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France: Loire Valley castles day tour

Amboise, Centre, France
4 Kudos
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One spring, I visited Paris with my daughter and her two girls. It was a short visit, arranged quickly and during a short school break. We planned a one-day tour to the Loire Valley to see some of the castles. A whirlwind day, it was well worth it and created memories to last a lifetime. Here's how we did it:We had to be at the huge Paris train station Gare Montparnasse very early for the high-speed train (TGV) to the Loire Valley. By 8am we’d traveled southwest from Paris almost 200 miles and arrived at the St. Pierre des Corps station where our tour guide/driver was waiting for us. Soon we were off in a Peugeot minivan for our first stop – the Chateau de Chenonceau. Along the way our guide told us some history of the chateaux and of the valley. The Loire Valley is beautiful, very agricultural with the wide, shallow Loire River the setting for over 400 chateaux – ranging from huge and imposing to modest and homey. Many are privately-owned, as is Chenonceau, and tourism supports the properties.We were among the early arrivals at the Chateau de Chenonceau, so it wasn't at all crowded. Chenonceau was built in the 16th century and was once one of several chateaux belonging to the Kings of France. It was also the home of Diane de Poitiers, King Henri II’s mistress, whose garden is on the left of the chateau, and Catherine de Medici (the king’s wife), whose garden is on the right. Many of the walls are covered with stunning 16th century tapestries from Flanders and Brussels.From Chenonceau we drove to Amboise, a little riverside town with narrow streets and whose landscape is dominated by the fortress-like Chateau Amboise. We had a nice French lunch at a sidewalk café and enjoyed people-watching and gazing across the street at the castle. We were lucky that the weather was ideal; it was warm and sunny. The lilacs were in full bloom, as were roses, clematis, wisteria, fruit trees, daffodils and tulips. Oh là là!After lunch it was off to nearby Chateau du Clos Lucé, the home of Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life. Clos Lucé, which is in the town of Amboise, was purchased by King Charles VIII in 1490 and for 200 years was a summer residence for the French kings. King Francois I was a devoted admirer of Leonardo da Vinci and invited him to live at Clos Lucé. Leonardo traveled by donkey from Italy to Amboise carrying three paintings, one of which was the Mona Lisa! It was humbling to stand in rooms inhabited by the great artist, to see his furniture and the bed he slept in, to walk up and down the same stairs, and to look out the windows of the studios where he also must have gazed for inspiration and contemplation. Surrounding Clos Lucé is a wooded park that contains many of Leonardo’s inventions. They were brought to life by IBM from original designs using materials from the 16th century, and they vividly reveal da Vinci’s visionary genius.From Amboise and Clos Lucé we drove about an hour along the Loire River to our next stop, the Chateau de Chambord. While Chenonceau is charming and feminine, and Clos Lucé is an intimate country house, Chambord is grand and extravagant. In 1519, the young King Francois I began building Chambord. Intended as a hunting lodge, this castle grew to a stronghold with 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms! Perhaps its most famous feature is the double spiral staircase, an ingenious design that may have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. Outside, the castle is notable for its many roofs and assortment of chimneys. The estate of Chambord covers more than 13,000 acres and is the largest wooded park in France. Despite its size and grandeur, the chateau of Chambord was rarely occupied because it was too difficult to keep warm in the winter and the area was plagued by insects in the summer.Our day ended with a long drive back to St. Pierre des Corps, where we had 7:30pm reservations on the high-speed train back to Paris. We got some food at the train station, found our seats, and settled in for the quick ride back to Paris. Many of the fields south of Paris are planted with a bright yellow flower, which I learned was rapeseed, a plant which produces canola oil. In the early evening light the fields glowed a gaudy fluorescent yellow. I was surprised at how agricultural France is, and now understand why for centuries so many countries coveted and fought over its lands.Returning to Gare Montparnasse at 8:20, we reflected on what had been a very long day – fifteen hours – but the memories of the beautiful and magical Loire Valley will last a lifetime.
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Gare Montparnasse
Saint-Pierre-des-Corps

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Chenonceaux

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1 Comment

by yzsutty

04-27-2014

Thank you for the post - I visited several of these places a few years ago. I have similar wonderful memories.