The Loire Valley and its Chateaux, France

The Loire Valley and its Chateaux, France

Château de Chambord

Château de Chambord

The castles of the Loire are one of the main attractions of France and the most extensive site of France on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites . They are concentrated in the Loire valley – 280 km in length and 800 km2 in area. Magnificent architectural monuments from different epochs stand as a living testament to the evolution of French architecture and aesthetics. The Loire Valley is remarkable for the quality of its architectural heritage, its historic cities such as Chinon, Orleans, Blois, Tours and Saumur, but especially for its castles such as Château de Chambord (it was the first to be inscribed on the UNESCO list, even before the whole valley was included).

The Loire Valley is an outstanding cultural landscape along one of the main rivers of France, which has witnessed the exchange of human experiences and the harmonious development of man and the environment for over 2 thousand years. Its numerous monuments are the best illustration of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideals in Western Europe.

The castles of the Loire on the map:

Loire Châteaux on the map

French Châteaux

The French word “château” can mean anything from a ruined castle to a magnificent 18th century mansion, but the first castles in the Loire Valley were fortified square-shaped donjons. Fortresses were not just defensive structures, they were rather symbols of feudalism: they confirmed the aristocratic origins of the owner. Old castles were rarely demolished in later years, even if the rest of the château was rebuilt many times.

Medieval castles

The oldest donjons, at Langeais and Loches, date back to the era of Fulco III Nerre, the bellicose 11th century Count of Anjou. From the beginning of the 13th century, thanks to the technology of the Crusades, giant fortress walls were built in strategic places like Chinonix and Angers. Walls also began to surround the lower courtyards, which served as a place of trade and work for farmers at the door of the castle, framed by the settlement or outer buildings. These were originally the houses of laborers, but soon became as elaborate as the castle.

The medieval castle was the residence of the lord, along with his feudal retinue, servants and garrison. The center of life was the Grand Hall on the first floor, a large room used for many things, from giving orders and announcing laws to celebrations and welcoming guests.

File:Loire Indre Langeais tango7174.jpg

The servants were housed in a separate salle basse (“lower hall”). There was little furniture, partly because many feudal lords regularly moved between different castles. There was not much furniture, partly because the feudal lord and his court often moved between their various castles. The halls were furnished with chests and drawers in addition to beds, and tapestries protected them from the cold walls. Eating could be done anywhere, since the table, perched on stakes, could be moved to any room.

Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Gothic Chateaux of the Loire

In the 14th and 15th centuries, old fortresses began to be remodeled in the Gothic style that prevailed in France at the time, which became, in fact, characteristic of the country. Windows and doors began to be framed in exquisite stone carvings, and roofs were supplemented with balustrades, spires and elaborate finishes. With the end of the Hundred Years’ War, châteaux take on a less defensive character. Among the many Loire castles built from the 1460s to the 1470s, the Château du Plessis-Bourré is built with strong walls, a wide moat and a drawbridge, while the Château of Langeais is supplemented by towers. Nevertheless, both are decorated with large, elaborately carved windows – which has little to do with defensive functions.

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Château du Plessis-Bourré

Château du Plessis-Bourré

Life inside the castles also began to change. Courtyards and belongings were still transported from castle to castle, determining the portion of attention given to interior decoration and design, but for the first time private rooms appeared. The new loggias or “logis” housed two or more chambres: an outer room used for public audiences, and inner rooms – the chambre de gîte – used as bedrooms and for private socializing. Outside this area were the restrooms, sometimes private chapels or study rooms. This basic chateau layout can be seen throughout the region, but the best preserved Vieux Logis is at Château Loches .

