What does France conjure up for you? Is it beautiful drives around the countryside, experimental gastronomy, heaps of history, the Eiffel Tower and late night coffees in art galleries? For me it is all the above and more.
Heading to The Loire Valley with my history head on, I wasn’t quite sure what delights I was letting myself in for. At a hop skip and short (90 mins) train ride from Paris, the pretty village of Amboise was worth the trek. Winding country roads, and chateaux a plenty, the village is probably best known for its Chateaux du Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years, but there are lots of other things to explore for a long weekend too, particularly if you are an outdoorsy sort, or like wine! Both of which appeal to me.
Everyone has heard of the Mona Lisa, but how much do you really know about the man behind her? With A-level art to back me up, I thought I might be teacher’s pet on the art- history part of the tour, but as Leonardo would say, there is always more to learn. In addition to his painting skills, Leonardo was a restless genius in many fields, excelling in whatever he set his mind to.
He was invited to move in to the King’s estate in Amboise by King Francis I, as he was a great believer in Leonardo da Vinci’s talent. Giving him the title of “Premier Painter, Engineer and Architect of the King” he had a special, if ambiguous friendship with the Italian; Granting him full access to the Château of Cloux, (later known as Clos Luce) which was on the grounds and located only a few meters away from his own castle at Château d’Amboise. It is not known whether they were having a love affair, or whether King Francis just accepted his genius mind. Even with all the diaries and log books from the time, da Vinci’s sex life remains private.
Now open to the public, his home has been fully restored and furnished in the 16th-century style. The final years of his life at Château du Clos Lucé, were seemingly happy times, and he worked on several projects for King Francis, along with two of his trustworthy students. At the time, da Vinci was christened with the moniker “Renaissance Man” along with his contemporary Michelangelo, who was a sculptor, painter, architect and poet. A term which was befitting of both, working on the principle that man is the centre of the universe and has no limits. Knowledge is there to be consumed, questioned and embraced and every man should develop their own capacities for enrichment as fully as possible- which is completely evident in da Vinci’s practices. One of his most memorable teachings is ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’, which goes hand in hand with breaking knowledge down to the bare bones.
Being a genius mind, it is intriguing to see that the artist’s workspace is immaculate. Reconstructed with books, sketches, paints and easels, there is little out of place, which confirms that da Vinci was a perfectionist. A ‘cabinet de curiosités’ is an intriguing insight of his passion for the weird and wonderful, and here you can witness the extent of where his great mind flitted. Artefacts ranging from skulls to meteorological instruments to taxidermy animals and magical memorabilia, which are part of the brain that is the inventor, designer, creator and philosopher.
Claiming “Nature is filled with infinite causes that experiments have never demonstrated” his life size inventions unfold in the beautiful grounds of the chateau, providing an open-air museum with Vinci as a visionary master. Walking through the woods and secret pathways, you can witness famous machinery including the multi-barrelled gun, paddle boat and revolving bridge in real size, and you are invited to get hands on try them out for yourself. And even though this is not the museum of his most famous work, The Mona Lisa (get in the queue at the Louvre for that), you can see even further into this genius mind, and get a picture with a perfectly good reproduction up close!
And after all that culture, book in for wine tasting in the ‘caves Duhrad’ which is the wine cellar of any connoisseur’s dreams, and where you can get advice on how to sniff, taste and swallow! Followed by an authentic Renaissance lunch at reconstruction renaissance restaurant Auberge du Prieure. More wine drinking out of a tankard. Don’t mind if I do!
If you are in the mood for castles, the Loire Valley has plenty to choose from, as this is where most of the French royalty preferred to spend the bulk of their time, and the wealthy bourgeoisie continued to renovate existing châteaux or build lavish new ones as their summer residence in the Loire.
My pick if I had to choose a favourite, is the châteaux of Chenonceau- and is arguably one of the Loire Valley’s most famous and romantic castles. The French Revolution saw many of the grandiose châteaux destroyed and ransacked with their treasures stolen, but this is a delight and is still in remarkable condition.
Set on the River Cher, Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de’ Medici famously lived here and their rooms have been preserved with original features for authenticity. Pick up an ipod and take a 45 or 80-minute tour, stopping and starting where you please.
The adjoining grounds are the home to the meticulous flower and vegetable garden (Ineduit de Russel Page) which is manned by American, Nicholas Tomlan and award winning floral designer, Jean Francois Boucher. If you check in advance, there might also be flower arranging workshops, where you can get your hands on the fresh posies that the team use, and create one for yourself.
Pretty gardens, fresh air and a view to die for means you have will have probably worked up an appetite. There are two restaurants on site, and I sampled the gastronomic delights at the Orangerie. Romantic, tasteful and experimental, with an impressive wine list, this (along with the giant cheese board) is the icing on the proverbial cake.
So, if it’s cakes, cheese, wine or culture that ticks your boxes, The Loire Valley has it all. My advice is to take some sensible walking shoes and outfits with an elasticated waist.
With special thanks to Atout France, Château Chenonceau, Château du Clos Lucé and Odyssée Val de Loire. For further details and booking check out www.france.fr www.chenonceau.com www.vinci-closluce.com/en www.odyssee-valdeloire.com/en/