The Loire Valley is famous for its chateaux and wineries, linked by cycle paths that wend their way across its 800 square kilometres.
Stretching 280kms from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes-sur-Loire, it has been called the ‘Cradle of the French’ and the ‘Garden of France’. It includes the historic towns of Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Montsoreau, Orléans, Saumur and Tours.
This bumper-sized Unesco World Heritage site is stuffed with Renaissance history – and because 2019 is the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and the birth of Catherine de’ Medici, it is an ideal time to visit the region and bask in France’s past glories.
The Renaissance was a period spanning about three centuries, from circa 1300, of intellectual, artistic, cultural, economic and political rebirth marking the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity.
It saw the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art along with the flowering of new ideas, and global exploration which opened up new lands and cultures to European trade.
A visit to the Château Royal d’Amboise is a good place to start any Renaissance immersion in France and discover Leonardo da Vinci’s links to the country.
It was one of several residences used by the court of François I (1497-1547). The chateau stands high above the town and access is via a steep cobbled path.
François I repeatedly invited Leonardo da Vinci to join the royal court, but his guest only accepted the invitation when he was 67 years old.
His age did not matter. He was one of the greatest men in Europe and was warmly welcomed to Amboise. He was granted an income so he could concentrate on whatever interested him, and lived in Clos Lucé, a small but beautiful palace nearby.
Leonardo spent the rest of his life there, and asked in his Will to be buried in the grounds of the chateau – a favour normally only granted to royals.
It is testimony to François I’s opinion of his guest that this last wish was granted.
As you emerge into the gardens, one of the first things you see is a small chapel containing what are almost certainly Leonardo’s remains, and many people head straight towards it to leave flowers.
A few metres away is the site of the chapel, destroyed in 1802, in which he was originally buried. When the site was excavated in 1863, parts of a skeleton were found along with stone fragments.
The location of the remains, the unusual height of the person buried (da Vinci was over 6ft), and the orientation of the grave all support the belief they are those of Leonardo, but DNA testing (comparing it to known relatives) is underway.
Having paid your respects to the great man, it is time to explore the palace of King François I. Over the centuries, the chateau has been altered and extended to suit changing tastes and fashions. All these layers can be seen, along with an extensive collection of paintings and tapestries.
Visit late in the afternoon for the best views of the sun setting over Amboise – and if you notice the chateau walls being scaled by fire fighters, do not panic. They use them for practice.
The gardens are beautifully laid out, and visitors are encouraged to make the most of them. “We really want people to be able to come here and relax, get away from daily life,” said the chateau’s communications officer Samuel Buchwalder.
“After all, that was the purpose of building this place. So people are welcome to picnic on the grass, and let their children play in the gardens.”
Like the chateau, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, Clos Lucé, is decorated and furnished, and contains many artefacts, so you get a real sense of the personalities involved. You can see a mock up of his studio, and the bed in which he died.
The exhibition in the basement of Clos Lucé of models made from Leonardo’s designs is fascinating, while the gardens are large and family-friendly.
Having studied Leonardo’s designs at Clos Lucé, it is fascinating to visit the Château de Chambord.
The main structure is exactly as it was designed. The central hall (the size of a large cathedral) features a massive circular stairwell made of stone which contains two separate staircases chasing each other up and down while never meeting.
Around this spectacular helix are four square wings. The external corner of each overlaps with a huge stone tower.
Seen from above, the design echoes Leonardo de Vinci’s sketches for mechanical structures, leading historians to wonder whether he had a hand in the design.
Construction did not start until after his death, but he could have sketched out the floor-plan and the spiral staircases.
Today, most of Chambord is open to the public – even the rooftops – so it takes a long time to see it all. The grounds are so extensive that it is possible to hire cycles or electric vehicles to explore them.
Construction was begun by François I but continued by his son Henri II and his wife Catherine de’ Medici.
