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Stepping through the Loire Valley is a bit like stepping back in time –

way, way back to a time where fairytale princes and princesses lived among kings and queens and nobility in grand, extravagant castles.

Novelist Henry James once described the Loire Valley as ‘the land of Rabelais, of Descartes, of Balzac as well as good dinners and good houses.’ Indeed, life is sweet in the Loire Valley – the food, the wine, the beauty of both the land and the many châteaux and the brushes with royalty and celebrated historical figures.

Strategically important during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Loire Valley remained fashionable among the rich, the nobility and the royal family. Stunning châteaux were built en masse, including:

The colossal Château de Chambord is almost more of a city than a castle and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 426 rooms, 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces, a stable that once held 1,200 horses – and is roughly the same surface area as the entire city of Paris! It is surrounded by a lush park with wild deer and boar (even to this day) and showcases a distinctive French Renaissance architecture. Construction began in 1519 by Francis I (aka François I) as a weekend retreat and hunting lodge. Sun King Louis XIV regularly came here and even had French playwright Moliere perform at the castle. While the original architectural drafts are generally attributed to Domenico da Cortona, many suspect Leonardo da Vinci had a large part in its design as well. In any case, it is usually agreed that the he designed the château’s double helix staircase – allowing both royalty and servants to use the stairs without ever meeting.

There’s no wonder as to why the Château de Chenonceau is the most visited French château after Versailles. Stunning in its blend of late Gothic and early Renaissance architecture -- it’s actually part castle / part bridge. Spanning across the Cher River, it is home to splendid gardens, intricate mazes, forests, a canal, and opulently decorated rooms with 16th century tapestries and bouquets of fresh flowers. Known in its day as much for its beauty as the spectacular parties once hosted here, Catherine de’ Medici threw the first fireworks display in France to celebrate her son’s ascension to the throne. It is sometimes referred to as the Château of the Ladies, thanks to its unique history of strong women. Katherine Briçonnet supervised the design and construction work between 1513-1521. Years later, women continued making their mark on the castle, particularly the wife and mistress of Henry II -- Catherine de’Medici and Diane de Poitiers.

The royal, Renaissance-style Château d’Amboise was built in the 15th century and was a favorite of French kings. Overlooking both the picturesque town of Amboise and the Loire River, this is the first castle with what we now consider the classic, formal, well-manicured French style garden. Leonardo da Vinci was a frequent guest here (King Francis I gave him a home just a short walk away) and some of his inventions are on display. The iconic artist and inventor is also rumored to have his final resting grounds here.

So close that there is actually a tunnel that connected the two castles, is the Château Du Clos Lucé – where Leonardo da Vinci last made his home before he died in 1519. When he arrived, he brought numerous paintings with him, including the Mona Lisa. Most historians have thought the painting was mainly completed in 1506 but many believe the artist may have continued refining it as late as 1517 here at the castle.

The Royal Château de Blois was home to seven kings and ten queens of France and features four wings of differing architectural styles, including Classic, Renaissance and Gothic. Built over the course of several centuries, the castle reached the height of its power between the reigns of Louis XII and Francis I. It was built over the site of the former castle which Joan of Arc passed through in 1429 and was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before driving the English out of Orléans. There are 564 rooms, 100 bedrooms, 75 staircases and hundreds of fireplaces. It is known for its opulent décor, the stunning main spiral staircase and Catherine de’Medici’s supposed poison cabinets.

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