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Château de Chambord

Renaissance Palaces

The French Renaissance in architecture began at the end of the 15th century, brought on by two dozen Italian masters surrounded by Charles VIII. At the Châteaux of Chaumont and Amboise, they engaged in decor inspired by classicism, bringing to France a style that was new at the time. The main beginning of the Renaissance coincided with the reign of Francis I, whose new wing in the royal castle of Blois was built with characteristic early Renaissance details. New attention was paid to symmetry and aesthetic balance: stone windows were framed by pilasters (flat columns) topped with carved capitals; decorative panels of marble (or slate available in the region) were incorporated into the stone for contrast; shells, scrolls and flowers became common in decoration; regularly placed window openings were interspersed with simple walls divided by horizontal stone belts. The vividness of the execution, however, owed as much to local skilled craftsmen and the soft stone of the Loire Valley, tuff, as it did to the ideas introduced.

The nobility immediately began to copy the new fashion; the most elegant palaces in the new fashion were Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceau. The enthusiasm for symmetry and decorative elements also spread to the design of parks. As a result, many castles are surrounded by elaborate terraced gardens. Among the most splendid palace gardens are the Villandry, where the garden is divided into a parterre, or raised flower garden, and a potager, a courtyard garden.

Classic Châteaux of the Loire

In the 1530s, the French King Francis I decided to move from the Loire to Paris and Fontainebleau. After that, the Classical style with its new austerity and eloquence became widespread. A typical example is the Beauregard château and the bridge section in the Château of Chenonceau . In the 17th century, the basic plan of the medieval buildings was preserved.

Loire castles Château de Beauregard

Château de Beauregard

The floors were divided into apartments, with a succession of rooms of varying degrees of privacy. The salon became the center of social life, a place of polite “conversations” – another French invention of the era. At the exit from the salon was the antichambre (entrance hall), then the room itself, the chambre, in which a special alcove was made for the bed, and finally the private study.

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The oeil-de-boeuf window

The new architectural style included oeil-de-boeuf (French for bull’s-eye, the characteristic round window) and ‘French’ windows (large high windows with a wrought iron border at the bottom). The oeil-de-boeuf window was intended to be a source of light on the uppermost floors, where the servants now lived, while the large “French” windows allowed the salon to transition into the park as it were. In the Loire valley the calm, horizontally shaped facades were built of local stone, tufa, although the quintessence of French architecture – the vertical parts in the form of turrets – was retained. As a result most of the castles were divided into clearly distinguishable pavilions, as at Cheverny and the Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois. The basse cour was replaced by a symmetrically organized avant-cour (front courtyard), with a formal garden framed by miniature moats and elegant pavilions or stables. A beautiful example of this organization is La Ferté-St-Aubin, south of Orleans.

Loire castles Château de La Ferté Saint-Aubin.

Château de La Ferté Saint-Aubin

In the 18th century, attention began to be drawn to the picturesque landscape. The gardens were transformed into lawns and trees in the “English” informal style, as at the Châteaux of Chaumont, Villandry and Ussé, and entire wings were torn down to make the courtyard open to the view. Very few chateaux were built during this era that made the Loire Valley famous, but the exquisite Château de Montgeoffroy is a pleasant exception.

Château de Chaumont

Château de Chaumont

The 10 most beautiful chateaux of the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley, the largest river in France, is a place so extraordinary that it is difficult to find words to describe it. Here, in an area of 800 square kilometers, are more than 300 castles with centuries of history and their own destiny.

Author of the article: Natalia Kocheganova

Here the book characters, known to us by the novels of Dumas and Druon, become flesh and blood, become real. This place was home to kings and their favourites, the famous French families, great writers and artists: Cardinal Richelieu, the Duke of Anjou, Catherine de Medici, Anne of Brittany, the Duke of Burgundy, Francis I, Louis XII, Leonardo da Vinci and many other historical figures. Everything here is steeped in true French history.

Of all this splendor is quite difficult, but you have to choose what is more worthy of attention. Let’s focus on the castles, where the events, important for the history and culture of the country, unfolded…

Chateau de Langeais

The bride’s white dress

This castle is the oldest surviving one in the valley. Founded in 992, it was rebuilt, enlarged and strengthened many times and got its present appearance in 1469. An event that went down in history took place here in 1491. It was the wedding of Anne of Brittany, daughter of the Duke of Brittany, and King Charles VIII of France.

