What Are Loire Valley Castles You Shouldn’t Skip?
In this episode of the podcast, we answer one big question: What are a few Loire Valley castles you shouldn’t skip? The answer, of course, depends on what you like and who you are with. Janice Chung spent 6 days there in the spring of 2017 and she visited 12 of them on that occasion. But, as a true francophile, this was also her 5th visit to the area, so she’s more qualified than most to give us a unbiased primer on the area and point out gems that are truly worth your time.
Janice recommends staying at various castles instead of going to hotels. This can be surprisingly affordable, and a definite plus for honeymooners. She gives pointers for those visiting the area with children (as a former school principal she knows what works and doesn’t work with kids!) We also talk about her long-time desire to take a hot-air balloon ride over the Loire Valley, and her adventure tasting Loire Valley wines.
Janice is the editor of a wonderful blog about travel to France called France Travel Tips, you should check it out, it’s great.
Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.
Recommended in this Episode
La Rocheline in La Chevalerie in La-Croix-en-Tourraine (near Amboise), Château d’Artigny (near Tours), Château des Tertres (near Blois), Château de Chissay in Chissay-en-Touraine (mear Chenonceau). Winery at Château de Valmer
Extra Content for Email Subscribers this Week
Getting the best out of your smart phone while in Paris, which includes info on finding free WiFi in Paris and where you can charge your phone in Paris. Subscribe here.
French Tip of the Week
In Paris last week I didn’t run into a single person who wasn’t willing to speak English with us. So what are you to do if you want to practice your French? Try saying this: “pourrions-nous parler français s’il vous plait, j’ai besoin de m’entrainer”.
Places Mentioned in this Episode
Loire River, Cher River, Blois, Tours, Chambord, Chenonceau, Château d’Ussé, Château Villandry, Saumur, Amboise, Le Clos Lucé, Château de Cheverny, Château Beauregard, Château de Valmer.
What We Discuss in this Episode with Time-Stamps
Meet Janice, the Anglo Canadian who Loves France!
[03:26] Janice Chung is from Canada and a repeat traveler to France. She loves the diversity she finds in France.
The Entire Loire Valley Is a World Unesco Heritage Site
[04:18] The whole Loire Valley is a World Unesco Heritage Site, which means it’s all wonderful, but it also makes it hard to choose where to you should concentrate your time. There is so much history and beauty concentrated along the Loire and Cher rivers that it can leave you puzzled. This episode is meant to help you find out which ones are the two “biggies” and possibly choose a few others depending on your taste also.
Must Go because of History, Architecture, Activities and Proximity to Paris
[05:02] History aside, the architecture of the Loire Valley castles is stunning. The châteaux are beautifully designed, the gardens are lovely, there are lots of activities you can participate in, especially in the summer, and it is really close to Paris to boot!
How to Get to the Loire Valley
What Towns to Use as Your Base in the Loire Valley?
[05:46] See her recommendations above. Janice chose to use two towns as her base: Blois and Tours. Saumur is also a possibility. It’s best to pick two towns that will work for you. Matt, another guest on the show from Episode 166 loves to stay near Amboise at La Rocheline in La Chevalerie in La-Croix-en-Tourraine. What matters is that wherever you are you can take easy day trips and don’t spend too long in the car. They stayed for 6 days and visited 12 châteaux total.
Visiting in April vs the Summer
[07:00] It is a fact that some of the lesser known Loire Valley castles can be just as interesting as the super famous ones. They went in April and had spectacular weather. They didn’t have to deal with crowds, but the gardens were not in full bloom. In the summer you’ll get the gardens in full bloom, but you’ll also get the crowds. In the summer you also get more festivals, so you have to pick your poison! Remember that nothing is ever as crowded as the Château of Versailles, even in high season in the Loire Valley.
Rent Bicycles at Chambord
[09:01] Some of the estates of these châteaux are massive, it’s often worth renting bicycles to see the more of the “Domaine de Chambord”.
