Champagne life in the chateaux of France

Photo of Niall McIlroy

The palaces of the Loire Valley are only a few hours from Paris by TGV. Visiting the valley takes a small effort for a big reward. 

The chateaux of the Loire Valley are its glittering diamonds, but from royal palaces to stately mansions, so great are their number that unless travellers base themselves in Tours or Amboise, there are simply too many to get around in one visit.

A full-day trip from Paris to see perhaps four or five of the most famous chateaux such as Chambord, Chenonceau and Blois, with transfers from Paris and lunch, would cost the best part of $450. But one needs three days to see a handful of chateaux and their furnishings, art and fantastic grounds in anything less than a rush.

On this trip, my parents, sister and I don’t have this much time and since Mum really wants to see Amboise, where Leonardo Da Vinci lived out his years, we searched out a tour that concentrated on just this town and the Chateau de Chenonceau on a $US25 ($33) half-day trip from Tours.

The TGV had us in Tours before 9am and after joining the mini-bus, we were soon at Chateau de Chenonceau which stands at the end of an avenue of plane trees. 

We spent an hour exploring the palace, built on the site of an 11###sup/sup### century mill on the River Cher by Charles VIII’s chamberlain Thomas Bohier between 1513-21. Bohier and his wife Catherine had little chance to enjoy their Renaissance beauty; they were both dead within five years and their vast debts to the crown saw the property revert to the court of Francis I.

The chateau changed hands between kings and their mistresses and five ladies, all of whom became queen including Mary, Queen of Scots. This earnt it the nickname the Woman’s Palace and saw the chateau shaped to reflect the personality of each lady.

My favourite adornment is the 60m-long ballroom gallery added by Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II, in 1576.  

Through forest, fields and hilly little towns, we follow the road 10km to Amboise, which straddles the Loire under the imposing shadow of the sheer-walled royal chateau. 

The Gauls built a modest fort to protect trade on the river here more than 1000 years ago and this spur-top settlement evolved into a castle and then the birthplace and playground of kings. But for some, it wasn’t such a happy place. 

In a warning to those prone to horse riding indoors, 18-year-old Charles VIII died after banging his head on a lintel as he rushed to a tennis match and in 1560, 1200 Protestant rebels were hung from the castle walls for so long that the royals had to leave town for the smell.

Leonardo Da Vinci died a more peaceful death there in 1519. He arrived in 1516 with a saddlebag holding three paintings including the Mona Lisa and lived as a guest of the great innovator King Francis I, who encouraged him to think, invent, write and paint at his residence Clos Luce, which was linked to the chateau by an underground passage. 

This is the definite focal point for Mum and in front of the half-timbered shops and bistros, we invent our own plan to leave the tour at the chateau and climb the cobblestone streets to Da Vinci’s manor, returning later to see the palace and his grave. Not a patch on those hatched by Leonardo, our plan goes awry as we enter Clos Luce and Mum is bewitched by the gardens resplendent with the beauty of summer — roses, tall pines, cypress and yew trees and the pond by which Da Vinci contemplated, sketched botanical drawings and devised plans for inventions. Models of his conceptions dot the park — an armoured tank, a helicopter and inside, an advanced catapult, suspension bridge and an early car — ideas born from one man 500 years ago.

Upstairs, Da Vinci loved the view of the chateau from his bedroom and we linger by the tall four-poster canopied bed, admiring a pearl and ivory inlaid crucifix that belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots and a painting of St Catherine by his pupil Bernardino Luini.

We don’t see all we want to at Clos Luce and never do make it back to the chateau. 

The beauty that inspired Leonardo, the exquisite fruits of his mind and buckwheat ham, cheese and tomato pancakes in the excellent Terrasse Renaissance restaurant conspire against us and our best-laid plan rises half-baked. 

And we head across the shimmering Loire to the train station and onwards to Paris determined next time to give the impossible day trip a full week.


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Niall McIlroy visited Europe as a guest of Malaysia Airlines


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