Chateau de Chambord (iStock)

    The allure of the Loire Valley

    18 July 2018

    There are more than 300 spectacular chateaux dotted throughout the peaceful countryside of France’s Loire Valley. As a wispy mist begins to rise, engulfing the manicured lawns of Chateau de Chambord, the biggest castle of them all, I can see why this lavish multi-turreted masterpiece is, quite literally, the stuff of fairytales. Built by King Francis I, with rumoured input from his friend Leonardo da Vinci, its majestic towers, spires and chimneys served as the inspiration for Disney’s elaborately adorned castle in Beauty and the Beast. It’s an exquisite example of French Renaissance architecture, and unsurprisingly, one of France’s most popular tourist destinations.

    My encounter with the castle, though, is as private as it gets. After a short hop and transfer on the Eurostar, I’m sipping rosé on the terrace of the newly opened Relais de Chambord, the first luxury hotel to open in the castle’s UNESCO-listed 14,000-acre estate, situated just 50 metres from the foot of the chateau. After the grounds have closed, guests have the run of the place, offering unprecedented access to the glorious grounds and River Cosson. Free bikes are provided for us to explore – I spot red deer and wild boar on my jaunt around the estate.

    The gardens at Chateau de Cheverny (iStock)

    Down the road, Chateau de Cheverny – an utterly romantic 17th century structure, built in Louis XIII classical symmetrical style – is another must see. It’s been in the same family for more than 700 years, and has been perfectly preserved. You may recognise it from the Tintin books – the design of Captain Haddock’s Marlinspike Hall was based on the chateau. Arrive early to watch the pack of some 70 hunting hounds being fed – quite the spectacle.

    The grounds here are particularly lovely. In spring, they are covered by more than 100,000 tulips, and in summer, the wisteria walk to the garden orangery is so fragrant the grounds are enveloped in its heady aroma.

    After a busy day visiting chateaux, there are ample opportunities to enjoy meals fit for a king or queen. The area is home to several Michelin-starred restaurants including La Maison d’a Cote, where a seven-course tasting menu celebrates local producers in the most inventive fashion. The Loire carp ‘a la Chambord’ with truffle, crawfish and Cheverny wine sauce is a particular standout, as is the restaurant’s personal touch – each dish is brought out and explained by the chef who created it.

    The city of Blois (iStock)

    My final stop for the weekend is the noble hillside city of Blois, on the northern bank of the Loire river, with pretty medieval streets and a famous royal chateau in its heart. Seven kings and 10 queens of France have lived at the Chateau de Blois, and its rich architecture is reflected in its four different wings, showcasing gothic, renaissance and classical architecture. Every evening from April to September, a captivating sound and light show takes place in its ground.

    A short drive along the river takes me to Assa, another unassuming Michelin-starred gem, with tables overlooking the Loire. The restaurant is run by Anthony and Fumiko Maubert, a Franco-Japanese couple who specialise in French gourmet cuisine, using seasonal, local produce but with a Japanese spin.

    Indulgent and rejuvenated, the Loire ticks every box for a weekend break, particularly if you fancy being treated like royalty for a day or two.

    Rooms at Le Relais de Chambord cost from €165 (£144) per night, based on two sharing a standard double, on a B&B basis

    Eurostar operates up to 19 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare Du Nord with one-way fares starting from £29 (based on a return journey)