The Loire valley from Blois to Tours has real treasures to see. Take in the two spectacular châteaux fought over by the rivals for the love, and bed, of King Henri II, the final home of Leonardo da Vinci and romantic gardens attached to vineyards. But what about the smaller less well known sights? Have you visited the National Tomato Conservatory? You’ll find it at a château that offers bed and breakfast and has a Tomato Bar.
Loire Valley Routes from Blois to Tours
Fast Route: Blois to Tours is 66 kms/41 miles and takes around 50 mins. The A10 has tolls of €5.90.
Scenic Route: Blois to Tours is 160 kms/98 miles taking around 3 hrs 10 mins. I have not included the time spent on visits to the attractions.
Blois to Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire
Drive: The D952 takes you beside the stately Loire river. It’s a short 18 km/11 miles, 18-min journey to one of the great beauties of the river, the Château of Chaumont-sur-Loire.
The Château stands overlooking the river; old houses along its banks cling to the ground below the walls. Dating from the 10th century, it was rebuilt in the Renaissance and the 18th century.
Chaumont was one of those châteaux that were tossed around like toys by their royal owners. In 1550 Catherine de Medicis, wife of King Henri II, bought Chaumont. It was a profitable business, with numerous farms and tolls from the river traffic but it wasn’t the most beautiful château in this part of the Valley of the Kings (or in this case Valley of the Queens). In fact it wasn’t a patch on nearby Chenonceau.
Down in the Cher valley, Diane de Poitiers was enjoying, and enhancing, the beautiful château which had been given to her by her lover, the King. When Henri died in 1559, Catherine de Medicis who was not a lady to take kindly to any affront, forced Diane de Poitiers to exchange her beloved Chenonceau for Chaumont.
Chaumont is beautiful, though much of the interior was updated to the heavy 19th-century décor by the Broglie family owners. You can see some of the Renaissance rooms, particularly the splendid council chamber.
It’s the gardens which are the true inspiration, transformed into an English park by the Broglie family. Every year, the château hosts a spectacular Festival des Jardins, displaying gardens by contemporary designers.
Chaumont to the Château de Chenonceau
Drive: Go south on the D114 and the D115 then turn onto the D80 down to Chenonceau for 26 kms/16 miles for around 30 mins.
However many pictures you might have seen, there’s still a wonderment about your first sight of the fairytale Château de Chenonceau.The lovely building sits reflected in the river Cher, one of the main tributaries of the Loire.
A long gallery spans the river. This was the place for Catherine de Medicis’ dissolute parties.
The gardens outside were cultivated by both the Queen and her rival. The Diane de Poitiers parterre is protected from the rising waters of the river Cher by raised terraces. Small hedges of box and laurel line the flower beds, set in strict geometric patterns. Catherine de Medicis has fine panels of lawn around a circular basin opposite the west façade.
The décor is rich; the paintings splendid and the kitchens give just the right kind of upstairs downstairs atmosphere. It’s the only château in the world with its own floral workshop so expect superb flowers and arrangements from Jean-François Boucher.
Check for summer evenings when you can walk through the lit up gardens, listening to classical music and imagining yourself back in the Renaissance.
Try to go out of the main season and the most popular times. Chenonceau is the most visited château in France after Versailles.
Château de Chenonceau to Château de Nitray
Drive: Take the D976 along the Cher for 20 kms/12 miles taking around 20 mins.
The Château de Nitray dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. A visit takes in the east wing of this white stone building, the courtyard and an intriguing dovecote.
But it’s the vineyard most people come to see (that forms part of the visit). The 10-hectare area has been producing wine for nearly 3 centuries. You see the vineyard, learn about winemaking here and it all finishes with a tasting. You can also take an hour-long bike tour of the surrounding countryside.
Château de Nitray to Amboise
Drive: Take the D83 for 14 kms/9 miles for around 20 mins to Amboise.
Amboise is a pretty market town, once the seat of power and home of Kings in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In 1615 in Lyon François was given the walking mechanical lion that Leonardo da Vinci had invented to celebrate an alliance between France and Florence. Impressed and intrigued the French King invited the inventor to Amboise. The Renaissance genius made his way from Lombardy to Amboise in 1516. He brought with him three paintings including the Mona Lisa which he continued to work on in his last years.
