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The châteaux of the Loire Valley, more than 300 in all, offer a bewildering choice for the visitor, not helped by the rivalry of local tourist offices run by different départements, who often pretend that architectural masterpieces lying just beyond their boundaries do not exist.
Three of the most remarkable châteaux, Chenonceau, Chambord and Blois, which is notorious as the scene of the bloody murder of the Duke of Guise, are in the département of Loir-et-Cher. Three more outstanding châteaux, Amboise, Chinon and Azay-le-Rideau, fall within the neighbouring département of Indre-et Loire. However all six and the best of the rest lie within at most an hour or two’s drive from Tours, the ideal starting point at the heart of this lush green valley and fertile vineyards that produce some of the finest wine in France.
Until the middle of the 16th century, this harmonious setting was the centre of French power, the permanent residence of its kings. The royal tax collector, Thomas Bohier, obtained Chenonceau for himself by squeezing its owners dry but ironically his heirs had to relinquish it to François I, who played the same trick of exaggerating what they owed in taxes. The death of François’s successor, Henry II, led to a struggle for control of Chenonceau between his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and his widow, Catherine de Médici. Catherine prevailed and built the château’s audacious and imaginative gallery over the River Cher.
The vast château of Chambord, an empty edifice with echoes of past glory, was François’s hunting lodge. The River Cosson was diverted by more than a mile to improve its setting and the château, with its 440 rooms, is nearly twice the size of a football pitch. Its unique feature is a double-spiral staircase so cleverly designed that one person can ascend and another can descend, simultaneously, each without seeing the other.
Regular visitors to the Loire Valley looking for different châteaux to visit will find themselves spoilt for choice. The Château du Plessis-Bourré, built in the 15th century, is a popular location for period dramas as it has authentic dungeons and a moat crossed by two fully operational drawbridges. The Château de Valençay, once the home of the famous French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, is full of authentic Renaissance furniture that survived the ravages of the French Revolution. The moated Château du Rivau is noted for the visit of Joan of Arc and her followers in 1429, in search of supplies before Joan helped to raise the English siege of Orléans. The wonderful Renaissance gardens of the Château de Villandry were restored by the unlikely combination of Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor, and a medical intern, Ann Coleman, the daughter of a Pennsylvania blacksmith. They met in Paris, fell in love with each other and later with Villandry. In 1924 Carvallo founded the first association of owners of historic châteaux, which helped to preserve many of those falling into disrepair.
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