Breathtaking Chateaux, majestic vineyards, medieval cities and the machinations of Leonardo Da Vinci
by Terry Lankstead, The Journeyist
Often referred to as ‘The Garden of France’ and the ‘Valley of the Kings,’ the Loire Valley is Famous for its world-class wines, Medieval cities and breathtaking chateaux. The area is also a major destination for cyclists, and recently (in 2019) commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of renowned artist, inventor, architect, Leonardo da Vinci, who spent his final three years there in Amboise.
Located about a two hour drive south of Paris, the Loire Valley is a lushly forested area where the French aristocracy chose to build their “getaway” châteaux and fairytale castles. As Robin Leach used to say, this is “the lifestyle of the rich and famous.”
It goes without saying, that with 300-plus magnificent chateaux spanning the Loire Valley’s 280 km along the Loire River, the area is a hugely popular summer destination for the French. So visiting there after the kids go back to school enables our group to experience the Loire in a less frenzied atmosphere.
The Loire Valley region is classified as UNESCO World Heritage area and therefore protected for generations to come. Many of the châteaux are still owned by descendants of the original family or are family owned, with a portion of the châteaux open to the public for daily tours.
During a five-day driving tour castle and winery hopping through the Loire Valley, you truly get a feel for what life was like during the Renaissance period where nobles and countrymen owned these magnificent castles and hunted for sport.
My visit there has me overwhelmed with so many things to share, but here are just some of my most impressive experiences from this ‘September to remember!’
Chateau tour in the Loire Valley
1. Château de la Bussiere on the river Vernisson
The beautiful Château de la Bussiere is idyllically siturted about an hour and half from Paris on the river Vernisson in France. The castle is a 12th century fortress and has been home to many different families over the years. The main house, in its present incarnation, was rebuilt in the 17th century having suffered being besieged and partial destruction during the religious wars. The current owners are the Duchatelet family, who have lived there for over 200 years. They opened the Chateau to the public in 1962 with a fishing museum collection (quite intereting for anglers) as its main attraction as there was also a hunting museum in town. Painstakingly restored in 1992, Château de la Bussiere was erected to protect the region. It even has a moat. The castle is open to the public for tours, and there is also a restaurant on site.
The grounds of the castle are extensive and include a vineyard, a tennis court, stunning gardens, a spectacular 1.5 hectare walled 18th century potager complete with alleys of century old pear trees, a tunnel for seedlings, and a scented garden. Don’t miss the guided tours available in several languages – approximately 1 hour.Visitors can also take boat rides on the river Vernisson. The Château de la Bussiere is a truly magical place and is well worth a visit.
2. Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the biggest tourist destination in Loire Valley, with over 1.1 visitors per year. Recently, in 2019 Chambord celebrated its 500th birthday along with 20,000 members of the public. It is the largest castle in the Loire Valley and one of the most spectacularly breathtaking places to visit in France.
Enclosed behind a 32 km wall, making the property the same size as the original city of Paris, the castle was established as a hunting destination by King Francis I in the 16th century and is known for its distinctive Gothic and French Renaissance architecture. Royalty would visit to hunt boar and deer in the dense surrounding forest. The beautiful sprawling property is now state run.
In addition to the outdoor park with over 3,000 trees, the castle features an incredible grand double staircase, which was designed by the Leonardo da Vinci, and referred to as a geometric marvel. Unfortunately, Leonardo passed away before seeing its completion.
The castle has over 400 rooms, and it is surrounded by numerous ponds, topiary and fountains. Visitors can also take a boat ride on Le Cosson river (a tributary of the Loire) that meanders through the property. Guests to the castle can explore by foot or rent horses (April-October), bikes or golf carts to experience the vast grounds, which include a zoo and botanical garden. The Chateau also hosts major events, including presidential birthdays, concerts (Sting recently played there), weddings and dignitaries.With so much to see and do, it’s no wonder that Chateau de Chambord is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France.
