The next morning, bright and early, I caught the train to Tours, a beautiful little village on the Loire River, a base for the surrounding area which was popular for about 5 centuries (I think) for the kings to build their castles, (chateau) in.
When I hopped off the train, I saw an information booth about bus tours out to the different chateaux in the train station, so walked up to have a look. It turned out, there was a tour about to leave for some of the chateaux I'd had on my To See list, and so chucking my pack in the back of the company's minivan, (small tour groups yay!) I was straight into it! It was a great spontaneous decision to have made. I ended up doing another full day tour the next day as well, so in total saw the 6 best chateau in the region, plus some very pretty towns, including the house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last 3 years of his life, in just 1.5 days. Heaps better than trying to get there via public transport!
It was pretty shocking weather too, eliminating the cycling around to the chateaux option, threatening black clouds and bitterly cold.
So the first castle was Amboise, then Leonardo da Vinci's gorgeous house in Amboise town, then Chenonceau. Chenonceau was gorgeous, built over a river... it's known as Château des Dames as it owes a large part of its charm to women: it was built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, then made even more attractive by the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers and his wife, Catherine de Médicis, both who competed to have the prettiest garden, and saved from the rigours of the French Revolution by a Mrs Dupin. It has lovely surroundings, the formal garden and the park surrounding it are just stunning.
So I arrived very late that evening to my hotel (the tour company had called them ahead for me though to tell them where I was, very kind). The hotel was called Hotel Val de Loire, recommended by Lonely Planet, and was lovely. It was about 30 seconds walk to the train station, but quiet, and they'd given me a most gorgeous little attic room where I had a double bed and single bed all to myself, and a great ensuite.... luxury!!! The room was decorated with pretty 18th century french furniture, and I had a great time.
The next day I visited Azay de Rideau, Villandry, Chambord and Cheverny. We had a great guide... a stringy little frenchman with a deep tan and smoky blue eyes. I had to sit up the front next to him along with a tiny asian girl, as there wasn't enough room for him to change the gear shift with bigger people in the front (the other members of the group being rather large Americans). As it was I had to keep my knees firmly jutting into poor asian girl, to avoid my kneecaps being shattered every time he went down a gear. He apologised in advance for his French driving, and proceeded to tear around corners at a rate of knots. At one point he sat cursing the poor woman driver in front who had paused a fraction of a second too long at a roundabout. Seeing me chuckling, he said "You know what we say in this country? We love our women to cook, to work, to do what they like, but NOT to drive!" We then had a great conversation the rest of the trip, him telling me heaps of inside stories about the chateaux. He reckoned behind every chateau was a women :-) Which was kinda true... most of the chateaux seemed to have been built for wives or mistresses.
Azay de Rideau was a small pretty chateau built with a beautiful lake all the way around. Chambord was full-on, an almost fortress like citadel, with great double-helix staircases where one person could be going up, the other down, without seeing each other (apparently this was so the king could take his mistresses up to his room without his wife having to see). The intricacy of the engineering of the staircases had been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, as of course he was around at the time... I didn't really like it though... it was set very starkly in a huge park, and decorated very minimally... when the king used to visit, he would bring the furniture he wanted with him.
And lastly, Cheverny. I'd been looking forward to this most of all as Herge had based his Tintin illustrations for Captain Haddock's Marlinspike on Cheverny, and I wasn't disappointed. It had a great story to it too... the guy who owned it had his wife cheat on him, and was so devastated, had her killed (that's not so lovely). Then he met his second wife, and built her the chateau (presumably in the hope it would make this one stay!) It's a gorgeous chateau, still privately owned, with a spectacular symmetrical front, but a pretty garden to soften it out the back (Chambord had had no garden) and a beautiful Orangerie. And, the family had actually lived there until very recently, so the second wife was obviously happy. Beautiful!
So yeah, I'd like a chateau :-) I think they're pretty exclusive though, one of the local chateau is owned by a certain Mick Jagger...
The beautiful village of Amboise, looking down from the Castle
Amboise Castle itself
Leonardo da Vinci's house, in the village of Amboise, that the king, living in the castle, and being a mate and fan of Leonardo, gave him to live in for the last three years of his life.
Beautiful Chenenceau, built over the river!
A hallway inside Chenenceau
Chenenceau from the side, with Diane de Poitiers garden in the foreground
The characterful town of Tours
The entrance to Azay de Rideau chateau
Me in front of Azay de Rideau, on calm days you get a perfect reflection of the castle in it's surrounding moat.
The French all have little toy dogs like this wee fella we saw at one village...
Villandry, looking onto the incredible landscaped gardens. In the foreground are the gardens dedicated to phases of love (you can see a heart to the far left), and in the background, the cool kitchen gardens.
The perfect kitchen gardens, where different coloured vegetables had been used ornamentally to great effect. Shame if you actually wanted to pick a lettuce for your salad though.... it'd ruin the effect. Villandry had a massive nursery out the back too, with something like 2000 plants growing ready to be put in place.
Spectacular Chambord... although not my favourite as it had a very empty uninviting atmosphere.... a result of having been built for a king that visited a total of 5 times in his lifetime!
One of the wings inside Chambord
Me at Cheverny/Marlinspike!!!
Inside Cheverny... this was my favourite chateau as the rooms all felt used... the original family had actually occupied the chateau for generations up till 1987.
The orangerie at the back, where a whole lot of treasures from the Louvre were hidden during World War II
I loved Cheverny :-)
And lastly, my cute hotel room in Tours