Loire Valley Castles and Wine
France’s Loire Valley is known for wine and castles; a mix of alcohol and architecture spread over a 600-mile long valley. There are over 300 castles, 42 of which are part of UNESCO world heritage sites and if castles are your thing, you cannot find a more concentrated group anywhere on earth. Located southwest of Paris it is also Frances’ third most prominent wine region behind Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. The Eastern Loire is easily accessed by car just an hour drive from Paris, and the TGV train can get you to Western points in less than three hours. Since the Loire Valley castles are in such abundance, it’s helpful to have a plan on what to visit as they are spread out across hundreds of miles of landscape. These four are by no means exhaustive of what the Loire Valley offers, but they do represent diversity.
Château de Chenonceau
Often called “the woman’s castle” because of successive female ownership, the Château de Chenonceau is both regal and intimate, built over the river Char. It’s also one of the more decorated on the interior giving you more a feel of a home than a cold and imposing castle, with lavish tapestries, a chapel, library, and bedrooms. But it is the Gallery, a long ballroom with black and white slate tiled floor that extends the length of the river that is the most impressive and grand of rooms in the Château de Chenonceau. Make sure you visit the kitchen where you get a fantastic idea of how life was in the 1600’s. There are gardens surrounding the Château de Chenonceau and it is the most personal and lived-in of the castles that I visited.
Château de Chambord
The single largest and most visited castle in the Loire, the Château de Chambord is a historical and national monument – an elaborately embellished behemoth that is as impressive as it is important. The history of France owes much to the Château de Chambord. Located in the sleepy village of the same name, this is where kings and dukes spent fleeting days and was home to Francois I who barely lived there. Built in 1510 the sheer scope is undeniably its most impressive feature and it is impossible to understate the grandeur of this national treasure. The mammoth structure is staggering in terms of scope and massing, dwarfing every other castle, yet fitted with intricate embellishments.
Less castle and more fortress, the Château d’Angers (pronounced an-jea) is a stunning piece of work sitting above an expanse of land above the river Maine. The Fortress is as imposing as it is cool with 17 round turrets of local troglodyte stone, which allows you to walk nearly the full length of the parapet, imagining you’re keeping your enemies at bay. But the fortress is also home to a temperature-controlled room where the Tapestry of the Apocalypse is housed. Spiritual or not, these 71 hand woven tapestries from the 1370s depict the End of Days in stunning detail and color and if for no other reason, a visit to the Château d’Angers is a sublime experience in handiwork rarely seen anymore.
Château de Chinon
The peculiar thing about the Château de Chinon, as it sits above the town of Chinon and river, is that it’s actually three different castles, which have become an amalgam over the centuries. Though they promote the idea that this was the setting for King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the historical fact we do know is that Joan of Arc stayed here for a few nights in 1429 to plead with Charles VII to fight the English. The Château de Chinon is the most kid-friendly and Hollywood-esque of the castles. Sound effects of swordplay fill the air and cardboard cutouts of faceless knights and damsels allow you a selfie moment. In spite of the kitsch, the history at the Château de Chinon is very cool and the views from above the town and river are amazing, even a few vineyards in sight.
I highly advise if you rent a car to have a viable map program or a local sim card in your phone with you. Some of the villages you drive through are peppered with corkscrew streets, with street signs that are difficult to read at best. Also be aware that the A10, the main highway connecting the Loire, has many toll roads and typically credit cards are not accepted – mainly debit cards and Euro (cash). There are a number of tour options from buses to vintage cars to take you around, but these limit your time at each castle.
Loire Valley Wine
As for the infamous Loire Valley wine, there are hundreds of producers turning out a vast array of wines. I suggest the following if you have time to visit. At Domaine Leduc-Frouin in Anjou brother and sister team Antoine and Nathalie Leduc-Frouin hand harvest 74 acres of Cabernet Franc some of which was planted by their grandfather 60 years ago. As a contrast, I visited Alliance Loire, just outside of Anjou, a co-op of 150 Loire Valley wine growers who produce 80 different cuvées at various price points. Their boxy tasting room belies what’s underground – 33,000 feet of dank tunnels where they age nearly 10 million bottles of wine, and where the Nazis stored ammunition during WWII. In Saumur, the Maison des Vins de Saumur, a tasting room and Loire Valley wine store located on the Quai Carnot along the river, offers an impressive array of not only wines with a close proximity to their storefront, but all of Loire. Further east Domaine de la Jarnoterie located in the region of Saint Nicholas de Bourgueil, and Domaine Bernard Baudry located in Chinon craft beautiful expressions of Cabernet Franc.