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Monday, March 28, 2011

Exploring the Loire Valley

Château de ChambordImage by cucumber! via Flickr

By Marcus Smith

The Loire Valley is one of the most popular regions with visitors to France. Easily accessible from the UK and much of Europe, it also features great scenery, lots of historical towns and villages, and - the main attraction - an exceptional number of impressive castles.
Although castles had existed along the Loire River between Orleans and the western coast of France for some centuries beforehand, it was between about 1500 and 1700 that the rich and powerful from Paris took to building their castles along the river. Frequently older medieval castles were demolished to make space, or parts of the original structure were incorporated in the new chateaux.

There are some important differences between medieval castles and renaissance castles that you should be aware of before visiting the Loire Valley. Medieval castles gave no thought to style or aesthetics, their sole purpose being able to withstand attack, so they had sturdy walls, defensive moats (usually crossed by a drawbridge), and very small windows. Inside, the focus was on accommodating lots of people and storing sufficient supplies, but little thought was given to comfort.
Renaissance castles are much more interested in style, beauty and comfort for their owners. If there is a moat it is for decoration, doors and windows are large and often with sculpted surrounds, and the interiors of these castles were usually lavishly decorated with numerous fine furnishings. The area around the castle was also typically landscaped and planted with formal 'French style' gardens - not surprisingly, medieval soldiers gave little thought to planting decorative flowers!
An example of a 'defensive' castle can be seen at Angers - note that the pretty gardens that now surround the outside of the castle were once a defensive moat - although the comfort of the rooms inside the castle was improved in the 15th century.
The castle at Chaumont is a half-way point between the two styles, and appears at first to be a defensive castle. In fact it is a substantial reconstruction of earlier forts that stood in the location and has many decorative aspects, especially inside the castle.
Meanwhile Chateau Chambord is an example of a purely decorative castle. Built in 1518, the original defensive castle that stood here was completely demolished to make way for this magnificent, purely decorative, castle. the castle still maintains the moat and towers of earlier castles but there is no pretense that the castle would be effective in siege conditions.
Learn more about the many castles to be discovered in the Loire Valley France before planning your visit. You can also find information about one of the most fascinating ways to discover this historical region of France - by choosing Loire Valley cycling holidays.

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