Chambord chateau, Loire Valley, France

Loire Valley: The True Heart of France

Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.

UPDATE 6/4/20: Travelers who enter the country, with the exception of EU citizens or arrivals from the UK, will be subject to a compulsory 14-day coronavirus quarantine until at least July 24.

The Loire River passes slowly through Amboise. The old houses, the stony bridge, and, above all, the stunning Renaissance chateau on the cliff create an outrageously harmonic scene. Amboise is one of the small towns in the Loire Valley, the cultural region about three hours south of Paris. It attracts millions of visitors every year for its chateaus, wines, and bike paths. But the bucolic vibe of the Loire Valley, made up of calm waters, mild hills, lush forests, and golden fields, should not deceive our eyes. This is not a provincial outpost. Modern France emerged right here.  At the end of the 15th century Paris lacked its current grandeur and the small village of Amboise witnessed more than its fair share of historical events, including royal births, weddings, and deaths. No wonder the Loire Valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Loire Valley, from Nantes to Nevers, is such a long distance that you can easily create a week-long itinerary: filled with chateaus and towns, as well as, leisurely activities. Even if you have just three short days, as I did, you can still leave the bustle of the capital behind and enjoy this piece of la France profonde (the Deep France). I made Amboise, centrally located in the valley, my base, from where I explored other places. But Amboise itself was well worth exploring.

Amboise on the Loire River, France
Amboise on the Loire River

The Boy Who Created France:  Wandering the narrow streets of Amboise in the morning light was a delight, but I soon needed a stop for lunch. Pleased to have found a non-English speaking restaurant in a touristy town, I savored the local Terrine de Campagne and Pièce de Boeuf, while reading a book on French history written by Leonie Frieda. Afterward, my steps led inevitably upward, to the Chateau de Amboise.

Streets of Amboise, Loire Valley, France
Streets of Amboise

We do not know how the six-year-old Francis of Angoulême felt as he was climbing (or probably riding) up the same hill toward the chateau in the year 1500. He was sent there by King Louis XII, who resided in the nearby Blois. Louis, a member of a minor branch of the royal dynasty, found himself unexpectedly on the French throne. It seems the previous king was running to watch a game of tennis and died from a severe blow to the head after hitting his head against a lintel in Amboise. The new king had no sons, so even though Francis was just a distant relative, he suddenly became the heir apparent. To properly raise the boy, Luis reserved Amboise for Francis’ use and supplied this large ‘royal nursery’ with esteemed humanist scholars of the era.

Salamander, the emblem of Francis I, Loire Valley, France
Salamander, the emblem of Francis I., placed everywhere in the Loire Valley chateaus

The preparation paid off. The pupil of Amboise grew up to be a cultured and vigorous, (some would say too vigorous), man who ruled France for more than thirty years (1515-1547) as Francis I. The reign of Louis and Francis saw the country undergo an extraordinary transformation. What was once a collection of fiefdoms, destroyed by long wars during the mid-15th century, became the large self-confident European power that we know today. This history was neatly summarized in the title of the book which I read over lunch: Francis I: The Maker of Modern France.

In the 15th century France did not really have a capital city. The royal court traveled from place to place, spending a large amount of time in the Loire Valley. Amboise remained one of Francis’ favorite residences, even during his reign – as is readily apparent from his signature coat of arms scattered all around the chateau -in the form of salamander reliefs inserted in walls and above fireplaces. Salamander was used to symbolize resilience and indestructibility, and Francis certainly demonstrated those two traits throughout his life. (He even survived a period of imprisonment by his arch-rival, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V.)

Leonardo da Vinci in the arms of Francis I, Loire Valley, France
Idealized depiction of how Leonardo da Vinci died in the arms of Francis I. (Author: Francois Guillaume Menageot)

The King and the Artist: After walking through the rooms and gardens of the grand royal chateau, I stumbled upon what was the main highlight of the site for me. In the inconspicuously small Chapel of St. Hubert I found on the floor of the chapel a tombstone that  reads “Leonardo da Vinci.” (The Chapel was King Francis’ own retreat since Hubert was the protector of hunters and Francis enjoyed nothing more than hunting in the Loire Valley.) As I learned, Leonardo da Vinci lived the last years of his life in Amboise. In 1516, King Francis I invited the Italian master to join him in the Loire Valley. Needing a patron, Leonardo agreed despite being sixty-four and partially paralyzed, probably because he reasoned he would not get many more commissions in Rome, where Michelangelo was then in favor.

The king gave Leonardo the nearby Chateau du Clos Lucé for his personal use. Since it lies only few steps away from Chateau de Amboise, I walked there for my next excursion. Clos Lucé looks more like an intimate aristocratic mansion, but all that disappeared when I entered the most extraordinary of its many rooms – Leonardo’s study, the last one where I was able to see his architectural sketches, paintings and scientific tools.

