Explore The Loire
The château at Blois, the handsome former seat of the dukes of Orléans, is magnificent; it’s the main reason for visiting the town. The château’s great facade rises above the modern town like an Italianate cliff, with the dramatic esplanade and courtyard behind and the rooms within steeped in (sometimes bloody) history. There are several stretches of woodland within striking distance including the Forêt de Blois to the west of the town on the north bank of the Loire, and the Parc de Chambord and Forêt de Boulogne, further upstream. To the south and east, the forested, watery, game-rich area known as the Sologne lies between the Loire and Cher, stretching beyond Orléans almost as far as Gien.
A good reason to use Blois as a base is its proximity to several châteaux. By car you could call at all of them in a couple of days, but they also make ideal cycling or walking targets if you arm yourself with a map and strike out along minor roads and woodland paths.Read More
Château de Blois
Château de BloisThe Château de Blois was home to six kings, and countless more aristocratic and noble visitors. The impression given is one of grandiloquent splendour, mixed with awe-inspiring spectacle, especially the way in which the predominantly Renaissance north wing is dominated by a superb spiral staircase. The grandly Classical west wing was built in the 1630s by François Mansart for Gaston d’Orléans, the brother of Louis XIII. Turning to the south side, you go back in time 140-odd years to Louis XII’s St-Calais chapel, which contrasts with the more exuberant brickwork of his flamboyant Gothic east wing.
Mansart’s breathtaking staircase leads you round to the less interesting François I wing; the garish decor here dates from Félix Duban’s mid-nineteenth-century efforts to turn an empty barn of a château into a showcase for sixteenth-century decorative motifs. One of the largest rooms is given over to paintings of the notorious murder of the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, by Henri III. As leaders of the radical Catholic League, the Guises were responsible for the summary execution of Huguenots at Amboise. The king had summoned the States-General to a meeting in the Grande Salle, only to find that an overwhelming majority supported the Duke, along with the stringing up of Protestants, and aristocratic over royal power. Henri had the Duke summoned to his bedroom in the palace, where he was ambushed and hacked to death, and the cardinal was murdered in prison the next day. Their deaths were avenged a year later when a monk assassinated the king himself.
The château was also home to Henri III’s mother and manipulator, Catherine de Médicis, who died here a few days after the murders in 1589. The most famous of her suite of rooms is the study, where, according to Alexandre Dumas’ novel, La Reine Margot, she kept poison hidden in secret caches in the skirting boards and behind some of the 237 narrow carved wooden panels; they now contain small Renaissance objets d’art. In the nineteenth century, revolutionaries were tried in the Grande Salle for conspiring to assassinate Napoléon III, a year before the Paris Commune of 1870. You can return to the courtyard via the vast space of the Salle des États, where the arches, pillars and fireplaces are another riot of nineteenth-century colour.
Across the courtyard to the ground floor of the François I wing, you’ll find the archeological museum, which displays original stonework from the staircase and dormer windows, as well as carved details rescued from other châteaux.
French-speakers may want to take the two-hour guided visite insolite, which explores parts of the château you won’t normally see, such as the roof and cellars. You can usually just turn up at the gate for the son et lumière – it’s one of the best in the region, rising above the usual mix of melodrama, light and musical effects by making the most of the château’s fascinating history and lovely courtyard setting, and thrillingly re-creates the murder of the Duc de Guise.
Château de Chaumont
Château de ChaumontCatherine de Médicis forced Diane de Poitiers to hand over Chenonceau in return for the Château de Chaumont, 20km downstream from Blois. Diane got a bad deal, but this is still one of the lovelier châteaux.
The original fortress was destroyed by Louis XI in the mid-fifteenth century in revenge for the part its owner, Pierre d’Amboise, played in the “League of Public Weal”, an alliance of powerful nobles against the ever-increasing power of the monarch. But Pierre found his way back into the king’s favour, and with his son, Charles I of Amboise, built much of the quintessentially medieval castle that stands today. Proto-Renaissance design is more obvious in the courtyard, which today forms three sides of a square, the fourth side having been demolished in 1739 to improve the spectacular views over the river. Inside, the heavy nineteenth-century decor of the ground-floor rooms dates from the ownership of the Broglie family, but a few rooms on the first floor have been remodelled in Renaissance style. The large council chamber is particularly fine, with seventeenth-century majolica tiles on the floor and its walls adorned with wonderfully busy sixteenth-century tapestries showing the gods of each of the seven planets known at the time.
Château de Cheverny
Château de ChevernyFifteen kilometres southeast of Blois, the Château de Cheverny is the quintessential seventeenth-century château. Built between 1604 and 1634, and little changed since, it presents an immaculate picture of symmetry, harmony and the aristocratic good life. This continuity may well be because descendants of the first owners still own, live in and go hunting from Cheverny today. Its stone, from Bourré on the River Cher, lightens with age, and the château gleams in its acres of rolling parkland. The interior decoration has only been added to, never destroyed, and the extravagant display of paintings, furniture, tapestries and armour against the gilded, sculpted and carved walls and ceilings is extremely impressive. The most precious objects are hard to pick out from the sumptuous whole, but some highlights are the painted wall panels in the dining room telling stories from Don Quixote; the vibrant, unfaded colours of the Gobelin tapestry in the arms room; and the three rare family portraits by François I’s court painter, François Clouet, in the gallery.
