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Châteaux of the Loire

Posted 01 Jan 2016

The 5 most beautiful châteaux of the Loire

Follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc and Leonardo da Vinci on a fascinating cycling holiday in the Loire Valley, a region often referred to as the Garden of France. Whether you prefer relaxing in luxurious palace grounds or listening to tales of adventure in atmospheric dungeons, you'll be fascinated by these spectacular châteaux.

Château de Chambord

This imposing château nestles in the heart of the Loire Valley. It's the former retreat of King Francis I but the original architect remains a mystery. However, thanks to a brief visit from Leonardo da Vinci during Chambord's construction, the influence of the great Tuscan polymath is everywhere. The winding da Vinci staircase is a particular highlight, featuring pale gold-toned stone elaborately decorated with emblems like the salamander, which was chosen by the French king as his symbol due to the animal's mythical ability to walk through flame. The staircase also bears the motto I feed and I extinguish – supposedly a reference to Francis I's libido!

Château de Villandry

The last large château built on the Loire's flourishing banks during the Renaissance, Villandry is renowned for its exquisite three-tiered gardens. Explore the ornamental garden and its elaborate boxwood designs of hearts, fans and whirls, symbolising different kinds of love, from tragic to tender. This spectacular grey stone building was about to be demolished when it was bought by a Spanish doctor in 1906, who gave up a promising scientific career in order to bring Villandry back to its former glory. The interiors have been restored to their manicured 18th century styles, and feature a ceiling originally lifted from a 13th century mosque.

Château de Chinon

Perched at the crossroads between powerful and frequently disputed provinces Anjou, Poitou and Touraine, the first castle on this site was actually built by the King of England, Henry II. It's had a long and turbulent history, with visitors including Joan of Arc who rode to the castle in order to assure French King Charles VII of his right to the crown. There is now a museum dedicated to the French heroine onsite, as well as 3D displays, where virtual images of the château's original architecture blend with modern photography helping you to step back in time.

Château du Chenonceau

It's arching white stone bridge over the river Cher and fantastical turrets help make Chenonceau the most visited and photographed château in the Loire Valley. Explore intricate Flemish tapestries and Old Master paintings from Reubens and Tintoretto. Chenonceau's fascinating history includes being used as a bridge into free France by the French resistance in WWII. The grounds are spectacular, and house friendly donkeys that greet you as you enter. You'll also find an immaculately shaped maze, replanted exactly to former owner Catherine de Medici's original plans.

Château de Meung-sur-Loire

This imposing grey stone edifice with its characteristically French towers looms over the surrounding countryside. Nicknamed the 'castle of two faces' thanks to its medieval and neoclassical façades, Meung-sur-Loire was inhabited for centuries by the Bishops of Orléans. On your visit, you can explore the château from top to bottom, taking in its vaulted underground chapel and atmospherically dingy dungeon.

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