It takes 1.5 – 2 hours to tour the Chateau but set aside a good 2. 5- 3 hours to truly take it all in, and that includes the impressive gift shop. There is also a local market every weekend if you are there in September.
Chateau de Chambord is a truly wondrous castle, and it is an absolute must-visit if you are in travelling to the Loire Valley.
3. Château du Clos-Lucé – Leonardo da Vinci’s home in Amboise
Château Clos-Lucé in the historic city of Amboise, is another hugely popular destination in the Loire Valley. Dating back to the 14th century, the chateau once served as the last home of the great polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci and it now houses a museum dedicated to his life and work. It was owned by a number of different families over the centuries, and each one left their own mark on the property.
In 1745, the chateau was bought by King Louis XV, who had it redesigned in the fashionable Rococo style. Today, the home is open to the public, and visitors can explore its sumptuous interiors, finely manicured gardens and beautiful setting overlooking the Loire river.
Visitors can also explore the kitchen garden and orchard, or take a guided tour of the rooms where Leonardo lived and worked. The chateau also offers a range of activities for children, making it an ideal destination for families. If you are interested in the life and times of Leonardo Da Vinci and all of his incredible inventions, French history or architecture, then Chateau Clos-Lucé is an essential stop on any trip to the Loire Valley.
If you are looking to enjoy authentic French cuisine before touring Chateau Clos-Lucé, serving local dishes and Loire Valley wines like Sauvignon and Chinon and located right across the street is Le Maitre d’Art. I highly recommend La Tourangella, a local salad with lettuce, creamy goat cheeses, charcuterie, lentils figs, smoked pork, itan ham, white carrots, and jam. Wash it all down with a glass of crisp, Crémant de Loire, the local sparkling wine produced with the same technique as Champagne, but from outside the Champagne region. It is often made with Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc. The rosé is usually a blend of Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir.
4. Château d’Azay-le-Rideau
Originating in the middle ages and re-built between 1518 and 1524, by Gilles Berthelot and his wife, Philipe, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is considered one of the foremost examples of early French Renaissance. Set on an island in the middle of the Indre River, a tributary of the Loire, this chateau is one of the most visited attractions in the Loire Valley region. Covering seven hectares and located in the town of Azay-le-Rideau the chateau is a spectacular example of early French Renaissance architecture. The stunning castle features intricate stonework, a medieval defence tower and beautifully manicured gardens.
Despite its seemingly idyllic setting, the chateau has a dark history. In 1528, just a year after its completion, it was besieged and captured by troops loyal to King Francis I. The chateau changed hands several times over the centuries and was even used as a prison during the French Revolution. Today, however, it is a tranquil oasis and a reminder of a bygone era.
Visitors can take a tour of the chateau and learn about its history, or simply enjoy the picturesque views from the outside. Painstakingly restored from 2011-2017, inside, guests will discover a grand staircase, which is one of the first straight-flight Italian style staircases in France, along with several drawing rooms and opulently decorated apartments.
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is now managed by the National Historical Monuments Centre, which maintains 85 of France’s historic monuments and preserves and restores much of France’s historic furnishings.
Stay at a Chateau
5. Château du Riveau and Hotel Relais de Chambord
Château du Riveau
The Château du Rivau is a magical 14th century castle located in the Loire Valley near the village of Chinon and the city of Tours. The castle, which looks like it has been plucked right out of a fairy tale has been accurately (as possible) restored over the past 25 years by colourful owners, Patricia and Eric Laigneau, who bought it in 1992.
The restoration was completed in 2010 but a devastating roof fire delayed its reopening for an additional year. Eric, worked tirelessly with the help of French Heritage experts to regain its stature as a fairy-tale château, and Patricia, studied at the National School of Landscape at Versailles in order to transform the castle grounds into a setting worthy of the surrounding buildings, while also respecting existing vegetation and native plants and ensuring a sustainable development and ecological transition.
