Exploring the Loire Valley is very much like exploring a fairy-tale land. Castles – at once elegant and extravagant, refined and flamboyant – appear around every bend in this pristine corner of France. It was the pastoral and natural terrain that drew royalty to build their “country homes” here. Forests made for good hunting during a weekend retreat or while hosting a diplomatic visit. And the valley produced some of the country’s best wines. Today the Loire Valley boasts the highest concentration of castles in the world, each one an example of the excess of royals. And every castle has its secrets, legends, and histories.
Chateau de Blois
- Perhaps the most famous visitor of the Chateau de Blois was Joan of Arc, who traveled here with her army in 1429 to receive the blessing of the Archbishop of Reims en route to battle the English at Orleans.
- Catherine de Medici kept a “chamber of secrets” at Chateau de Blois. Her wall of cabinets was rumored to conceal a collection of poisons that she might have kept to do away with those who plotted against her or her husband King Henry II. Today, historians know with more certainty that it served as an elegant curio cabinet in which she displayed precious objects.
- At the Chateau de Blois in 1588, King Henry III ordered that his bodyguards assassinate his arch-enemy, Henry I, Duke of Guise. The move was bold, considering he had his orders carried out during a convention of diplomats being held here. The king’s audacity did not end there, however: He had the Duke’s brother Louis II, the Cardinal of Guise, murdered the very next day.
Chateau de Chambord
- The designer of the Chateau de Chambord is uncertain, but some believe Leonardo da Vinci was responsible because the Italian artist had an interest in double helix staircases, a prominent feature of the castle.
- In the days of Francis I, Chateau de Chambord was impractical to use as a long-term residence. For all its opulence, there were no villages nearby to stock it with everyday necessities. So whenever Francis and his entourage visited, all their provisions were transported by long caravans of carriages. As visiting parties could number up to 2,000 people, this was quite an endeavor!
- As Nazi troops spread throughout Europe, curators of the Louvre shipped priceless artwork to the Chateau de Chambord for safekeeping. The Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo were among the treasures secretly stored here. Toward war’s end, an American B-24 bomber crash landed on the chateau’s vast lawn.
Chateau de Chenonceau
- King Henry II scandalously gave Chateau de Chenonceau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, in 1547. She was enamored with the property and oversaw the construction of its gardens and the span that now crosses the River Cher. Upon Henry’s death, his widow Catherine de Medici essentially tossed Diane out, but not without a consolation: Catherine gave her husband’s mistress the Chateau Chaumont, which overlooks the Loire River.
- After Catherine’s death in 1589, the castle was bequeathed to King Henry III’s wife, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudemont. Within a year, Henry was assassinated, sending Louise into a spiral of despair that saw her aimlessly wandering the castle’s chambers and corridors dressed in black amid dark tapestries stitched with skulls and crossbones.
- The Chateau Chenonceau straddles the River Cher which, during World War II, served as the natural boundary between German-occupied France and the “free zone” of Vichy. The castle thus served as a bridge to freedom for many French seeking to escape Nazi rule.
- In 1431, one of the castle’s first owners, Louis d’Amboise, was convicted of treason against Louis XI, the son of King Charles VII. The criminal faced execution, but the king pardoned him on condition that he give his castle to the royal family.
- You would be well advised to watch your head as you explore the rooms of Chateau d’Amboise. Though he was not necessarily known for his clumsiness, King Charles VIII died here after giving himself a concussion on the top of a door frame.
- The castle’s most famous interment is not a Frenchman at all, but an Italian. Leonardo da Vinci lived the final days of his life in Amboise working for King Francis I. Upon his death, he was buried in a small chapel on the castle grounds.