The largest and possibly the most sumptuous of the Loire chateaux, this Renaissance masterpiece has a staggering 440 rooms, 85 staircases (including the famous double spiral staircase, one side for use by the royal family, the other by their servants), and a different fireplace for every day of the year.
Even the River Loire was diverted to fit in with the design. There is controversy over the designer. Francois I, who commissioned Chambord as a hunting lodge in 1519, was inspired by Italian architecture and Leonardo da Vinci, who was employed by him in 1516, is reputed to have drawn the original plans.
Almost 2,000 craftsmen were eventually used in the construction, which took 25 years to complete. The inventor of ‘son et lumiere’ - Paul Robert-Houdin - was curator of Chambord in 1952 when the chateau was home to the first ever display.
Visit part of the huge walled estate surrounding the chateau. Deer and wild boar roam the forest freely in what’s said to be the largest game reserve of its kind in Europe. Tel: (00 33) 2 54 50 50 00 for information on estate events, guided walks, cycling and other tours. You can even explore by boat.
Overlooking the north bank of the River Loire between the plains of Beauce and the Sologne forests, the medieval town of Blois with its regional style ‘tricolore’ houses - white walls, blue slate roofs and red brick chimneys - is compact enough to explore on foot and makes an ideal touring base.
The stunning Chateau which dominates the town is the reason many visit Blois. The castle has a colourful history and was home to 2 French kings. A variety of monarchs have contributed to its mixed Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The beautiful open-air staircase is said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci for Francois I and the chateau’s archaeological museum shows original carvings and stonework from Blois and other chateaux.
Enjoy fine views from terraced gardens and the summer son et lumiere (daily mid-April to mid-Sept) with stories of intrigue and assassination is well worth a dusk visit. Famous magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was born in Blois in 1805 and children will love the performances and illusions in his House of Magic opposite the chateau (open Easter to Oct).
Blois Tourist Office has leaflets on 4 walking tours of the town. Amidst the steeply winding streets and medieval buildings, look for Cathedral St-Louis, the Maison des Acrobats on place St-Louis with carvings of jugglers and tumblers, and quirky artworks made from everyday objects like handbags in the Musee de l’Object. A guided tour of the National Stud on avenue Maunoury has something for all the family from horse shoeing to an equestrian show.
17km from Blois, Chateau de Chaumont looks down from a strategic hilltop position offering spectacular views over the broad River Loire. Rebuilt in Renaissance style on the site of a tenth century castle in the fifteenth century, the chateau was later bought by Catherine de Medici.
Catherine entertained Nostrodamus at Chaumont and after her husband Henry II’s death forced his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to exchange her home at the elegant Chateau Chenonceau for Chaumont.
The chateau was refurbished in the late nineteenth century by the wealthy Broglie family who built luxurious stables for their horses lit by electricity before power was even installed in the chateau.
In 1938, Chaumont passed to the French government and its lavishly furnished rooms are now a museum. There are fine panoramas from the castle courtyard and some of the best views of the chateau itself are from the River Loire.
Chaumont is open all year and if you visit between June and October you can also enjoy the annual contemporary garden design festival hosted at the chateau. Chaumont’s own landscaped gardens were re-modelled in the English style in the nineteenth century and include a flower house and a deep gorge with suspension bridge.
This perfect seventeenth century chateau built in classical Louis XIII symmetrical style has always been owned by the Hurault family and their descendants. Discover Cheverney’s precious treasures housed within its shimmering white walls of Bourre stone beside the River Cher.
Over centuries, the family have added to the sumptuous interiors framed by carved and decorated walls and ceilings, filling them with fine Flanders tapestries, furniture and paintings.
Cheverny is open all year and was one of the first private chateaux to be opened to the public in 1922. Discover the surrounding parkland on foot or by boat and buggy from April - Nov.
Don’t miss Les Secrets de Moulins art at the château entrance if you’re a Tintin fan. The exhibition tells by cartoon and audiovisual effects how Cheverny was used as a model for the family home of the fictional character’s friend, Captain Haddock.
1700 is feeding time at the hunt kennels, also close to the main gate.
This market town on the River Cher, has enough medieval and Renaissance architecture to please any historian, including a ruined fortress and Romanesque church with a royal connection.
Catholic pilgrims process to Montrichard’s sixteenth century Nanteuil Fountain, ‘the fountain of miracles’ each Whit Monday. Markets are on Mondays and Fridays and the River Cher has an artifical beach, great for swimming or launching hired kayaks and canoes.
You can find wine-tasting in town or take a 10km trip to the ‘Fraise-Or’ Distillerie Girardot on the road to Chenonceaux. Specialising in liqueurs based on fruits and spices - even rose petals - the distillery is open 1500 - 1800 weekdays from Easter to September. Hours can vary in winter and at weekends.
Make for Vendome’s hilltop park dominated by an eleventh century ruined castle for fine panoramas of this capital of Loir-et-Cher. Vendome’s flower-covered bridges criss-cross the River Loir which bisects the town known for its green spaces, ancient trees and waterside gardens.
Walking trails marked by studs take you past seventeenth and nineteenth century architecture, clock tower, and monuments like the Abbey Church of the Trinity with its stunning Gothic façade. Flowers are everywhere.
Take some refreshment amongst the half-timbered houses and cafes of place Saint-Martin as you decide whether to book a seat on the Loir Valley tourist train or take a boat trip on the river.
Vendome Tourist Office - tel, (00 33) 2 54 77 05 07 - has details on both as well as information on hiking and cycle trails.
Tumuli burial mounds near Troo show this site has been inhabited since ancient times, although most of the village caves date from the medieval period. The region’s limestone (tufa) has been quarried for centuries to build chateaux and abbeys.
Whole troglodyte cave villages carved out of the local ‘tufa’ were used by poor farmers in the Loire Valley until the last century. The intriguing dwellings at Troo are cut into the hillside beside the (little) Loir in a maze of small streets rising one above the other.
Visit the Cellar-Exhibition in the village centre which has a recreated troglodyte home and shows the ancient crafts of blacksmiths and saddlers. The Yuccas Cellar site on rue Gouffier displays 6 troglodyte rooms furnished in early twentieth century style. Both are open April - Nov.
Visit Troo’s interesting twelfth century church and petrified grotto and don’t forget to take in the ‘speaking well’ at the top of the village.
Troglodyte houses are carved from the hills around Bourre where the white stone was quarried to build fairytale chateaux like Chenonceau and de Cheverny. This small village is known for its wine cellars and famous mushrooms caves made from quarries 50m underground, dug deep for stone.
See the underground town where modern rock friezes show the hard, working lives of quarrymen and stone cutters. Take a guided tour of Les Roches mushroom farm to learn the secrets of mushroom growing, shop for unusual varieties and sample the produce in the farm restaurant. Tel: (00 33) 2 54 32 95 33.
Nearby, the underground farm at La Magnanerie has raised silkworms since the seventeenth century. There are guided tours from April until the end of October and your guide will also show you ancient techniques for extracting the Bourre tufa with huge saws. Tel: (00 33) 2 54 32 63 91 for details of opening times.