The Playground of Kings and Country Home of a French Count
The winding Loire Valley has captured the hearts of travelers for centuries, as it did the nobility and royalty who built more than 1,000 châteaux and manors along France’s “Royal River,” each one a masterpiece of sumptuousness and excess. How to isolate the must-sees from the regretfully-must-pass-bys? Chambord and Chenonceau are the most renowned châteaux. With 440 rooms and 365 fireplaces, Chambord is the largest (and that’s saying something) and Francois I’s favorite hunting place.
Chenonceau is an unsurpassed Renaissance masterpiece with ornamental gardens to match, gracefully spanning the river Cher. But many of the lesser-known châteaux are just as special for their majestic moats, bucolic riverine locations, lush parklands, isolation, and ancestral interiors chockablock with artwork and furniture. Ghosts and legends from the early days of the French Renaissance linger in them all.
Ironically, the best way to recuperate from château burnout may be to spend a few sumptuous nights in one. After touring the Loire Valley for a while, the urge is great to unpack your bags, even for just a night or two. The Domaine des Hauls de Loire is not as overwhelming as most of the castle-fortresses scattered across the valley of France’s longest river.
The gracious, vine-covered manor house was built in 1860 as the hunting lodge of the Count de Rostaing, and the aristocracy gathered to chase wild boar and stag in what was then the count’s game-rich 1.000-acre park. The lodge, stables, and guardians cottage now house charming, antiques-appointed gabled guest rooms. The quality of the service would have pleased the count’s weekend aristo-guests, but the Domaine’s real attraction is the award-winning kitchen. Dinners served in the countrified restaurant before blazing log fires or on the candlelit terrace are memorable—worthy of their setting in the Valley of the Kings.
And bear in mind that few regions in this country that gave the world La Tour de France are more suited to biking trips in terms of beauty, history, and grandeur than the Loire Valley. A classic pedaling trip can include expert guides and gourmet picnics in the shade of royal castles.