Six days strolling through the French countryside checking out chateaux and eating in French villages. That’s got to be a good idea!
The walk started in Blois, a stunning city which steps up in terraces from the banks of the Loire River.
Its compact cobble stoned old city is dominated by the Chateau Royale. Built progressively over more than 400 years, it was home to seven kings and 10 queens of France. It looks a bit of a mish-mash, as different kings expanded the castle in the style fashionable for their day. So there’s a Gothic wing, a Renaissance wing, a Classical wing and some remnants of the original medieval style.
In 1429, Joan of Arc came here to have her banner blessed before defeating the English at the Battle of Orleans. After the French Revolution it was used as horse stables, and eventually fell into virtual ruin until being restored in the late 1800s.
Facing the chateau from across a park is La Maison de la Magic Robert-Houdin. It has a collection of objects relating to magic and a performance space where exhibitions are performed. On the half-hour through the day, monsters emerge from the windows to entertain spectators in the park.
There’s a Leonardo da Vinci connection to the Loire. The great man lived at Amboise for the last three years of his life, and designed Chambord Chateau (more about that later). 2019 is the 500th anniversary of his death, and ‘Leonardo’ celebrations were in train, including this clever decoration of stairs in the centre of the old town.
After a night in Blois we headed off on the walk.
Day 1 – Blois to Chambord: From the historic centre, we crossed Blois’ beautiful 18th century stone bridge.
Not all chateaux are royal, and after a few hours strolling through the countryside we came to Le Chateaux des Grotteaux, built in the 17th century by a local municipal president.
From there most of the day’s walk was on country roads passing through small hamlets of traditional cottages until we reached the gates of Chambord Park.
If you think arriving at the gates means the Chateau is close, think again. At 5,440 hectares, Chambord is the largest enclosed park in Europe. Bigger than the whole of inner Paris. It is managed as a wild place, and deer and wild boar are still abundant.
It’s a lovely walk through the forest and after just over an hour, there it is, in the heart of the forest, the chateau and its formal gardens.
Chateau de Chambord is the largest chateau in the Loire valley. 426 rooms, 83 staircases, 282 fireplaces. It was commissioned by Francois I as a hunting lodge. Every king needs a little bolt hole in the country, right?
It was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, with tricky features such as a double helix staircase. It’s a feat of engineering in which a spiral open staircase joins various levels via two sets of steps – you can go up one side without meeting someone coming down the other.
The gardens were re-opened in 2017 after 16 years of research and planning, and a year of planting, to ensure authenticity to the original. The result is a meticulously laid out, grand garden of 1,400 trees, 200 rose bushes, 15,250 border plants and an immense 18,874 square metres of manicured lawns.
The expansive low gardens mean you can get a real perspective on the chateau. It is stunning. Chateaubriand described its turrets and flourishes as ‘a woman with her hair blown by the wind’. But for all its beauty and extravagance, Francois I spent only 50 nights here.
Total walk distance: 18km – plus 4km to the village of Maslives where we stayed the night.
Day 2 – Chambord to Tour-en-Sologne: Leaving Maslives we found our own route via paths across the countryside and through Chambord forest to the village of Chaussee Le Comte.
Leaving the village, we entered the Forest of Boulogne, a beautiful, peaceful woodland. We walked for hours without meeting anyone else. It was incredibly green.
After the forest we reached Bracieux. We had walked 22 kms and according to our walk notes, should have finished the day here. But we booked at short notice, it was Easter and accommodation was tight. We had to walk another 5km to the next town, Tour-en-Sologne, to reach our hotel. It was a pleasant walk, more bucolic charm. And the dinner we had in a tiny restaurant in Tour-en-Sologne was probably the best of the trip, so the extra walking was worth it.
Total walk distance: 27km.
Day 3 – Tour-en-Sologne to Cheverny: We backtracked to Petit Villesavin to see Villesavin Chateau but unfortunately it was closed and the high walls meant we couldn’t even get a glimpse of the chateau.
We set off for Cheverny, passing fields of shaggy cows. Again it was quiet, green walking.
Leaving the farms we followed the Chemin aux Boeufs, the ancient path through the forest by which cattle from Limousin were taken to Paris.
Briefly leaving the forest, we passed the modest little chateau of Gue-la-Guette.
After crossing more farmlands we entered the magical Cheverney Forest.
Emerging from the forest we reached the town of Cheverney. It’s a picturesque, cobblestone town centred around Cheverney Chateau.
Fans of Tin Tin might recognise it. The chateau was the inspiration for Marlinspike Hall which features in quite a number of the stories in The Adventures of Tin Tin. Of course, in the original Tin Tin cartoons, the property is in Belgium. But the Hergé Foundation recognises that the building is based on Cheverney Chateau, and there’s even a permanent exhibition on site sponsored by the Foundation dedicated to all things Tin Tin.
Somewhat more obscure was the LEGO exhibition currently on site. Life size LEGO creations of characters from well known detective stories, films and novels have been randomly placed throughout the chateau. They look quite incongruous in the rooms, which are faithfully restored with original styled decor. This one is supposed to reference The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The chateau is surrounded by beautiful gardens which were in full Spring bloom, with some whimsical Easter touches.
Total walk distance: 15km
Day 4 – Cheverny to Fougeres: From Cheverney it was back out to the forest again. We passed Troussay Chateau, now in private hands and not open for viewing.
