You learn some astonishing facts on a tour of France’s mesmerising, history-filled Loire Valley region.
For instance, Louis XIV, one of the country’s greatest kings and the builder of Versailles, never took baths.
In fact, his dad Louis XIII had one on the day he was born in 1601 and never saw a bath tub again until he was seven, according to extensive records kept by the royal doctor.
The two sovereigns lived in an age when the French medical profession believed the dreaded plague could be spread through water opening the pores of bathers so it was effectively banned in the royal court.
Instead men and women used herbs and spices to clean themselves and Louis XIV was said to change his outfit three times a day thinking he would be casting off potential danger when climbing out of his breeches.
This was just one of the fascinating titbits I picked up on the first stop of a tour of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, two and a half hours after landing in Paris.
Chamerolles Chateau in Chilleurs-aux-Bois is a gorgeous place and although not as well-known as some of the bigger castles, it was one of my favourites.
Bought by the state in 1987 it needed five years of restoration before it could open its doors to the public in 1992.
Built at the beginning of the 16th Century on the site of a medieval fortress it still retains its original square plan, towers, an impressive moat and Renaissance garden.
It also houses one of the country’s most comprehensive perfume museums which was where I heard all about the aforementioned kings’ aversion to water. Visitors can walk along a Perfume Promenade discovering scents from the 16th Century to the present day.
After our fragrant tour we headed for the gorgeous Hotel de la Tonnellerie, an hour’s drive away in the village of Tavers, where we were booked in for the night. This is a charming three star establishment where we dined on the terrace after a dip in the outdoor pool.
The hotel was so lovely and laid back it became an instant favourite with our group and we were sorry to leave the following morning.
But there was a busy day ahead and next up was the Royal Chateau of Blois, effectively four chateaux in one. The oldest section was built in the 13th Century, and still stands at a sizeable 500sq metres.
When Louis XII, who was born in the castle, became king in 1498 he moved the royal court here and built a second adjacent chateau, not a fortress this time but a beautiful brick Gothic building with large windows and sculptures.
His successor Francis 1 became king in 1515 and immediately began building an even more elaborate Renaissance building with a magnificent and ornate spiral staircase outside.
The brother of Louis XIII was subsequently given the chateau as a wedding gift in 1626 and had a grandiose plan to build an entirely new classical building and began a fourth section while destroying part of the old chateau.
Fortunately, his vandalism came to an end in 1638 when his nephew Louis XIV was born and he realised he was never going to be king – and therefore could not afford his massive building project.
In all, seven French kings lived in the Royal Chateau of Blois from Louis XII to Henry IV, so it should not be missed. But it eventually fell into disrepair and was turned into a military barracks for 80 years with extensive damage.
The French state began its restoration in 1843, and it became the first in the Loire Valley to be opened to the public.
Today the Royal Chateau of Blois, sitting on all four sides of a square, is one of the region’s biggest attractions.
Our next stop was 18km away, the international Gardens of Paradise festival at the Regional Domaine of Chaumont-sur-Loire, where we had lunch in the gastronomic Le Grand Velum restaurant in the chateau.
This is a lovely conservatory so we were surrounded by plants as we enjoyed a starter of pasta with green vegetables followed by roast duck with cauliflower stuffed with peas and pepper purée. On the side was a macaroon with polenta and wine sauce. Dessert was blackcurrant ice cream over white chocolate, panna cotta with almond figs and a chocolate macaroon with ginger.
We also did some wine tasting in the extraordinary wine caves of Monmousseau, built into the cliffs in Montrichard.
Then it was on to our accommodation for the night, Chateau de Chissay in Chissay-en-Touraine, with huge rooms and an outdoor pool on the front lawn.
It’s not every day you get to stay in a real chateau so this was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.
Next morning we saw the most magnificent gardens of our tour at Bouges-le-Chateau, an explosion of vibrant colours surrounded by beautiful lawns. Built 20 years before the French Revolution, this relatively small but charming chateau is open only for tours at set times but gives a wonderful glimpse into what life was like in past times.
At the nearby Chateau Valencay, 17kms away, we had the chance to do some wine and cheese tasting in the beautiful grounds, sampling delicious local brands of goat’s cheese and white and rosé wines.
Valencay cheese and wines are protected by licence as specialities of the area. We also tried local patés, breads, skewered chicken barbecued with aubergines and “Easter pie,” a veal and egg roll in pastry, traditionally cooked at the end of Lent.
Fourth generation cheesemaker Roman Jacquin, of P.Jacquin & Fils, told me the family business made 1,000 tons a year and our own Dunnes Stores is a customer.
Just up the road is the Domaine of Poulaines, extensive gardens and woodlands where you can book in for some leave-the-world-behind solitude and savour trees from around the world.
We stayed in the Chateau de la Corroirie that night – it was now becoming a habit! – a large, rambling pile with beautiful restored rooms outside the village of Montrésor.
Our final full day took in two more chateaux of completely different styles. The first was the small Montpoupon, which had a homely feel because it is still lived in by the owners who have developed an amazing hunt museum for those interested in the sport, the horses, dogs or uniforms.
The second was the magnificent – and world famous – Chenonceau built over the River Cher on a series of arches.
We were there during the summer heatwave when temperatures hit the 40s so I retreated to the gardens to admire the stunning view of the chateau from a distance.
In its L’Orangerie gastronomic restaurant we enjoyed a lunch of mixed appetisers, veal rump roast with mushrooms and parmesan cream followed by the pastry chef’s selection of the day.
Our final night was spent in the beautiful town of Amboise where we dressed up in period costume for a Renaissance ball in the castle, later enjoying drinks on the square just outside the gates.
A trip to the historic city of Tours ended our journey the next day where I loved a fun sightseeing trip as a pillion passenger on an ancient motorbike. This was the way to travel!
From there it was a train ride back to Paris and our Aer Lingus flight home.
For information on the Loire Valley : www.loirevalley-France.co.uk
Chateau Chamerolles: €8 for adults, free for children under 6. €5 for children aged 6-17 and students. www.chateauchamerolles.fr
Royal Chateau of Blois: Entry €12 for adults and €6.50 or children over 6. www.chateaudeblois.fr
International garden festival: www.domaine-chaumont.fr
Bouges-le-Chateau: Adults €8 but entry is free for schoolchildren. www.chateau-bouges.fr
Motorbike sidecar tours with Retro Tour cost from €59 for half an hour: www.retro-tour.com or contact email@example.com. Telephone +33 7684835 18.
Aer Lingus flies direct to Paris on www.aerlingus.com
Written By Jim Gallagher