A while ago, when I was in Paris, I felt in a bit of a hyper romantic mood and decided to leave the crowded city for one day and head to Val de Loire (Loire Valley).
In my opinion, Loire Valley is a real must-do if you have more then 5 days in France. What is it and why do you have to visit it?
The Loire Valley is located about 200 km south of Paris (see the map below) and is considered to be “The Gardens of France”. There are about 1000 chateaux (castles) alltogether JUST there. Some of them are small and private, but some are huge, open to the public and truly outstanding!
The abundance of beautiful landscapes with vineyards, fairlytale castles and rich history that surrounds them makes the place truly an incredible attraction which would be a pity to miss!
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It is no wonder so many tourists take a one day trip from Paris just to see the chateaux of Val de Loire. That is what I did as well. I took a Paris day tour – Loire Valley with City Wonders tours and sat in their bus, filled with expectations of epic landmarks.
While our tour guide, Adam, a flamboyant Canadian who knows absolutely everything about French culture, language and history, was explaining to us a bit about our schedule, my mind started wandering into daydreams of castles with high towers and spiral staircases, labyrinths of gardens and love stories between fair princesses and handsome knights in shining armor…
A little bit of history:
When you wake up from your daydreams, you will hear your guide explaining some rather interesting facts. Seems like Val de Loire used to be quite populated especially by the royal family and nobles at the court in times of war. In case of attacks which would come either from the rivers or from land, the royal family would be like, hmm…
Instead of trying to stay in the castle while it’s being sieged, why don’t we just, you know… move the castle?!
Don’t take that literally. They wouldn’t move the structure itself. But they would move everything in it, together with all the people in the court, the guests, the servants, the livestock (cows, chickens, pigs) and so on. That would make a convoy of a few thousand who had to be moved, and this could happen frequently as once every two weeks, can you imagine?
The guide kept telling us story after story of plots, schemes, arranged marriages, affairs and big egos, the type that in order to copy the Italian Renaissance would order a huge, architecturally beautiful castle with 800 hundreds rooms, which, until modern time, had no real good heating solution on the inside. What am I talking about? Well for example…
First stop: Château de Chambord
Did you ever see the “Beauty and the Beast” movie?
The story goes that this is the castle that inspired the animator for the classic film. It was commissioned by King Francis I to be his 800 room hunting lodge. It was indeed built after he had a failed campaign in Italy and came back wanting to copy the Italian new age architecture (of that time). I’m glad I took the tour as the guide kept telling us all the little side stories that made the visit even more enjoyable. I don’t remember all the names and facts but if you have the opportunity to take an excursion, do it!
Outside, Château de Chambord is magnificent! I mean I just couldn’t stop clicking with my camera! The towers, the walls, the terraces, the outside spiral staircases…
Oh, just stop time and give me a long classic dress!!
Inside the castle there is a different story. Still, there were some cool elements, like a spiral staircase with two flights of stairs made in such a way that if one person goes up one and another comes down on the other one, they will never see each other and they will never know who passed by them. Otherwise, the rooms are too tall, too stony. As the chimneys are too weak and not able to heat up the rooms, the castle stayed so cold throughout its history that almost no one could ever live in it except for a few days at a time.
Though there was an immense amount of money spent on building this chateau, no one ever really lived there, isn’t that sad?
Well, at least it was discovered by tourists and now it is visited all year long!
Once inside, don’t dare skip taking the stairs up to the roof where you will have the opportunity to see the great surroundings as well as all the cool towers from up close. Again, I grabbed my camera and took advantage of all the angles I could find 🙂
Second stop : Lunch at a private château
The tour took us to a second chateau for lunch. This one was much smaller, but had all the mandatory elements to be called a château (= a castle). The lunch was very French and there was plenty of wine to enjoy. At the end, we were offered a few historical facts about the place and a quick tour, presented by the family who owned the castle and some wine tasting (of course!)
Third stop: Château de Chenonceau
This one was by far my favorite!
It is an absolutely gorgeous castle that includes a bridge over the river Cher. The Chateau de Chenonceaux is well known for the rivalry between two famous women – Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers, the wife and the mistress of King Henry II respectively.
Seems this mistress was quite an emancipated woman, and hot as hell for those times. She took care of her body and not only that, she bathed regularly (hey, we are talking about medieval France here!) and ate right with a diet based on home-grown fruits and vegetables. She definitely had the looks, and the king adored her, to the queen’s dismay of course!
The queen was quite the opposite. She was short and not pretty at all. She made her enemies’ life hell, especially Diane’s, from whom the vengeful queen took away the castle right after her husband’s death.
