Loire Valley’s stunning châteaux and beautiful gardens
The Loire Valley aka the former “playground of kings” is famed for its magnificent chateaux and stunning gardens. Planning on visiting this picturesque region of France? Anthony Lydekker has the low-down on the chateaux you really shouldn’t miss
It’s difficult to define exactly why the Loire Valley is so successful in continuing as an incredibly popular place for short and long visits. It has some sort of unique qualities which have continued for 400 years through civil wars, revolution and occupation in WW2.
Perhaps its the climate which is a bit milder than England and Wales, or it may be the quality of the soil which suits the winemakers and the gardeners. Or it could be something to do with the rivers including the Loire’s tributaries – but popular it remains and it’s certainly relaxing.
When talking about “going to the Loire” or “being on the Loire” it’s worth remembering that France’s longest river runs 1,000 km from the Cevennes up to Orleans, where it then swings due west to Nantes and the Atlantic at St-Nazaire. I’ve driven across the Loire many times on the way to the south and south west but stopped only once to take a middle distance photo of Chenonceau. On our recent visit we stayed in an area about 100km square bound by Tours and Amboise, which has something of everything that makes this part of the Loire Valley a World Heritage Unesco site.
We were fortunate to visit both Chenonceau and Villandry. In this area not to visit one or both would be a bit like going to Rome and not even looking at the outside of St Peter’s. We also visited three smaller, privately owned Châteaux.
Two towns and five châteaux
Tours was Europe’s greatest pilgrimage centre before the emergence of Santiago de Compostela, and is an excellent base for seeing the area with plenty of hotels and relaxing squares with half-timbered houses. Alternatively, the smaller Amboise is a bit less crowded in the summer and has the magnificent Chateaux d’Amboise housing the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci.
The prince and the show tomatoes
Château de la Bourdaisière; owner and host: Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie.
I first met Louis-Albert at a meeting at the RHS in Vincent Square. To say he’s an enthusiast, is an understatement. He is constantly looking at new ways of using bio-diversity to improve everything that grows on the extensive estate, which include informative charts on trails through the woods. Known in France as ‘the gardener prince’, he and la Bourdaisière are world renowned for the collection of no fewer than 650 tomato species. I had forgotten the French passion for Dahlias and the Prince grows 180 varieties, some with blooms 30cm wide. There is very comfortable accommodation at the Château, with a swimming pool and tennis court for guests.
The French countess with Italian vistas
Château de Valmer. Countess Alix de St Venant’s family has lived in the Château for over 120 years. The gardens are in a classical Italian style with terraces, stairways, and sunken gardens, incorporating fountains and statues with open views of the Touraine countryside. A lot of evergreen is used and flowers, fruits and vegetables are incorporated in identical beds on the terraces and there is a collection of over 1,000 aromatic and medicinal plants. The Château has vineyards run by younger family members and visitors enjoy tastings. Guided tours throughout the summer season.
The gardener of the Gargantuan
At the Château du Riveau, Patricia Laigneau has developed the grounds and gardens of these former Royal Stables to include a maze, woodland walks and a Tom Thumb trail for children with fairy decorations and mobiles hanging in trees. Extensive kitchen gardens include a large area of giant vegetables, the Gargantua garden, whose entrance is guarded by a nine foot high pair of huge green wells – ideal for photo ops! Inside the Château, there are themed suites such as one based on Catherine de Medici and another named after Pierre Beavau, supplier of horses to the King who was permitted to fortify Riveau in 1442. Riveau also produces wine and the giant veg, is consumed on menus organised by Eric Laigneau.
Villandry a Spanish Restoration
Château de Villandry, completed around 1536, has one of the world’s best known Renaissance gardens. What is less well known, is that Villandry today is very much a family affair. By the 19th century the Château and gardens had become very run down and in 1906 the estate was bought by Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard and in 1910 his American wife Ann Coleman faithfully re-created the gardens. We were shown round by the present owner Henri Carvallo. I find the best way to appreciate the scope of the gardens is from upstairs in the Château (see my two photos here). Much has been written about the Villandry but, for me, the most striking things are the vegetables mixed in with flowers and the use of low box hedges and the stunning love and hearts themed area. The Carvallo family have also restored the interiors with pictures, carpets and furniture with very much a lived in feeling.
Chenonceau is not is on the Loire
The Château de Chenonceau is second only to Versailles in numbers of visitors to French palaces, and is the great gleaming star of the Loire Valley. It straddles the river Cher, a Loire tributary, which I found out when trying to get river transport from either Tours or Amboise to Chenonceau. Be that as it may, a visit is a must! But do plan ahead and check out current events and exhibitions in addition to the gardens, galleries and whole vast inspiring thing – so hit the website or try their new free App ‘Discovering Chenonceau’ in 11 languages. In a very short first visit I liked: the giant dhalias (again), flower arranging workshop (and the workshop arrangements inside), the interiors, the exhibitions about former temporary residents Rousseau and Chopin and finally lunch. The various options from cafeteria to restaurant are all good value but do book in advance or arrive early.
Why not create your own ‘packaged’ châteaux and gardens tour?
The area we visited is four hours by car from Calais and about half that from Caen ferries and RyanAir flies to Tours Val de Loire Airport.
For many years there have been excellent holidays from ‘bespoke’ tour planners to Loire Châteaux and their gardens, often with appointments with the owners plus accommodation and meals in interesting restaurants, all arranged. However understandably this has been at a price which incorporates the planning and some element of exclusivity. That said, the web means that these days direct lines to owners of gardens and châteaux are quicker and make it simpler to arrange a visit or join a group. Also, finding places with Satnav is easier in France where postal numbers seem to come up more quickly than UK postcodes on mapping programmes.
One of the great joys of a French holiday are the numerous fêtes and many free local events copy and paste this link into your browser to see 254 coming up this year in the Loire Valley area, see: www.bit.ly/UhaaKG
Guest and Garden is a group of keen gardeners, all with great looking gardens who offer B&B where children are welcome. There are two public swimming pools in Tours and one in Amboise. As you may have found pools, are more available and better quality in France than UK – and it gets warmer further South.
The château of many beds
Finally, the Château de Marais is a quality campsite which includes 40 or so wooden chalets, several swimming pools and kids’ activities where families can stay for under £100 per night. Book direct or use the UK firms represented there, who come up on the web. I recall that children love these places and can be very happy while parents are off looking at Leonardo’s Tomb in Amboise or a few hundred dhalias at Villandry.