Though part of the much-loved Loire Valley region of central France, Blois has a reputation to be grim, grey and foggy. And though Blois does not have the same fairy-tale charm as the magnificent Chateau du Chenonceau, nor the impressive grandeur of Chateau de Chambord, it has its own gems. One such gem is the Church of Saint-Nicolas (not to be confused with the Cathedral of Blois), an impressive remnant of the Middle Ages in Northern France. Founded as an abbey in 1138 by Benedictine monks fleeing from the Normans, the Romanesque–Gothic church took nearly a century to complete. The abbey section of the complex was destroyed by the Protestant Huguenots during the bloody and long-suffering Wars of Religion. In fact, Saint-Nicolas was built relatively quickly for the time, though a hiatus of about 20 years means Saint-Nicolas has two different marked architectural styles. Blois itself is a town that often gets overlooked from Loire Valley visitors, who come to the region to admire the fine Renaissance chateaus. Blois does indeed have a castle (though not on par with the other Loire Chateaux) but it is its northern streets and ancient architecture such as this church that make Blois stand out. Well that – and the fact that in 1429, French hero Joan of Arc made Blois the base of her operations – riding out from the city 35 miles on Wednesday 29 April to relieve Orléans, what is today known as the Siege of Orléans during the 100 Years War (France’s first major victory since Agincourt in 1415).
Pro tip: Blois can be a good base for people visiting Loire Chateaux. The closest one to Blois is the massive and magnificent Chateau de Chambord, only 15km from Blois. See more about getting to the castle by car or public transport here.
The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri.
Pro Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle. No car? It’s a short and easy train ride from the town of Blois.
Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat
As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!
The biggest chateau in the Loire Valley, and one of the most distinctive chateaus in the world (thanks to its smooth blend of Medieval and Renaissance styles), the Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is as absolutely magnificent as it is immense. The chateau (for there is no other word to use; Chambord and its fellow Loire Valley neighbours define the usage of the word ‘chateau’ in English) was built by Francis I as a hunting lodge – a break from his royal residences at Blois and Amboise (each no more than a stone’s throw away by modern distance standards). The castle rooms themselves are relatively simple – large, rectangular, few in number but large in size. The roof, on the other hand, is an intricate network of sculptures, buttresses, statues, odd angles, elevated passageways, elegant windows and pointed towers, all arranged together like a miniature city. But that’s not the most remarkable part of this structure. No, that honour goes to the intricate and astoundingly unique double helix staircase, serving as the centrepiece and central element of the building. Elegantly carrying visitors up three floors, the two entangled staircases curl around each other but never meet, making it an architectural unicorn. There are rumours that a one Leonardo da Vinci (who stayed there for a time) was the creator of the DNA staircase, and this is quite possible, as the inventor was known for his unique and often outlandish projects, though his involvement has not been proven. In any event, the massive and iconic chateau certainly merits its place on Loire Valley itineraries!
The sky is dark and cloudy, but what else would you expect it to be on a chilly winter’s day at a rural German castle? Could you honestly picture it any other way? German castles are known for their fairy-tale turrets paired with dark forests and remote hilltops, and it’s not hard to imagine yourself as a would-be prince or princess in a Grimm’s brothers tale. Hohenzollern Castle is no different. Silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky not far from Stuttgart, the castle rises above the trees, beckoning travelers to climb its hillside and enter its thick walls. First constructed in the 11th century, Hohenzollern Castle barely survived a 10-month siege in the 1400’s, later serving as a refuge during the Thirty Year’s War. In the 18th century, like so many other castles of this era, Hohenzollern fell into ruins, becoming little more than vague inspiration for little-known artists and poets. In the mid-1800s, William IV of Prussia reconstructed the castle in the Gothic Revival style, basing his designs on the magnificent chateaus of the Loire Valley in France; today, only the chapel is originally medieval. And yet, as you climb the mountain, modern society slips through your fingers. By the time you arrive at the top of the castle towers to enjoy the view of the countryside, you realise that you’ve gone back in time by a few hundred years to a time when castles were a defense system, kings and queens wrote the law of the land, and armies still invaded on horseback.
The beautiful Château de Chenonceau, dating back to 1513, owes its life, beauty, and survival to its beloved mistresses. Katherine Briconnet brought it to life, Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers made it beautiful, Catherine de Medici made it extraordinary, and Madame Dupin protected it during the time of the French Revolution. The Château owes its existence and splendour to these women and others who created and cared for this beautiful French château, located in the infamous Loire Valley—a region famous for its regal residences. Chenonceau owes it all to these women who made it into the magnificent, iconic and historic gem that stretches elegantly across the River Cher today. Though all Loire Valley Châteaux are something special, a visit to the Château de Chenonceau will takes one’s breath away by its sheer extraordinary beauty!