Born in Florence to Lorenzo II de’ Medici and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, Catherine was derided as an Italian interloper – despite the fact that her mother was French and she had spent her entire life from the age of 14 in France.
When she became the widowed mother of a young family, she took up the reins of government on behalf of the three of her sons who, one by one, became kings of France. She was never popular.
Visit the Château de Chenonceau, however, and you will see another side to her.
She loved this elegant white palace with its feet in the water; so much so that she swapped the much larger and more prestigious Château de Chaumont in order to own it for herself.
Today, it is known for its fabulous fresh flower arrangements (mainly designed using flowers grown at Chenonceau) and the formal gardens have been planted in monochrome black and white this year in her honour.
Check out the ‘artichokes’ carefully and you will see that they are actually cardoons – large thistles. Along with the flowers, fires burning in the various fireplaces make the palace feel lived in. You will find it difficult to leave.
Catherine de’ Medici added the two storeys of galleries on top of the bridge spanning the river. The original idea was to have constructed another part of the palace on the far bank, but this plan never got off the ground.
The galleries, however, were used to hold extravagant feasts and parties. Also, look for the plaque in the long gallery on the first floor, which honours the work done there when the place was used as a military hospital during World War One.
Catherine de’ Medici was not the only woman to love this chateau; there is an exhibition on the second floor of the long gallery (spanning the river) detailing the histories of the women who lived here.
Coco Chanel spent time at Chenonceau, reportedly inspired to use Catherine de’ Medici’s colours for her signature little black dress with a tiny white ruff.
Do not leave without visiting the kitchens (look out for the secret boat dock under the arches for deliveries), and once outside, explore the walled Russell Page garden designed by head gardener Nicholas Tomlan. “It’s so tranquil,” he says, “visitors often fall asleep on the benches.”
Dog-lovers should note that dogs are welcome at Chenonceau, even in the castle itself, as long as they are carried. “We have many animals here, including the donkeys, and dogs are welcome as long as they stay on a lead,” said communications officer Caroline Darrasse.
“We have lots of photos of dogs being carried round the chateau on our Instagram page, even quite big ones!”
Catherine de’ Medici’s husband, Henri II, died in 1559, leaving her to support her frail 15-year old son François II, who only survived to reign for a year and was succeeded by his brother, Charles IX.
As regent, she had sweeping powers and used them to navigate the almost constant civil and religious wars that swept France at that period. When Charles died in 1574, he was succeeded by her third son, Henri III, who relied heavily on her advice for most of his reign.
She died in 1589, at nearly 70 years of age, in the Château Royal at Blois. You can visit the bedroom in which she died.
The chateau has been extensively renovated over the years, making it feel very new, but has been carefully curated so there is a mass of information to be absorbed.
The chateau has interactive ‘histopads’ which you can use as you visit each room. Visitors can load a ‘histopad’ up by placing it on a terminal in each room, and it displays images of what each room would have looked like when it was inhabited. As you move around the room, the image on the screen changes.
Spectacular and unmissable as the Château Royal de Blois is, if you prefer something more authentically steeped in the past, visit the Château of Villesavin.
Built between 1527-37 by Jean le Breton, who was François I’s financial secretary and oversaw the construction of Chambord, it is only now being restored. The kitchen is still there but much of the house remains closed to the public.
The suite of ground-floor rooms which were renovated during the 19th century are fascinating, however. Look out of the windows and you will see how the original spaces have been divided up to make smaller, more comfortable rooms.
The Loire Valley is full of chateaux, all of them different, all of them worth visiting in their own right, and all of them are offering special events and attractions to celebrate this Renaissance anniversary.
There will be talks and lectures, dances, exhibitions, apéros, theatre, balls, feasts, games, wine-tastings, tours in costume, tours by torchlight, tours of secret floors – Chambord has a whole series of secret servants floors sandwiched between the main floors designed to be inhabited by royalty – and boat rides.
You can search by theme, date or department on vivadavinci2019.fr/
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France