In the Loire Valley, there are more than 100 chateaux open to the public. So if you only have a few days, or even a week, to explore the valley, how are you to decide which chateaux to visit?
It’s interesting to observe how the chateaux owners have attempted to differentiate their pads and entice visitors through the gates. It’s simply not enough to rest on your historic, majestic, or elegant credentials. So there are classical concerts, jousting displays, incredible gardens, incredible kitchen gardens, mazes, art exhibitions and various tenuous links to Leonardo da Vinci.
Travelling with kids, our criteria for selecting chateaux is somewhat different than if we were travelling on our own. The kids don’t care so much for luxe furnishings or to linger in the long galleries of fine renaissance works of art, and after a certain number of chateaux, I start to glide past them pretty quickly too.
For me, it’s all about the story. Who lived here, what intrigues and mysteries and illicit liaisons did they take part in, what events can be conjured up? I’m not too concerned by who designed it or the techniques they used. I want to experience these halls as living places, to imagine the joys and sorrows of their previous occupants, to visualize the grand balls and secret liaisons.
For the kids, we look for sites that will engage our small people and their interests, space where they can run without breaking the rules, and puzzles or games that draw them into the story of the chateau.
First up, Villandry, chosen over Azay-le-Rideau by Tom because of its hedge maze. Sadly, when they reached the centre after approximately 45 seconds, all declared said maze to underwhelming compared to the one Rotovegas. In truth, it was actually just too hot, and the famous kitchen gardens were not yet in full bloom. We were a frazzled, sweaty, irritated tribe, more keen on reaching the cold Orangina at the castle café then lingering over the intricate patterns of artichokes, radicchio and basil.
Happily, the next campground was voted the best pool of the trip so far, so we decided to slow our pace for a few days, adjust our castle-visiting ambitions and give the kids plenty of play time. I never did make it to Amboise to have une verre du rosé alongside the river, but c’est la vie.
Next on the kid-friendly chateau list was Cheverny, known as the inspiration for Tintin’s Marlinspike Hall (simply chop off the east and west wings, and voilà). I should actually say Simon-friendly as he is probably the biggest Tintin fan in the house car.
Purists may shudder, but the hunt for the Lego creations in each room kept the children occupied. We also used the kids’ guidebook to complete the quiz and decode the mystery phrase from clues located in each room. Genius. Add in 100 hunting dogs in the yard, another hedge maze, a Tintin exhibition and beautiful grounds for a picnic, and the kids were fairly well entertained.
Cheverny has been occupied by the same family for over six centuries and was used as a depository for many priceless works of art during World War II, including the Mona Lisa (hello again Leonardo, and don’t worry, you can still see the Lego version of Mona). As long as I read the signs quickly I could absorb some of the details of this time.
Our final chateau was Chambord, the hunting retreat of François the first. As it was merely his country pad, the chateau was kept sparsely furnished. When François decided to pay a visit, he would send ahead all his furnishings and tapestries, followed by a party of thousands descending all at once.
We chose this one because not only is it magnificent and impressive, there is currently a knight’s show and jousting display, which tallies perfectly with our youngest’s current obsession. There’s also famous double helix staircase designed by – you guessed it – Leonardo – with lots of fun for kids running up the intertwined staircases and spying on each other through the central column.
Visiting Chambord was a spontaneous decision and a trip back in time too…
We didn’t have enough time to explore the expansive grounds, as the boys had an archery lesson booked back at camp at 3 in the afternoon (a continuation of the knight’s obsession). What we did see was magic and Lily really enjoyed another decoding puzzle (this time in French). They also had “histopads” you could rent, which as well as serving as an audio guide, allow you to hold up the device to view images of the room you are standing in, as they would have been at different periods of the castle.
Other than that, the Loire Valley was about the swimming pool, plus a touch of camembert, vin Touraine and chill.