LOIRE VALLEY, FRANCE, November 8, 2014 – Everybody loves castles.
With more than 300 chateaux (castles), the Loire Valley may have the highest concentration of architectural splendor in the world. For the traveler, it translates to an unlimited array of historic sites just waiting to be discovered.
In the 10th century castles were necessary for defense, but over the next five hundred years, which incorporated the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, French kings went on an architectural binge in the lush Loire Valley.
Not wanting to be far from court, the nobility soon followed and, before long, the verdant, fertile region, known for its vineyards and gardens, was attracting the finest architects and landscape designers in the world.
In 2000, the central portion of the Loire River Valley became a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a designation which automatically signifies a worthwhile destination for a pilgrimage.
Among the most popular of the Loire Valley chateaux is Azay-le-Rideau, located in the village of the same name. Nestled on an island in the center of the Indre River and built on the site of a former 12th century fortress, Azay-le-Rideau is regarded as a superb example of French Renaissance design and architecture.
When Gilles Berthelot, the Mayor of Tours, acquired the property in 1518, his reconstruction concept was to marry contemporary residential status with aspects of the medieval past. Built in Italian Renaissance style, Azay-le-Rieau was competed in 1827 after nine years of restoration.
Chateau de Chenonceau:
With its stunning series of arches spanning the River Cher, Chateau de Chenonceau is a visual feast.
Chenonceau is often referred to as “Le Chateau des Dames” (the Chateau of Women) because of the five aristocratic women who left their personal imprints on its design. For that reason, the castle features distinctively feminine elements, and it is smaller than many chateaux in the region.
Chenonceau was the favorite residence of Queen Catherine de Medici who was known for her grandiose parties, including the first fireworks display in French history in 1560.
Among the famous features of Chenonceau is the elaborate staircase decorated with human figurines, fruits and flowers. It was one of the first straight staircases in France and is covered with a pitch vault with interconnecting ribs.
Chenonceau is also noted for its fabulous collections of 16th and 17th century tapestries and paintings by Rubens, Rigaud, Nattier and Van Loo and remains one of the top tourist attractions in France.
Chateau de Chinon:
Though many people have heard of Chateau de Chinon, they may not know why. During the 15th century Charles VII encountered Joan of Arc who claimed to hear voices from heaven. As a test, Joan was challenged to identify Charles though she had never met him.
In an attempt to trick Joan, another man was chosen to represent Charles, but she was not deceived. Impressed by her clairvoyance, the regent granted Joan the supplies she needed and sent her into battle at Orleans.
Since 1840, Chinon has been recognized by the French Ministry of Culture as a national historical monument.
Chateau de Villandry:
Chateau de Villandry is famous more for its fabulous gardens than its architecture. Like so many of the Loire Valley chateaux, it, too, began as an ancient fortress.
Today, the gardens are laid out in formal themed patterns with low box hedges. Among the most popular are the water garden, the ornamental flower gardens and the vegetable gardens.
In the early 19th century, Emperor Napoleon acquired Villandry for his brother Joseph. Now owned by the Carvallo family, it is one of the more popular chateaux in France.
Chateau de Chambord:
No Loire Valley visit is complete without seeing Chateau de Chambord, the largest and one of the most recognizable chateaux in the world. Originally built as a hunting lodge for Francois I, some sources claim it was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
Other than the massive size, the thing that immediately impresses travelers about Chambord is the façade with more than 800 sculpted columns.
The multitude of towers is also striking. Lacking turrets and spires, they are not typically French. Rather, they resemble the 15th century minarets of Milan, giving rise to the belief that da Vinci played a role in the design.
Chambord is unique in many ways. Surrounded by a 13,000 acre park and game reserve, there are no nearby villages. Food was either imported for Chambord’s guests or hunted within the forest.
To showcase his vast wealth and power, Francois had the rooftop designed to accommodate large parties and shooting events. Eleven styles of towers and three versions of chimneys emerge from the roof, which has no symmetry.
Unlike many of the castles in the region, Chambord was not constructed with defense purposes in mind, so its walls, towers and partial moat were merely a decorative consideration.
Many major works of art from the Louvre in Paris were stored at Chambord during World War II and Disney depicted the castle in its 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast as the residence of the Beast.
The seemingly limitless array of chateaux in the Loire Valley is some of the best in the world.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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