World War, members of the Resistance were held, and ten were shot. The prison closed in 1963, allowing restoration work to begin and the public to enter, which they did, in 1975 – ending almost 900 years of confinement.
From Fontevraud we visit nearby Chinon, for a walk the towns almost complete fortifications and to taste some Chinon wines, before an earlier-than-usual return to our hotel and a late-afternoon stroll to Chenonceau, for pre-dinner drinks, returning to the Bon Laboureur for dinner.
Today's driving is about 200 kms
DAY 8 – THU 18 JUN
There is no great plan for today, except that, after breakfast and loading the minibus, we will drive into Tours for a private guided walking tour of the Old Quarter of Tours, before departing to the railway station or the airport or other destination for your onward or homeward journey.
As with the first day, our plans will become clearer, once we know everyone's travel arrangements. If you are staying on, in France, and don't need (or wish) to return to Tours, then please let us know your onward travel plans, so that we may assist you in getting to your next destination.
I shall be driving to the Channel Coast!
Today's driving is about 50 kms
We endeavour to be as faithful as possible to our published itineraries, but changes do occur occasionally, either necessarily or unavoidably.