More than 300 châteaux punctuate the Loire Valley, each a testament to the region’s rich history which spans a period of violent wars and Renaissance ideals. As you wander around magnificent château after magnificent château, at some point you’re bound to stop and wonder: exactly why are there so many and what prompted this frenzy of châteaux-building?
In the 5th century AD, long before the first limestone brick of a château was ever laid down, the River Loire was used by the Gallo-Romans as an important artery for communication and navigation. The Loire Valley established itself as a crossroads between Italy and Flanders, a central position which would first bring war, and later enlightenment. The Romans never saw a château in the Loire, however, they left another important legacy by introducing vines. Santé!
By the 10th century, the Loire found itself at the heart of France. The city of Tours was larger than Paris. Kings chose to live here and the nobility followed like moths. But France was not a united country and as the nobility tussled over their territories, the first fortifications (châteaux) were built to serve defensive functions.
It was a vendetta against England that eventually united France. The Hundred Years’ War raged between the two countries for, bizarrely, 116 years. Between 1337 and 1453, the Loire Valley was transformed into a battleground and more châteaux sprang up.
Until the 15th century, the Loire Valley had witnessed violence and war, and this might have continued forever had the French Kings not invaded Italy. Soldiers returned from the invasion with Renaissance ideas and inspired by Italian arts and architecture. Châteaux stopped serving military functions and began to reflect ostentatious displays of wealth. The world’s best architects and designers poured into the region and the châteaux and their surrounding gardens pushed human creativity to its limits. One such designer was Leonardo Da Vinci who, at the behest of King Francois I, crossed the Alps from Italy with two servants and three of his favourites pictures, one of which would become world famous: the Mona Lisa.
In the mid-16th century, Paris became France’s capital and the kings and nobility left the Loire. This is generally considered to mark the end of France’s Renaissance period; however, it could be argued that in the Loire Valley the Renaissance never really ended. Visit today and you’ll discover it has resisted modernisation and changed little over the centuries. An appreciation of arts and culture continues to dominate, the châteaux and gardens still stretch creativity and wow tourists. This revival as a tourist destination is simply the next chapter in the Loire’s rich history.