If there’s one region of France that is brimming with kid-appeal it’s the Loire valley, just a few hours southwest of Paris.
This is classic castle country, and what child can resist peeking into the bedchambers, poking around the dungeons and dancing in the ball rooms where kings, queens and noblemen used to dwell? You’ll have a hard time cherry-picking which out of the 50-odd storybook châteaux to visit.
But narrowing down the list is a must as most children can only take in 2 or 3 a day before becoming a bit blasé with all that grandeur. Cycling trips, river excursions and elaborate light and sound shows on the castle grounds are a good way to soak in the majesty of the region.
Here are some family-friendly highlights we honed in on during or recent jaunt to the Loire with the kids.
Walk in Sleeping Beauty’s footsteps
You hear the adjective “fairy tale” to describe the Loire châteaux a lot. Well, for Chateau d’Ussé it’s no hyperbole as it is the actual castle that inspired Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty in the 17th century (note, it doesn’t look like the Disney version). My girls loved exploring its classic turrets, towers and grand spiral staircases while searching for slumber-inducing spindles. There’s a small wax museum that pays homage to the story – a little schlocky from a grown-up perspective, but the girls were enchanted by the costumes and characters.
As a counterpoint to all the glorious castles, take the kids to the troglodyte village in Rochemenier. Troglo what? Troglodytes are underground cave homes carved out of limestone. These ones have been inhabited since the 12th century and some modernized ones are still lived in today. Your kids will find these subterranean rock rooms really cool – both literally and figuratively.
Check out Da Vinci’s digs
Did you know Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years in the Loire? His final home and resting place is in the delightful cobblestone town of Amboise. A short walk from the impressive Amboise castle is the small Château du Clos Lucé and Parc Leonardo da Vinci. While strolling through this house and peaceful park kids can see, touch and play with large scale models of some of Leo’s ingenious inventions, including tanks, paddle boats, parachutes and flying machines – designs that were centuries ahead of his time.
Honey, I shrunk the château
Not far from Amboise is Le Parc des Mini-Châteaux where over 40 tiny detailed replicas of the major Loire castles are on display. Kids can make like giants walking through the garden while getting a good overview of what châteaux are out there, and then let you know which ones they want to see full size. An aquarium is affiliated with this park if your family wants to check out the aquatic diversity of the Loire.
A few other choice châteaux
Château de Chambord: With 440 rooms this is the biggest château in the region, built as a mere hunting lodge for King Francois I. The centerpiece of the castle is its grand double-helix staircase, an architectural marvel as two people can simultaneously ascend and descend the stairs without ever seeing each other.
Château de Chenonceau: This classic château is built right over the waters of the Cher river, its mirrored reflection making for an impressive photo op. My kids loved taking a rowboat through the tunnels beneath the castle. Don’t miss the hedge maze in the arbour.
Château de Cheverny: If the ornate architecture, furnishings and landscaping of this symmetrical château don’t impress the kids, the little Tintin museum might. Belgian comic book creator Hergé used Cheverny as his model for Marlinspike Hall, the setting for many adventures of Tintin and Snowy (popular in Europe for over 80 years).