The region around the lower reaches of the Loire was exceptional in a country still dominated by over-mighty French monarchs and riven by factionalism until well into the seventeenth century.
The relative stability of a territory submissive to royal writ, the prosperity arising from highly productive agricultural land and river-borne trade, and the excellent hunting, all provided the conditions for a building boom. Especially towards the end of the fifteenth century and during the first half of the sixteenth, a plethora of palaces, hunting lodges and country retreats were erected at the behest of members of the royal family, their mistresses and their loyal followers.
These beautiful residential buildings have become paradigmatic in popular culture for furnishing the world-wide image of a fairy-tale palace. More importantly they were seminal in architectural history by constituting the first significant ultramontane manifestation of the Italian Renaissance. The sudden and whole-hearted admiration for all things Italian documented by the châteaux of the Loire was stimulated, ironically, by French invasions of Italy which began under Charles VIII in 1494 and came to an end under François I thirty years later.
The distinctive and affecting feature of these buildings was that Italianate motifs were grafted onto what were essentially Flamboyant Gothic forms. Round-headed arches, square-headed windows, classical pilasters and ancient Roman candelabra decoration blend with cylindrical towers and turrets, conical spires, high-pitched roofs and elaborate dormers to produce an effect which is Italianate but unmistakably French. It was not a case of importing wholesale the principles of Brunelleschi and Bramante but the creation of an original – and highly influential – synthesis.
Most of the châteaux are well furnished and much decoration survives or has been well recreated (contrary to the widespread myth that French châteaux are empty). Several of them have gardens, among which are some extraordinarily fine recreations of the original Renaissance design. This itinerary provides a balanced and varied selection, and aims to side-step the crowds.
Chenonceau. Travel by Eurostar at c. 9.30am from London St Pancras to Paris. Continue south by coach to Chenonceau. Of surpassing beauty and surmounting a bridge across the River Cher, the Château of Chenonceau (‘des Dames’) is deservedly one of France’s most treasured sights. Transformation of the castle began in 1515 and continued intermittently for much of the 16th century. Stylistically it leads from an embellished castle keep to the supremely successful Mannerism of the long galleries across the river. Continue to the hotel in Chargé where all three nights are spent.
Azay-le-Rideau, Langeais, Villandry. Lapped by the River Indre, Azay-le-Rideau is a jewel of the French Renaissance, replete with angle turrets, elaborate gables, classicising pilasters and evocative interiors. With its formidable defensive towers Langeais, reconstructed from the 1470s, is scarcely affected by Renaissance taste and has a good collection of mediaeval furniture and tapestries. Villandry is an excellent 1530s château with three arcaded wings but its chief glories are the tiers of formal gardens, recreated in the 20th century according to 16th-century designs and principles. We visit in the late afternoon, when the crowds have subsided, and return to the hotel at c. 7.00pm.
Beauregard, Blois, Chambord. Beauregard has a unique 17th-century gallery lined with 327 portraits of historical persons. The three wings of the castle at Blois were built in the latest fashion respectively for Louis XII from 1498, François I from 1515 and, the brother of Louis XIII (by Mansart) from 1635. There is time in the delightful town of Blois to see its gardens, churches and museums. The creation of François I and the most ambitious of the Loire châteaux, Chambord startles by its vast size. Outstanding are the double helix stairway and the fantastical roofscape of cones, wedges, elaborate gables and chimney stacks.
Cheverny. Built in the 1630s, Cheverny is as elegant and restrained as Baroque can get and is unmistakably French with its chiselled façade and dramatic roofline, and sumptuously decorated and furnished interiors. Drive to Paris and then continue by Eurostar to London St Pancras, arriving c. 8.00pm.
If combining this tour with Tuscan Gardens, fly at c. 8.45pm from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Florence (Air France), transfer by taxi to the Hotel Villa Fiesole and stay overnight.
Price – per person
Two sharing £1,710 or £1,540 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £1,940 or £1,770 without Eurostar.
Châteaux of the Loire and Tuscan Gardens combined
Two sharing: £4,430 or £4,260 without Eurostar or the tour flights. Single occupancy: £5,120 or £4,950 without Eurostar or the tour flights. This includes the one-way flight from Paris to Florence (Air France), airport transfers and the extra accommodation at Hotel Villa Fiesole (1 night). These arrangements are pre-booked but unescorted.
Train travel by Eurostar (Standard Premier); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 3 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Château de Pray, Chargé: 4-star hotel in a converted château on the river Loire with an excellent restaurant.
Although a short tour there is quite a lot of standing around and walking. You need to be able to lift your luggage on and off the train. Average distance by coach per day: 119 miles (most driving is on days 1 & 4).
Between 12 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'This was a superb break. I liked being able to go around the châteaux at my own pace. Excellent value for money.'
'Please thank all concerned for a most enjoyable and well-managed four days.'
'The choice of places to visit was excellent. We visited a good variety of châteaux.'