We only had two weeks for our fabulous Spring Break in France so I wanted to chose destinations that allowed us to make the most of our limited time. We covered a lot of ground in Normandy, visiting Bayeux and Mont St Michel on our first day on the road. The next day we turned away from the coast and headed south to the beautiful Loire Valley for a few days of scenery and chateaux.
When travelling with kids, we’ve found that it usually works best for us to find a home base for at least a few days at a time rather than packing up and moving every day or two. As the kids get older we are finding that we can do more one night stops here and there, but for the Loire we stuck to the home base strategy and booked three nights in Amboise, a medium sized town on the south side of the river, quite close to many of the major sights in the Loire Valley.
We spent our first day in the Loire Valley exploring the town of Amboise itself. For once, we found that the area was almost too quiet in the off season. There was one fairly lively pedestrian street that ran parallel to the river and the major sights were open, but much of the town was still shuttered up for the winter season with many shops closed for long lunch breaks in the middle of the day and some other places not open at all yet. On the bright side, it was pleasantly uncrowded and we were able to find plenty to do to fill up a day in the town.
Amboise is now a pleasant riverside town, overshadowed by much larger towns on either side, but in medieval times it was a royal city with the king taking residence in it’s enormous chateau. The town is most closely linked to King Francis I, who lived in Amboise for much of the early 1500’s. The Chateau d’Amboise is open to visit but for our time in Amboise we chose to visit a much smaller nearby residence called the Chateau de Clos Luce, the last home of none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who came to France in 1516 at the invitation of Francis I and stayed until his death in Amboise in 1519.
The former residence of Leonardo has been restored and made into a museum and we were able to see recreations of his studio and workroom with scientific instruments and artists tools along with some of his original manuscripts. The lower floor held scale models of many of his incredible inventions and other rooms showed furnishings and decor of the Renaissance period. Outside there was a park where you could check out several full scale models of various inventions including a wooden tank, a swinging bridge and a prototype helicopter. The kids enjoyed the hands on aspect of the park and we left feeling like we really had a good glimpse into the life of the great artist.
On our second day in Amboise we headed out early to check out the big sights in the valley, the chateaux. There are dozens of different great houses in the area and you could easily spend weeks exploring them all, but I was aware that my kids can only handle so many large fancy houses before boredom sets in so we decided to limit our chateau visits to just two. I did quite a bit of research on our different options and settled on two places within about an hours drive of Amboise; Cheverny and Chambord, two very impressive and very different places.
We started with Cheverny, which is one of the few great houses that is still occupied by the original family who owned it before the revolution. The family now lives in one wing of the house while the rest of the house and the grounds are open to the public. This gives the property and more intimate and lived in feeling than most of the stately houses we’ve visited in the past and we really enjoyed touring the chateau and the beautiful grounds. One surprise we found in the main entrance foyer was a large scale model of the chateau made of Lego, which my son enjoyed more than the chateau itself!
One of the great things about Cheverny was that there was more for the kids to see than just the stately house itself. The chateau has a longstanding connection with the cartoon Tintin and the main house was used as the model for Marlinspike Hall. One of the stable buildings houses a fun Tintin exhibit which my kids enjoyed exploring, especially since they had recently discovered the Tintin books for themselves.
Another highlight of Cheverny was the feeding of the hunting dogs which happens every day at eleven. There are about 80 of the huge, slobbery beasts, which live in a large kennel behind the stables. At feeding time they are sent up to a sort of balcony above the kennel where they watch in a writhing, yapping frenzy as the keepers roll in with large wheelbarrows full of ground meat and kibble and spread it into large troughs set in rows in the yard. When the gate is opened they run down but crowd in along the back wall, waiting for the keepers command before they are allowed to rush in and eat. When the command is given the wild feeding frenzy lasts only about a minute before the last crumb disappears. It’s a smelly, messy spectacle and the kids enjoyed it a lot.
From Cheverny we continued about 30 minutes east to the biggie of the Loire Valley, the Chateau de Chambord. This enormous “vacation home” was started by Leonardo’s friend King Francis I beginning in 1519. Looking at the scale and extravagance of the structure it’s hard to believe it was only ever occupied as a royal residence for a few months before his death in 1547. In the following centuries the chateau had it’s ups and downs, being virtually abandoned for decades at a time as it passed from various kings and noblemen. It came into the hands of the French government in the early 20th century and restoration began following World War Two. For all it’s splendour, the chateau itself feels very cold and impersonal, a stark contrast to the homey and welcoming feel of the smaller Cheverny. The kids’ favourite part was the magnificent double helix staircase in the centre of the chateau that many believe was inspired by the designs of Leonardo da Vinci.
There were many more famous sights we could have seen in the Loire Valley, but when travelling with kids I find that it’s often much better to stick to a few well chosen stops rather than rushing around trying to get it all in. After a leisurely day visiting two blockbuster chateaux we were more than ready to head back to our comfy hotel to relax for the evening. There’s a lot more to see in the Loire Valley, but we know it will still be there when we come back again.