Diane de Poitiers took care that extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees would be built around the castle so she would always have fresh food. Her gardens still stand and they look great!
Catherine de’ Medici also commissioned her own gardens, which are a predominant blue, with a bit of pink. Why these colors? Because back then blue was the strong feminine color while pink was a male color. How the times we live in shape our perception, don’t they?
The castle is wonderful; if you go there by yourself you can easily spend half a day or more just visiting it and its surroundings. Make sure to visit it all the way to the top floor, where you can see the rooms, especially the “dark” room!
After taking the castle from Diane, Queen Catherine changed many things in it, mostly to have her presence felt and to show she was in charge now. She even put her portrait in the former bedroom of Diane to make her point.
Make sure you visit all the rooms, and pay attention to the traditional kitchen which was placed on the lowest floor!
The wine tasting
When my tour gave us a choice to spend more time in the castle or to continue to the wine tastings, it was so hard to choose! I went for the wine in the end 😉
I tasted 4 good wines and enjoyed every drop. If you want to, you can do the tasting, otherwise, you can walk around the castle more for the duration of the tasting.
The full name of the tour I took is “Full day Loire Valley Castles and Wine Tasting Tours from Paris” by City Wonders Tours. It felt very well organized and not rushed (very important for me). They also divided us into two groups, which made it easier to manage. Even though I usually prefer to organize everything myself, this is a time when I actually do recommend taking a tour for these reasons:
First, you won’t need to worry about transportation to each place (it’s not that easy by public transport to make your way from one chateau to the other) and no need to exhaust yourself and drive there and back (200 km one way).
Second, it is actually cheaper. If you take public transport (I will explain the procedure below) you pay for everything separately – train tickets, lunch, tour guides and entrance tickets to castles so it will be more expensive. Plus, you will have to wait in line, which I did not have to bother with at all, as all the tickets were bought for us in advance.
And third, and the most important, the guides! You will never read all the amount of extremely interesting info our guides shared with us from the Internet or your guide book. Seriously, I pitied those people in the line I passed by, who were reading Wikipedia from their tablets. You will not enjoy it as much, you just won’t!
PRICE: The tour costs 165 EUR per person. Transportation, lunch, guides, tickets to the chateaux and wine tastings are included in the price.
If, after all my reasoning, you still want to have a do-it-yourself-tour, no problem, it is your choice, let me explain how to plan it:
How to get to Loire Valley by yourself:
My advice is, if you are going to go by yourself, then plan on more than one day. Go for a few days, rent a car and drive to all the castles you want to see. Alternatively, take a train to Tours, and then rent bikes and cycle around the castles.
As I said, it is totally possible to see the main castles in a one-day trip, but if you have the chance, you should stay in the area for a couple of days; there really is so much to see!
How to get to Tours:
If you choose to rent a car, check this website, it usually gives the best rates in my experience!
The route Paris – Tours (the city close to Loire Valley) runs quite frequently. Every 40 mins trains leave from Gare Montparnasse to Tours. You can see the schedule here. The cheapest train ticket, if you buy it in advance, will be 36 EUR round trip. However, take into consideration that this train will also be the slowest (2 hours one way). You will not be able to see much of the castles if you spend 4 hours on the train, right? If you want to get there by fast train in 1 hour, count on at least 90 EUR for a return trip.
From Tours you can get to the most famous chateaux by public transport, but the service is very infrequent. To avoid frustration, I recommend either renting a bike/car from there or taking a local tour from Tours.
– Where to stay in the Loire Valley –
There are many hotels for all budgets right there in Tours, so it might be a good option to stay there overnight.
I can recommend these:
- A hotel for a luxury stay – Manoir de la Touche;
- A hotel with good price/quality – Auberge Du Grand Dauphin;
- A hotel for a budget stay – La Cyrillaure.
Here is a map of the most popular castles in the Loire Valley. I circled the ones I visited on my tour (these 2 are really the most important ones to visit!):
PRO TIP: Since the gardens of each Chateau are responsible for at least half of the atmosphere, I recommend going either in the late spring or in the summer, when the weather is better.
I hope this was useful, thank you for reading this article!
Disclaimer: I was invited to the City Wonders tour as a guest, but as usual, I have stated my honest opinion.
Do you want to know where to stay in Paris? Check out my article about 5 neighborhoods in Paris with hotel recommendations for each here!
Do you want to discover more places in France? Check out my article about 7 best things to do in Saint-Tropez!
Have you been to Loire Valley? Which castles did you visit? Which ones would you like to visit?
Share your thoughts about the article, I am always very happy to hear from my readers!
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