Making the most of Chambord

by Richard.Northedge

As well as having the most magnificent chateau, Chambord also makes the perfect base for a Loire Valley stay

There is no shortage of chateaux along the Loire Valley, and simply being biggest does not make Chambord the best. But while most visitors see the early 16th-century building as a day-trip destination – en route to the next historic house – this magnificent flight of fancy offers enough attractions to keep a family amused for up to a week.

The house stands at the centre of a 13,000-acre estate circled by a 20-mile wall enclosing a national park that celebrates its origins as Francois l’s hunting lodge. There are forests to walk through, paths to cycle along, a moat for boating and wild animals to watch. Though the wildlife is safely protected from hunters now, hides have been built on platforms where patient visitors can catch a close-quarters sight of a rutting stag or a pair of boars with their striped offspring, apparently unaware they are being spied on or photographed.

If the estate was the model for Center Parcs, then the chateau was surely the model for Disney’s magic castle. There are four round towers at its corners, an impressive windowed wall between, facing across the manicured lawn, and a slate roof that is cluttered with a random collection of ornate turrets and towers, cupolas and chimneys, spires and pinnacles that visitors can weave between, imagining the trysts and intrigues of those who gathered there to watch the huntsmen return.

Chambord was never a fortress, merely a royal folly used for occasional hunting parties, and was often left empty for years at a time. There are 440 rooms, but despite as many fireplaces as the days of the year, the mighty chambers, now decorated as state apartments or royal kitchens, are too large and cold for practical living. The central feature that differentiates Chambord is its spectacular stone spiral staircase. At first it looks like the grand revolving flight of steps on the façade of the chateau at nearby Blois, also built by Francois. But Chambord’s – designed by Leonardo da Vinci, according to some – is a double helix staircase. The two wide spiral flights twisting around one central well mean one person can walk up while another walks down and they never meet!

Orleans is about 30 miles up river from Chambord and Tours the same distance down the Loire, allowing easy trips to those cities with their cathedrals and well-stocked Musées des Beaux Arts. Take the leisurely drive along the riverside one way and zip back along the A10 before crossing the river at Blois.

A trip to Tours, besides giving you the chance to stock up on wine in Vouvray, can include as many other chateaux as you can take. Cheverny is closest to Chambord but plain by comparison; Chaumont offers good views over the Loire; much of Amboise has been demolished, but it is worth visiting Chenonceaux, the palace built over the river Cher, with magnificent ornate gardens.

Don’t miss

When the daily equestrian show and jousting ends, the tourists depart, but the overnight visitor can now see Chambord’s windowed north wall turned into a massive screen for a spectacular son-et-lumière show. There is a renaissance ball planned for October 2009, too – costumes compulsory but available for hire. And when you have exhausted the house and grounds, escape beyond the wall and explore the pretty surrounding villages. If you don’t want to picnic in the park, drive down to the riverbank at St Dye.

The downside

Chambord attracts coach tours to the chateau – though it hosted hunting parties of 2,000, so it doesn’t get crowded - and parts of the park are reserved for animals rather than people.

Where to stay and eat

The only place to stay inside Chambord is the charming Hotel du Grand St-Michel, the kings’ former kennels. Its location right in front of the chateau gives a perfect view of the house and son-et-lumière from its terrace or from the rooms above. Eat outdoors if you can, but at least look at the dining room with its stuffed stags’ heads and chandeliers made of antlers. This modestly-priced family-owned hotel also has lots of old photos from the days before hunting gave way to conservation.

At Bracieux, a village on the park’s periphery, the Hotel du Cygne is a Logis de France hotel with a restaurant offering good value, as is the quaint Hotel de la Bonnheure. The Hotel St Cyr at Ferte is another relaxing hotel on the edge of the estate. Overlooking the Loire at St Dye, the Manoir de Bel Air offers formal tranquillity and luxury.

Just outside the Chambord wall at Saumery is the Hotel du Parc, a modest hotel that is far excelled by its restaurant. It's well worth booking a meal here even if you stay elsewhere.