Of all the Loire’s many tributaries, the slow-moving Cher and Indre are closest to the heart of the region, watering a host of châteaux as they flow northwest from this little-visited region to the south. Twenty kilometres southeast of Tours, spanning the Cher, the Château de Chenonceau is perhaps the quintessential Loire château for its architecture, site, contents and atmosphere. Further upstream, Montrichard and St-Aignan make quieter diversions from the endless stream of castle tours. To the south is the Château de Valençay, with its exquisite Empire interiors. A short drive west of here, on the River Indre itself, the lovely town of Loches possesses the most magnificent medieval citadelle in the region.
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Château de Chenonceau
Château de ChenonceauUnlike the Loire, the gentle River Cher flows so slowly and passively between the exquisite arches of the Château de Chenonceau that you’re almost always assured of a perfect reflection. The château is not visible from the road so you have to pay before even getting a peek at the residence. While the tree-lined path to the front door is dramatic, wind your way through the gardens for a more intimate approach; they were laid out under Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. The waxworks museum by the self-service restaurant is rather unimpressive, and there’s a gastronomic restaurant in the grounds with prices to match the stunning settings. During summer the place teems with people and it can become uncomfortably crowded, so aim to visit first thing in the morning if possible.Visits are unguided – a relief, for there’s an endless array of arresting tapestries, paintings, ceilings, floors and furniture on show (although you could opt for the worthwhile iPod guided tour).
On the ground floor, the François I room features two contrasting images of the goddess Diana; one is a portrait of Diane de Poitiers by Primaticcio, and the other represents a relatively aristocratic Gabrielle d’Estrées. The room also features works by or attributed to Veronese, Tintoretto, Correggio, Murillo and Rubens, among others. The tiled floors throughout, many original, are particularly lovely. There are some unique decorative details as well, such as the seventeenth-century window frame in the César de Vendôme room, supported by two carved caryatids, and the moving ceiling in the bedroom of Louise de Lorraine, which mourns her murdered husband Henri III in black paint picked out with painted tears and the couple’s intertwined initials. The vaulted kitchens, poised above the water in the foundations, are also well worth a look.
The section of the château that spans the Cher is relatively empty. The seemingly incongruous chequerboard flooring of the elegant long gallery is in fact true to the Renaissance design, though potted plants have replaced the classical statues that Louis XIV carried off to Versailles. Catherine de Médicis used to hold wild parties here, all naked nymphs and Italian fireworks. She intended the door on the far side to continue into another building on the south bank, but the project was never begun, and these days the gallery leads to quiet, wooded gardens. During the war, the Cher briefly formed the boundary between occupied and “free” France, and the current proprietors, who rode out Nazi occupation, claim the château’s gallery was much used as an escape route. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in June and every evening in July and August, as part of the “Nocturne à Chenonceau”, the gardens and château are lit up between 9.30pm and 11pm, and classical music is played through speakers (€5). You can take boats out onto the Cher in the summer months.
Château de Valençay
Château de ValençayThere is nothing medieval about the fittings and furnishings of the Château de Valençay, for all its huge pepper-pot towers and turreted, decorated keep. This refined castle was originally built to show off the wealth of a sixteenth-century financier, but the lasting impression of a visit today is the imperial legacy of its greatest owner, the Prince de Talleyrand.
One of the great political operators and survivors, Talleyrand owes most of his fame to his post as Napoleon’s foreign minister. A bishop before the Revolution, with a reputation for having the most desirable mistresses, he proposed the nationalization of church property, renounced his bishopric, escaped to America during the Terror, backed Napoleon and continued to serve the state under the restored Bourbons. One of his tasks for the emperor was keeping Ferdinand VII of Spain entertained for six years here after the king had been forced to abdicate in favour of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. The Treaty of Valençay, signed in the château in 1813, put an end to Ferdinand’s forced guest status, giving him back his throne. The interior is consequently largely First Empire: elaborately embroidered chairs, Chinese vases, ornate inlays to all the tables, faux-Egyptian details, finicky clocks and chandeliers. A single discordant note is struck by the leg-brace and shoe displayed in a glass cabinet along with Talleyrand’s uniforms – the statesman’s deformed foot was concealed in every painting of the man, including the one displayed in the portrait gallery that runs the length of the graceful Neoclassical wing.
Loches, 42km southeast of Tours, is the obvious place to head for in the Indre valley. Its walled citadelle is by far the most impressive of the Loire valley fortresses, with its unbreached ramparts and the Renaissance houses below still partly enclosed by the outer wall of the medieval town.
The northern end of the citadelle is taken up by the Logis Royal, or Royal Lodgings, of Charles VII and his three successors. It has two distinct halves; the older section was built in the late fourteenth century as a kind of pleasure palace for the Dauphin Charles and Agnès Sorel. A copy of Charles’s portrait by Fouquet can be seen in the antechamber to the Grande Salle, where in June 1429 the Dauphin met Joan of Arc, who came here victorious from Orléans to give the defeatist Dauphin another pep talk about coronations.
From the Logis Royal, cobbled streets lined with handsome townhouses wind through to the far end of the elevated citadelle, to the donjon, the best preserved of its kind in Europe. You can climb up to the top of the massive keep, but the main interest lies in the dungeons and lesser towers. The Tour Ronde was built under Louis XI and served as a prison for his adviser, Cardinal Balue, who was kept locked up in a wooden cage in one of the upper rooms. Perhaps he was kept in the extraordinary graffiti chamber on the second floor, which is decorated with an enigmatic series of deeply carved, soldierlike figures that may date from the thirteenth century. From the courtyard, steps lead down into the bowels of the Martelet, which was home to a more famous prisoner: Ludovico “il Moro” Sforza, duke of Milan, patron of Leonardo da Vinci and captive of Louis XII. In the four years he was imprisoned here, from 1500, he found time to decorate his cave-like cell with ruddy wall paintings, still faintly visible. The dungeons peter out into quarried-out galleries which produced the stone for the keep.