If you’re planning a trip to the beautiful Loire Valley in France next year, look out for a packed programme of special events and exhibitions to mark the 500th anniversary of three significant events from the French Renaissance.
This flowering of arts and culture was inspired by the Italian ‘rebirth’ movement, which drew inspiration from antiquity. But although the French Renaissance began in the 15th century with ideas brought back from military campaigns in Italy, it was under François I in the early 16th century that it really took off.
In 1519, the first stones were laid for the fabulous Château de Chambord, François’ big bling project. And Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci died at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, where he had lived the last three years of his life at the invitation of the young king. Over in Florence, 1519 also saw the birth of Catherine de’ Medici, future queen to François’ son Henri II and regent to their son on his father’s death.
The French aristocracy largely abandoned Paris in favour of a healthier, safer life in the Loire Valley during the 16th centuries and flamboyant properties in Renaissance style popped up everywhere. Today, around 80 castles and gardens are open to the public. And of course there are lots of other activities to enjoy when you need a breather from chateau-bagging. Here 10 things you might not have thought of:
The rooftop town at Château de Chambord
Showing off was an integral part of being a Renaissance monarch. Just think of our own Henry VIII, friend and rival to François I. The French king’s showpiece party palace was never permanently lived in, the court arriving in their hundreds with furniture and tapestries for hunting parties in the huge park. Today you can cycle in the park, go on a nature tour, or take out a pedalo, but my favourite thing is to wander amongst the ‘town’ of turrets and pinnacles on the flat roof for that all-embracing view of the formal gardens and forest.
The moated Château of Azay-le-Rideau by night
Tiny by comparison with Chambord, this gem of a chateau was built by the king’s finance minister and is one of the prettiest properties in the Loire Valley. Gorgeous by day but my tip is to return after dark when the delicate turrets are floodlit and reflected in the water. Open till 11pm in July and August; free admission after 10.
Take a balloon flight above the Loire
Not a cheap excursion at 200 euros for an hour’s flight, but for a special occasion, it’s unbeatable. We caught the evening sunlight reflecting off this UNESCO World Heritage landscape as we floated silently over the riverside villages and vineyards of the ancient Anjou region towards Saumur. Stunning. www.montgolfieres.fr
Walk in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci
The Italian artist, draughtsman and engineer came to France in 1516 at the age of 64. The young king installed Leonardo in the Chateau of Clos Lucé, a manor house where he and his sister had grown up, close to the Royal Chateau of Amboise. I spent ages poring over scale models of his ingenious inventions, so far ahead of their time – a parachute and armoured tank, lock gates, a bicycle, swivel bridge, and breathing apparatus for divers. So much talent – and the Mona Lisa as well!
Unleash your inner Strictly, Renaissance style!
Barn dancing in long frocks – that was the Renaissance Ball I enjoyed one hot July evening in the Royal Chateau of Amboise. But what fun! The next one is on 25th July 2019 and you can hire an outfit from the extensive costume department on site. A caller announces the steps in French, but just follow everyone else and you’ll have a ball. Literally. And there’s nothing to equal swishing round the courtyard in a crinoline like a Renaissance princess, as the sun sets over the river below.
Floral scents at the Chateau of Chenonceau
Arrive early or late in the day to enjoy the Loire Valley’s most visited chateau at its most peaceful. Given by Henri II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, this magical property was later reclaimed by his widow Catherine de’ Medici. Famous for its elegant gallery across the Cher and its two formal gardens, Chenonceau’s elegant rooms are packed with artistic treasures, but I love the floral gems as well – fabulous arrangements created by the in-house gardening team from flowers grown in the extensive kitchen garden and around the Renaissance plots.
Pedal the riverside path
The Loire à Vélo long-distance cycle trail is my kind of biking – 900 kilometres of dedicated surfaced tracks and quiet lanes with few undulations and lots of fabulous scenery from majestic chateaux to tranquil natural beauty. Cycle a short section, a marked loop, or spend a few days in the saddle, stopping at bike-friendly accommodation with the ‘Acceuil Vélo’ – Bikes Welcome – label. www.loirebybike.co.uk.
Sound and light show at Blois
I can never resist a son-et-lumière production, especially when the backdrop is a spectacular Loire Valley chateau, so I loved the new 45-minute show at the Royal Château in Blois. Completely revamped for summer 2018, it’s projected on all four facades of the courtyard, an atmospheric and immersive way to discover its history.
Wherever you find a good Renaissance chateau, you’ll usually find a wooded park or formal garden too. But some go that extra mile. The Château de Villandry is world-famous with its glorious recreation of a period garden that blends flowers, fruit and veg in formal plantings. But less well known is lovely Rivau, where themed plots represent classic fairy tales around a castle that could be straight from a Disney movie. And don’t miss the Domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire, another classic turreted castle that hosts an annual garden festival from April to November with a different theme each year.
For further inspiration, visit www.loirevalley-france.co.uk