The Loire is the backbone of French history. This is attested by the more than fifty castles that stand on the banks of the gentle curve that the river traces between Angers and Orleans. Forests, vineyards and hills make up a welcoming environment that was chosen by nobles and monarchs as a second home. Because, contrary to what happens in other French regions, the castles of the Loire did not have a military or defensive purpose, but were sumptuous mansions for the use and enjoyment of their inhabitants.

Going up the course of the river in the direction of Orleans, Saumur is a good starting point to discover the architectural, gastronomic and natural excellence of the area. Located on the outskirts of the city of the same name, its graceful silhouette, possibly the most medieval of the Loire castles, can be seen for several kilometers around. Residence of the Dukes of Anjou, it was built in the 14th century on the remains of a previous fortress . Today, under its octagonal towers and its battlements decorated with fleurs-de-lys, it houses a valuable collection of French decorative arts, an intimate counterpoint to the view offered by its high viewpoints.

From Saumur, it is worth deviating about fifteen kilometers to reach the Fontevrault abbey, mausoleum of the Plantagenet dynasty and, therefore, of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard the Lionheart, immortalized in the cinema by Katherine Hepburn in El lion in winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968). Her polychrome tombs are a prodigy of 12th century statuary, but the tour also allows you to enjoy the Loire-Anjou-Touraine regional park, one of the most privileged spaces in France since it combines natural and architectural heritage.

Renaissance legacy

Resuming the route to Tours, a series of castles appear shortly after, which did have a defensive function and even surveillance and toll in some cases: Montsereau, Montreuil-Bellay, Breze and Usse. The traveler plunges back into aristocratic luxury upon reaching Villandry. Due to its square pavilions instead of corner towers and its beautiful terraced gardens, Villandry is a special case. In 1906, the Spaniard Joaquin Carvallo recovered its Renaissance appearance and founded the Loire Valley Castle Owners Association , a definitive entity in the conservation of this heritage.

Siempre remontando el Loira por la carretera que corre practicamente paralela y tras recorrer poco mas de quince kilometros, se llega a Tours. En verano las terrazas de cafes y restaurantes de la plaza Plumereau son una agradable excusa para degustar los vinos elaborados en la comarca de la Turena y contemplar un espacio de tipico corte medieval. Esta ciudad fundada en el siglo I tuvo un papel fundamental en el siglo xv como centro de peregrinaje y como sede de la corte de Luis XI. La catedral de Saint Gatien, el castillo y los palacetes proximos a la plaza Plumereau muestran la cara mas esplendorosa de aquellos anos, cuando la seda de Tours era un preciado objeto de exportacion.

Chenonceau, conocido como Castillo de las Damas, awaits half an hour of tours along a road that goes through forests to the banks of the Cher river, a tributary of the Loire. The most striking feature of this palace is the covered gallery that, on the so-called Diana Bridge, crosses the river. It owes its nickname to the government that six women exercised over it over five centuries. I house the love affairs of Diana de Poitiers (1499-1566) with King Henry II of France (1519-1559); Upon the death of the monarch, his widow, Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589), took possession of the castle and ordered the construction of the gallery as long as the name of the bridge added by Diana was forgotten. Queen Catherine was succeeded as ladies of the castle by Gabrielle d’Estrees, favorite of Henry IV, Louise of Lorraine, wife of the Prince of Chimay,

The squares of Amboise

Back on the banks of the Loire, the next stage is the royal castle of Amboise, 60km from Villandry. Its rooms not only housed some of the most distinguished monarchs of France, but also included the presence of the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, who, through the courtesy of King Francis I (1494-1547), resided in the nearby town of Clos-Luce until his death.

Amboise has added value. Added to its architectural burden is its location next to the urban center of a town with craft shops, flowers in the windows and tiny squares occupied by the tables of cafes and bistros that serve andouillettes, the region’s typical spicy sausage, and goat cheese. accompanied by autochthonous wine. The exotic touch is provided, on the outskirts, by the curious Pagode de Chanteloup, a Chinese pagoda 44 meters high and seven stories, erected in 1775 by the Duke of Choiseul.

Barely fifteen minutes pass before the silhouette of another exceptional castle appears: Chaumont-sur-Loire, perched on a hill that dominates the curve that the river traces before reaching the city of Blois, which in turn houses one of the castles more eclectic in the valley. Made up of four buildings from different periods, the Château de Blois was the residence of Kings Louis XII, Francis I and Henry III, who bequeathed to the palace interiors with beautifully decorated walls and a royal collection of paintings. Monumental and solemn, its Council Chamber is the oldest Gothic civil enclosure in France.The city of Blois was also the scene of one of the most important events in the history of France: the assassination of the Duke of Guise, which triggered the Wars of Religion that devastated the country in the 16th century.

The dream of Francis I

Skirting the Loire for less than twenty kilometers you will reach Chambord. A wide tree-lined avenue leads to the gates of a castle that is the stone dream of a cultured and Renaissance king, Francis I (1494-1547). A great fan of hunting, the monarch decided to give free rein to his imagination and create what is possibly the most fabulous hunting lodge in the world. Crowned by six immense towers, its 440 rooms, 365 chimneys and 84 stairs make up a harmonious whole. It is said that 1,800 workers were involved in its construction and that da Vinci himself –an assumption never proven– was involved in the design of his helical staircase, two overlapping spirals in a single hole through which two people can go up and down without crossing each other.

Orleans appears shortly after, at the point where the Loire River receives the waters of two tributaries. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was the most important river port in the region, as well as an intellectual center thanks to its university. The oldest nucleus is located between the cathedral and the Loire, full of buildings with half-timbered façades, Renaissance mansions, two collegiate churches and a tower of Gallo-Roman origin. You have to follow Rue Royal to the Royal Bridge, with nine arches and 35 meters, to imagine the Orleans that Joan of Arc liberated in 1429 from the English. Looking at the flow of the Loire, the traveler may think that the 200 kilometers traveled from Saumur have shortened the distance that separated him from history.

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