Valley of chateaux 
Often called the Garden of France due to abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards, which line the riverbanks, Loire Valley is famous for its historic towns, architecture and wines
Niku Sidhu

Chateau de Blois, a gem from the Renaissance period, was a favourite of the French royals (L) and Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire is situated on the left bank of the river not far from Blois

Serene, untamed River Loire, majestic castles, medieval fortresses, kings' countryside, orchards, horse-drawn carriages, architectural heritage in white tufa and black slate, hot-air balloons and boat rides, sweeping, low hillsides, old-world villages steeped in history, once fought over by Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, even Attila, the Hun. No visit to France is complete till you visit Val de Loire, or Loire Valley, where its treasures are waiting to be explored.

Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in November 2000, the stretch between Maine and Sully-sur-Loire is a must on every tourist's itinerary whether for a day, a weekend or longer. The chateaux numbering over 300 create a conundrum for visitors: which ones to tour.

The castles built during the 10th century were heavily fortified since the valley was the frontier for the Hundred Years' War. Fearing the English attack, insecure French kings moved royal court to Tours, which still boasts of being the city where the purest French is spoken. Half a millennium later, the end of the war made the valley an obvious choice for kings to convert fortresses into pleasure palaces, the nobility, too, moved to the valley in order to be closer to the seat of power. Writers and painters in the 19th century created a romantic aura, drawing tourists from France and Europe; and in the 20th century from all over the world.

Chateau de Blois, a gem from the Renaissance period, is an excellent spot to begin. A favourite of the French royals, insignias of Louis XII and Francoise I, the salamander and porcupine adorn the walls. Relive the intrigue of the brutal murder of the Duke of Guise, as you walk through the chamber of Henry III responsible in luring the duke here, thus decimating his most powerful rival. Peer behind the 200-odd sculpted wooden panels in the anteroom of Catherine de Medici, which held her secret documents, jewels and poisons too. On the death of her husband Henry II, Catherine bought Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire on the left bank of the river not far from Blois; then ordered the long-time mistress of her late husband, Diane de Poitiers, exchange it with gorgeous Chenonceau. The gardens in Chenonceau display a distinct landscaping and layout peculiar to each of the two ladies that lived there.

On the Place du Chateau is the famed Maison de la Magie (House of Magic) where master illusionist Robert Houdin's six-headed dragon lunges as you walk the plaza. Houdin, not to be confused with escapist Houdini who took his name much later, continues to enrapture with tricks, hallucinoscopes, the passage of mysteries, and a section that honours Georges Melies, the famed director of magic films, eulogised in Scorcese's Oscar winning film Hugo.

If size excites you, Chateau de Chambord, masterpiece in the Renaissance style is the largest of the Loire valley castles, home of Francois I; with abundant wildlife like stags and wild boars, ramble in its fields or ride a cycle through miles and miles of tracks in an estate spanning 12,000acres, almost the size of Paris! The double-spiral staircase is supposedly a Leonardo da Vinci design. The terraces are the vantage point to soak in delightful views of the estate.

For fans of Tintin creator Herge, Chateau de Cheverney appears familiar. Its white façade is the inspiration of Captain Haddock's home. Tintin's enigmatic world is hosted in the permanent exhibition ‘The Secrets of Marlinspikes Hall’. Catch the fabulously furnished 17th and 18th century furniture and tapestries and take a boat ride and electric car around the beautifully landscaped gardens and orangery. Another attraction is the hunting hounds. Their sandy brown and white tones, lean bodies and regal demeanour belie an underlying instinct to hunt for their food; coming to the fore once the doors are opened and chunks of meat are hurled in their midst for a feed.

Other historic chateaux are the Sully-sur-Loire where the Duke of Sully gave refuge to Voltaire when his provocative thinking was unacceptable in Henry IV's court; the body of Leonardo da Vinci lies in the chapel of the Chateau Amboise; a perfectly well-oiled drawbridge at Langeais Fortress where Charles the Eighth and Anne of Brittany celebrated their wedding. Orleans, hometown of Joan of Arc, conserves the memory of its brave liberator. Fairytales are abundant with a twist of history around each bend of the river Loire. 

Features: 800 sq km valley area, 260-km length of river Loire.

Getting there: Flights from Delhi/Mumbai to Paris. 1-2 hours high speed TGV train to Tours/Blois or 2-3 hours drive to Tours/Blois.

Alternatively, fly from Delhi/Bombay to London, connect on flight to Tours.

Best season: April to June.

Things to do: Cycling, boat rides, riding a hot air balloon.

For fans of Tintin’s creator Herge, Chateau de Cheverney appears familiar Photo by the writer (L) Hunting hounds at Chateau de Cheverney are a big attraction Photo by the writer (M) and last Chateau de Chambord is a masterpiece in the Renaissance style 












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The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a small charity, established in memory of David Sheldrick, famous Naturalist and founder Warden of Kenya's giant Tsavo East National Park in which he served from 1948 until 1976. The wildlife trust is involved in helping save the lives of orphaned elephants and rhinos who are ultimately released back into the wild. The orphanage cares for baby elephants and sometimes baby rhinos which have been orphaned by poachers, or lost or abandoned for natural reasons. The orphaned elephants, raised by the trust, are returned to join the elephant population in Tsavo National Park when they mature between eight to ten years’ old.

(1) Orphaned baby elephants play in the mud at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Nursery within Nairobi National Park, near Kenya's capital Nairobi. Photos: Reuters/Darrin Zammit (2) An orphaned elephant plays with a ball at the wildlife trust nursery. (3) Lupi, an orphaned elephant, feeds itself with a bottle of milk at the wildlife trust nursery