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Chateaux of Loire Valley, France

Punita Malhotra

Contributor

Two hours from Paris, one can explore 300 kilometres of a delightful UNESCO-protected national park, Loire Valley. Dotting the rich landscape of vineyards, farmlands, hunting forests and ancient towns are thousands of 15th-century Renaissance-style chateaux. Endless choices await every kind of traveller…from elegant homes to majestic mansions and charming castles to forbidding fortresses. Each chateaux is a study in luxury living with grandly designed interiors, sprawling fountain-laden gardens, and royal spires, chimneys or turrets. Soaking in the rich history and romance of the Loire Valley can take a day or several weeks, depending on how deep one wants to dive in. Three of the most impressive chateaux are:

Chambord: Lavishness is the theme

The lush forest-like park filled with wild deer leading to the vast Chambord estate makes an impressive first statement. You almost expect to see horse carriages at the huge car park, as you alight. Interestingly, the palace-like proportions of the chateau evolved from what was once a modest hunting lodge and it was finally designed to meet the lavish needs of 16th-century French monarch François I and many more later kings. Louis XIV is also believed to have stayed here briefly. Every inch of this royal residence oozes grandeur. In fact, it is impossible to cover all 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 85 staircases, stables for 1200 horses, and a seemingly endless park that is bound by a 22-mile long wall. The most fascinating feature is a central double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, which is a testament to the architect’s engineering genius. Two staircases twisting up to the roof, are hidden from each from view by an optical illusion, and visible only in through the interspersed tiny windows. Two can play a lovely game of hide-and-seek right here, trying to crack the Da Vinci code. The rooftop, adorned by chimneys, turrets, domes and balustrades offers inspiring views of Versailles-like grassy grounds merging into the woods in the distance. French aristocracy seeps through every inch and the impact is unforgettable. Thanks to exquisite chateaux like Chambord, the exotic appeal of Loire Valley rivals the castle-rich Scottish Highlands.

Chenonceau: Fine life and war intrigue

For some reason, the approach to Chenonceau has a faint reminder of Sound of Music and Salzburg. Walking through the canopy of plane trees bordering the immaculately designed French gardens, you feel a sense of deep contentment and peace. The first glimpse of the elegant chateau from across the river Cher makes your heart skip a beat. Gazing at the 60-meter long arched gallery beside the glassy waters, you are transported back into the times when the luxurious home overflowed with rich food, expensive wine and house guests paddling canoes. Catherine of Medici, Regent of France hosted several of her balls in these very quarters. Wandering in and out of the sumptuously decorated rooms, you get insight into the regal lifestyle of those times. Gilded frame paintings and fine tapestries adorn the walls. Wooden library shelves and expensive furniture speak of the bygone era when nobles sipped afternoon tea in boudoirs and pampered themselves with velvety four-poster beds. Fireplaces and wooden chests still show off carefully crafted flower arrangements. Interestingly, the loveliness of this chateau hides an unusual and unromantic angle. Thanks to its location at the border of free and Nazi France during World War II, prisoner exchanges often happened here. You would never have expected an element of war intrigue here!

Cheverny: Lineage still speaks

In this luxurious 16th-century castle, even the kennel of thoroughbred hunting hounds speaks of lineage. Built in a quintessential French classical style, Cheverny’s design is based on the Palais de Luxembourg in Paris. The white stone facade contrasting pleasantly with the green grassy gardens makes a pretty picture against the blues of the skies above. The chateau has been the home to several generations of the same family for seven centuries, and they still occupy a private portion of the property. Refined living and sophisticated taste reflect everywhere in the interiors, from the large bay-windows overlooking the charming and extensive gardens to the carved furniture in the salons, library with a grand piano and opulent, damask-panelled walls. The armoury displays a well-preserved collection of arms belonging to the Count of Chambord. Touches of Italian renaissance peek from the elaborate staircase and landing. From framed family portraits to personal possessions, tableware in the dining room to elaborately cushioned couches, every element stands out with poise. After exploring the formally laid-out gardens and orangery, as one takes a last look at the chateau, one realises why Herge was inspired by Cheverny to create the epic Marlinpike Hall in the Adventures of Tintin. This is truly stuff meant for pages of a fantasy book. And there are hundreds of other chateaux in the vicinity remaining to be explored.

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