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Châteaux de la Loire

Delve deeper into Cassandra’s travels around the French Châteaux which influenced her La Belle France designs.

As I wandered in the gardens and watched the sun set behind the Château de Chambord before dinner, I thought back fondly to my days living near Tours and the Loire Valley, when I would explore the many magnificent châteaux on my weekends, discovering all these fascinating places for the first time. It felt poignant that despite years passing between my first visits to the Loire Valley, these châteaux transcend time and remain as extraordinary as ever, just as they have since the Middle Ages and the French Renaissance when they were first built.

For my recent trip to the Loire Valley I stayed at the Relais de Chambord, a boutique hotel
where contemporary style and luxury blends sympathetically with authentic features. Step onto the hotel’s terrace and you have an uninterrupted view of the Château de Chambord. Dating back to the middle of the 16th century, King François I built it as a hunting lodge, but it became the largest Renaissance castle in the Loire Valley.

Surrounded by an equally impressive nature reserve (the largest in Europe), the estate offers hectares of forests, canals, vineyards and gardens to explore, whether by foot,
bicycle, horse-back or even hot air balloon! Then, venture inside the château itself
and you will see the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, who was invited to join King François I’s court in 1516 to bring the fashion for Italian architecture of the time to the château, including the famous double spiral staircase.

Another château that showcases Leonardo da Vinci’s engineering feats is the Château du Clos Lucé, where the artist, architect, scientist and engineer resided to the end of his life. Here, you will find models of his inventions and many more of his artistic works in two brilliant galleries.

For unequivocal grandeur, you have to see Château de Chenonceau, in my eyes one of the most beautiful places to see in the Loire Valley and one of the most fascinating. It is well known for its walking gallery and the arches spanning majestically across the River Cher, but they only came to be because Queen Catherine de Médici decided to take the castle from her rival Diane de Poitiers, adding another garden, vineyards and extending the castle out across the river to remind her of her Italian palazzi.

Also known as the Château des Dames, the château’s history took another interesting turn in the 18th century Enlightenment period when Louise Dupin welcomed scholars, philosophers and academics to Chenonceau and her literary salons, defending gender equality and drafting a Code of Women’s Rights with her secretary, the well-known philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Later, during WW1, the gallery at the château was converted into a military hospital, treating over 2000 wounded soldiers.

Travel further down the River Loire and you will discover the Château de Villandry, famous for its formal gardens and sculptural box hedges. Meander through the ‘Jardin du Soleil’, the ‘Jardin d’Eau’ with ponds and fountains, the ‘Jardin d’Ornament’ and onto the expansive vegetable garden, the ‘Potager Decoratif’. You will discover stunning trees at the Château d’Azay-le Rideau, where the towering Renaissance castle reflects into the River Indre below.

Step back in time and visit the Medieval town of Chinon and the royal fortress on the banks
of the river Vienne. Joan of Arc famously resided there when she was just 17 years old before asking Charles VII for an army.

According to the season, the Château de Chenonceau blooms with beautiful flower displays, where vast branches, tall vases of bouquets and flowers of all varieties are arranged throughout the castle. If you are visiting, look out for their flower arranging workshops.

From April to May, explore the garden of 500,000 tulips and Château de Cheverny, where rainbow ribbons of vivid flowers weave their way into the château’s water feature. And for the most memorable summer evenings visit the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, though not strictly a château of the Loire, when 2000 candles light up the gardens from May to September, ending with a firework display.

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