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France’s Loire Valley and Its Royal Châteaux

Loire, France

Using Chambord as our example, we’ll see how the Hundred Years' War with England triggered a royal castle-building spree in France’s Loire Valley. Today, the grandiose architecture, decor, and settings of these châteaux illustrate the lavish style of France’s absolute monarchs.

Complete Video Script

Because of its strategic location, the fertility of its land, and its long and involved history, the Loire Valley is home to a dizzying variety of castles and palaces. The earliest were designed purely for defense. But when a “valley address” became a must-have for France’s royalty in the 16th century, the old medieval towers were replaced by luxurious châteaux.

The Loire River’s place in French history goes back to the very foundation of the country. As if to proclaim its storied past, the Loire is the last major wild river in France. With no dams, it flows freely to the sea.

We’ll start with the biggest. Chambord is the granddaddy of the Loire châteaux. Far bigger than your average Loire castle, it has 440 rooms, and a fireplace for every day of the year.

It’s surrounded by Europe’s largest enclosed forest. It’s a game preserve defined by a 20-mile-long wall, and still home to wild deer and boar. Exploring the vast domain by rental bike, you can imagine royal hunting parties chasing their prey. Chambord began as a simple hunting lodge for bored nobles, and eventually became a monument to the royal sport and duty of hunting.

Of course, when it comes to hunting, good horsemanship is an important life skill. Throughout the region it’s not uncommon to see horses prancing and dancing.

Starting in 1519, the French king Francis I had this royal retreat built, employing 1,800 workmen for 15 years.

François I was an absolute monarch — with the emphasis on “absolute.” In 32 years of rule, he never once called the Estates General — that’s the rudimentary parliament of old-regime France — to session. This immense hunting palace was another way to show off his power.

The architectural plan of the château was modeled after an Italian church. It feels a like a place designed to worship royalty. This castle, built while the pope was erecting a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was like a secular rival to the Vatican.

Like a cross crowns a great church, the tip-top of the tallest tower here is capped with the fleur-de-lis — symbol of the French monarchy.

Each floor of the main structure is the same: four equal arms of a cross branching off of a monumental staircase, which leads up to a cupola. Grand après-hunting parties were held under these fine barrel-vaulted ceilings. Constructed for François I, his emblem — the salamander — is everywhere. The hunting theme carries on throughout the palace. This room features paintings and trophies from Chambord’s illustrious hunting past.

Typical of royal châteaux, this palace was rarely used. Back then, any king had to be on the road a lot to effectively exercise his power. That’s why he’d have lots of royal palaces — and they sat empty most of the time. Back in the 1600s, Louis XIV spent a fortune renovating this place, and he visited only six times.

Touring the lavish apartments of various kings and queens, you notice everything inside was designed to be easily dismantled and moved with the royal entourage.

Because French kings moved around a lot, the entire court — and its trappings — had to be mobile. A royal château would sit cold and empty for eleven months out of the year, and then suddenly spring to life when the king came to town.

Imagine the royal roadies setting up a kingly room like this — busily hanging tapestries, assembling beds, unfolding chairs, wrestling big trunks with handles — just before the arrival of the royal entourage. The French word for furniture, mobilier, literally means “mobile.”

The fancy spiral staircase continues to the rooftop terrace, decorated by a pincushion of spires and chimneys. From here, ladies could scan the estate grounds, enjoying the spectacle of their ego-pumping men out hunting.

On hunt day, a line of beaters would fan out and work their way inward from the distant walls, flushing wild game to the center. That’s where the king and his buddies waited for the kill.

The Loire River, gliding gently east to west, separating northern from southern France, has come to define this popular tourist region. The value of this river and the valley’s prime location, in the center of the country just south of Paris, have made the Loire a strategic prize for centuries — hence all these castles.

This river has long been an important boundary in France. Over a thousand years ago, when the Moors invaded Europe from Northern Africa, this is as far north as they got. In World War II, when Germany invaded, this marked the border between Nazi and Vichy France. And even today, when people refer to northern and southern France, this river marks the border.

Traditional flat-bottomed boats romantically moored along embankments are a reminder of the age before trains and trucks, when it was river traffic that safely and efficiently transported heavy loads of stone and timber.

With the prevailing winds sweeping upstream from the Atlantic, barges, loaded with construction material for the châteaux, raised their sails and headed inland. Then, on the way back, boats flowed downstream with the current.

This transportation infrastructure was critical for shipping all the necessary stone. And the region’s thick forests provided plenty of timber, firewood, and hunting terrain. It’s no wonder that castles were built on the Loire in the Middle Ages.

Long before the pleasure palaces, this strategic valley was dotted with no-nonsense medieval castles.

The royal connection with the Loire Valley goes back to the Hundred Years’ War — that was about 1350 to 1450. Because of a dynastic dispute, the English had a serious claim to the French throne, and by the early 1400s they controlled much of France, including Paris. France was at a low ebb, and its kings retreated here to the Loire to rule what remained of their realm. When the threat finally subsided, and the kings returned to Paris, many of their Loire castles became lavish country escapes.

France rebounded and eventually tossed the English back to England. Still, the French kings continued to live in the Loire region for the next two centuries, having grown comfortable with the château culture of the region. The climate was mild, hunting was good, dreamy rivers made nice reflections, wealthy friends lived in similar luxury nearby, and the location was close enough to Paris — but still far enough away.

For France, the 16th century was a kind of cultural Golden Age. With relative peace and stability, there was no longer a need for fortifications deep within the country. The most famous luxury hunting lodges, masquerading as fortresses, were built during this period.

Extravagant châteaux like these didn’t come cheap. They were the fancy of the economic elites — insiders who controlled the workings of the French economy. Of course, that all changed with the French Revolution, when the working class rose up, chased the bankers and financiers off their estates, and ransacked many of their palaces.

Today scores of these castles and palaces have been restored and are open to visitors. Modern-day aristocratic château owners, struggling with the cost of upkeep, enjoy financial assistance from the government if they open their mansions to the public.