Anne was destined for another from childhood. Barely four years old, Anne’s intended groom was the son of the King of England, Edward, Prince of Wales, who was later murdered in prison. It was there that his brother, Anne’s second fiancé, ended his life. An eternal bride, she married the German King Maximilian of Hapsburg in absentia at age 14. But this marriage was so disadvantageous to France that French troops practically repulsed Anne and she had to marry the French king. Thus France was united with Brittany. The marriage was short-lived, Charles died, and Anne became the wife of the Duke of Orleans, the future King Louis XII. For the second time, Anne went to the wedding in a white dress as a sign of mourning for Charles, who had died. In those days, white was the color of mourning. So the tradition to wear a dress of this color appeared just then.

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In the 19th century, the castle was reconstructed. The wooden panels and furniture, as well as the tiling of the floors, have been restored according to the paintings of the 15th century. The polished dowry chest of Anne of Brittany and a collection of tapestries from this period are also kept here.

Château d’Ussé

The Château d’Ussé was built in the 15th century at the juncture of two architectural styles, the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. During the century the owners of the castle were changing, and accordingly, its architectural appearance became different.

It is known that Walter used to stay here. And not just stayed here, he wrote several chapters of his poem “Henriade”. Another legend says that Charles Perrault, fascinated by this castle, described it in the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”. Chateaubriand also wrote his “Grave Notes” here.

The castle looks fabulous not only from the outside but also on the inside. But it is rather the merit of modern authorities, who decorated the castle with fairy-tale characters and recreated the bedroom of Sleeping Beauty. From ancient times there are a lot of tapestries of the 18th century hanging on the walls of the gallery connecting the east and west wings. The walls of the rooms are decorated with real silks of the time. And the wine cellar holds bottles filled several centuries ago.

Chateau d’Amboise

The first mention of the castle dates back to 503. Subsequently, the castle was annexed to the possessions of the Dukes of Anjou, and since 1431 became part of the royal estate. Many French kings lived here at different times, and of course, many important for the fate of France documents were signed in Amboise.

According to one version, it was here at the Château d’Amboise that Leonardo da Vinci completed his portrait of his famous Gioconda. Having begun work on the painting in Florence, he took it with him when he came to live in Amboise at the invitation of the king. Here the great artist spent the last years of his life, and here he is also buried.

The surviving fireplaces, decorated in Gothic and Renaissance styles, are particularly impressive. The largest room of the castle, the Council Chamber, is decorated with numerous monograms and coats of arms.

Château de Chinon

Built in the 10th century, in the 15th century the castle became a refuge for kings banished from Paris. The fame of the castle was brought by one fateful encounter. According to legend it was here where the dauphin Charles met the legendary Joan of Arc, who brought him a divine prophecy of his accession to the throne. In the 17th century the castle was for many years the property of the notorious Cardinal Richelieu.

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Even now the castle lives a pretty interesting life. To attract tourists, the authorities turned it into a castle of dragons. Thanks to the work of artists and sculptors, here you can meet dragons of all different nationalities. Even our Slavic three-headed Chudo-Yudo (Snake Gorynych).

The interiors of the castle suffered a lot during the centuries of history. But since 1854 is being restored. Now you can see the restored floor in the royal chambers and copies of antique furniture in the halls.

Château de Chenonceau

Built in 1521 by Catherine Briconnette, for centuries it existed at the behest of women and for this reason was named the Château of the Ladies. Sold to the French crown, it was soon presented by Henry II to his favourite, Diane de Poitiers. It was on her orders that the main decoration of the castle – a magnificent arched bridge – was built.

After Henry’s death, his lawful wife Catherine de Medici exacted revenge on her husband’s mistress by banishing her from the castle and moving there to live. Under Catherine’s will, Chenonceau again passed into female hands – to the wife of Medici’s son, Henry III, Louise of Lorraine .

