Château hopping in the Loire Valley, two hours South-West of Paris, can be an overwhelming experience, both at the sensory as well as the mental level. So much so that tourists on a whistle-stop tour of the French castles scattered along a fertile swathe of the river end up doing what local guides call the Loire Hobble.
They totter from one grand château to the next, eyes engorged with the forests of turrets, towers and chimneys atop sprawling roofs which were ideal for watching royal hunts that took place in the lush parklans of woods that encircled the palatial hilltop fortresses. Sight-seers troop through several vast rooms hung with magnificent tapestries and furnishings and imagine how they were once the scene of masked balls, banquets, political intrigue and thorny negotiations.
Behind the magnificent Renaissance facades, the châteaux tell rip-roaring tales of illicit love affairs, debauchery, betrayal, murder and mayhem! Mistresses could lose their clout overnight if their royal over died and the fires of revenge burning in the heart of a spurned queen could have dreadful consequences and take years to douse...Châteaux and crown jewels would be snatched away from the exiles mistress of the late king! Gilded potraits of kings reveal how the monarchs hid their physical shortcomings - the dynamic François I, for instance, always sported a beard to hide a disfiguring scar while the Sun King, Louis XIV wore heels because he was short, and wore a wig to conceal the fact that he was losing hair! Charles VIII was far from handsome, an epileptic and had six toes per foot!
It was the 100 years war between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries that put the spotlight on the Loire Valley. The establishment of the royal court in 1515 in the valley by 20 year old Francois I (who wanted to periodically get away from the war in and around Paris) marked the beginning of the golden age of the Loire. An able administrator and absolute monarch, Francois I was a busy king who spent much of his time at war, constructing splendid châteaux, attending masked balls and was at one time said to have 27 lovers. When one of them betrayed him, he scratched his disgust on the window of his room: "Women are fickle; very stupid is he who trusts them."
The king, a great builder, had a penchant for Italian Renaissance architecture and introduced a new style called the First Renaissance. Indeed he imported the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, into France. Leonardo was 6 4 years old then and had no royal patrons at the time. He crossed the Alps on a donkey, and carries the Mona Lisa painting with him in a stately manor near one of his castles - the Château Amboise. In return, the Italian genius provided the king with designs for the double helix staircase for his yet-to-be-built Château de Chambord, some zany inventions which provided much amusement at royal parties while his blue-blood patron, it is said, found him stimulating.
With the result, Francois I's two grandest châteaux - Chamobord and blois - blended the flamboyant Gothic style with Italian elements. The Loire valley remained the epicentre of the kingdom till the 1530s with nobles, counsellors and financial backers of the king trying to flatter him and proclaim their own status by commissioning impressive châteaux, churches and works of art.
Many of the châteaux started out as medieval fortresses and one of the finest is the château of Chinon, a two-hour drive from Nantes, in the heart of the Touraine region. We drove past canary-yellow fields of canola and lush green countryside cheek by jowl with vineyards that produce some of the valley's famed wines. Chinon sprawls atop a ridge above the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire, and seemed to frown down at us with an air of suspicion - were we friends or foe.
Music from Camelot greeted us as we entered the stronghold, for a temporary exhibition of King Arthur and his Knights was on. Not surprising, since Chinon, a 10th century fortress, was a stronghold of the English Plantagenet kings in France.
In 1156, the English King Henry II imprisoned his rebellious brother and took over the fortress and expanded it. It soon became a favourite getaway for the English monarch who had to keep the French at bay for most of his life!
Subsequently, Chinon passed into French hands but its real hour of glory happened when the 17 year old boyish looking Joan of Arc, arrived there to confront the Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France, who had bolted to this Loire fortress to escape the English. Joan gave him a talking to and convinced the king that she could show the English the door if she had an army at her disposal. She was true to her word and subsequently, the Dauphin was crowned the King of France in Reims. However, in 1431, Joan was burned at the stake for being a witch and cononized in 1920. Strange are the twists and turns of fate! Chinon was abandoned but recently got a multi-million Euro makeover with touch-sensitive screens, films, 3D models while a complex of towers dungeons and ramparts were restored.
That evening as we floated down the Vienne river, it was fascinating to see this hilltop eerie glow in the setting sun, even as we sipped some Domaine de Noire wines made from the Loire valley grapes. As the gold-yellow expanse of Chinon slipped past, the vintner Jean-Max Manceau took us through a wine tasting, giving the experience a quintessential Loire touch.
That night we got to stay in a château - Domaine de la Tortiniere in Montbazon, a 45 minute drive away from Chinon and one hour by the high-speed TGV from Paris. The family-owned 19th century château with its fairy tale pointed roof turrets, chimneys and attic spins a web of enchantment. Beyond its expansive terrace flares a lush parkland of 37 acres and the Indre river. There are 11 rooms in the main building and others in outlaying cottages. This château hotel exudes an intimate very French feel with its modern and antique furniture, marbled fireplace, panelled walls, paintings and fine rugs. Each room is different - one, a creeper-draped former hunting lodge, another, part of the manor where the owner's grandparents used to live...
Domaine de la Tortiniere is a short drive away from the utterly charming château of Chenonceau and we spied in the distance, Château Amboise where Leonardo da Vince is buried in a chapel as well as a historic castle bought by Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame.We then headed for the sock-you-between-the-eyes Château de Chambordwhich is in a sense at the top of the heap in terms of French Châteaux. The then 25 year old King Francois I had ordered its construction in 1519 to impress his rivals - heads of state and ambassadors - with France's growing might and power. Indeed Chambord was created as a hunting lodge and Francois I spent only three weeks there.
The ultimate French château bludgeoned us with sheer size and limestone magnificence. Chambord's park alone is said to be as large as central Paris and checking out some of its 426 rooms adorned with rich furnishings, paintings, furniture, tapestries and objets d'art left us feeling a little overpowered. The guide peppered our tour with telling details about royal lives - the first night after the royal nuptials was witnessed by miscellaneous courtiers while the birth of a royal baby too was a fairly public affair! Hygeine was often given the go by and daily baths were unknown though a king's mistress might bathe in asses' milk to retain her beauty and the king's interest.
We stood on the flat roofs of the château with its cluster of 282 chimneys, awed by the 156 m wide facade and towers and the lavish 13,000 acre grounds. Apart from the 76 staircases, there is the double helix staircase, a wonder in its time... two people can use the staircase going in different directions but neveer bump into each other while remaining in the line of sight. There were hidden passages too, ideal for the adulterous. Each time the French court rolled in, the retinue would include perhaps 10,000 people and the potential for dalliance was great.
Traipsing through the chateaux, staying in some of them had made us feel like absolute monarchs for a day! We had tasted and toasted the good life, French style.
The Loire Valley in Western France streches from Orleans to Angers and getting to it from Paris is easy. With a France Rail Pass (purchased from Rail Europe before leaving India) allows you to zip off on the TGV train (35 mins) to Tours, an ideal departure point for château hopping. There is a train that runs from Paris to Blois from where you can access Chambord by bus. Self-drive is the ideal way to explore a number of châteaux.
Stay at a chateau-hotel for a complete experience
For more information visit www.raileurope.com
Text and Photographs: Gustasp and Jeroo Irani