Feeling like royalty is easy in France’s Loire Valley. The countryside is dotted with regal châteaux, their spiked towering peaks piercing the cloudless sky, and each one more opulent than the next.
This year is monumental for the Valley of the Kings: it’s celebrating the 500th anniversary of the French Renaissance, a cultural movement and period which includes the death of Leonardo da Vinci (who spent his last years in the region), the birth of the country’s future queen Catherine de Medici and the construction of the largest castle in the area — Château de Chambord.
With such a rich and diverse lineup, we’re sharing our insights on the most lavish palaces to visit and best exhibitions to experience — plus a few extra tips.
First you have to get to France, and that’s easy with Norwegian Air’s direct flight from Fort Lauderdale to Paris. A previous Airline of the Year recipient, its young fuel-efficient fleet is growing — with nearly 60 nonstop routes from North America. Once you arrive, rent a car — it’s the best way to experience this UNESCO World Heritage region — or for more discerning travelers, book a private tour with Val de Loire Travel, a boutique travel agency with local drivers and expert guides.
An hour from Paris, you will discover Chartres. Reserve a room at the Hotel du Grand Monarque and let fifth generation hotelier Bertrand Jallerat whisk you into Le Georges, his Michelin-star restaurant named after his father. If you’re in search of wine, the hotel was awarded the 2019 best wine list in France honor and its cellars boast more than 2,000 wines, including a $20,000 Romanée-Conti Grand Cru.
From April to October, Chartres welcomes 60,000 visitors to Chartres en Lumieres, an immersive magical experience where more than 20 city monuments are illuminated nightly. One of those is its magnificent Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral. The mostly Gothic medieval church and its 12th century original stained glass windows were fairly untouched by the French Revolution and World Wars, and it’s said a piece of the Virgin Mary’s veil is displayed inside.
Another short drive brings you to Château de Chambord, the largest and possibly the most ostentatious castle in the region. Built by King Francois I to simply remind his realm of his power and wealth, the chateau was rarely inhabited. To celebrate the Renaissance anniversary,
Chambord’s Utopia At Work exhibition includes almost 150 works of art, manuscripts and models — including three original pages from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, which retrace the history of the castle. Also make sure to check out the furnished apartments that give a glimpse of how the castle was decorated when the king and his itinerant court visited.
Although you can’t sleep inside Chambord, the newly restored Relais de Chambord offers you a respite. Part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this 55-room hotel is steps from the château.
ALL ABOUT BLOIS
Less than a 20-minute drive from Chambord you’ll find the city of Blois, and its sound and light show is worth it. As the evening sky sparkles with stars, the immense projections come to life and take over the Royal Château de Blois’ façade. If you get there before dusk, check out the Children of the Renaissance exhibit with a focus on growing up as a royal.
Down the road is a noble home pulled straight out of a fantasyland, more specifically the Belgian comic — The Adventures of Tintin. Château de Cheverny, built in the 1600s, is still home to the Hurault family but is also opened to the public. Its orangery in the back, built to protect the orange trees in the winter, more notably hid several priceless masterpieces during WWII including the Mona Lisa.
Chaumont-sur-Loire is just half an hour away, but it feels like a completely different world. On the Loire River bank, its sprawling, breathtaking gardens are home to the annual International Garden Festival through November. Bursts of red, pinks and purples surround you as you make your way through each of the nearly 40 contemporary landscapes.
HISTORY OF ART
You’ll find Amboise a few miles west along the Loire River. The Royal Château was a royal residence for several centuries and houses the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, but it’s Château du Clos Lucé, a charming country home down the street, that steals the show. After personally experiencing the Italian Renaissance, French King Francois I invited da Vinci to stay in this former royal summer residence and it’s where the Italian genius lived out his last three years.
In celebration of da Vinci’s life, Clos Lucé will display a tapestry interpretation of The Last Supper, on loan from the Vatican and the first time since the 16th century that it will leave the holy walls. At the end of September the European Festival of Renaissance Music will take place in the château’s renovated hall. Also, make sure to take a stroll in the gardens, which are filled with working replicas of da Vinci’s inventions.
A few steps away, hidden behind stone walls is Le Clos d’Amboise, a 17th century home turned hotel with plenty of character and quaint rooms.
A drive south takes you through fields and forests until you arrive at Château du Rivau, its pointy blue slate peaks appearing on the horizon. The family-owned castle and vast sculpture gardens make you feel like you’re living (and sleeping, thanks to the recent debut of its 7 luxury suites) in a fairytale.
A mecca for art enthusiasts, it is home to various stunning indoor and outdoor exhibits including A Contemporary Homage to Leonardo da Vinci (on display through November) that showcases da Vinci’s work as seen through the eyes of several contemporary artists.
A STOP IN PARIS
A true Francophile will ensure any trip to France includes a jaunt to Paris. So once you’ve sipped enough Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc alongside the châteaux, take a train into the City of Lights. To enjoy the true Parisian lifestyle, stay in one of Paris Perfect’s pristine properties.
With this vacation apartment agency, there’s no need to riffle through online listings to meet your elevated travel expectations. Its Parisian pads are personally vetted, located in only the best neighborhoods and offer the most luxurious amenities — like the view of the Eiffel Tower from your bed. The only thing left to do upon arriving is to find the closest boulangerie to enjoy plenty of warm croissants. Voilà!