Fairytales do exist in the French castles of the Loire Valley.
The more I travel, the more I have come to appreciate the saying, “The world is your classroom.” What better way to learn than for your classroom to be the place where the event actually occurred? After spending a week visiting castles in the Loire Valley, home to many châteaux (“castles”) from the 16th century, I am thankful to have received a brief, but rich education in French history, culture, architecture and design.
Taking the time to learn the stories behind the stone walls, these seemingly cold structures came to life for me and became relics of history, each corridor and room telling another tale of humankind. What a pleasure it was to step back into another world to learn about how people lived, loved, worked and played.
Storytelling Through History
Why did the kings travel around so much? How long did it take to design and build each castle? What was the approval process like? Were women involved in the planning process? Did Leonardo da Vinci have a favorite meal? What was his journey really like coming to France from Italy on a donkey? These were a few of the many questions I pondered over during my castle visits.
My first educational moment occurred when visiting Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s residence the last 3 years of his life. I pictured myself sitting in his studio watching him write from right to left in his tiny notebook, patiently trying to figure out what grand ideas he was coming up with. Each room told a different story and was brought to life through objects, furniture and descriptions. Did you know he was not only an artist but also an engineer, scientist, inventor and musician?
Another story that stood out to me was that of Catherine de Médicis, whose husband King Henry II had a very public chief mistress named Diane de Poitiers. Catherine did not have any influence and her sole purpose was to produce an heir for her husband. As I walked around her bedroom, I wondered what it was like to be a woman during that time period, even as Queen of France.
The Impact of the Renaissance
One aspect I found fascinating was the impact of the Renaissance on the designs of these castles. At the time, France was the epicenter for power and money, so many Italian writers, architects, intellects and artists flocked to France to find work. Naturally, the newer Renaissance architectural style impacted the designs and often architects would build a part of the castle in this new style next to an earlier gothic style. In addition, because most of the workers were coming over from Italy, the gardens were largely inspired by Italian garden design paired with local French construction techniques and modified to fit the open, flat terrain of France. These elaborate gardens were used as a way for kings to show off how wealthy they were when other kings came to visit.
The Role of Women
French kings were constantly traveling to different towns around the country, so the women in the court were often put in power to make many decisions back home. They were constantly restoring and renovating the castles as they learned about new techniques. In addition, women often invited European artists and writers to stay and work in the court. For example, Anne de Bretagne, wife of Charles VIII lived in Amboise Castle and increased the role of women by gathering 100 of her closest and smartest friends to join her in the court. Madame Dupin was known for holding literary salons in Chenonceau Castle for writers and philosophers and also managed to prevent the castle’s destruction during the French Revolution.
Finding Your Perfect Castle Experience
There are dozens of castles to visit in the Loire Valley, but how do you choose the one that fits you the most? The following four castles are my top picks for historic and visually stunning places that offer unique experiences for various interests.
The Royal Experience: Château d’Amboise
This royal residence from the late 15th to early 16th century was one of the few châteaux the kings actually spent a good amount of time in (2 or 3 months a year). Used as a symbol of power when other kings came to visit, this elaborate castle had panoramic views of the Loire River, multiple gardens and two giant cavalier towers. Many French kings were born and bred here, such as Charles VIII and Francois 1er. Walking around, I felt like I was transported back to the 16th century as I heard the stories of juicy royal scandals and young heirs to the throne running around the corridors. Learn more.
The Artistic Experience: Clos Lucé
At age 64, King Francois 1st invited Leonardo da Vinci to live and work in Clos Lucé and said, “Here Leonardo, you will be free to dream, to think and to work”. This “mini” castle was next door to the king’s residence at Château d’Amboise and even had a secret underground passageway where the king could have meeting with da Vinci quickly and safely. My favorite part was standing inside his studio and imagining him drawing out his latest invention or chatting with his pupil about the new canal he was engineering for the King. Spread throughout the castle grounds are life-sized models of da Vinci’s drawings, which really bring his designs to life! Learn more.
The Fairytale Experience: Château de Chenonceau
Known affectionately as the Château des Dames or “castle of the ladies”, Chenonceau was created, restored and maintained by all women throughout its history. Walking around, I could see the feminine touch on everything from the Renaissance architectural style to the endless flower gardens and even the kitchen design. It was the prettiest of all four castles to visit, complete with a moat, swans and rowboats. Learn more.
The Architectural Experience: Azay-le-Rideau Château
Considered one of the foremost examples of early French Renaissance architecture, this castle is the best example of the fusion between Italian architectural styles and the French art of construction. Currently on a three year renovation project to be finished in the summer of 2017, original French construction techniques are being used as they would have hundreds of years ago. As a designer, my favorite parts of the house were all the intricate details, like the owner’s initials sculpted into an elaborate pattern on the ceiling. Learn more.
Getting to the Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is only an hour by high speed train (TGV) from Paris Montparnasse. We took the train to Tours, then rented a car and drove from castle to castle. The roads are all country roads and were easy to navigate without much traffic.