LOIRE VALLEY CASTLES. TRAVELLING BY CAMPERVAN BETWEEN THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE.
Fairytale castles and enchanted gardens
An area where nature and landscape seem painted by a fantastical artist.
A journey among the Castles of the Loire Valley is undoubtedly an unforgettable journey.
A classic tour, beloved by natives of all European countries, perfect in every season, not least because nearly all of these estates never close their gates. Furthermore, this area is ideal for travelling by campervan: movement is simple, pleasant and often free of charge. Well-equipped parking areas and camping sites are many, mostly nearby the places you wish to visit, and often in well protected green sites.
Our itinerary starts in Bourg-en-Bresse, in eastern France, in the Department of Ain, in a small town that is famous for its gastronomic specialities and its ancient quarters... well-kept and full of typical wooden mediaeval houses and Renaissance buildings.
This is the first castle on our tour, and is also the largest in the entire Loire Valley.
We are now in the Loir-et-Cher department, 14 km north-east of Blois and roughly 6 km from the left bank of the Loire River. We cross the grounds of the Chambord Castle in our campervan: over 5,000 hectares of woodland surrounded by a perimeter wall 32 kilometres long, making it the largest enclosed forest park in Europe.
The park is home to a rich fauna consisting of numerous animals in total freedom, plus countless signposted paths for taking long walks.
The construction of Chambord Castle was begun in 1519, initially resembling a mediaeval fortress. Over the centuries it was modified and enlarged, but maintained a surprisingly harmonious synthesis of styles, influenced notably by the Italian Renaissance. The young King François I had commissioned it as a country residence and hunting reserve.
It is known as “the castle of excesses” – 56 metres high, 156 metres long, with 77 staircases, 282 chimneys and 426 rooms – but it seduces us through its grace and equilibrium.
Don’t miss a visit to the terraces, from where you can thrill to an unexpected panorama filled with skylights, towers, stairs and chimneys.
Not far away, we find Chateau Cheverny, which features a superb English-style park with magnificent centuries-old trees, and breathtakingly decorated interiors.
The Chateau’s rooms transport us into the world of the French aristocracy in centuries past, with its Hall of Arms and Armour, the Birth Room, the Library and the Children’s Room. Lovers of the Tintin illustrated books will also find a Tintin Museum.
In the ancient Orangerie, once used to house citrus plants during the winter, today we can savour a range of delicious pastries and cakes. The park also contains the old royal kennels, still used for raising pedigree French dog breeds. Cheverny is an important centre for hunting with hounds.
This is an area which maintains a hunting tradition that stretches back for centuries... so it comes as no surprise that this Chateau belonging to King François I was a hunting lodge. Inside, the outstanding feature is the huge Portrait Gallery, or Galeries des Illustres, with 327 portraits of illustrious historical figures and 5,600 superb Delft tiles on the floor. Also not to be missed are the historic Gardens, covering 40 hectares.
Various fascinating furnishing items include a fine 18th century Dutch clock with musical chimes, and a huge ancient whale jaw, displayed as an exotic hunting trophy. The kitchens contain two enormous chimneys and a set of 85 copper pans and utensils.
CHAUMONT SUR LOIRE
From its hilltop, the spectacular Chateau de Chaumont looks down onto the nearby River Loire and a breathtaking rural panorama. Its Park boasts numerous centuries-old cedars, forming a magnificent belvedere and framing a mighty castle whose history is filled with brilliant figures, from Catherine de’ Medici to Diane de Poitiers. Visitors can stroll along the paths in the grounds and admire numerous contemporary artworks, installations among the tree trunks and strange sculptures. In the interior too, one temporary exhibition follows another, with a particular focus on photography.
Amboise is today a lively town at the foot of the huge fortified castle. The town is a picturesque maze of lanes, marketplaces and stores, beside the stately flow of the River Loire. The bridge near the Chateau makes an excellent observation point.
The Chateau was a royal residence built in the 13th century. Not to be missed, the Chapel of Saint Hubert, a saint visited by divine visions during a hunting party. This Chapel has the honour of containing the Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, who spent his last years in the manor house of Clos Lucè, 400 metres from the Castle.
Leonardo lived here for three years, dedicating them to various studies, architectural projects and the organisation of spectacular Court festivities for his host, King François I.
Below the furnished rooms of the manor where Leonardo lived, the basement contains a series of models of his many inventions. Some of these are reproduced in full-scale versions in the park outside. The visit continues through the Renaissance gardens and the Italianate Terrace and Rose Garden.
Chateau de Villandry
The last of the great Renaissance Castles built on the banks of the River Loire is Chateau Villandry. In roughly 1536, Jean le Breton – Minister of Finance to King François I – demolished a 12th century fortified town and built this Chateau, famous for its Renaissance botanical garden and its three levels of elaborate terraced gardens. The plants and vegetables in the botanical garden are formally laid out according to colour and symmetry, and require constant care.
Chinon and Usse
The Chateau de Chinon is surrounded by vineyards and fortifications. Reflected in the River Vienne (tributary to the nearby Loire), the castle shows off the majesty of the ruins and towers rearing above the town. Castles have stood for centuries on this rock marking the conjunction between three provinces: Poitou, Anjou and Touraine. This has always been a significant and much-disputed strategic point.
Over the centuries, the Castle of Chinon was the site of many sieges and dramatic historical events: in 1308 it was a prison for many members of the suppressed Knights Templar Order, whose leaders were burned in Paris. Central to the dynastic wars between France and England, before and during the Hundred Years’ War, in 1429 Joan of Arc visited the French King Charles VII here, to convince him to be crowned in Rheims Cathedral.
In the 17th century, the Castle was passed by the crown to Cardinal Richelieu, in order to preserve it... but this in fact precipitated its decline.
Taking the road towards Saumur, we pass the Chateau d’Ussé, famous for having inspired Charles Perrault to write “The Sleeping Beauty”. The D947 road follows the course of the Loire, now featuring tuff cliffs, many of which have wine cellars and shops serving local winemakers. This is also known as the “troglodyte villages” area, where limestone caves have long been home to the local population’s everyday life and activities. In the Mediaeval period, many of the caves really were inhabited villages, which remain visible today, while many brickwork houses have their own ‘tuffeau’ grottos nearby, used as wine cellars or for growing mushrooms.
The whole area is riddled with underground caves, many of them in use for various activities.
The last stop on our tour is Saumur, in a zone particularly rich in “troglodyte village” caves, and home to a notable Mushroom Museum.
The tuffeau caves of the Musée du Champignon display ancient and modern techniques for mushroom growing. If you prefer battle tank models to fungal varieties, you can visit the Musée des Blinde, which has a huge collection of 1st and 2nd World War tanks.
Saumur too has a magnificent Chateau-style castle, originally a fortress, later a luxury country residence for royalty and currently site of the town’s Municipal Museum.
Loire Valley Tourist Office: Avenue de Paris 37, Orleans
Municipal campsite in Bracieux
Camping Indigo – www.camping-indigo.com
Parking and overnight stay just 300 metres from the Chateau, free of charge
Free parking in the car park just outside the Chateau’s walls
On the island in the middle of the river, campsite and parking area “Vinci Park”, with payment.
Campeggio Ile D’Offard – www.saumur-camping.com