Enthusiasts have used many epithets to describe France’s Loire Valley including “Land of a Thousand Chateaux” and “Garden of France.” However, there’s another even more befitting one: “The Center of Romance.” The Loire is situated approximately 100 miles from Paris in the heart of the country. It was a playground for kings and courtesans over many centuries, and a cast of legendary characters such as Joan of Arc, the Musketeers and the Knights Templar appeared on center stage.
My husband and I spent nearly two weeks exploring byways that meander along the Loire River, which flows at a leisurely pace through a valley rife with life. We toured the verdant countryside and colorful gardens that are a feast for the eyes, and sampled the fresh local produce, gourmet cuisine and wines that are a feast for the palate.
I could almost feel the ghosts of the past in the valley’s rich history, which is why the region between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes has been designated a UNESCO historic site. Along this route lies the hamlet of Orleans, where Joan of Arc started her meteoric rise after she freed the city from the British. Medieval warlords used nearby Angers as a power base before it become a Plantagenet stronghold in the 12th century. The city boasts a fortress with 17 round towers that guard an inner village including a chateau and unusual geometric garden.
Much of the Loire’s enchanting character comes from the many other chateaus which range from lovely mansions to enormous castles. These are remnants of an epic centuries-long one-upmanship played by nobility. François I commissioned the most ostentatious, Chateau de Chambord, in 1516. Once he determined to build a hunting lodge, something simple would not suffice—especially since he wanted to outshine the Holy Roman Emperor. François’s 426-room abode houses 77 staircases (Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have designed the central, double-spiraled one) and 282 fireplaces. With its plentiful cupolas, gables and chimneys, the rooftop of Chambord looks more like a downtown skyline than a single structure.
Chambord’s near neighbor, Chateau de Cheverny, is a stunning artifice built in the early 17th century on lands bequeathed by Henri II to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. She favored Chateau de Chenonceau—which is 25 miles west—and sold the property to the family who built Cheverny and has lived there for nearly seven centuries. The structure features just one architectural style rather than the cobbled look of many castles.
Women were instrumental in building Chenonceau, which may be why de Poitiers loved it. She added the elegant arched bridge that gives the castle its unique profile. However, when Henri II died, his widow Catherine dé Medici exacted her revenge by seizing the chateau from her rival. Medici spent a fortune at Chenonceau, building a three story-structure on top of de Poitiers’ bridge, hosting lavish parties and shooting off France’s first display of fireworks for her son’s coronation.
My favorite chateaus were those entwined with classic tales, such as Chateau de Montsoreau. Built in the 15th century, it was the site of a love triangle featured in one of Alexandre Dumas’ novels. Comte D’artagnan, who inspired Dumas to write another novel, The Three Musketeers, stayed on the grounds of Château de Saumur. The castle in Usse is believed to have motivated author Charles Perrault to pen the tale that became Sleeping Beauty. Other fascinating properties include those in Azay-le-Rideau, a lovely symmetrical ediface, and Meung-sur-Loire with its underground passages and a dungeon.
Visitors to Royal Abbaye de Fontevraud will notice even the abbesses couldn’t resist one-upmanship. Many of them painted themselves into the wall murals—right over their rivals’ figures. The Abbey is the largest preserved monastic site in Europe and houses a hotel and restaurant, helmed by a Michelin-starred chef.
Many of these chateaus and other historic monuments were built using a soft local limestone. As workers quarried the white tufa, they left behind a labyrinth of caves, covering thousands of miles. Dwellers discovered the tunnels were efficient year-round and offered protection not just from the elements, but also from enemies—resulting in entire underground villages.
Today some of the troglodyte caves have been repurposed as businesses. Vintners, such as Domaine de la Chevalerie in Restigné, take advantage of the cool, damp tunnels to store wines and offer tastings. Other local businesses also use the cavities for artistic purposes. The mushroom farm Cave des Roches in Bourré has carved an underground village scene straight from the Middle Ages into the porous rock. Deep in Ackerman’s sparkling wine cellar, a unique “art gallery” depicts scenes from Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.”
Experience the troglodyte lifestyle at Les Hautes Roches, a luxury hotel with some rooms tucked into the limestone. It’s a Relais & Chateau property, a global brand with exacting standards for hospitality, historicity, uniqueness—and most importantly, fabulous dining.
For those who want to overnight in a chateau, Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which is my go-to brand for memorable properties in Europe, offers Les Sources De Cheverney. It’s a quintessential chateau on a private estate and features two restaurants as well as a spa that utilizes vino treatment for therapy.
Above and beneath the surface, the Loire Valley is an unparalleled locale for those who seek romance—it speaks to all the senses, moves at a languid pace and avoids the trappings of many other well-known destinations.
Royal Abbaye de Fontevraud
38 Rue Saint Jean L’Habit,
Le Prieure Saint-Lazare
Les Hautes Roches
86 Quai de la Loire
Les Sources de Cheverny
23 Route de Fougeres, Cheverny
Shelly Steig is a travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience writing for national and regional magazines. So far she’s managed to avoid one-upmanship at her abode in Parker—where she only has one fireplace.
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