The Loire River cuts across the heart of France from the Alps all the way to the Atlantic. Because of this it has historically been one of Western Europe’s most important trade routes, and one of its most heavily fortified rivers. During the Middle Ages the Loire was lined with castles and fortified cities from Saint-Etienne to Saint-Nazaire. But it is the stretch from Angers to Orleans that commands the respect of castle lovers everywhere. Second perhaps only to the castle-rich central region of the Rhine River in Germany, many of the Loire River Valley’s castle were converted into country estates and palaces during the Renaissance. But a few have managed to retain their medieval splendor; and the greatest of these are Chaumont, Chinon and Saumur.
The Loire River Valley is one of the most fertile regions in all of Europe, and the heartland of France for well over a thousand years. Some of the area’s fortifications date back to early medieval times, when the Loire River was part of the frontier between the Frankish and Visigothic kingdoms. It was absorbed into Charlemagne’s empire in the 9th century, than became an integral part of the western kingdom when the empire collapsed.
The valley became increasingly militarized in the early 900s century in response to Viking Raids from the north and along the river. Many of the Loire’s castles can be traced back to this era. By the late 12th century, literally scores of castles and fortifications lined the banks of the Loire River. Although by this time the Viking threat had all but disappeared, the castles provided a line of defense against the expanding Norman territories encroaching from the north.
This network of castles, which was especially dense between the cities of Angers and Orleans, proved expeditious for France during the late Middle Ages. In 1337 the Hundred Years’ War broke out between France and England. England, which controlled Normandy, and her allies seized huge amounts of territory in France, even forcing the French court from Paris. During the period when French fortunes were at their lowest, the Loire River castles remained free. It was here from here that Joan of Arc raised an army and broke the siege of Orleans.
After the Hundred Years’ War, the Loire Valley became a popular country retreat for French aristocrats who resided in Paris. From the 16th century onward, many of the castles were converted into palatial estates, often with the help of Renaissance master artists and architects. These conversions reached their heyday in the 1600s under the patronage of Louis XIV. However, a few castles survived the era relatively unscathed. These are now some of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
The Chateau de Saumur is one of the oldest surviving castles in the Loire Valley. Originally built in the 10th century, it was largely reconstructed in the 1100s. Except for renovations and expansions, Saumur dates from this era. One of the most basic yet beautiful of French castles, it consists essentially of a single large, perfectly rectangular keep with round towers at the four corners and a main gatehouse with drawbridge. Parts of an outer wall are still intact. The castle now houses several museums and exhibits, including a horse museum and a toy museum.
The Chateau de Chaumont was another of the Loire’s earliest castles, but the original structure was destroyed following a rebellion. The castle today dates almost entirely from its reconstruction in the 14th century. Chaumont is one of France’s most surprising castles. On the side that faces away from the river it appears like an imposing medieval fortress. However, the side that faces the river has a renaissance-fairytale look that is especially fanciful as it towers over the town. The castle is famous for its English gardens that were established in the 19th century, and it hosts a world-renowned garden festival that runs throughout almost the entire spring and summer every year.
The Chateau de Chinon is one of the largest and best preserved castles in the Loire Valley, although it is technically located a few miles south of the Loire River on one of its tributaries, the Vienne. The main 12th century structure stands on a tall hill overlooking the town of Chinon, with long outer walls defended by over a dozen massive towers. An additional outer bastion, Fort St-Georges, dates from a later period and defends the eastern approach to the castle. The castle complex includes the royal residence used during the Hundred Years’ War, wear Joan of Arc pleaded her case for an army. The apartments were recently restored to appear as they did in the 15th century.
The Chateau de Saumur is one of the westernmost of the Loire’s castles, approximately 20 miles southeast of Angers. The Chateau de Chaumont is part of a large cluster of castles towards the eastern end of the river, approximately 20 miles southwest of Orleans. It is also one of the most easily accessed and among the most popular. The Chateau de Chinon is located a few miles south of the Loire River and Saumur Castle, approximately 30 miles southwest of Angers. As of this writing no visitor information was available for these sites. Web: www.chateau-saumur.com (official website of Saumur Castle); www.domaine-chaumont.fr (official website of Chaumont Castle); www.forteressechinon.fr (official website of Chinon Castle).
The Loire River Valley and surrounding area is absolutely packed with castles, though many over the years were rebuilt or upgraded as palaces and country residences. However, there are a few survivors that are more castle-like than palace-like. The best of the rest of these is probably Loches Castle. Other excellent examples include Angers Castle, Langeais Castle, and the Azay-le-Rideau.