Cruising the Loire: What to See along the River of Kings
The Loire River is the longest river in France, stretching at a great length of 1,012 kilometres and piercing six departments to which it has given its name before emptying into the Bay of Bicay at Saint-Nazaire. Cruising the Loire actually means tracing century-old trade routes. It was one of the main waterways of France when the fastest, safest and most efficient way of going from one place to another and moving goods through the country was to use the great rivers of Seine, Saône and Rhone which all flow into the Loire. Running through a fertile, strategic region that was contested for centuries, the river Loire also witnessed the French Renaissance at full swing and was not spared from the War of Religions which saw thousands of Huguenots drowned in its ancient waters. Its huge part in the country’s history is evident in the numerous medieval structures, fortified cities, sprawling castles and intriguing ruins that you’ll see along any Loire cruise route.
What really propelled the Loire to fame though is the insanely picturesque valley located right smack in the middle stretch of the river. Dubbed the ‘Garden of France’, the UNESCO-listed Loire Valley weaves magic at every turn what with the hundreds of stately châteaux and elaborate gardens that pretty much cover the entire area. French kings ruled in the valley for hundreds of years, bringing the nobility with them and making the lush region the target of any noble seeking to display pomp and prestige. With the royals and nobles seemingly in close competition on who could build the grandest and most beautiful residence, the Loire Valley turned into a delightful heap of magnificent palaces, ornate gardens, labyrinthine vineyards and sweet-smelling orchards that we know today, and nothing makes for a magical and exciting way of exploring its many wonders than a barge cruise in the River of Kings itself.
There are tons to see up and down the river Loire, but you’ll want to make some room in your cruise itinerary for these 6 incredible sights that make cruising the Loire a beautiful lesson in history and a truly pleasurable holiday.
If there’s one châteaux to rival Versailles, that would be Chambord. The Château de Chambord is one massive architectural marvel sitting in a 5,500-hectare park and containing 400 rooms, 365 fireplaces and more than 80 staircases, and to think that it was never even really finished! The product of Francis I’s love of Italian architecture and Leonardo da Vinci’s genius (allegedly, at least), this luxurious mansion is the Loire Valley’s largest château and most-loved superstar, attracting over 7 million visitors each year. There’s no hard evidence of da Vinci meddling with the construction of the Chambord, but just look at the marvellous double spiral staircase, designed in a such a way one can climb up and another go down without ever meeting, and it’s not hard to imagine old Leonardo at work.
Its graceful pinnacles, pointed domes and numerous fairy-tale towers give the structure a distinctive lovely outline, especially when seen at sunset or reflected in the surrounding waters. Speaking of waters, did you know Francis’s vision was so grand legend has it he wanted to divert the river Loire so it would pass in front of the château? He obviously didn’t get his heart’s desire, and it would have been too much for a mere ‘hunting lodge’ anyway.
Arching across the Cher River, the main tributary of the Loire, the mind-numbingly beautiful Château de Chenonceau is a prime example of what happens when you let powerful women take charge.
How do you show a woman you love her? You gift her with a castle and King Henry II nailed it when he gave the Château de Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers in 1547. Diane enlarged the castle to span the river Cher and link it to the other side. All went well except for one problem: Diane was just Henry’s favourite mistress and Catherine de Medici, rightful queen of France and wife to the king, was of course not happy. Henry died in 1559 and the long simmering Catherine snatched it from Diane and started several redesigning projects that included the addition of the yew-tree maze and the rose garden to the west. Such history and the contrasting styles of Diane and Catherine, among other women who had a hand in its construction, are quite discernible in Chenonceau’s architectural design and gardens today, earning it the nickname “Le Château des Dames” or “The Ladies’ Castle”.
Passing under the fabled arches of the castle while on a barge cruise is one experience you should not miss, as well as soaking in the sun as you amble through the many paths in its gardens. If you’re an art connoisseur, you might want to take a look at the fabulous art collection inside. There’s a really good portrait of Louis XIV, together with remarkable masterpieces by Correggio, Rubens, Tintoretto, Ribera and Van Dyck.
Once upon a time in a castle at the edge of the Chinon forest overlooking the Indre and Loire rivers, Charles Perrault took one look and was so enamoured by its beauty he figured it deserved a fairy tale. So voila! Sleeping Beauty was born.
