“The best trip is the one we haven’t taken yet.” –said me.
It was another beautiful morning in Amboise. I”m not sure which is prettier here, the sunrises or the sunsets….both fill the sky with pinks and purples and it’s like waking up with instagram filters over our eyes. Paris weather is very touch and go in July, we’ve often encountered rain….but the Loire Valley has given us lots of clear skies and warm weather.
Today’s adventures will include a trip to see the most famous of the Loire chateaus….the Chateau de Chambord, as well as a stop in Blois. Once again, Amboise has been a great home base for touring the various chateaus….everything is within a 30 minute radius (or less) and it is a beautiful little town–I highly recommend considering it if you come to the Loire.
The Chateau de Chambord
Of all the chateaus we have visited on this trip, Chambord is by far the largest and is one of the most popular with the tourist crowds. I’m not sure the visitor numbers rank up there with say, Versailles….but it can get very crowded. We chose to arrive early to try to avoid the peak crowds. There was a large parking lot, so we had no issues finding parking and the entry area has food, drinks, a farmers market and a large ticket/visitor center.
Built on the site of a former hunting lodge, it was Francis I who began the construction of the Chateau in about 1518 and it wasn’t completed for another 100+ years under the direction of King Louis XIV (who also lost interest when he concentrated on Versailles).
Some interesting facts about the Chateau: There are over 400 rooms….there are 84 different staircases…365 Fireplaces and Chimneys…it sits on a 13,590 acre park and is surrounded by a 19 mile long wall. In fact, the park the Chateau sits on is as large as central Paris!
I remember the cover of my first architectural history class textbook featured a photo the Chateau de Chambord. I could sit for hours mesmerized by the intricate chimneys and count all of the windows, but it was hard to get a sense of the scale of the Chateau. So upon seeing it in person for the first time, the thing you notice is that it is truly massive.
Visually, there is a lot to take in when touring the Chateau, but probably the most interesting architectural feature is the double helix staircases that swirl around one another all the way up to the roof. No one knows for sure, but the design of the stair is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci who had come to live in France under the patronage of Francois I (you can read an earlier blog that tells you all about the relationship between Francis I and Leonardo).
After climbing the massive stairs, you end up on the roof terrace surrounded by a forest of intricately decorated chimneys jutting up into the air.
There are several period rooms that you can visit, including Louis XIV’s very opulent ceremonial bedroom which is very similar to his bedroom at Versailles–gilded to the max and over the top. Interestingly, the Kings who owned this Chateau over the years very rarely came to visit…even Francois I only spent roughly 60 some odd days here in his entire life.
The period rooms are lovely, but I found after visiting several of the Loire Chateaus is that the grand architecture and the dramatic settings of each Chateau is far more interesting than the fanciful interiors.
And thus ended our visit to Chambord. I would estimate that we stayed for about 2-1/2 hours and made it all the way through the Chateau, but if you really want to make a day of it, you can definitely walk or rent a bike and tour the grounds. There are medieval horse and falconry shows (we’ve been to these type of shows in other spots in France….kids love it and it helps to break up the history/architectural touring which most kids do not enjoy). But we were kid-free on this trip, so we skipped the shows and made our way to the town of Blois, about 20 miles west.
Like our home base of Amboise, Blois is another quaint hillside town rising above the banks of the Loire River. Rather than dining at the over-priced and average eateries at the Chateau de Chambord, we figured that we would stop at Blois on our way back to Amboise to grab lunch and take a walk around town. Despite being July and peak tourist season, most of the folks out and about seemed to be locals. And when looking for a place to eat, always check out where the locals are eating. We didn’t venture far before we found L’annexe, where we grabbed a table outside and had a nice lunch. It was nothing spectacular, for a lunch place I would give it 3-1/2 stars out of 5. I had a delicious salad and a glass of white wine. The service was pleasant and it was reasonably priced.
Of the top tourist spots in Blois, we went to exactly none of them. They have their own Chateau in town (like in Amboise) which has been home to many Kings and royals through the years and there is also the Blois Cathedral, but we didn’t go to that either. In fact, I am not sure that anyone in our group wanted to stop in Blois, except for me. The thing is, after planning this trip to France all the way back in January, I downloaded a screen saver of Blois on my work computer, and I used to it to inspire me and guide me through the cold, dreary days of winter…something to look forward to.
I had done little to no research about Blois when we visited…I just knew that I wanted to visit that church in the photo to pay my respects for all of the inspiration. It wasn’t hard to find, as its towers stuck out of the medievil roof tops like sore thumbs. It turned out to be Eglise Saint-Nicolas, 12th/13th century Benedictine church formerly known as Saint-Laumer. Benedictine monks built the church and an adjacent abbey in a fairly rapid pace over several decades. It’s a lovely church with wonderful stained glass, an imposing rose window at the entry and grand, carved wood doors.
I never tire of visiting these old churches and cathedrals. It still amazes me to see what the builders of these structures were able to construct hundreds of years ago with no modern machinery.
After leaving the church, we walked around the old part of town, which on this particular day was rather empty and quiet. Just a hot, lazy afternoon in Blois.
Back in Amboise that evening, we joined our friends for dinner at Le Parvis, a tiny little restaurant tucked in a narrow lane (Rue Mirabeau) just down from the Chateau. They seemed to specialize in grilled (open flame) meats and seafood. I had shrimp while others got cuts of steak. We finished off dinner with a lovely and refreshing fruit dessert.
After a long day of Chateau hopping and with full bellies, we drove back to our hotel and enjoyed another lovely sunset in the Loire Valley.