Loire Valley: Reliving the Renaissance Like Royalty

Few places evoke fairytale France like the Loire Valley. The stomping grounds of kings and queens, the fertile swath of land surrounding the Loire River is concentrated with marvelous Renaissance châteaux. This year is a particularly good time to visit, as the region is rolling out the royal red carpet to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance with events and exhibitions galore. An added bonus? You can sleep like royalty in a castle of your own. Fresh from a trip to the Loire Valley, here are our recommendations. 

Arguably the most famous Renaissance château in the world, the Château de Chambord is a sight to behold. François I, a great patron of the arts, sought to make a statement and wow visitors; he enlisted the era’s finest artisans to create a jaw-dropping showcase. The famous double-helix spiral staircase is said to be inspired by the architectural plans of Leonardo da Vinci, who came to live in France at the king’s invitation. The forest and gardens surrounding the château comprise Europe’s largest walled park, an area that’s the same in size as the city of Paris. 

Château De Chambord, one of the most recognized Renaissance châteaux in the world constructed by François I, is celebrating its half-millennium milestone in 2019. // Photo by D. Darrault / CRT Centre VdL

Work began on the château exactly 500 years ago. To celebrate this half-millennium milestone, Chambord has launched some exciting exhibits. “500 Years of Chambord: Celebrate Utopia at Work” is an exceptional retrospective exploring the château’s construction within the context of its cultural, political and intellectual environment. Also stop to admire “Décor of the itinerant court,” an exhibition by famous designer Jacques Garcia that recreates the king’s sumptuous bedroom, cabinet and theater. A self-guided tour of Chambord is enhanced with the “HistoPad,” which uses 3D imagery and virtual reality to reconstruct how rooms appeared during the Renaissance; there’s also a treasure hunt for children.  

Another Renaissance stunner is the Château de Chenonceau, a turreted beauty that straddles the River Cher. Nicknamed the “ladies’ château,” its story is told through the lives of the great women who lived there, including Diane de Poitiers, King Henri II’s favorite mistress, and his wife Catherine de Medici, who later kicked out Diane so she could move in. There is an undeniable feminine grace in this château designed by its refined women residents. Great attention is paid to the floral displays, arranged from garden flowers by two dedicated florists. In 2019, the château is celebrating the 500th anniversary of Catherine de Medici’s birth in Florence with the unveiling of her reconstructed apothecary. During the Christmas season, the château will stage “Noël Médicis,” a showcase of gorgeous bouquets alongside prestigious collections of Cristal de Sèvres to honor Catherine de Medici.

Amboise, a small market town, is famous for the Clos Lucé manor house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the final four years of his life. // Photo by C. Mouton

Sitting on an island, Azay-le-Rideau is a Renaissance jewel, its moat formed by the River Indre. (Honoré de Balzac called it a “brilliant cut diamond set in the Indre.”) The ornately sculpted facades are matched by the beautiful décor inside, spanning the Renaissance to the 19th century. In July 2017, the Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN), which manages the property, unveiled a restoration showing off a new and improved visitor experience. Don’t miss the attic — a marvelous vault of oak beams sourced from the royal forest in Chinon — and a stroll around the gardens and the reflecting pools. From June 29 to September 1, there will be a sound and light show to celebrate 500 years of Renaissance(s). 

Leonardo da Vinci lived the final four years of his life in the town of Amboise. When he came from Italy under the patronage of François I, he carried paintings like the Mona Lisa with him. Clos Lucé, the Renaissance manor house where he sketched, philosophized and invented, is today a marvelous homage to the great icon. In this 500th anniversary year of his death, Clos Lucé is hosting special exhibits and events like the European Festival of Renaissance Music in late September. Another highlight is the exhibition of the tapestry of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” An exceptional work of art, the tapestry has never before left the Vatican since François I gifted it to Pope Clement VII in the 16th century.

A nocturnal theatrical and musical adventure at Château du Clos Lucé will commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. // Photo by Château du Clos Lucé / Léonard de Serres

The full 2019 program of “Viva Leonard da Vinci!” events in the Loire Valley is found at www.vivadavinci2019.fr.  