Inspired by the Château de Cheverny, Hergé created Marlinspike Hall as a country home for Captain Haddock in the Adventures of Tintin. The Hergé Foundation has a small but fascinating permanent exhibition, which is worth a visit.
You can explore the elegant grounds on foot, or take a sedate tour on a little train and by boat (April to mid-Nov; €17.90 including château and museum entry). The kennels near the main entrance are certainly worth a look: a hundred lithe hounds mill and loll about while they wait for the next stag, and feeding time (5pm) is something to be seen. Cheverny’s hunt culls around thirty deer a year, a figure set by the National Forestry Office.
Château de Beauregard
Château de BeauregardA pleasant cycle ride from Blois, the little-visited Château de Beauregard, 7km south of Blois on the D956 to Contres, lies in the Forêt de Russy. It was – like Chambord – one of François I’s hunting lodges, but its transformation in the sixteenth century was one of beautification rather than aggrandizement. It was added to in the seventeenth century and the result is sober and serene, very much at ease in its manicured geometric park.
The highlight of the château is a richly decorated, long portrait gallery, whose floor of Delft tiling depicts an army on the march. The walls are entirely panelled with 327 portraits of kings, queens and great nobles, including European celebrities such as Francis Drake, Anne Boleyn and Charles V of Spain. All of France’s kings are represented, from Philippe VI (1328–50), who precipitated the Hundred Years’ War, to Louis XIII (1610–43), who occupied the throne when the gallery was created. Kings, nobles and executed wives alike are given equal billing – except for Louis XIII, whose portrait is exactly nine times the size of any other.
It’s worth strolling down through the grounds to the sunken Jardin des Portraits, a Renaissance-influenced creation by contemporary landscaper Gilles Clément, who was responsible for Paris’s futuristic Parc André Citroën. It could be better tended, but the garden’s formal arrangement – by colour of flower and foliage – is fascinating.
Château de Chambord
Château de ChambordThe Château de Chambord, François I’s little “hunting lodge”, is the largest and most popular of the Loire châteaux and one of the most extravagant commissions of its age. If you are going to visit – and it’s one of the region’s absolute highlights – try to arrive early, and avoid weekends, when the crush of visitors can be both unpleasant and overwhelming. Its patron’s principal object – to outshine the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – would, he claimed, leave him renowned as “one of the greatest builders in the universe”; posterity has judged it well.
Before you even get close, the gargantuan scale of the place is awe-inspiring: there are more than 440 rooms and 85 staircases, and a petrified forest of 365 chimneys runs wild on the roof. In architectural terms, the mixture of styles is as outrageous as the size. The Italian architect Domenico da Cortona was chosen to design the château in 1519 in an effort to establish prestigious Italian Renaissance art forms in France, though the labour was supplied by French masons. The château’s plan (attributed, fancifully, to da Vinci) is pure Renaissance: rational, symmetrical and totally designed to express a single idea – the central power of its owner. Four hallways run crossways through the central keep, at the heart of which the Great Staircase rises up in two unconnected spirals before opening out into the great lantern tower, which draws together the confusion on the roof like a great crown.
The cold, draughty size of the château made it unpopular as an actual residence – François I himself stayed there for just 42 days in total – and Chambord’s role in history is slight. A number of rooms on the first floor were fitted out by Louis XIV and his son, the Comte de Chambord, and as reconstructed today they feel like separate apartments within the unmanageable whole. You can explore them freely, along with the adjacent eighteenth-century apartments, where the château was made habitable by lowering ceilings, building small fireplaces within the larger ones, and cladding the walls with the fashionable wooden panelling known as boiseries.
The second floor houses a rambling Museum of Hunting where, among the endless guns and paintings that glorify hunting, are two superb seventeenth-century tapestry cycles: one depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt; another, based on cartoons by Lebrun, tells the story of Meleager, the heroic huntsman from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The Parc de Chambord around the château is an enormous walled game reserve – the largest in Europe. Wild boar roam freely, though red deer are the beasts you’re most likely to spot. You can explore on foot, or by bike or boat – both rentable from the jetty where the Cosson passes alongside the main facade of the château.
Stretching southeast of Blois, the Sologne is one of those traditionally rural regions of France that help keep alive the national self-image. Depending on the weather and the season, it can be one of the most dismal areas in central France: damp, flat, featureless and foggy. But at other times its forests, lakes, ponds and marshes have a quiet magic – in summer, for example, when the heather is in bloom and the ponds are full of water lilies, or in early autumn when you can collect mushrooms. Wild boar and deer roam here, not to mention the ducks, geese, quails and pheasants, who far outnumber the small human population. It was this remote, mystical landscape that provided the setting for Alain Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes; Fournier himself spent his childhood in La Chapelle d’Angillon, 34km north of Bourges, and the story’s famous “fête étrange” certainly took place in the Sologne. It’s worth passing through by bike on a fine day, but there’s little to see otherwise.