Of the most famous, Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceau both belong exclusively to the Renaissance period, and their settings in the middle of moat and river respectively are very beautiful, rivalled only by the wonderful Renaissance gardens of Villandry. Blois, with its four wings representing four distinct eras, is extremely impressive, as is the monstrously huge Chambord, the triumph of François I's Renaissance. At Valençay, the interior of the Renaissance Château is Napoleonic, while Cheverny is the prime example of seventeenth-century magnificence.
Many châteaux that started life as serious military defences were turned into luxurious residences by their regal or ducal owners: good examples are Brissac, Chaumont, with its nineteenth-century stables, and Ussé, the most fairy-tale of them all. Le Plessis-Bourré is a fine example of late fifteenth-century elegant residence and strong defences combined, while Sully projects the power of its most famous owner, the Duc de Sully. Other feudal fortresses have preserved their medieval feel, among them the ruined Chinon, Langeais, beautifully furnished in fifteenth-century style, Meung-sur-Loire, with its dungeons, Fougères-sur-Bièvre, whose towers and staircases you can explore on your own, and Amboise, which rears above the Loire like a cliff. For an evocation of medieval times, the Citadel of Loches is hard to beat.
Other châteaux are more compelling for their contents than for their architecture: Beauregard is most famous for its portrait gallery; St-Brisson for art exhibitions and medieval weaponry demonstrations; and La Bussière for its obsessive nineteenth-century decoration, entirely dedicated to freshwater fishing. At Saumur, a museum of the horse rivals the attraction of the castle itself, while at Angers the stark, largely ruined medieval castle houses the tapestry of the Apocalypse, the greatest work of art in the Loire valley.
Entry prices are pretty steep, particularly for the châteaux that have remained in private hands and there are a surprising number of French aristocrats still living the fine life in the region. There is no consistency in concessions offered, and children rarely go free. If you're over 65, under 25, a student or still at school, check for any reductions and make sure you've got proof of age or a student card with you.
Pages in section ‘Chateaux’: Chamerolles, Villandry, d'Usse.
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