Top Loire Valley châteaux for visiting in winter
5 of the best for a different experience
The magnificent châteaux of the Loire Valley are a must-see summer highlight when spending any time in the region. The elaborate architecture, the imposing settings, the gardens, the tea shops…. They are a heady mix.
It’s no accident that the whole of the Loire Valley is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s impossible to imagine how anyone could select just one or two châteaux for this classification – easier to bundle the whole lot together!
But while a stroll through a beautifully manicured garden, an al fresco picnic on the greensward of a 17th century château is an appealing prospect mid-summer, it might be less so come chilly November, or a rainy blustery day in February.
The secret is to think of a wintry visit to a château as something quite different to the summer experience. Obviously, the crowds are very thin on the ground but all the better for wandering the empty rooms and soaking up the bleak atmosphere.
Outside the gardens may not have the saturated colours and fragrances of high summer but the allure is something quite different. When most trees and shrubs have shed their leaves, the skill of a garden designer can really shine. You’ll see the structure of the flowerbeds and the overall layout in a different light, stripped back and skeletal.
On a frosty day the bare branches, stalks and flower heads of the past summer take on a delicate, spectral profile. The browns and golds and yellows of winter are in stark contrast to summer’s bright pastels. You get a completely different perspective in winter.
Château de Chambord
Perhaps the most magnificent of all châteaux, with a 20 mile wall surrounding it, this is always a treat at any time of year. The vast grounds are wonderful for walking, with trails going off in all directions and each giving a different perspective back to the château. The newly created (or rather re-instated) formal gardens are a marvel and the little chapel to the site of the château is always charming. But the good news is you are unlikely to find yourself dodging children on scooters, buggies or even the massed ranks of tourists’ lenses.
By way of refreshment, you will probably find a bowl of soup, warming galette or chocolat chaud more tempting than you would in summer (OK, maybe not!).
Château d’Amboise / Clos Lucé
The royal château in Amboise is one of the greats but close by is the Clos Lucé, once home to Leonardo da Vinci. While time is well spent at the main château, it is Leonardo’s place which is wonderful for whiling away an afternoon on a chilly winter’s day.
Leonardo was invited here by Francois I in 1516 and spent his last years here. Today you can wander through his bedroom, the kitchen and the chapel complete with paintings by his students. There’s even a secret passageway used when the king wished to chat to his genius guest without all the ceremonial palaver.
But best of all are the recreations of the incredible machines Leonardo invented or designed. The first aeroplane, a helicopter, assault chariot, revolving bridge, paddleboat. All these and more are here, intricately made from beech wood, and demonstrating da Vinci’s vision and engineering skill across all disciplines.
Set on an island in the river Indre, this is a charming château with delicate towers and pointed turrets. Inside features include the Royal Chamber and the ornate staircase while outside the parkland is laid out in the English style with water mirrors, intriguing paths and mature trees.
It’s all perfect for a pleasant wintry walk, with the château itself being not overly vast so a tour can be enjoyed as a pleasant diversion rather than an arduous challenge.
The bonus is that in winter, when the trees have lost their leaves, the view of the château across the water is very special.
Château de Saumur
The town of Saumur is a happy mix of bustling city life and the kind of relaxed attitude you come across in the Loire Valley. Add great eateries, with a local cuisine which brings the world’s foodies from far and wide, sensational and amazingly good value wines, a smattering of local sights (the Cadre Noir Riding School of international repute, the vast mushroom caves, the tank museum Musée des Blindés, vineyards and more) and you have a wonderful place to spend time – at all times of the year.
The château itself is set high up on the cliff overlooking the whole town in a thoroughly look-at-me manner. Dating from the 13th century, this is a real gem. But the best thing is that is easily reached with a 5 minute walk from the town centre: ideal for a winter’s excursion then a scurry back to a riverside restaurant for a well earned dinner.
Set on the edge of the Chinon forest this seminal château offers dramatic views, historical colour and epic architecture all on grand scale. The endless froth of turrets and pinnacles is unique and prompted the inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
The colourful whiff of myths and legends bring the place to life – especially when the crowds are at their most minimal and there’s a feel of winter chill and drama about the place. There’s nothing like a little wintriness to focus the mind and heighten the senses.
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