A trip to the Loire valley of France or Val de Loire, was one of our first road-trips in France. We had some family visiting and wanted to take them some place close as we only had three days – a long weekend – to spare. Loire makes for a perfect getaway from Paris as its roughly 200kms away and takes about 3 hours by car, depending on your destination.
The Loire Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for its wines, beautiful fairy-tale chateaux (castles) and some of the most beautiful French-style gardens you will ever see. The Loire is also France’s longest river and flows through the area, feeding hundreds of towns and villages along the way.
Since our time was limited, we decided to skip the wine tasting at vineyards (also a little difficult when you have a dog), and instead try wines at tasting shops/caves in the towns. Our main focus was to visit at least a few of the 300 hundred chateaux – yes the region has more than 300 chateaux! Choosing which ones too visit can be daunting. However, out of 300 only about a hundred are open to the public. What made the choice easier for us was choosing the ones that are dog-friendly. We picked three – Villandry, Chenonceau and Chambord. While dogs are not allowed inside the chateaux, they are allowed in the gardens. There are other dog-friendly chateaux but we decided to only visit these.
Day 1 – Sancerre
On a sunny Saturday morning in May, four adults and a dog set off bright and early towards Sancerre – world renowned for it white wines, in particular, sauvignon blanc, and also for its goats’ cheese. Sancerre wines cover roughly 7000 acres and the wine produced here has been awarded the French wine Appelation d’origine contrôlée or AOC.
The town of Sancerre is dotted with medieval houses and cobbled streets with wine cellars at every corner. While wine tasting at a vineyard comes highly recommended, trying wines at local cellars can also be quite charming.
After spending a couple of hours here, we headed off west in the direction Tours, one of the largest cities in the region. We had booked a small cottage for the weekend and it was located just on the outskirts of Tours, in a village called Vernou-sur-Brenne. It took us about 2.5hrs to get to our cottage and it was a sight for sore eyes. Pretty and just perfect with a lush garden, a pretty courtyard for alfresco dining and even a swimming pool.
After settling in and freshening up, we went for a quick walk in the village which constituted a main road, some shops and a lot of farms! We spent the remainder of the evening enjoying the cottage and relaxing after a long day. There was no TV – a boon – but tons of board games and books to choose from.
Day 2 – Two Chateaux and a market town
After a quick breakfast, we headed off to our first chateau – Chateau Villandry. With the May long weekend and perfect weather, the chateau was fairly busy. However, the grounds and the castle are so large, that you don’t realise how many people are around! Since Mia wasn’t allowed inside, we took turns to explore the place.
Built on the banks of the Loire during the Renaissance, Chateau Villandry is famous for its beautiful formal gardens made up of amazing geometric patterns. One could spend hours just admiring them.
Geometric gardens at Villandry
Next stop on our magical tour was the Chateau Chenonceau, apparently the most visited chateau in France after the Palace of Versailles. The castle is really breathtaking and must definitely have been an inspiration for one of the Disney castles! Spanning the river Cher, the chateau is a mix of late Gothic and early Renaissance architectural styles. Another unique feature of this castle is the fact that it was built, maintained and expanded by six strong women through centuries. It’s no surprise then that it’s also known as Château des Dames.
According to me, visiting two castles in a day is really enough. Anymore, and you might end up with castle fatigue! Having had our fill of fantasy and architecture, we were ready to fill ourselves with some food so we headed to Amboise, a small market town famous for Clos Lucé, a manor house where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his final years.
Amboise is a charming town located on the banks of the river Loire. The town’s proximity to some of the most famous chateaux has made it quite touristy but like many French towns, it still retains its old world charm. It has a large pedestrian street lined with restaurants, wine cellars and quaint shops. The Chateau of Amboise is perched high above the river, providing beautiful views. A pretty bridge spans the river providing access to a tiny island.
We spent the rest of our time exploring the streets and shops with a few wine tastings thrown is – a perfect way to end our day.
Day 3 – Chateau Chambord and the journey back
On our last day we decided to sleep in a little and enjoy the beautiful garden in our cottage before leaving for the Chateau Chambord – the grandest and the most striking of the chateaux in my opinion.
Conceived by François I, the architecture was also greatly influenced by the work of Leonardo da Vinci. One of the architectural masterpieces at the castle is the double-spiral staircase.The two spirals connect the three floors above without ever meeting!
The château also features 128 metres of facade, more than 800 sculpted columns and an elaborately decorated roof. It is also surrounded by 13,000 acres of wooded grounds which are accessible to visitors.
The estate also has a courtyard comprising of a large number of food stalls to choose from and even a wine shop where we stopped for a final tasting, before heading back to Paris.