The Loire is France’s longest river, and one of its most untamed. But it’s not its landscape that draws most tourists to the lower Loire, but the fine chateaux and palaces along its banks.
Castle building on the Loire started in the Middle Ages with keeps like that at Blois, but it was in the Renaissance that the mania for fine chateaux really began. French kings sponsored huge building programmes at Amboise and Chambord, while rich nobles built palaces like Azay-le-Rideaux, Chaumont and Chenonceaux.
Architecturally, these chateaux mingle the outlines of the traditional Gothic castle – often with spire-topped turrets – with the Renaissance style that French artists had learned from Italy.
Blois castle was begun in the thirteenth century, but the entire building was transformed first by Louis XII, who moved the court here in 1498, and then by François I. It’s interesting to see the way French Renaissance style developed – while Louis’ wing is exuberant and asymmetrical, François preferred a distinctly more formal and balanced effect. But the magnificent spiral staircase – possibly designed by Leonardo da Vinci – adds a touch of the fantastic.
Amboise was rebuilt by Charles VIII, who began the flamboyant Gothic chapel of Saint Hubert in 1491, together with the Logis du Roi. But only a couple of years later, he hired two Italian architects to give it a Renaissance feel. Leonardo da Vinci lived here as a guest of François I; and the chateau has the earliest Italian-style garden ever laid out in France. It’s the epitome of gracious living.
Louis XIV thought Chambord was too small for a king – but it has 50 staircases and over 400 rooms. Yet François I only intended it as a hunting lodge, set in a deer park. The corner towers still suggest a feudal castle, yet it’s in fine Renaissance style. Perhaps its finest feature is the open staircase which has two spirals passing each other. Even though you can see someone coming down the other staircase, you will pass them without ever meeting them.
Chenonceau, though a ‘Loire chateau’, is actually built across the river Cher on a bridge, known as the ‘Pont de Diane’ after Diane de Poitiers who lived here for many years. Diane was mistress of Henri II, who eventually gave her ownership of the castle – but she was stripped of it after Henri’s death by his vengeful widow, Catherine de Medicis. While most of the castle is graceful Renaissance work by Diane’s favourite architect, Philibert Delorme, the original fifteenth century donjon has been kept.
Chaumont is the chateau that Diane de Poitiers moved to after she was evicted from Chenonceau. She must have been heart-broken; instead of her elegant gallery, she inherited what is still clearly a medieval fortress, with its huge squat round towers. Yet it was built not long before the other chateaux of the region, in the 1460s, and not completed till 1510 – when the Renaissance style was already in fashion.
Among all these fine buildings, though, Azay-le-Rideau is everyone’s idea of what a Loire chateau should look like. It’s surrounded by water – in fact the river Indre, not the Loire – which reflects the dainty Renaissance turreted building. Alas, Gilles Berthelot who built the castle was forced to run for cover when the king accused him of embezzlement – and took over the castle.
You’ll need your own transport to visit most of these sites – only Amboise stands in the middle of its town. But the countryside along the Loire is a delight in itself – with charming villages and even the chance to stay in some of the smaller chateaux.
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