By the time they get to eight years old, most children know a thing or two about castles, knights, kings and queens, as well as a few mad inventors and perhaps a chef or two (thank you, Ratatouille and The Muppets). Beyond the storybooks and screen time though, few destinations will simultaneously bring all these subjects to life. Cue the Loire Valley – where châteaux are more numerous than McDonald’s and you get to stay in them too, without the need for any royal credentials. Here, children are as welcome as grown-ups to explore castles that are the real deal, rather than anything Walt Disney may have conjured up.
For me and my family – kids aged eight and six, husband aged, well whatever – hopping between seven châteaux up and down the valley proved an ideal trip for the Easter holidays. It was a diverse and fascinating adventure, especially as this year the whole region celebrates the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death and the Renaissance, the artistic movement that inspired King François I to invite the Italian Polymath to reside near him in Amboise.
Da Vinci arrived in 1516, having travelled over the Alps by donkey with the Mona Lisa and two other paintings in the saddlebags. He took up residence at the grand red-brick palace, Le Clos Lucé, in Amboise. It now tells the story of his later life in lively detail and is our first stop.
We breeze through his bedroom and historic chambers to arrive at the workshop, where there are copies of drawings and the desk where he worked. The banqueting hall contains a replica of the walking mechanical lion the King asked him to design. In the cellars, one end of a tunnel that supposedly linked Le Clos Lucé to the Chateau d’Amboise so the King could visit whenever he liked. The basement rooms show miniatures of his inventions – a UFO-shaped wooden tank, a helicopter and various pulleys and levers. But it’s in the grand, sweeping gardens his inventions really come alive. Many are built at their intended size and we spend hours seeing how they work – whizzing around beneath a prototype helicopter, climbing inside the tank, pulling ropes and pushing levers on his engineering projects.
“Da Vinci arrived in 1516, having travelled over the Alps by donkey with the Mona Lisa and two other paintings in the saddlebags.”
To get up close and personal to Leonardo’s most famous work we head to Blois, an attractive town on the banks of the Loire east of Amboise. Here the Mona Lisa has been reproduced on a giant scale on the 121-step staircase, the Escalier Denis Papin, in the heart of the town. Those famous eyes draw you down the street. We followed them, climbing the stairs up her face to sit on her eyebrows. For the children, it sure beats the Louvre.
Our second visit takes us to the well-known Château de Chenonceau, whose graceful arches span the river Cher. Inside, we hear how its last private owner – Princesse de Broglie – used her sugar cane fortune to buy the château and its parkland, aged just 17, and went on to throw lavish parties for the aristocracy of Europe. In case you were wondering just how lavish, there are black and white pictures of her playing with her pet elephant. The garden maze proves more interesting to the children as the crowds get too much inside.
In the glorious gardens, there are giant art installations to romp around and a tropical greenhouse to explore with ice-creams and peaceful views of the river Loire.
At château number four, de Cheverny, there’s more animal magic in the kennels of 100 floppy-eared hunting dogs, although they temporarily halt the ‘can we have a pet’ pestering – their whiff rather more fetid than the château’s rainbow of tulips.
“We gaze at black and white pictures of her playing with her pet elephant.”
De Cheverny hosts a permanent Tintin exhibition, as Hergé was inspired by the house for his depiction of Captain Haddock’s ancestral pile, Marlinspike Hall. This year, the château’s rooms are also graced with giant Lego models of dogs. Despite both of these, however, it is the exquisite ceiling paintings of Greek mythology that fascinate the children, as well as the suits of armour. We leave with smiles and aching necks.
We choose to spend late afternoon at our fifth château, de Valençay, so almost have the place to ourselves. The domes are imposing and impressive, the verdant parterre gardens gorgeous. On a tour of the rooms, an audio guide tells us how the great 19th-century diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord enjoyed the ‘art de vivre’ here. Inside, the kitchens prove the highlight – a sound and light show presents the incredible patisserie creations of Talleyrand’s chef, the founding father of French cuisine Marie-Antoine Carême. While those dining at the château back in the 19th century were the Who’s Who of Europe, and were treated to lavish banquets we can only imagine, we do get the chance to dine in style at Château de Beauvois.
Here, the chandeliers, opulent carpets and antique paintings could strike fear into the heart of any parent of curious (with their hands as well as eyes) children, but the staff are warm and welcoming. The grand, marble-floored dining room, chandeliers and beautiful stone fireplace proved impressive to all of us, and when the children sat on the gold chairs at the beautifully laid tables, their manners improved no end (though the request for ketchup still came…).
At Château des Arpentis, our not-so-humble abode in the Loire Valley, it is the bedroom that makes our eyes grow wide. Up in the rafters of the neo-Gothic château, which is surrounded by acres of parkland and woods, the family suite is a vast space arched with beautiful wooden beams, with a huge bathtub at one end, red sofas and TV at the other.
The children’s twin room is in the tower, where they sleep long past their usual wake-up time. For a change, my husband and I wake earlier than the children and lie in the massive bed enjoying the silence. It’s interrupted by the call of a cuckoo and the distant tapping of a woodpecker. For a moment, we feel like royalty.
Take the trip
Carolyn took the ferry from Poole to Cherbourg-Octeville.
From here, she travelled to Amboise and stayed at Château des Arpentis for two nights.
After visiting the Chateaux, Carolyn headed to Blois and visited Château de Valençay. From here, she made her way to Château de Beauvois for the following two nights.