Castles and Wine Make the French Countryside the Most Exquisite Place to Take a Road Trip
“You do not have chateau in America?” a young French innkeeper asks as she escorts my fiancé and me onto the grounds of La Ballue, a petite (for a mansion) restored chateau nestled between Brittany and Normandy. The innkeeper seems shocked that the country that produced the Beyoncé, the Kardashians, and endless industry heirs of the world can be without such historic, opulent splendor.
But alas, after two days of driving through the Loire Valley, a hub of the two greatest human creations, wine and castles and ogling the Disney-esque historic homes, I can assure you that the entirety of North America lacks this level of, well, magic. You can call the obscene homes built by industry moguls (watch “Queen of Versailles” on Netflix) whatever you want, but they’re not chateaus. And beyond California’s Hearst Castle (a baby, at 99-years-young), Asheville’s Biltmore Estate (a lavish recreation of Europe’s true chateaus), and the Medieval Times restaurants strewn throughout major cities, the U.S. is verifiably castle-free.
France, however, is littered with chateaus, built as country retreats for royalty and their extended family. And while some of the centuries-old chateaus did crumble with the French monarchy — while in France I was told the sad story of an unemployed middle aged Parisian who can’t afford to upkeep his family’s chateau — many remain preserved for tourists to visit or even sleep and dine in.
On the farmland-surrounded highways, instead of advertising chain restaurants, billboards illustrate the nearest castles to visit. Enchanting names like Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, Château d'Amboise, and Château de Beauregard encourage you to take a mini detour more than flashy golden arches ever could.
A two-day mini-trip from Paris would be long enough to dip into the Loire Valley’s rich heritage of opulent castles and fantastic wine, but if you really want to French it up, slowly progress through the sleepy towns, eating hours-long Michelin-starred meals (or equally slow, cheaper options at pizzerias and neighborhood joints in the small villages), swishing wine in tasting rooms, and strolling through dozens of castles.
Plus, the excellent wine harvested, fermented and bottled in the valley is available on the cheap at restaurants in the entire region, who pride themselves on creating cuisine that pairs with the elegant varietals that make the region world famous. Most castles have picnic areas, so you can pop a bottle and eat baguettes, cheese, and charcuterie on a blanket under the shadow of a castle’s towers.
There is an interactive Loire Valley Wine Map as well as a route of major Chateaux to help you plan driving a tour of the region, but as you gear up for a castle and wine-fueled wine trip, be sure to add these highlights to your itinerary.
For a castle and wine duo, head to Domaine du Closel, a family-owned vineyard and chateau dating back to 1495. A rich heritage of female winemakers running the centuries-old business adds a unique history to this property in the heart of Savennieres, which offers the Grand Cru grapes of the region. Self-guided tours of the estate and gardens cost 4€, May through October, and are free the rest of the year. Guided tours are available in the summer and wine tastings are offered year-round.
If you’re into sparkling wine, stop into Ackerman Cellars, which dates back to 1811 and offers guided cellar tours as well as tastings. A full-on museum experience certainly feels more touristy than say, dropping into a petite maison in the countryside, but at least opening hours and guaranteed and you can delve into some in-depth facts about the Loire Valley’s winemaking history.
Appease those who may prefer a more geologically-minded vacation by heading into Les Caves De Pere Auguste, where white, rose, red and sparkling wines can be tasted in rustic troglodyte caves. Tastings are 3€, the cost of which is deducted from the purchase of two bottles, which can also be shipped back to the states, should you not want to carry all that wine around.
One of the most iconic castles of the Loire Valley, Château de Chenonceau straddles a tributary of the Loire River, making the reflections of its white stone exterior and dramatic turrets even more extraordinary. Several gardens surrounding the Renaissance building, as well as a picnic area and upscale restaurants, L’Orangerie, make the expansive property easy to spend an entire day in, though highlights can be seen in a few hours. Pre-download Cenonceau’s app for self-guided tours and other practical information. Tickets to tour the property are purchased on site, and wine tastings inside the Chateau’s 16th-century vaulted wine cellar are available to walk-ins.
Straight out of a fairy tale, Château de Chambord is the most Disney-like castle in the Loire Valley and is said to have inspired the palace in “Beauty and the Beast.” Those fearing a visit to Versailles due to the crowds may prefer this opulent mansion, which has its own pre-revolutionary lavish touches by Louis XIV (like gold-adorned sleeping quarters for when he visited the country estate, plus a stable for 1200 horses on the property). Over 400 rooms, nearly 300 larger-than-life fireplaces and a double-helix staircase characterize Chambord, which is surrounded by lush gardens and a protective moat.
The last Renaissance castle to be built in the Loire Valley, don’t let Château de Villandry’s younger sibling status deter you. Open year-round and known for its incredible gardens (both decorative and functional, for the kitchen), this former country retreat is one of France’s most-visited castles. Rooms are restored and fully furnished with 18th- and 19th-century relics and artwork, making it easy to envision yourself living in this luxe estate — why not?