Château Royal d’Amboise
The Château Royal d’Amboise was rebuilt by Charles VIII in the late 15th century. He loved his childhood home and when he married Anne of Brittany, he added a Gothic wing. But he didn’t live long to enjoy his palace, dying at the age of 28. The new king, Louis XII preferred Blois leaving his son, the future François I here in relative safety.
The château has quite a history, tied up with the notorious Ducs de Guise who took the catholic cause in the French Wars of Religion. In 1560 a group of Hugenot conspirators arrived in Amboise hoping to take the young heir, François II and persuade him to pursue a more tolerant religious course. They were ambushed in the forest outside Amboise by the Guise faction, tried in a sham trial in the château.
Some drowned in the Loire below the château; others were beheaded in the grounds. But to make the point, many of them were hung from the château’s balconies, visible from the town and surrounding countryside.
The château is worth a visit, though it’s less spectacular inside than many Loire châteaux. But make sure you explore the underground passageways with their dungeons, and stroll around the gardens.
Clos-Lucé – Leonardo da Vinci’s Home
The more interesting, and intimate house to visit is the Château du Clos-Lucé where Leonardo lived for the three years before his death in 1519. Invited by the King, he was appointed primier peinctre et ingenieur et architecte du Roy (The King’s First Painter, Engineer and Architect). He brought with him three paintings: the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
The red brick house is delightful with rooms that you can imagine living in. Now a museum to Leonardo, it also has reproductions of some of his machines and inventions in the house and in the gardens. Spring 2021 sees the opening of a new gallery with 17 paintings projected onto the walls and a new multimedia gallery. It makes the great Renaissance man’s achievements even more extraordinary.
Amboise to the Château de Valmer
Drive: Take the D952 along the river then turn onto the D78 north for 15 kms/9.5 miles. 18 mins.
The Château de Valmer is another place that you may not have heard of. It’s well worth the detour for its spectacular gardens and its vineyard. Walk through a series of gardens on 8 levels. They’re all in a huge park where statues, columns and fountains take you back to the Renaissance. There’s also a troglodyte chapel dating from 1524 that was dug down into the turf.
There’s a great view from the High Terrace over all the gardens, the Grand Canal, the vineyard and the Brenne valley. There are glorious flower gardens for an all-summer experience. The conservatory vegetable garden keeps to its original 15th-century plan. There are espaliers of fruit trees, high walls with towers that were once used to house the gardeners and a donkey, vegetables and fruit trees from blackcurrants to raspberries.
Then there’s the 35-hectare vineyard, run by the 5th generation of the family who bought the estate in1888. Check out the website for cellar weekend visits.
Loire Valley from Blois to Tours takes in Vouvray Wines
Drive: Take the D46 for 10 kms/6 miles. 12 mins.
Vouvray is the centre of a great wine-producing region. There are plenty of wineries to visit in and around the town (and if you’ve visited the Château de Valmer you’ve tasted some Vouvray wines already).
From Vouvray to Château de la Bourdaisière
Drive: Take the D751 over the Loire and east for 10 kms/6 miles for around 16 mins.
The Château de la Bourdaisière is another delightful surprise. Once owned by the Broglie family who through the generations have owned so many châteaux in the Loire Valley, it now offers a great bed and breakfast.
But more unusually, it has a fabulous kitchen garden, famous for its 700 kinds of tomatoes. The National Tomato Conservatory is in the 19th-century vegetable garden where some 180 different species of dahlias also bloom. Watch out for the excellent Tomato Festival, usually on the second weekend in September for some revelations of this remarkable plant. Or try some at their Tomato Bar.
Finish the Loire Valley Blois to Tours Drive: Château de la Bourdaisière to Tours
Drive: Take the D140 and D142 along the Loire into Tours. It’s an 18 km/11 mile drive taking around 25 mins.
Tours is a delightful city to visit, with good places to stay. Take a good hotel, the Loire Valley Blois to Tours drive is a long day.
Loire Valley Towns – Information on the major Loire Towns including where to stay and how to get to each one
Loire Valley Drive from Le Puy-en-Velay to Nevers, the start of the epic journey
Loire à Velo Route – Where to stay, how to book and attractions to see on this great cycle route