Where to Stay

Live out your castle fantasies at Château du Rivau, a privately owned 15th-century château that recently opened a small luxury hotel on its grounds. Nothing compares to the moment when the gates close for the evening; visitors leave the grounds, and you have the 14 fragrant gardens all to yourself in the lingering summer sunshine. Take a stroll and admire the preening peacocks and the vast variety of roses. Inside the château, the rooms are decorated with wit and whimsy, as a playful dialogue between past and present. The temporary exhibit is a contemporary homage to Leonardo da Vinci — how well-known artists today are influenced by his work. 

Individually decorated, the seven guestrooms are housed above the royal stables, which once supplied François I and Joan of Arc with horses. Breakfast is served in a dedicated salon. Note that the restaurant is only open for lunch; it serves lovely, light dishes (like salads and soups) made with fresh vegetables from the garden, and locally sourced meats and cheeses. For VIP bookings and special arrangements, contact managing director Caroline Laigneau ([email protected]; 011-330-662-912-907). Tip: Book a private tour with Caroline or her mother to glean insights into the family’s incredible 15-year restoration of what had been a ruin.

Relais De Chambord’s restaurant, Le Grand Saint-Michel, is helmed by chef Alexandre Trazères, who is known for his terroir-driven cuisine.

The only hotel situated on the Chambord estate, the Relais de Chambord is the closest thing to sleeping inside François I’s palatial pad. Managed by Marugal, the hotel was opened in March 2018 after the comprehensive renovation of an existing auberge. Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the designer behind talked-about projects like the Lutetia in Paris, conceived the chic, contemporary-style interiors. There are 55 guestrooms overlooking the gardens, township, or château. Top Tip: Room No. 125, a “Junior Suite Chambord,” is where former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing stayed. Its corner location offers fabulous views of both the Château de Chambord and the township, where an artisanal market is staged in good weather. For VIP reservations, reach out to Emeline Buart ([email protected]; 011-330-147-639-083), sales manager with Marugal.

Dining is a special part of the experience here. When the château closes for the day, enjoy drinks on the terrace and watch the evening light reflect on this architectural masterpiece — just 150 feet away. To prepare his terroir-driven cuisine at the gourmet restaurant, Le Grand Saint-Michel, chef Alexandre Trazères works with local producers like Maison Laugier for fruit and vegetables and la Ferme du Croc du Merle for fine butter. Note that during the week it’s only open for dinner. The bar serves bistro-style dishes at lunchtime, and reservations — given its proximity to the château — are essential. A member of Small Luxury Hotels, Relais de Chambord also offers a small spa by Nuxe, and light-filled meeting rooms.

Hotel Château has 17 suites done up with Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers and fabric by Pierre Frey, Nobilis, Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Newly opened in June, the Hotel Château is the result of an extensive renovation of the Château du Grand-Lucé, located an hour’s drive from Tours, the gateway to the Loire Valley. The château is an important example of neoclassical architecture from the 18th century. This opulent hotel experience was conceived by co-founder and CEO Marcy Holthus, who launched Pilot Hotels in 2018 (the portfolio also includes Washington School House Hotel in Park City, Utah). Situated on an 80-acre estate, Hotel Château houses 17 suites done up with Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers and fabric by Pierre Frey, Nobilis, Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier. The crème de la crème is the Baron Suite. With 17-foot ceilings, 18th-century chinoiserie and art collection showcased in gilded frames, it’s billed as “quite possibly the most extravagant suite in Europe.”

Facilities include a grand ballroom, a restaurant, bar, fitness room and spa featuring products by Loire Valley-based Maison Caulières. Outside, a sparkling pool is surrounded by formal French gardens, orchards and an ancient oak forest.

For VIP bookings, reach out to Megan Witt (011-540-454-4933), director of sales and marketing.

Note that the property can be privatized for events or parties, accommodating 36 to 42 adults. Looking for a unique experience? The personal valet service can arrange activities like hot-air balloon flights, parachute jumping and vineyard excursions complete with a gourmet picnic basket.

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