First things first; though it is tempting to try and pack in as many châteaux as you can in a short period of time, this is counter-productive and frustrating. It’s far better to aim to visit three or four of the best in the area in which you’re staying, possibly with a one-day trip to one of the most spectacular set-piece châteaux.
Entry prices are undeniably steep, particularly for the châteaux that have remained in private hands – and there are a surprising number of French aristocrats still living in their family homes. This means that picking and choosing the best really will help you. There is no consistency in concessions offered, and children rarely go free. If you’re over 65, under 25, a student or still at school, check for any reductions and make sure you’ve got proof of age or a student card with you. Here’s a rundown of the very best châteaux to aim for:
Chenonceau Renaissance-period château in a glorious setting by the river.
Azay-le-Rideau A marvellous encapsulation of a long-gone period of grandeur and power, in a beautifully serene setting (surrounded by a moat).
Blois With its four wings representing four distinct eras, Blois is extremely impressive.
Chambord A monstrously huge château, the triumph of François I’s Renaissance. The key feature here is the dual-spiral staircase; legend has it this was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
Cheverny A prime example of seventeenth-century magnificence.
Amboise Urban château which rears above the Loire like a cliff; it’s one of the most compelling and striking Loire châteaux, even if the interior decoration leaves something to be desired.
Loches For an evocation of medieval times, the citadelle of Loches is hard to beat.
Langeais Impressive interiors are the main attraction here, especially the tapestries and intricate tile work.
Other châteaux are more compelling for their contents than for their architecture:
Valençay The interior of this Renaissance château is Napoleonic – and it’s a great spot for children.
Beauregard Most famous for its wonderful portrait gallery.
La Bussière Witness the obsessive nineteenth-century decoration, entirely dedicated to freshwater fishing.
Angers This stark, largely ruined medieval castle houses the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, the greatest work of art in the Loire valley, and worth a visit in itself.