The basement and the surrounding park of the chateau brings us to Leonardo’s mind even more closely. There I found on  display models, sometimes in the real-life scale, of the machines that he designed. There is the first model of an automobile, a steam hammer, a water turbine, and, since kings wanted to use Leonardo’s genius for military purposes, a UFO-shaped war machine with cannons all around it.

Although Leonardo was too incapacitated to create a new masterpiece while living in Amboise, the king appreciated the frequent conversations he could have with the genius. The king said he “..could never believe there was another man born in this world who knew as much as Leonardo, and not only of painting, sculpture, and architecture,… [Leonardo] was [also] a great philosopher.” As a bonus for his patronage, when Leonardo passed away, King Francis inherited the paintings he brought from Italy to France with him, including the Mona Lisa, which ended up in the royal collection.

The romantic legend says that Leonardo drew his last breath in Clos Lucé with King Francis at his side. That is presumably a legend, however. King Francis was most likely attending to his duties when Leonardo passed away, despite the romantic images seen in the paintings in Loire Valley chateaus.

The French Renaissance, Loire Valley, France
The French Renaissance

Take Some France, Add Some Italy, and Shake It: Leonardo was not the only Italian whom King Francis brought to France. As an ambitious king, educated in a humanist tradition, he tried to raise the cultural profile of the country. To that end, he kept inviting artists, intellectuals and architects from the then beacon of the world – Italy. That beacon for the Renaissance had just entered its High period, as King Francis saw first-hand on his Italian war campaigns. Italian influence soon began to show on facades of many French chateaus. But, while King Francis added some Italian ornamentation to the Chateau de Amboise, for me, his main architectural achievement lay an hour away.

I first spotted Chambord among trees as I was arriving by car. This most iconic of the Loire Valley chateaus looked like what I knew from pictures, until I came to view it up close. Its size was utterly staggering—the residential wing reaches a height of 184 feet (56 m). Unlike other chateaus which King Francis only upgraded, he had a chance to build Chambord from scratch. And he seized that opportunity. The structure represents Francis’ personality in its ambitious size and style. The design carefully balances French medieval architecture, (preserved in towers, turrets, and other castle-like features), with Italian elegance, symmetry and decoration. In essence, a style recalling the age of chivalry mixed with a style based in science. That architectural blend became known as French Renaissance, one of King Francis’ contributions to the history of art.

Double-run staircase, Chambord, Loire Valley, France
The double-run staircase in Chambord

Roaming the sixty rooms of Chambord may seem overwhelming, especially with the flood of salamanders and F-symbols, but all the doors eventually lead to the central element of the chateau: the staircase. This spiral staircase is unique, thanks to its two separate runs of steps, preventing people from bumping into each other when headed in the opposite directions. Its design may have been inspired by Leonardo’s ideas, even though the Italian genius was not directly involved.

I stood on the chateau’s roof terrace for the last few moments regretting that I had to leave. I realized that King Francis did not actually get to enjoy Chambord much longer than I did. Due to the slow pace of the construction, Francis spent j only a total of eight weeks at his masterpiece. Yet, Chambord served him well because King Francis managed to host King Charles V, thus dazzling his main rival during one of their rare diplomatic thaws.

In the Garden of France: The Loire Valley is not only about history and sightseeing. In Amboise, I had dinners in its Michelin-mentioned restaurants. Besides their heavenly entrees, they also offer a selection of fine cheeses—in one case, I was challenged to choose from eighteen types. Dining was also paired with excellent wine from Touraine, the historical region to which Amboise belongs. (The region’s name comes from the nearby city of Tours, also on the Loire River.) Touraine is so rich in its produce that it gets referred to as “the Garden of France.” Some visitors actually travel to the area more for wine than for the chateaus as the Loire Valley has a reputation for having great conditions for white varieties. That reputation seemed to me verified as I sipped Les Pierres, a Chenin Blanc from Touraine.

Speaking of gardens, Chenonceau, twenty minutes away from Amboise, must be the chateau with the most beautiful setting. Surrounded by gardens with the perfect geometric design, Chenonceau not only sits on the bank of the Cher River, but one of its wings crosses the river itself in a chateau-bridge. Its architecture adheres to King Francis’ style, though he did not pay much attention to the chateau. Instead, Chenonceau became known as “the ladies’ chateau.”

Chateau de Chenonceau on the Cher River, Loire Valley, France
Chateau de Chenonceau on the Cher River

The chateau witnessed a fight between two very powerful women of the 16th century. The first was Catherine de Medici, one of the Italians at King Francis’ court. As a member of a prime aristocratic family, and more importantly, a niece of the pope, she was married to Francis’ son, who eventually acceded to the throne as King Henri II. Catherine’s intelligence and determination gained her respect in King Francis’ eyes, but her own husband preferred to spend time with his mistress Diane de Poitiers—twenty-years his senior. King Henri gave Diane the popular Chateau de Chenonceau, where she operated as a queen in all but name.

