Luxuriant Countryside Travel Guide: the Ideal Spot Loire Valley for Holiday Home

A diaphanous aura of subtly shifting lightplays over the luxuriant countryside of the Loire Valley, a region blessedly mild of climate, richly populated with game, and habitually fertile. Although it had always been viewed as prime real estate, the victorious Valois dynasty began to see new possibilities in the territory once the dust from the Hundred Years’ War began to settle.

This, they mused, was an ideal spot for a holiday home. Sketching, no doubt, on a tavern napkin at Blois, Louis XII dreamed of a tasteful blend of symmetry and fantasy, of turrets and gargoyles, while Anne of Brittany breathed down his neck for more closet space. In no time at all, the neighboring Joneses had followed suit, and by the 16th century the area was a showplace of fabulous châteaux d’agrément, or pleasure castles. There were boxwood gardens endlessly receding toward vanishing points, moats graced with swans, parades of delicate cone-topped towers, frescoes, and fancywork ceilings. The glories of the Italian Renaissance, observed by the Valois while making war on their neighbor, were brought to bear on these mega-monuments with all the elegance and proportions characteristic of antiquity.

By the time François I took charge, extravagance knew no bounds: on a 13,000-acre forest estate, hunting parties at Chambord drew A-list crowds from the far reaches of Europe—and the availability of 430 rooms made weekend entertaining a snap. Queen Claudia hired only the most recherché Italian artisans: Chambord’s famous double-helix staircase may, in fact, have been Leonardo da Vinci’s design (he was a frequent houseguest there when not in residence in a manor on the Amboise grounds). From massive kennels teeming with hunting hounds at Cheverny to luxurious stables at Chaumont-sur-Loire, from endless allées of pollarded lime trees at Villandry to the fairy-tale towers of Ussé—worthy of Sleeping Beauty herself—the Loire Valley became the power base and social center for the New France, allowing the monarchy to go all out in strutting its stuff.

All for good reason. In 1519 Charles V of Spain, at the age of 19, inherited the Holy Roman Empire, leaving François and his New France out in the cold. It was perhaps no coincidence that in 1519 François, in a grand stab at face-saving one-upmanship, commenced construction on his gigantic Chambord. Although Chambord, and many other Loire châteaux are testimony to France’s most fabled age of kings, their pleasures, once restricted to royalty and members of the nobility, are now shared by the populace. Yet the Revolution and the efforts of latter-day socialists have not totally erased a lingering gentility in the people of the region, characterized by an air of refined assurance far removed from the shoulder-shrugging, chest-tapping French stereotypes. Here life proceeds at a pleasingly genteel pace, and you can find a winning concentration of gracious country inns and discerning chefs, a cornucopia of local produce and game, and the famous, flinty wines of Vouvray and Chinon—all regional blessings still truly fit for a king, but now available to his subjects as well.

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