Romantic travel ideas: France’s Loire Valley

Romantic travel ideas: France’s Loire Valley

Exiting the A10 motorway that spirits us away from Paris, we soon find ourselves driving through grassy meadows, leafy forests and tiny villages. As we round a corner, turrets majestically appear on the horizon. My heartbeat hastens and I nervously glance over at Nicolas. I hope I’ve made the right decision.

After a year of nudging, I’ve finally convinced my boyfriend to leave his other sweetheart — his bulldog — with friends, so we could have a weekend away, just the two of us. There’s a lot at stake. If he loves the romantic getaway, more will follow. If not, well, the bulldog has won. Everything must be perfect, and I know exactly where to go: the Loire Valley.

A view of the Loire, the longest river in France.

A two-hour drive south of Paris, the vast Val de Loire is celebrated for its natural beauty, architectural heritage and gastronomy, all factors in its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Not merely scenic, the region’s gently rolling hills are covered in vineyards and farmland, which produce excellent wines, produce and goat cheeses. And from the Middles Ages through the Renaissance, the Loire established its reputation as the Valley of the Kings, as French royals and aristocrats filled it with more than 300 castles.

Among the 50 or so open to the public, certain chateaux are especially romantic, thanks to their exceptionally enchanting settings, their links to famed lovers, or both. I’ve crafted an itinerary incorporating the best of these, beginning with the oldest.

As soon as we arrive at the Cité Royale de Loches via the formidable Porte Royale monument, we’re instantly transported back to the Middle Ages. Inside the hilltop citadel, we crane our necks up its nearly 120-foot-high keep, one of Europe’s best preserved, before taking in the sweeping vista over the valley from the ramparts.

Cit� Royale de Loches was the setting for the love story between King Charles VII and Agn�s Sorel.

Loches was the setting of one of France’s greatest love stories, that of King Charles VII and the legendary beauty Agnès Sorel. French royal marriages were usually political arrangements, not love matches. But Charles was so taken by Agnès, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, that he designated her as his official mistress, the first to be given this title.

With this came certain privileges and gifts, like the Château de Loches, where the two met frequently. Beautiful as well as clever, Agnès became one of the King’s closest advisers. We learn more about this touring the 15th-century Logis Royal, before paying homage to Agnès at her final resting place in the castle’s Romanesque chapel.

We stroll through Loches’s cobbled centre, little altered since the days of Charles and Agnès. On Saturday mornings, it hosts a bustling farmer’s market, where we pick out local goat cheese, a country loaf and succulent cherries to nibble on beside the river.

So far, so good. Nicolas seems relaxed and isn’t checking his phone every five minutes for dog updates. I’m quite confident he’ll be seduced by our next destination, the Château de Chenonceau, one of the Loire’s most prized castles.

Ch�teau de Chenonceau, one of the world's most beautiful castles, was once gifted by King Henry II to one of his mistresses.

To truly understand Chenonceau’s uniqueness, I take Nicolas over to the water’s edge, where we can see its famed arched gallery spanning the Cher River. “Magnifique!” Nicolas acknowledges approvingly. I notch another victory in my quest to win him over to travelling together, sans chien.

A series of women played key roles in the castle’s evolution, namely Renaissance-era rivals Catherine de’ Medici, King Henry II’s wife, and Diane de Poitiers, his official mistress. After Henry II gifted the castle to Diane, she added the ingenious bridge, but upon the King’s death in 1559, Catherine evicted Diane and claimed the castle as her own. The Queen had the gallery built atop the bridge in a bid to outshine her rival.

More royal tales unfold as we visit Chenonceau’s elaborate rooms, decked out in delicately painted ceilings, massive stone fireplaces and elegant canopy beds. Entering the gallery, I can imagine attending the opulent balls of eras past, accompanied by my own Prince Charming.

After roaming through the jardins à la française, we discover a hidden rose garden and play hide and seek in the labyrinth. We duck into the arched cellars to sample the castle’s wines and leave with a bottle of bubbly Crémant de Loire, for later.

Arriving in the hillside city of Blois, we reach the day’s final castle: our own, for the night at least. Located in a 17th-century residence of Gaston d’Orléans, the brother of King Louis XIII, is Fleur de Loire. Opened in June 2022, the five-star hotel is the passion project of renowned chef and Loire native Christophe Hay, who highlights local ingredients at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant here.

“I wanted to create a place where I could honour the terroir of the Loire in a sustainable, eco-responsible way,” Hay tells us in between his exquisite courses of sturgeon caviar, carp à la Chambord and raspberry soufflé.

The building may be ancient, but the design of Fleur de Loire’s 44 rooms and suites is modern and stylish. We end the day on our private terrace, with our Chenonceau Crémant and the twinkling lights of Blois.

In the morning, we follow the meandering Loire River west to reach the region’s most romantic castle. Sitting on an islet in the Indre River, whose waters reflect its turreted towers, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau seems straight out of a storybook. Inside, we feel almost at home in its regal yet cosy interiors, covered in red drapery, historic paintings and period furniture.

The storybook Ch�teau d'Azay-le-Rideau, reflected in the Indre River.

About three kilometres downstream is a hidden gem. Built in 1530, the Château de l’Islette was a lover’s retreat for sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel in the 1890s. Just as the passionate artists might have done, we take to the garden to picnic on artisanal patés, spreads and cheese, available on-site.

After a small detour past the Château d’Ussé (the castle said to have inspired Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty”), our road trip reaches what I hope is a grand finale.

At our last stop, Château de Villandry, I guide Nicolas up the steep ramp and over to the terrace’s edge. “Wow!” he exclaims with delight upon seeing the awe-inspiring gardens lying below. A labour of love, after centuries of neglect, the gardens were painstakingly restored by their early 20th-century owners, Joachim Carvallo and Ann Coleman.

The Jardins d'Amour at the Ch�teau de Villandry.

Beneath us are the formal Jardins d’Amour, featuring hedge boxes sculpted into hearts, daggers and other symbols of affection. As we explore the grounds, we observe a swan couple gliding through the mirror pool, and take a break under a flower-laden arbour.

I peer over at Nicolas, praying he isn’t “castled out.”

“The weekend was almost perfect. However, one thing is missing,” he starts, triggering a surge of panic in me.

“Come.” He takes my hand, leading me to the exit, where there’s a small green stand just beyond.

I laugh. This time it’s his turn to surprise me, with my favourite summer treat. Artisanal ice-cream cones in hand, we gaze up at the chateau and savour a happy ending to our fairy-tale weekend.

Accommodation was partially provided to Lily Heise by Fleur de Loire, which did not review or approve this article.


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