Each year Château du Rivau features themed art exhibits throughout its many rooms. The overriding loose theme is a dialogue between contemporary and ancient art. Each room features medieval furniture complementing contemporary artist exhibits. During our stay at the castle, ther the theme is a tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance.
Unique to this château experience is that you can book a stay in one of the 12 luxurious (and romantic) rooms that are located within the historical monument, which allow you exclusive access to the gardens after the daytime visitors have gone. They offer all the luxury of living like royalty, but with modern comforts (Wifi – AC). Rooms are uniquely decorated with beautiful furniture and contemporary art. Sleeping in Rivau Castle offers an incomparable experience.
Although Château du Rivau is steeped in history – Joan of Arc came in 1429 to Le Rivau to fetch stallions from its stable to battle the British in Orleans – it is the the jaw-dropping six hectares of beautiful gardens, which draw me in. You can get lost in both yours and the garden’s own little world, or worlds in this case. Over the sex hectares surrounding the castle some of the garden themes include: Rapunzel’s Garden, Enchanted Forest, Kitchen Garden, Fairy’s Way, Truffle Garden, Lavender Garden and many more. There is even a forest featuring several pairs of giant red legs that seem to be running in the half-light. This is Basserode’s Running Forest (La forêt qui court, 1999). Here it seems like the trees have become walking creatures or the products of a wild dream. The more you explore these gardens, the more interesting the sculptures become.
Rose gardeners might be interested to know there are 485 rose varieties on site, including the castle’s own Rivau variety! The Laigneau’s are actually partnered with world famous David Austin Roses, renowned for producing extremely fragrant and hardy English shrub roses with varieties with posh British names like Graham Thomas, Abraham Darby, Gertrude Jekyll and Constance Spry.
In addition to the castle’s extensive whimsical themed gardens, visitors can explore the castle’s many rooms and secret passages, and see how the nobility lived during the Middle Ages. There is even an entire neogothic room dedicated to Joan of Arc. I could talk for hours about how a stay at this castle is an absolute must when visiting the Loire Valley, but rest assured the Château du Rivau is a fascinating glimpse into France’s rich history, culture and is well worth a visit or better yet, a stay.
Hotel Relais de Chambord
The Hotel Relais de Chambord is a historic luxurious boutique hotel located right on the grounds of the famous Château de Chambord with glorious views of the castle. The hotel dates back to the early 19th century and is situated on chambord’s large estate with beautifully manicured gardens.
The hotel itself is a beautifully restored 18th-century building, and its rooms are furnished with antique furniture and tapestries. Guests can enjoy a meal in the formal dining room, on the covered patio with sweeping casatle views, or relax in the cosy lounge with a glass of wine.
The Relais has played host to many famous guests over the years, including King Louis XIV and Emperor Napoleon III. Today, the Hotel Relais de Chambord remains a popular destination for travellers from all over the world. Guests can enjoy luxurious accommodations including a spa, fine dining, and access to a variety of activities in the surrounding area.
Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway or an exciting adventure, the Hotel Relais de Chambord is sure to provide an unforgettable experience.The Relais de Chambord is the perfect place to stay for those who want to experience the history and culture of the Loire Valley.
6. Watch a Sound and light show Château Royal de Blois
The spectacular Sound and Light Show at the Royal Château de Blois chronicles the history of Blois, a tale spanning 1,000 years, that includes the story of the kings who resided there, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Gigantic, beautiful and eerie video images are projected onto all 4 façades of the 13th century courtyard, transforming the château and bringing it to life.
“The Story of Blois” reveals the four wings and the genius of the great builders of the 13th to 17th centuries.
Love affairs, dramas and secrets, it’s all represented at the Sounds and Light Show. All the major épisodes in French history are portrayed in a magnificent 360° spectacle. The 45-minute show (sutitable of all ages) uses a combination of sound, light, and projections against the grandiose backdrop of the castle to bring to life the incredible stories of royalty and the bloody history of France.
