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France’s Châteaux of Cheverny and Villandry (5:00)

Loire, France

The stately French hunting palace of Cheverny is still occupied by a marquis who hunts, and about 70 hounds who need to be exercised and fed daily. Nearby, the Renaissance château of Villandry is famous for its elaborate, geometrically patterned gardens.

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The stately hunting palace of Cheverny is immaculately preserved. Because it was built and decorated in just 30 years, in the early 1600s, it offers a pleasing architectural harmony and unity of style.

The château has been in the same family for five centuries, and the intimate details, like the wedding dress in the bedroom, are a reminder that the marquis lives here to this day. Formal rooms like this, with a fine 17th-century painted ceiling and centuries-old suits of armor, feel like museums.

But, upstairs, the family quarters feel more lived in. The library shows a love of music and culture. The children’s room features toys from the 19th century. And this clock does it all, showing the stage of the moon, day, and date. Its second hand has been ticking for 250 years.

When the Revolution hit, in 1789, many palaces were trashed — some were even burned to the ground. But many survived. Some were lucky. Some had fast-talking owners with friends in high places. And others, like Cheverny, had a reputation for being good to their workers.

And back then, a big part of château life included hunting — and still does. The marquis hunts twice a week in season. Feeding time for his hounds is 5:00 daily. The hounds — half English foxhound and half French Poitou — get worked up knowing red meat is on the way. The master moves them out and spreads out the feast. The excitement is palpable. The trainer, who knows each of the 70 dogs by name, opens the gate and maintains discipline as the dogs gather at the concrete table. It’s an exercise in canine control. Finally, he gives the signal…and its chow time.

The Loire, nicknamed “the Garden of France,” is blanketed with fertile farmland and dotted with historic farms. A short drive takes us to our final château.

Châteaux all have impressive grounds — but one’s a destination specifically for its landscaping. For my favorite gardens in the Loire, it’s gotta be Villandry.

Finished in 1536, Villandry was the last great Renaissance château built on the Loire. And all the attention here is on its grounds — arranged in elaborate geometric patterns and immaculately maintained. It’s a hit with gardeners.

Like so many châteaux around here, this was the pet project of a fabulously wealthy banker — Jean le Breton who worked for the king, François I, in the early 1500s.

Well-traveled Jean was inspired by Italian Renaissance gardens. So, when he built his château, he created this. The 100,000 plants — half of which come from the family greenhouse — are replanted twice a year by 10 full-time gardeners. Posted charts and maps identify everything in English. The place is lovingly manicured. Stroll under the grapevine trellis, through a good-looking salad zone, and among Anjou pears.

The earliest Loire gardens were practical, grown in the Middle Ages by abbey monks who needed vegetables and medicinal herbs. And those monks liked geometrical patterns. Later, Italian influence brought decorative ponds, arbors, and fountains. And harmonizing all the elements was an innovation of 16th-century Loire châteaux.

Today’s beautiful gardens at Villandry — a careful reconstruction of what the 1530s original might have been — are the result of generations of passionate dedication.

The châteaux of the Loire Valley have been shaped by the ups and downs of French history. From defensive forts to luxury hunting lodges, to the target of angry revolutionaries. Thankfully, many survived the tumult of the age and have become appreciated as icons of French heritage.

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