Even for a region as prosperous and well-connected as the Loire, the building boom that swept along the river in the 15th and 16th centuries was exceptional. Fired by new ideas from Italy, kings, queens, courtiers and mistresses all competed to build the most elegant and fanciful châteaux – and in the process created a template for fairy-tale castles which survives to this day. On this enchanting midsummer trip, led by horticulturalist Steven Desmond, we focus on the gardens as much as the buildings, set against a vivid backdrop of court intrigue, political rivalry and religious tumult.
Our coach leaves the Gare du Nord in Paris at 12.30pm for Château de Chenonceau, which spans the river Cher on a series of elegant arches, and leads to a dramatic “floating” parterre. Built between 1513 and 1517, it is in many ways the Loire-Valley archetype, grafting fashionable Renaissance motifs onto more traditional Gothic forms to create a distinctly French architectural idiom. Continue to our hotel in Tours, and dinner together.
After our first lecture, we drive to the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. One of the jewels of the French Renaissance, it was built shortly after Chenonceau by Gilles Bertholet, Treasurer of France. Both the château and its park have been recently restored. In the afternoon, we visit Villandry, a fine château of the 1530s made extraordinary by its formal gardens. The most famous is the kitchen garden, whose palette of subtle colours is built around vegetables.
Morning lecture, followed by the Château Royale de Blois, whose three wings were built in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries – each in the latest architectural fashion. At Chambord, we explore the most ambitious of all the Loire châteaux (which was only ever intended as a royal hunting lodge). It is still surrounded by 13,000 acres of forest, and newly-restored formal gardens.
Our final château is at Cheverny. A restrained and elegant example of the French Baroque, with a playful roofline and sumptuous interiors, and in the same family for over six centuries. We return to the Gare du Nord, where the trip ends by 5pm.
Steven began his working life as a professional gardener, and taught for 15 years in colleges of horticulture in the north of England. Now, he divides his time between writing, lecturing and conservation. He has an MA in Conservation from the University of York, writes for Country Life and advises the National Trust on historic gardens. He is also a lecturer on architectural history at Buckingham and Oxford Universities. Steven is a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a Professional Associate of the Royal Horticultural Society. His book, Gardens of the Italian Lakes, was published in 2016.
£1,095 per person sharing in a double room
£1,235 for one person in a double room
The price includes the speaker and a tour manager, accommodation with daily breakfasts, one dinner with wine, transport by private coach, admissions to sites as mentioned in the itinerary.
Please note flights or trains are not included.
Best Western Plus L’Artist Hôtel, Tours (3 stars)
Our coach is rarely able to park near the châteaux so expect a fair amount of walking. Stairs and uneven surfaces are sometimes unavoidable.
Between 5 and 28 participants.
Please check www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice before you book to make sure you are happy with the advice for the places you are visiting.