A dramatic turn of events ensued. With the death of  King Henri II’s death in 1559, the moment of reckoning became reality. Given her son’s young age, Catherine became the regent of the kingdom. She immediately expelled Diane de Poitiers from Chateau de Chenonceau—after forcing her to return jewels she had received from Henri. Catherine then turned Chenonceau into her main residence and ruled France from the chateau’s Green Cabinet room.

Biking and a Crash Course in Architecture: The early morning drive along the river, from Amboise to Blois, felt relaxing. With no traffic on the road, I enjoyed looking at the wide waters of the Loire, glowing from the lowly sun, surrounded by mild forested hills. While I used a car on this trip, you can choose a more romantic mode of transportation. Most towns on the river are connected by trains. But even better, a well-maintained bike path called La Loire à Vélo  follows the river for 500 miles (800 km). In fact, more than 400 lodges and outlets along the route carry the label Accueil Vélo (Cyclists Welcome), making it more than convenient to explore the Loire Valley by bike. Whichever method you choose, a Loire Valley trip can be designed as a leisurely affair. Even the number of tourists did not seem excessive in September, with most of them being French.

Turaine-Mesland vineyard, Loire Valley, France
Turaine-Mesland vineyard. The female statue at the top embodies the Loire. According to a legend, she appeared during a drought, called herself the favorite of Dionysos, and saved the local winemakers.

The road to Blois passes by Touraine-Mesland wineries and another chateau: Chaumont-sur-Loire. That chateau was a residence for Queen Catherine de Medici, until she had Diane de Poitiers evicted and moved there from Chenonceau. Queen Catherine, it seems, considered Chaumont such a poor substitute for the more prestigious Chenonceau that it would serve to humiliate her rival. We can only ponder her thinking when viewing the beautiful fairy-tale-like Chaumont sitting high on a cliff overlooking the river. Besides queens, the chateau also hosted an impressive range of other guests throughout its history, including  Nostradamus, (Queen Catherine was fond of astrology), and Benjamin Franklin – but lowly Chaumont is, for some reason, considered one of the less important chateaus.

Chaumont-sur-Loire, Loire Valley, France

The chateau in Blois, on the other hand, lacks the overall romantic look that the Loire visitors easily get used to viewing. However, when you slowly turn around in the Blois courtyard, you get a crash course in French architecture. One wing was built in the Late Gothic style by King Luis XII, who made Blois his main residence and thus, briefly a capital of France. King Francis I art of course contributed a Renaissance wing to Blois, most beautifully shown in an open-air staircase with richly-yet-elegantly decorated reliefs. The courtyard is enclosed by yet another, more austere, classical wing.

King’s chamber in Blois, where the Duke of Guise was assassinated, Loire Valley, France
King’s chamber in Blois, where the Duke of Guise was assassinated

Happy and Unhappy Memories: The historical legacy of Blois can nevertheless match any of the other chateaus. During the times of Queen Catherine’s son King Henri III, the chateau witnessed a few seminal events. Following King Francis’ death, intermittent wars between Catholics and Protestants ravaged the country for several decades. King Henri called the Estates Generals, effectively a noble parliament, to meet in the great hall at the Blois chateau to settle the war. The King’s power was overshadowed, however, by that of the House of Guise, a leading aristocratic family at the head of the Catholics in the war. After failing to assert his authority, King Henri decided to dispense with political methods. He invited the Duke of Guise for talks in Blois in 1588, and had him assassinated by the royal guardsmen, right in the king’s own chamber.

This murder became a fixture of French art and several paintings of the event are displayed in the Blois chateau. The list of authors who wrote about these dark moments in Blois runs long and includes Honoré de Balzac, Alexander Dumas, and Robert Merle. Shortly after the assassination, Queen Catherine de Medici passed away – also in the Blois chateau – and King Henri III became a victim of a violent attack himself. With the death of Henri III, the French royal dynasty created by King Luis XII and King Francis I came to its infamous end, but the country they created survived- as did the beautiful Loire Valley chateaus, where we can relive the excitement and intrigues of their era while also sampling the wonderful produce in the Garden of France.

For more articles by Libor follow his link and follow these links more articles on European and the Mediterranean travel destinations.

IF YOU GO: 1) The chateaus I visited or passed by on my trip include: Amboise; Clos Lucé; Chenonceau; Blois; Chaumont-sur-Loire; Chambord; and,  Sully-sur-Loire. 2) There are many more chateaus and castles to see. The most beautiful ones I had to give up on include Angers, Chinon, Cheverny, Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Nevers. 3) I stayed in a simple-yet-stylish motel near Amboise: Hôtel du Petit Lussault. 4) Restaurants in Amboise where I dined: Brasserie Hippeau and Le Patio. 5) Information about biking through the Loire Valley can be found at France Velo Tourism.