Then through some lovely traditional villages and on to Fougeres.
Like the village, the fortified Fougeres Chateau is small but neat and attractive. A well restored example of a 15th century fortified castle.
Total walk distance: 16km.
Day 5 – Fougeres to Theney: By now we had a suspicion that whoever wrote these walking notes had never set foot in the Loire. Or needed some education in how to write instructions that would make sense on the ground. We resorted to google maps a lot. Never was this more clear than on Day 5, when the notes had us finishing in Thesee – 22km from Fougeres – but the address for the hotel was near Thenay – 9km away.
We weren’t willing to walk 31km, and then backtrack 9km the next day to ‘start’ Day 6 in Thesee. The walk operator was completely unresponsive, refusing to admit the hotel booking was inappropriate for the walk route and unwilling/unable to provide alternative walking directions which would cover the route over a suitable distance. So we decided we would start on the planned route for the first section and then improvise across the countryside to Thenay instead of continuing on to Thesee.
First we walked through woodlands where we passed the Abbeye de Cornilly, established in 1091. Monks lived here, draining the surrounding swamps and cultivating sheep for 350 years until the abbey was sacked during the Hundred Years War. It was rebuilt, destroyed and restored twice more in the following 300 years, then nationalised after the French Revolution. It passed back into private hands in 1960 and the priory has been restored, but is only open to visitors from July to September. We had to be content with a sneaky glimpse through the trees.
After that we made our own way to Thenay following lanes through the farms. It was a nice enough walk, through some vineyards with early leaves on the vines, and then through fields of canola in bloom.
Total walk distance: 15km
Day 6 – Thenay to Montrichard: The walk notes would have had us tramping 9km to Thesee and then to Montrichard via countryside similar to what we’d passed already. But our very charming host at Thenay suggested an alternative – a 6km walk to the Loire River where we could pick up a path that followed the riverbank all the way to Montrichard.
And it was lovely. We passed first through the village of Monthou.
We reached the river and followed it past more tidy villages.
We finished the walk in Montrichard where a fair was in progress, complete with traditional French dancing. Well, maybe not so traditional.
Total walk distance: 15km.
Wrap up: Walking is a great way to experience the Loire. The chateaux are magnificent, the countryside is beautiful in the Spring and the villages are quintessentially French. We ate excellent meals in small, local restaurants and drank some superb local wines.
We don’t like to write negative comments about service providers but it must be said that the organisational aspects of this walk were woeful. We booked through Penguin Travel, which just subcontracted the job to Follow the Camino/One Foot Abroad, which we did not know until we received the travel pack in which everything was branded FTC.
We had used FTC for the Fisherman’s Trail in Portugal and been totally unimpressed. Their performance on this one wasn’t any better. Instructions to cross a road which is a four lane highway with a 6 foot concrete barrier separating the lanes is just an example. Hotels were in several cases a long way from the end point of the walk, with no instructions on how to get there. Perhaps if they provided directions to the hotels, they’d have realised the Thesee/Thenay debacle. And their attitude when these things were pointed out was defensive and offensive.
So our takeout – there’s lots of walks in the Loire, and lots of companies offering them. We’d highly recommend a walk, but choose your operator carefully. We would not ever knowingly use FTC or One Foot Abroad, and it probably pays to ask any operator if they are actually doing the work themselves or subcontracting.
A chateau of our own!
After finishing the walk we were joined by two of John’s sisters for a week at the other end of the Loire valley. We rented a small restored 17th century farmhouse outside the village of Berthenay as a base.
From here we made return visits to Blois and Chambord and visited a few more chateaux as well.
The original Chateau de Chaumont was burnt to the ground by Louis XI in 1465, but it was rebuilt just a few years later in ornamental Renaissance style.
This place is as much about the gardens as the chateau. The sprawling permanent grounds have magnificent old trees with outdoor sculptures spread throughout, a kitchen garden and themed flower gardens. There’s also a huge area dedicated to an International Garden Festival which runs through spring and summer. Designers submit garden plans in accordance with a nominated theme and the top 30 are installed for the season.
And just because he’s beautiful, we had to include this photo of a little guy keeping his legs well out of sight. You would too, if you were a frog in France.
We also visited Villandry Chateau, the last of the great Loire chateaux built during the Renaissance. A medieval fortress previously on the site was razed, except for its keep, and the chateau built around it in a uniquely ‘French renaissance’ style. After a turbulent history, it was bought by Spanish doctor, Joachim Carvallo and his American wife, Anne, the wealthy heir to an iron and steel empire. The current owner is their great-grandson.
From the time of its original construction, the chateau had always had a large garden. In the 1700s it was expanded to include an ornamental lake in the shape of a Louis XV mirror. But by the time Carvallo bought the chateau, the grounds had been re-styled into something resembling an unstructured English country garden.
Carvallo went through a meticulous process of restoring the gardens to their Renaissance form. His descendants have continued to develop the grounds, adding a traditional herb garden in the 1970s and a ‘sun garden’ in the early 2000s. Since 2009 it has operated on a wholly organic basis. The result is a magnificent, carefully sculptured series of gardens, totally different to Chaumont.
There are so many chateaux in the Loire you could stay for weeks, and it was great to spend time with John’s sisters, but it was time to move on. We headed back to Paris for a few days and then John’s sisters headed home and we flew to Cyprus for some time in the sun.