From the citadel of Thibaud the Trickster to Gaston of Orléans by way of the festive home of Louis XII and the Renaissance castle of François I: the 12 sequences immerse spectators in the turbulent chronicles of Blois, from visits by Joan of Arc and Ronsard to the murderous plots hatched by Henri III against the Duke of Guise.
The Sound and Light show runs from 6 April to 29 September 2019, except on 21 June and on 13 July. The Royal Château de Blois was the home of seven French kings and queens. The castle has 500 rooms, dramatic staircases, and a beautiful inner courtyard. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.
7. Visit a Loire Valley goat cheese farm
The Loire Valley is home to some of the best goat cheese farms in France. The climate and terrain in this region are ideal for raising goats, and the resulting cheeses are prized by gourmands around the world. Visitors to the Loire Valley can tour several different goat cheese farms, learning about the process of cheese production and tasting the final product. There are also a number of great restaurants in the area that feature goat cheese dishes on their menus.
We visit La Bete Noire which produces super creamy Sancerroise Cottins de Chavignol goat cheese, and is located right in the heart of the Sancerre wine region in the Loire Valley. Recently renovated, La Bete Noire
has over 200 adorable Alpine Chamoise goats that are milked twice daily. It takes five days to make the goat cheese
10 days(20 days for blue cheese) for it to mature and it must be flipped over once a day to develop flavour and attain a bluish texture. It is a popular salad cheese in France.
You can tour the farm, meet the goats, learn about the process and then visit the gift shop for a tasting. I highly recommend this experience and taking some delicious creamy goat cheese with you for a picnic en route to your next stop!
8. Visit the Medieval City of Bourges
Bourges is a beautiful historic city in central France. It is the capital of the Cher department and has a population of just over 140,000 people. The city oozes character and charm with its beautiful medieval buildings, including the Cathedral of Saint-Étienne, which was constructed in the 12th century. It is sited on a hill surrounded by rivers which made it easy to defend.
Bourges was first settled by the Gallo-Romans and they built the wall that still exists today to keep out the Barbarians from 280-330 AD. Following that the wall, separating the upper and lower city, named “Promenade des Remparts” (now a major tourist attraction) helped to repel the Vikings. Bourges was also an important route for wine where it was made and then sent north to Normandy. England and Germany. For this reason, in 1300, Bourges became the capital of France, and that lasted for 50 years.
Now only four of the original 13 towers remain from the original wall while others are hidden behind buildings.
In the high town (at the top of the wall) lived the clergy and king’s people, and the low town was occupied by tradesmen artisans and farmers.
The main attraction of Bourges aside from the Greco Roman wall and medieval homes, is the majestic St. Etienne Cathedral. It is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe, and its interior is particularly noted for its grandeur and beauty. Built between 1195 and 1240 it is a classical gothic style featuring all original stained glass windows which had to be preserved in the basement during the wars. The central window, which measures 32 feet in diameter, is considered to be one of the largest and most beautiful Gothic rose windows in existence.
The interior of the cathedral is no less impressive, with its soaring vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass windows. In addition to its architectural brilliance, the cathedral is also notable for its acoustics; it has been said that a person can stand at one end of the cathedral and be heard clearly by someone at the other end, even if they are whispering.
Since the French Revolution the cathedral has been an active church, open to the public. It’s a magnificent must-visit.
Travellers to Bourges can also enjoy exploring the many unique shops and restaurants serving delicious French cuisine. We enjoy lunch (déjeuner) at a popular vegetarian restaurant called Cake Thé. It is actually housed in a 14th century former noble cellar in the lower part of the walled/fortified city. It used to serve as a passage between the high and low town. Everything is delicious and sourced locally according to Marian, the owner.
These days Bourges continues to thrive, attracting a very young population thanks to an army base, universities, and school of art.
