On the road in France visiting some of my favourite castles in the Loire Valley

Some 25 years ago I visited the Loire Valley in France and I enjoyed it so much that now, in April 2017, I went back to see the ONE castle: Chenonceau that has been shaped by six ladies. In addition we explored four other royal castles: Charles VIII’s Amboise, François I’s Chambord, and Louis XII’s Blois. We have selected a room in the small hotel Anne de Bretagne in Blois – close to the Château de Blois and close to the castles we want to visit.


Chenonceau – crossing the river Cher with “a certain springing lightness”

Henry James travelled through France in the 1880’s and he wrote: “Chenonceaux is not large… Henry II., on ascending the throne, presented it… to… Diana of Poitiers…  Catherine de Medici… turned her out of doors… (and) devoted herself to making the place more completely unique…  If a certain springing lightness is the characteristic of Chenonceaux… nothing can confirm this expression better than the strange, unexpected movement with which… it carries itself across the river… the aspect of the whole thing is delightful.” Look at the “certain springing lightness”, as Henry James describes it in his A little tour in France. 

It was the wife of Charles VII’s chamberlain, Tom Bohier, who built the main castle, while leaving the tower of the former mill. Her name was Katherine.

Diane de Potiers then added the bridge, and she set up this garden named after her.

Diane de Poitiers kept herself fit by swimming in the river Cher – she was attractive for king Henry II, though she was 20 years older than him. Diane had to leave Chenonceau, when Henry II died. Catherine de Medici wanted Chenonceau for herself and added the galleries on top of the bridge giving space for some of her festivities:

It is worth to visit the castle inside. It is furnished, adorned with tapestry and beautifully decorated with flowers.


The widow if Henry III, Louise de Lorraine, lived here and two more ladies (Mmes Dupin and Pelouze) saved Chenonceau for today. In all it was six ladies shaping Chenonceau.

The Auberge du Bon Laboureur is located close to the Château de Chenonceau. Let me quote Henry James from around 1880: “(From Chenonceau) we took our way back to the Bon Laboureur, and waited in the little inn-parlour for a late train to Tours. We were not impatient, for we had an excellent dinner to occupy us; and even after we had dined we were still content to sit awhile and exchange remarks upon the superior civilisation of France. Where else, at a village inn, should we have fared so well? Where else should we have sat down to our refreshment without condescension? … At the little inn at Chenonceaux the cuisine was not only excellent, but the service was graceful. We were waited on by mademoiselle and her mamma;… she uncorked for us a bottle of Vouvray mousseux. We were very comfortable, very genial…” The Bon Laboureur is no longer just a “little inn”, but a four star hotel with all amenities. A long tradition!

Now it was not the right time for us to stop in the “Bon Laboureur”. I remember having had an excellent meal here 25 years ago. Later we enjoyed a nice dinner with local specialties in the Le Castelet in Blois.


Charles VIII’s Amboise – a great sight above the river Loire

Amboise is a beautiful small town on the river Loire topped by its royal château.

The French kings acquired the castle in the late 15th century. Poor Charles VIII hit his head in Amboise and died from that (1498). His wife, Anne de Bretagne, then married his cousin, Louis XII who followed on the throne. The windows on the left hand wing below show vertical gothic arches dating back to around 1500. The right hand wing is Renaissance, as the vertical lines on the windows underline – the Renaissance king François I also stayed in Amboise.

The Hubertus chapel is the place where Leonardo da Vinci has been buried. Invited by François I, he spent his last years in France.


François I’s Chambord – royal grandeur at its best

The Renaissance king François I built the castle of Chambord as a hunting lodge. It is the largest castle in the Loire valley. A royal hunting lodge!

The rooftop is full of small towers. From the balcony, the ladies could watch the hunting activities of the king and his entourage.

Leonardo da Vinci conceived this famous double spiral staircase that links the floors.