Not surprisingly, the interiors of Chenonceau are among the richest. Here you can see a lot of antique furniture, paintings, vases of past centuries. The interiors of the two-story wing of the castle, built in 1580 on the bridge, are lavishly decorated in the Renaissance style.

Château de Brissac

The marshal de Brissac, well known to readers of The Three Musketeers, rebuilt this château after its great destruction in 1614. It is the highest castle in the country and is 52 meters high.

Here, in August 1620, Louis XIII and his mother Marie de Medici reconciled and raised troops against her son.

The castle has more than two hundred rooms. All of them are richly decorated with antique furniture, numerous paintings, sculptures and tapestries. Especially impressive is the luxurious opera hall on the upper floor of the castle, built in the 19th century. By the way, this castle is the only functioning residence. The eldest son of the thirteenth Duke of Brissac, Charles-André, and his wife and children live here.

Château d’Azay-le-Rideau

Appeared in a dream.

Many consider this château to be the most beautiful in the Loire Valley. All the more astonishing that it was founded by Ridot de Azeu, a particularly ruthless man nicknamed the “Devil’s Child”.

It was here that the Duke of Burgundy, who owned the castle, and Charles VII, heir to the French throne, clashed in 1418. Charles, who had escaped from Paris, wanted to hide in the castle, but could not. The castle was burnt to the ground and the soldiers who prevented the escape of the Dauphin were hanged.

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It was not until a hundred years later that construction began on the castle which we can now see. Legend has it that the wife of the royal treasurer, Philippe Lebaille had a dream about it.

Today, inside you can see seven rooms, the sumptuous royal bedrooms, the ballroom, the library with the fireplace and the kitchen. Everywhere the furnishings are reproduced according to the traditions of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Château de Saumur

In the 10th century on the site of the present castle a monastery and a fortress were built. The English kings Henry II and Richard the Lionheart gave it its present appearance, which it has preserved to this day. Although Saumur was rebuilt several times afterwards, its architectural design still resembled that of a fortress, so atypical of French castles.

And its fate is also atypical. In the 17th century the castle became a prison and remained in this status for several centuries. As far as is known, the Marquis de Sade spent some time in prison here.

The restoration of the castle began only in 1997, but was interrupted in 2001 by a sudden partial collapse. However, by 2007 the restoration was finished and now there are several museums here: the City Museum with a collection of medieval sculpture, ceramics, household and interior items, as well as the Horse Museum.

Château de Chambord

The Da Vinci Labyrinth

This is the most intricate castle of the Loire Valley with 426 rooms, 77 staircases and 282 fireplaces. There is a theory that Leonardo da Vinci was directly involved in its design. Chambord was built by Francis I in the 16th century as a hunting residence. None of the castles has perhaps had so many owners as this one: Henry II, Henry III and Henry IV, Gaston of Orleans, Louis XIV, Stanislaus of Leschinsky, Marshal of Saxony. All of them constantly rebuilt and reconstructed something, but practically no one lived here permanently.

Today the interiors of the castle are almost empty, only a few rooms have retained their medieval decoration. Therefore, the main value of the castle are architectural solutions. For example, the central staircase, which is designed as a huge structure of two spirals with two entrances. The spirals do not intersect with each other, thanks to which the descending people do not meet the ascending ones.

Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire

Or as it is also called, the Château de Medici. Built in the 10th century, it became very popular in the 16th century, when it belonged to Catherine de’ Medici. Surrounded by astrologers, here she met the great Nostradamus, here Cosimo Ruggieri predicted the end of the Valois dynasty and the accession of the Bourbons. After the death of her husband, Henri II, Catherine moved his favourite, Diana de Poitiers, here, while she herself moved to the more sumptuous Chenonceau.

The decoration of the interiors of the castle, which survives to this day, took place in the 19th century. The work is in the neo-Renaissance style. The fireplaces are ornate, the interiors are lavishly decorated with carved wood ornaments, and the floors are striking with the beauty of Sicilian majolica.

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