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 serene setting, surrounded by a moat.
Blois An impressive stronghold, with its four wings representing four distinct eras.
Chambord The triumph of François I’s Renaissance, this monstrously huge château features a dual-spiral staircase allegedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
Cheverny A prime example of seventeenth-century magnificence.
Amboise One of the most compelling and striking Loire châteaux, rearing above the Loire like a cliff.
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 simple elegance of this sixteenth-century château is overshadowed by its series of resplendent Renaissance gardens.
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.