With so much to see and do, Bourges is an must-visit destination for a day trip in the Loire Valley. Better still, spend the night so you don’t have to rush around to fully take in this historic town. Located 1,000 feet from the railway station and a short walk to the historical centre of Bourges, I recommend the Hotel De Bourbon Grand Hotel Mercure Bourges for both the location and the accommodations. Some of the rooms are located in the former dormitories of the Abbey and the hotel was recently beautifully renovated, combining contemporary comfort and tradition with charm and elegance.
9. Explore the Loire Valley by Bike
La Loire à Vélo is a unique, 900 km cycle route that follows the Loire River. The route takes in the Loire’s sandy banks and islands, its vineyards, châteaux, historical towns and fine food. The Loire à Vélo connects Cuffy (near Nevers) to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins (Loire-Atlantique). The route is a world-renowned cycling destination thanks to the rural French scenery and interesting stops along the way.
The cycling route is well-marked and offers plenty of opportunities for rest stops, making it perfect for cyclists of all levels of experience. Whether you’re looking for a leisurely ride or a challenging journey, La Loire à Vélo is sure to exceed your expectations. La Loire à Vélo is an excellent way to experience the best of what France and its Loire Valley haves to offer, from its fashionable cities to its rural countryside.
10. Visit a winery
During September in the Loire Valley vineyards get busy harvesting their grapes, and visiting the villages of Chavignol and Sancerre, there is a buzz of excitement in the air, that and the sound of tractors moving through the village streets as they visit each vineyard. In Chavignol, in the heart of the best terroirs of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the Henri Bourgeois wine family has been making award-winning wines in the Sancerre region of France for over ten generations. The current generation of winemakers, Arnaud, Lionel and Jean-Christophe led by brothers Jean-Marie and Patrick Bourgeois, are committed to carrying on the family tradition of producing high-quality wines that reflect the unique terroir of the Sancerre region.
However, the main figure of the turning point in the family’s winemaking history was Henri Bourgeois. From cultivating two hectares on the slopes of Chavignol, he took the audacious step in the 1950’s of concentrating on his vines in an area that was, until then, unknown.
The Bourgeois family has always been dedicated to sustainable viticulture and minimal intervention winemaking, allowing the true character of the grapes and terroir to shine through in each bottle. They have 74 hectares of vineyards and expect to be deemed certified organic within the next three years.
The vineyards are breathtaking to behold from the approach road above, idyllically situated on a hillside with clay and limestone soils, providing the perfect conditions for growing Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir grapes. The climate is also cool and continental, with warm summers and cool winters. This allows the grapes to ripen slowly and evenly, resulting in high-quality wines with complex flavour profiles.
The Henri Bourgeois wines are known for their bright acidity, minerality, and freshness. They are elegant and well-balanced, with delicate floral aromas and typify the terroir of the Loire Valley. Their wines have notes of lychee, peach or grapefruit. The Famille Bourgeois produces a range of Sancerre wines, including some aged in oak barrels for added complexity. It is one of the region’s largest wineries producing 80% Sauvignon Blanc (50% machine picked and 50% by hand) and 20% Pinot Noir (picked by hand) of which 8% is Rosé.
Whether you’re looking for a refreshing white wine to enjoy on a summer day or a more robust wine to pair with food, the Henri Bourgeois wines offer something for everyone, and a visit to their estate in September provides a true taste of winery life.
Today, the Famille Bourgeois winery produces a range of red, white, and rosé wines that are beloved by wine lovers around the world. Employing over 80 staff, 70 percent of their wines are exported to other nations including Canada. Thanks to the commitment of the Bourgeois family, the Famille Bourgeois winery is poised to continue its tradition of excellence for many years to come.
After flying in style with Air France from Toronto Pearson to Paris get a a car rental and drive two hours to Tours or Bourges, or better yet, take the TGV (France’s high-speed train service) to the city of Tours and rent a car from Another option is to do we we did, and tour the Loire Valley with Val de Loire Travel. If you are lucky you will experience the Loire with our tour guide, Mario who is not only personable and accommodating, but he also speaks several languages!
More to come about the Air France experience…
Article previously published by Toronto Times at totimes.ca