Although châteaux can be found all over France (including very close to Paris), there’s something special about the Loire Valley. Only a couple of hours’ train or car ride from the capital, the lush, rural wine country of the Loire is home to over 300 castles. These majestic structures range from Medieval to Romanesque to Gothic, nestled in amongst the dappled forests, sleepy villages and rolling hills.
For over 700 years, the Loire châteaux were sought after by wealthy families across France, for their primary or secondary (or tertiary) residences, though the Terror put an end to much of that excessive culture. Of the châteaux that have remained in their families’ possession, many are too expensive to maintain, and others have been bought up by corporations such as fashion house Louis Vuitton. But many of the finest, oldest and most unique of the Loire’s hundreds of castles are open to the public, and château hopping in the Loire is one of the loveliest ways to spend a weekend out of Paris.
The largest and most famous of these castles are the Châteaux de Chambord and Chenonceau. These enormous structures are almost too large and intricate to appreciate in their entirety; only when standing at the edge of their grounds and looking back can you take them all in. Chambord and Chenonceau are stunning and well worth a visit, but their scale and popularity can be overwhelming.
Smaller, more intimate châteaux in the region include the Renaissance-era Château de Close-Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final days, and the Château de Blois, a beauty which looms over the charming village of the same name. But if you have time to visit several châteaux while in the Loire Valley, I recommend adding in one of the less famous and assuming ones. It’s quite baffling how many mid-sized châteaux are open to the public, yet barely known beyond their immediate surrounds. You could pick one from the list here, or follow in my footsteps and make the journey to the delightful Château de Montrésor.
The Château de Montrésor is a rambling stone treasure (forgive the pun) on a rocky hill looking over the village of the same name. A fortress has stood on the site of the château since the 11th century, with the current structure dating back to 1393. Start your visit with crêpes and coffee in the quaint Montrésor crêperie and take your time exploring the mossy courtyards and laneways of the village, which are home to several sweet cats. Then climb the cobbled path that leads from the main street up to the château entrance. Head through the open-air archway into the secluded garden that the castle wraps itself around, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Gaze out over the village and the valley, seat yourself on one of the benches and soak up the beauty of the stone ramparts soaring over the land. If you’re lucky like I was, you might have the whole place to yourself.
I confess that the Château de Montrésor was actually closed when I visited, so I can’t speak to its interior (though it looks impressive here). But after the bustle of the larger and more famous châteaux in the region, the quietude of Montrésor was restorative and special. The Château de Montrésor doesn’t grâce the front cover of any Loire Valley coffee table books. But this ancient, tranquil, picturesque little castle might be my favourite one of all.