The many-turreted Château d'Ussé is perhaps the most fanciful of all the castles in the Loire Valley, featuring a lovely mix of Late Gothic and Renaissance features, and a big must-see in Loire cruises. With its sloping roof, dormer-windows, chimneys and white façade, Château d'Ussé sure does look the part of a fairy-tale castle.
The magic does not end there though. The moment you step into the richly-decorated entrance hall with sculpted wood panels and Renaissance drawers, you will be floored by its famous spiral staircase that look as if straight from a fairy tale. The guard room, which used to be the castle’s entrance in the 15th century, commands attention with its 17th century “trompe l’œil” ceiling, finished in a marble-like design. Love a bit of mystery? Look for the room called ‘the Vault’, the oldest room in the castle, with a staircase leading to an underground passage constructed well over 1000 years ago.
While at Chinon, go grab a bike and pedal your way to the medieval monastic city and Plantagenet necropolis of Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud. Dating from the first half of the 12 century, the monastery complex is one of the greatest monastic sites in Europe and well-known as the final resting place of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Henry II of England, and Isabelle of Angoulême, all sworn enemies of the crown during the Hundred Years War. Its location was then part of what’s called the Angevin empire and it rose to prominence when the Plantagenets were in power, with Eleanor of Aquitaine even making the abbey her place of residence. The four royal effigy tombs and the carved capitals showing animals and plants are all beautifully rendered, and well worth the visit.
Be sure to check out the abbey’s kitchen, remarkable for its conical roof, or its garden with its collection of herbs commonly used for medicinal purposes in medieval times. And for the best views of Fontevraud, head east, where terraced gardens climb up behind the impressive abbey.
Built between 1518 and 1527 on an island in the Indre River, the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is one excellent example of early Renaissance architecture in France. It was originally a feudal castle built to protect the road from Tours to Chinon and owned by a knight in the service of Philip II Augustus named Rideau d’Azay, hence the name. It was burnt to the ground in 1418 during the Hundred Years War and remained a ruin until Gilles Berthelot, the Treasurer-General of the King and the Mayor of Tours, rebuilt it in 1518.
Venture inside and you’ll see the famous White Room and its 17th century hunting scenes, the Blue Room of Louis XIII, and the numerous royal portraits adorning the royal apartments. The Château d’Azay-le-Rideau alo presents an opportunity to hop off your Loire barge and explore the surrounding scenic parkland on a bike! Wind your way through the 19th century landscaped gardens and check out the image of the château as reflected in the water of the mirror lakes.
There’s definitely no shortage of gorgeous gardens in the Loire Valley, so why do people from all around the globe flock to the gardens of Château de Villandry? Try to imagine over 6 hectares of ornamental vines, sparkling fountains, manicured lime trees, sharp box hedges and cascading flowers, then add a fine French châteaux in the background. The Villandry gardens are not just gorgeous; they’re jaw-dropping!
There’s something for everyone in the six glorious gardens of Château de Villandry. The classical Water Garden is a boulingrin (sunken garden) featuring an ornamental Louis XV mirror pond at the centre and surrounded by grassy banks called glacis. Love, be it fickle or passionate, tender or tragic, is depicted in the vibrant flowerbeds and geometrically pruned hedges of the Ornamental Garden. A stunning array of multi-scented and multi-coloured perennials await visitors in the Sun Garden, while the 30 varieties of aromatic, culinary and medicinal herbs of the Herb Garden intrigue and delight people who are curious about traditional gardens of the Middle Ages. The combined scent emanating from the herbs is said to be reminiscent of the walled gardens of medieval monasteries. Like most Renaissance gardens, the Villandry gardens also include a labyrinth. Created with hornbeam hedges, the Maze on the second terrace is meant to be a place of spiritual progression “where the path taken by the walker symbolised the progress of life and the centre of the maze, on an elevated plane, stood for the encounter with God”. The most popular of all six is definitely the Kitchen Garden, a pure Renaissance garden composed of nine equally-sized patches each displaying a distinct motif of flowers and vegetables. The Kitchen Garden is beautiful up close but it is best viewed from a distance! The patches are planted in alternating colours, making the garden look like a huge chessboard!
The landscaped gardens of Château de Villandry are a stunning sight all year round but if you want to see them in all their glory, time your Loire river cruise around spring or fall.
For more information on Loire Valley cruises, send us an enquiry or call us at 1300 150 725. Our team of barge travel specialists will be glad to provide expert advice to create a memorable barge holiday for you.