Loire Valley Castle Nomenclature
[09:28] Some of the names you will encounter may surprise you. Officially it’s not called Château dÁmboise but rather Château Royal d’Amboise. Same with Chinon, it is “Forteresse Royale de Chinon”. A “Résidence Royale” is better than just a château because we have a lot of plain of châteaux in France!
Top of the List Loire Valley Castles
[10:00] Loire Valley Châteaux on everybody’s list would be Château de Chenonceau. This one straddles the river Cher and it is stunningly beautiful as well as has lots of wonderful history. Diane de Poitier was the mistress of Henry II and when he died she had to give it back to Catherine de Medici, but she got another château instead, the one at Chenon sur Loire. We will do episodes specifically concentrating on the history of those castles, this episode is more of an overview.
Audio Guides and Light Shows at Loire Châteaux
[11:27] At most of these châteaux you can rent an audio guide. Sometimes the rental is included in the admission price, sometimes they cost a couple of euros extra, but they are usually worth it. Your mileage may vary, some are engaging and others not so much. They spent 5 hours at Chenonceau. You can take canoe under the arches of Chenonceau.
At night they have a “son-et-lumière” at Chenonceau where they project images on the château to classical music and commentary (which may be in French only and possibly boring if you don’t understand what’s being said). Take the time to check out Trip Advisor reviews on those light shows, some of them have probably come a long way recently.
The Number 1 Château on Everyone’s List Should Be Chenonceau
[14:37] Chenonceau should be on everyone’s list, not just for the architecture and the interior (they try to replicate era tapestries, furniture and such) but the gardens are also stunning. In France, the Revolution did a number on everything. It is very likely that most of these castles were robbed during the Revolution so if you see furnishings they will probably be either replicas or other period pieces, not the originals. Plan on 5 hours, especially if you are going to eat there.
The Number 2 Château on Everyone’s List Should Be Chambord
[15:46] The next château on your list should be Chambord. They also spent 5 hours there and it is the biggest château in the Loire Valley. You can also rent bicycles or do a horse and carriage ride. They have outstanding audio-visual presentations that explain how it was created and the history. Some Disney Castles were modeled after Loire Valley Châteaux but they are so much smaller it is hard not to be blasé if you see both.
Lesser Known but Worth a Visit Château d’Ussé
[17:32] Speaking of Disney, the Château d’Ussé is also worth a visit, especially of the outside. Charles Perrault wrote La Belle au Bois Dormant aka Sleeping Beauty. They try to recreate the story inside the castle with wax figures and mannequins, but they are scary looking. Part of the tour at Ussé take you up into the attic, but it’s very dark up there. This is one that looks glorious from the outside, but you may consider skipping the inside. Maybe tell the story of Sleeping Beauty to your kids while walking around the outside and call it good.
Château Villandry Is also Worth Considering
[19:20] Also probably nicer on the outside than on the inside (but not bad inside by any means) is Château Villandry. This one has magnificent gardens on 3 levels: flowers, vegetable, water gardens, fruit terraces, all meticulously maintained. They have 10 gardeners that maintain it throughout the year. It is close to Tours.
Should You Visit Loire Valley Castles with Young Children?
[20:28] You have to worry about little kids at those château because they may be bored to death. If you’re just seeing great architecture and gardens, you can be sure the kids won’t like it. But there are some Loire Valley Castles that have festivals in the summer.
Saumur has a whole summer Medieval Festival with jousting, sword fighting, displays. But if you can transform your daughters into princesses and your sons into knights, take them on bike rides along the river, they may love it too. Check out this site (in French) for a list of kid-friendly activities in the Loire Valley. Also be aware that some of the best kid-friendly activities may be only available in French.
Hot-Air Balloon Ride
[22:14] Janice went on a hot-air balloon ride near Amboise. It wasn’t cheap (189€) and everything depends on the weather. You get picked up near Amboise and the flight is about 1 hour and you can ride close to the ground at times. You can see some private châteaux. She liked it, but didn’t love it because they didn’t see some of the most famous châteaux except Amboise that they were close to. There are rides offered near various châteaux, choose the one you want to see most.
