By Caroline Tapp-McDougall
A romantic tour of French castles and magical gardens.
Gien lives here
In Orleans, an area known for its vinegar, mustard and Gien china, just 50 minutes from Paris, The Empreinte Hotel shares its eclectic, modern-day vibe. Its enviable past, which dates back to the ninth century when it was the fortress’ royal administration headquarters, gives character a plenty to the 32 individually decorated rooms within solid stone walls. In keeping with its idyllic riverbank location, the Empreinte is the preferred night-stop for cyclists on the EuroVelo 6 or La Loire à Vélo routes, offering complimentary bike storage, guides and repair kits. empreinte-hotel.com/fr
Of elephants and lavish parties…
The Chateau Chaumontsur- Loire’s story began around the year 1000 when it was built as a fortress. Over the years it’s had its share of charismatic owners, the most notable being Henry II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and Miss Pundgi, a two-year-old female pachyderm. The young elephant, who ate as much as six of the king’s horses, arrived as a present from the Maharajah of Kapurthala during a time when Marie Charlotte Constance Say, the sugar heiress, held lavish parties and sumptuous banquets for the crowded heads of Europe at Chaumont. domaine-chaumont.fr
Providing a unique canvas for talented landscape architects and designers, the International Garden Festival has been hosted by the Domaine of Chaumont-sur-Loire for 26 years. After an annual juried competition, which selects winning projects from multidisciplinary teams from around the world, the estate becomes a living canvas for 30 new garden installations. Each spring, alongside up-and-coming talent, highly acclaimed designers and landscapers such as the likes of Shodo Suzuki, Michel Corajoud, Louis Benech, Emilio Ambasz and Peter Walker create gardens that are on display from April to November. Visual artists Benjamin Millepied and Bob Wilson have participated in the festival as well. Displays are also illuminated under the Gardens of Light theme, which invites visitors to have a special night time wander through the gardens. The chateau is also lit up with the glow of 2,000 candles. A must-attend again for next year! domaine-chaumont.fr/en/ international-garden-festival
Chateau de Chenonceau
With its remarkable history and six centuries of storied ownership, Chenonceau has always been swept up in the turmoil of French history. Touring today is simply a step back in time into gardens that are as impressive as its residents and the castle’s storied renaissance architecture. In its early years the chateau was said to be a strategic battleground between the jealous wife of Henri II, Catherine de’ Medici, and his older lover, Diane de Poitiers, who was chased out of the castle after the king’s untimely death in a jousting tournament. Remarkably, Chenonceau survived both the destructive fury of the French Revolution and the German bombings of WWII. The current owners, the Merier family, who have had the property in their family since 1913, were able to return to in the 1940s and since then have embarked on incredible restorations to both the castle and Catherine’s beloved gardens. chenonceau.com.
Château de Villandry
In 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property and poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing it and creating beautiful gardens. Its famous Renaissance gardens include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens and vegetable gardens which are laid out in formal patterns created with low-box hedges. In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a monument historique. Like all the other châteaux of the Loire Valley, it is a World Heritage Site. chateauvillandry.fr
Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud
Step back in time with a visit to Europe’s largest abbey. Built in 1102, the magnificently restored and modernized showpiece blends cultural education with state-of- theart technology on 13 acres. Today, the once-cherished abbey turned frightful prison, is teeming with new life as a hotel, conference centre and local attraction. Don’t be surprised by reclining effigies of Henry II, King of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine or their son Richard the Lionheart in the abbey church. In the cloisters you can tour the abbey’s kitchens and learn about the life of the nuns. For your comfort, the 54- room hotel has been custom retrofitted and Chef Thibaut Ruggeri’s three chapitre menus are homemade on site. For a little extra fun—in July and August, the abbey hosts a themed Richard the Lionheart escape game for groups of three to seven who are brave enough to take the challenge. fontevraud.fr
Angers: Full of life
Nestled between the Loire and the main rivers, Angers is a lively place from which to start your cycling adventure, hike beside the Loire or escape to a local vineyard. angers.fr
Oriental grandeur in Anjou
Created between 1899 and 1913 on the grounds of Château Colbert by noted Parisian architect Alexandre Marcel, the 20-hectare Parc Oriental de Maulévrier is the largest Japanese garden in France. Today, the park is owned by the town council and run by gardeners and volunteers, it’s home to more than 300 meticulously cared for plant species: Bonsai, camellias, rhododendrons and Japanese maples, along with pagodas, water features and a traditional bridge. At the top of the hill, overlooking the lush gardens, Château Colbert, its outbuildings and prized potager, (vegetable garden) tended by one of France’s most respected gardeners, is now a private boutique hotel, which we heard was haunted. Thankfully, our overnight stay was uneventful. Parc-oriental.com
Chambord is a rich example of history, art and architecture set against the beautiful French countryside and is perhaps one of the best known palaces in the world. Built 500 years ago by Francois I, it is a excellent example of French sophistication meeting hardy medieval architecture. An opulent building designed for temporary visits by the prince, Chambord took inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci with its intricate architecture and double-helix staircase.
In the 17th century the surrounding lands were built on by Louis XIV, creating two gardens and the stables and later tree-lined walkways. Chambord survived much of the turmoil and destruction of the French revolution in the 18th century and the architecture remained intact. Today, the gardens have been recently renovated restoring them to their former glory. You can enjoy the magical chateau and the biggest wall-enclosed park in Europe, which covers more than 13,500 acres. chambord.org/en
Roses are red
Located in Anjou, between Saumur and Angers, lies the town of roses, Doué-la-Fontaine. Due to mild climate and rich soil, close to seven million rose bushes are cultivated here, totalling 45 per cent of the country’s production. A visit to the four-hectare Dittière family garden will give you a chance to meet the third generation of rosiers and smell the roses—all 10,000 of them. www.lescheminsdelarose.com