The Loire Valley – Land of Fairy Tales
The Loire Valley is undoubtedly one of the most magical places in France, the stuff that fairy tales are made of. It has a rich history of royalty and many of its castles built centuries ago are still standing today. A visit into one of these castles will bring you back in time to the magnificent era of kings, queens and all the drama that came with nobility.
I only visited the Loire Valley for a short weekend getaway during the summer but it felt like we were there for a week, with all the activities that we managed to get done. It was only a two-hour drive from Paris so it was an easy escape from the city heat in August to catch a whiff of fresh air out in the countryside.
Don’t miss out on these highlights if you’re ever heading down to the Loire Valley!
Of course, you can’t miss out on the castle-hopping when you’re in the Loire Valley. The grandest of them all is Chambord (pronounced as shahm-bor) – so grand that while I was standing before it, I couldn’t help but play the theme song of Game of Thrones in my head. Yeah – that impressive.
While we didn’t visit the interior of this mighty castle, we did, however, visit a more modest chateau called Chenonceau. The castle sits on the river Cher (which means “expensive” in French – coincidence? I think not!) and bridges its banks. Chenonceau has a colourful history of changing hands between several owners, including a king, his queen and his mistress. King Henry II had given the Chenonceau as a gift to his mistress Diane de Poitiers who had a green thumb (and a particular way with politics) and she cultivated the first of the castle’s gardens. However, upon the death of King Henry, his wife, Catherine de’ Medici (who was perhaps a little more adroit at politics) claimed Chenonceau for herself (don’t worry, Diane is offered another castle for her forced eviction). She, in turn, flourished a bigger and more lavish garden than Diane Poitiers had done and the results of this little competition have resulted in the enviously gorgeous gardens on either side of the castle’s entrance.
The castle and its magnificent garden
A little more recently, during World War I, the long hallway of the chateau which stretches out across the river was used as a hospital ward to harbour injured French soldiers from the Germans. I think there is an energy from those days that still hangs in air, even today. When I walked into the hallway, I remember being overcome with a heavy feeling that was almost tangible – a mixed emotion of awe and sadness – and I knew that something important had happened here. When I read about its history (which they did a good job of detailing across the hallway), it’s easy to understand this energy that the room still seems to contain.
The grounds are worth a visit too, if only to realise how the long-ago grudge between two powerful women could result in such beauty. There is also a wine cellar and a hedge maze (a hedge maze is undoubtedly a sign of prosperity, isn’t it? I had a ball of a time running around in it) on its grounds.
Chenonceau is truly a chateau out of a fairytale – if you want to visit something a little off the beaten track, this would be it.
The Last Home of an Engineering Genius
The grounds of Clos Luce – Can you spot the hidden Mona Lisa and the Virgin on the Rocks?
Leonardo Da Vinci is known primarily for his art – namely the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the Virgin on the Rocks amongst many others – but to me, he will always be an engineering genius. His ideas were so ahead of his time, I’m not even surprised there is a conspiracy theory that he sold his soul to the devil to meet time-travelers from the future for the inspiration of his inventions.
Imagine my delight when I found that his former home , now a museum, housed small models of his inventions! I was surprised to learn that Da Vinci, in his final years which he lived in Clos Lucé, had developed inventions for military use for the French King Francois I. I knew that he had conceptualised the first prototype of the helicopter but he had also invented a 33-barrel gun (the first type of machine gun), an amoured car (what we call a tank today), the parachute (we didn’t have planes yet but it was used with another flying machine he had built), a giant triple-barrel canon and a revolving bridge that armies could carry with them on the move and roll out when they needed to cross rivers (to be honest, I still don’t know how this one works exactly).
If you have the time, you should definitely take a stroll around the grounds – which in itself, are really beautiful – but more interestingly, you will find the life-size models of Da Vinci’s inventions in working order.
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Horseback Riding through the Vineyards
Riding into the Sunset – literally
We almost didn’t have time for this but I’m so happy we did because it was an incredible activity! This was perhaps as princess-y as it was going to get – riding into the sunset on my majestic horse, amongst the famous vineyards of the Loire Valley.
We took an hour stroll on the horses that took us into the forest and into the vineyards. The instructor even took showed us how to make the horses trot a little – I loved it but get ready for an uber bumpy ride! The best part was yet to come though. Towards the end of the ride, we were treated to an unbelievable view – the sun had turned golden and the air slowly, but surely, filled with dozens and dozens of hot-air balloons dotting the sky! It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve had the luck to lay my eyes on.
If you’d like to take a ride out on the horses as well, you can look for Isabelle from Ecuries de Pray (she only speaks French though). It was about 23€ per person, which is considerably cheap as compared to many other places.
Recommended Accommodation in Loire
Oh, this was such a charming little B&B! The house and its rooms are achingly beautiful with very elegant decor. I forgot to take pictures of the room but the photos are on their website. We stayed at the Balzac room while we were there and we truly felt like royalty. Breakfast the next morning was HUGE, delicious and completely home-made; fresh eggs any way you’d like them, hand-squeezed orange juice, croissants fresh from the bakery, fresh fruits, freshly-brewed coffee – oh my gosh, you name it and it was there on the table in their glorious garden! C’est la vie en France!
The hosts – Brigette & Jean-Francois – are an ADORABLE older couple who are extremely nice and went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. They also know the restaurants and activities around the area very well so don’t be shy to ask them for recommendations. I believe they speak English too.
Book early as they sell out their 2 bedrooms really fast during peak season. And no wonder too, they have only 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor. Our stay was 65€, inclusive of the monstrous breakfast for two.
Wine, O Glorious Wine
If you have more than the weekend like we did, the other thing the Loire is known for besides her castles, are her wines. There are plenty of wine tours available from the different villages. We didn’t have enough time this trip but we’re definitely going to check this out the next time we’re in the area!