Inside there is some furniture and tapestry. This is Henry IV, the first king of the Bourbon family. He is dressed in a practical way – he had to fight for his kingdom.

Louis XIV, Henri VI’s grand-son, is dressed luxuriously. We admire all the ties that the Roi Soleil (Sun King) wore – they must have been impractical for walking…


Louis XII’s Blois – gloomy scene for the murder of Henry de Guise

The statue of Louis XII welcomes the visitors of the royal Château de Blois. Around 1500 he made Blois his favourite residence.

The brick construction of Louis XII with the attached chapel choir are mainly of gothic style.

François I also stayed in Blois. He added the Renaissance wing with the master piece, the staircase.

The sign of François I, the salamander, ornates the staircase (and many more places in the Blois castle).

It was in the Renaissance wing where the French king Henri III murdered his cousin, Henri de Guise (1588).

It is a windy and chilly day today. Some ten degrees outside. The castle is cold inside. I am shivering and I cannot imagine that it has been very comfortable to live here in winter time.

Let us look back to Blois with its castle and its church Saint-Nicolas and to the river Loire. Let us say good-bye to the Loire Valley.

Our next target is l’Hospitalet de l’Infant in Spain (or more precisely in Catalonia) with a short stopover in Millau (south of France).

(Sources: Michelin Guide de Tourisme: “Châteaux de la Loire”, 1985 and “Loire-Tal”, DK Dorlingkindersley 2015/2016). 

On the road to Spain – first stop in gorgeous Le Puy en Velay in France

It is end of October 2016. With Ursula I load my car once more and we head off to Spain, with stop overs in France: First stop in Le Puy en Velay in the Haute-Loire and second stop in Collioure near the border with Spain.

Let me start with Le Puy en Velay. To stop here was Ursula’s idea. She promised a pilgrimage town perched on three basalt needles and a Unesco World Heritage. I am curious and agree.


Our hotel IBIS in Le Puy en Velay – very functional and easy to find 

The weather is rainy and chilly. We do not feel like searching for a hotel and take the IBIS hotel that comes up on our side of the main street, just where the old city centre starts. IBIS is a sober and practical French invention. We park our car in a locked garage and then move into a small room with two excellent beds (recently renovated). In the morning, we find a self service breakfast “fridge” with a self service Zumex machine that produces fresh orange juice. The coffee machine makes excellent coffee. All very convenient.


Discovering Le Puy en Velay – evening walk to the old town with the cathedral overlooking it

In the dizzling rain we slender through the charming old town.


The houses are partially made from basalt stones. The cat is a perfect match.


Le Puy en Velay is famous for its green lentils, black sheep (agneau noir du Velay), Verveine liqueur and lace making (dentelles de Puy).


To reach the main gate of the Cathedral Notre Dame du Puy en Velay, pilgrims have to walk up this cobbled narrow street.


The gate receives the pilgrims like the womb of a mother. From here they look back to the town and the surrounding hills.


The cathedral is Romanesque from the 11/12th century. The main nave is topped with three octogonal cupolas, supported by additional arches.


The Black Madonna sits in the choir. She is venerated here. The black head in the middle of her coat is Jesus looking out.


When Annunciation falls on Good Friday, the Jubilee of Le Puy en Velay is celebrated. Last time in 2016, next time in 2157.

St. James welcomes the pilgrims. His hat is adorned with a conch.


We round off the evening with green lentils from Le Puy en Velay. I try a glass of the famous Verveine liqueur of Le Puy en Velay – it tastes a bit like medicine to me.


Morning excursion to the famous cloister of the Cathedral Notre Dame du Puy en Velay

The next morning we visit the famous cloister of the Cathedral.


The columns are decorated with beautiful capitals. I particularly like the pigeons.


In the chapel of the cloister we find this representation of the crucification from 1200.


Then we look back and say good-bye to Le Puy en Velay.


We now drive south to Collioure in the Languedoc-Roussillon near the border of France with Spain.