Canoeing and Bike Tours
[24:49] Canoeing and Renting Bicycles are also great activities that are a lot cheaper and will appeal to the entire family. The Loire Valley is extremely flat, so it’s a great place to rent a bike and go from château to château. You can do this even if you’re not in top cycling shape. You will see a lot of bike tours in the Loire Valley because it is very conducive to that. We talk about the difference between Loire and Provence Cycling Tours in Episode 149.
[25:32] Amboise is a really beautiful château, particularly from the outside. It is high up, so you’re looking down at the river, and is wonderful for photographers. This was also Da Vinci’s final home. The Foire d’Amboise takes place the third week-end in April and is a wonderful tie-in to visit the area.
Le Clos Lucé, a Great Place for Kids!
[26:28] When at Amboise, you also need to visit Le Clos Lucé, aka The Leonardo Da Vinci Museum. A great place for adults and kids alike. Clos Lucé is wonderful, it is where they’ve recreated a lot of Da Vinci’s inventions in the place where he lived at the end of his life. The inventions they installed in the gardens are wonderful, you can crank things and try a lot of them, it’s hands-on. In the summer they have extra demonstrations which makes it extra fun. This one will surprise you by how wonderful it is!
Tintin and the Château de Cheverny
[28:08] Hergé, the author of Tintin comics, modeled his fictional “Château de Moulinsart” (translated as “Marlinspike Hall” in English) on the Château de Cheverny. Beautiful grounds, beautiful château, famous for their hunting dogs. You can see the dog feeding times morning and night. A great château to take kids to, espcially if they like either Tintin or dogs.
Château de Beauregard
[30:25] You don’t hear about Château de Beauregard as much, but it is known for its gallery of hundreds of portraits. They’ve taken 20 or so of the portraits to the grounds and it makes your walk through the grounds more interesting.
Stay at a Château instead of a Hotel
[31:42] If you have the chance, you should stay at a real château instead of a hotel. Janice enjoyed staying at the Château d’Artigny in the city of Montbazon (Check it out, GORGEOUS!!!). Janice has also stayed at the Château des Tertres in Onzain near Chaumont-sur-Loire, beautiful, great breakfast, recently renovated, amazing price. The Château de Chissay in Chissay-en-Touraine (near Chenonceau).
Smaller Châteaux Close at Lunch-Time
[35:08] There are lots of châteaux in the Loire Valley that are not famous, some privately owned, some open to the public, other do not, and some close at lunch-time.
1000 French Châteaux for Sale on any Given Day
[36:34] Owning a French château is an expensive proposition and it is said that there are 1000 French châteaux for sale on any given day. French tax structure at the moment assumes that if you own a “château classé” (of high historical value) you must be in a high tax bracket, so you get big tax breaks to help you deal with the expense. The consequence of that is that if you are not in a high tax bracket to begin with, you get no help whatsoever until you make enough money. The other problem is that there are strict rule as to how you renovate a historical site, and that makes every little thing expensive.
There is a TV show on the CBC called Escape to the Château and it’s about a couple who buy a castle and renovate it to be rented out for receptions. If you really yearn to do this sort of thing, maybe start with a “maison de maître” which is much smaller than a château.
Wine Making in the Loire Valley: Château de Valmer
[41:34] When traveling to the Loire Valley as a tourist, it’s amazing to see how they built these enormous homes. Some of them make money by making and selling wine, such as the Château de Valmer. Loire Valley Wines are famous. For example Touraine or Janice’s favorite Vouvray.
Definitely do some wine-tasting while in the Loire Valley, or at the very least, buy some local wines at the grocery store. When you are at a restaurant, ask them if they have a pichet of local wine, you will be surprised both by the quality and the price of those wines!
We’ve Barely Scratched the Surface Here!
[43:10] There are so many châteaux in the Loire Valley that there are several we haven’t mentioned. For instance Blois and Chinon. You need to do some research into the particular attractions you enjoy. One week of châteaux might get you all the way “châteaued-out”.
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