Why you’ll love Christmas in France’s festive Loire Valley

Some of the most spectacular Christmas exhibitions, shows and activities in France are only 2 hours by train from the center of Paris. The magnificent and majestic Chateau de la Loire, once the medieval capital of France, home to kings, queens and royalty, turns into holiday delights during the month of December.

Christmas tree at Chenonceau castle

Christmas tree at Chenonceau castle

Photo credit: Richard Nahem

Chenonceau Castle

One of the most extravagant holiday exhibits is at the Château de Chenonceau. Dating back to the 12th century, the current castle was built in the early 1500s and belonged to King Francis I. In 1535, he bequeathed it to his daughter Diane de Poitiers. In 1559, Queen Catherine de Medici, widow of King Henry II of France, overthrew the palace and replaced Diane de Poitiers.

For the holiday season, award-winning floral and table designer Jean François Boucher takes inspiration from the nearby forest to decorate long banquet tables and centerpieces with dried mushrooms, moss and foliage. Boucher is known for winning the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, one of the country’s highest honors for craftsmen, awarded by the president. In the downstairs kitchen, Boucher caters to chocolate addicts and sets an all-chocolate table, also including Panettone, a Christmas classic. Each room in the castle has the most sumptuous tables with frozen, dried and fresh fruit. Displays feature fresh and dried flowers, feathers, gold and silver painted branches, hanging displays with satin ribbons and colorful ornaments, and gold candelabra on the tables. In the vestibules and great halls, trees almost touching the ceilings are festooned with festive lights, ornaments and decorations.

The Château de Chenonceau organizes workshops, courses, visits and wine tastings during the month of December. You can learn how to set a royal table with the workshop “The art of receiving in the Renaissance”, taught by an expert in historical table design. Boucher, the master himself, even teaches a class on how to create your own special floral arrangements for Christmas.

Chateau Clos Luce

Originally owned by the royal family of Amboise, Château Clos Lucé was given as an inheritance to a kitchen servant, Etienne le Loup, by King Louis XI. It later became the summer residence of the kings of France. In 1516, King Francis I and Louise of Savoy invited Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci to become the king’s first painter, engineer and architect. Da Vinci was lodged at Clos Lucé, where he spent the next 3 years until his death in 1519.

In December, Château Clos Lucé celebrates the spirit of the master creator — and Christmas — with shows, workshops and gastronomic events.

For the first time in its history, Château Clos Lucé is producing an interactive mini-musical, especially for children, where they are invited and encouraged to sing, create or join in the improvisation.

You can explore the castle’s 15-acre grounds by horse-drawn carriage, where you’ll learn the fascinating history and visit the various buildings where Leonardo da Vinci created his masterpieces and inventions. A soothing hot chocolate or mulled spiced mulled wine is an added treat at the end.

Once again, children are invited to Clos Lucé for Christmas to take part in lessons where they can develop their art. There are opportunities to paint on glass and with watercolours, learn medieval calligraphy, draw, make greeting cards and design Christmas tree ornaments.

Unique culinary experiences

Sieur Sausin, a chef specializing in historical cuisine, offers a workshop on Renaissance cuisine. Participants learn to cook the dishes of the time, the spices, the habits and customs, the table setting. Hot milk with cinnamon and mulled wine is served at the end.

Mathurine was Leonardo da Vinci’s French cook, living near him during his last years. An official guide and historian personifies Mathurine, sharing his intimate stories and anecdotes about da Vinci and French Christmas legends and traditions of centuries past.

Château de Chambord Christmas tree

Château de Chambord Christmas tree

Photo credit: Richard Nahem

Chambord Castle

The largest of the Loire castles, the Château de Chambord is an excellent example of the blend of medieval French architecture and the French Renaissance. Begun in 1519 and completed in 1547, it was built for King Francis I and was also a hunting lodge with hunting grounds and extensive gardens. The huge wooded park and game farm surrounding the castle covers 13,000 acres or 52.5 square miles.

Château de Chambord pulls out all the stops for Christmas with gorgeous decorations, dozens of trees inside and out, and special light shows.

Nearly 100 exterior trees leading to the castle are illuminated and the exterior of the castle is illuminated in dramatic and changing colors.

Traditional board games from the 1600s to the 1800s are available for adults and children. There’s plenty of holiday entertainment with performers walking around the castle in period costumes, fencing demonstrations, music concerts and a Renaissance-style Christmas pageant featuring comedians, actors, a singer and four musicians.

Christmas tree at the Château de Blois

Christmas tree at the Château de Blois

Photo credit: Richard Nahem

Blois Castle

The Château de Blois, built between the 14th and 17th centuries, was the home of various counts of Blois and kings of France for almost 400 years. It contains 564 rooms, including 100 chambers and 75 staircases.

There is no shortage of family activities for Christmas at the Château de Blois, including the rereading of The beauty and the Beast, closely linked to the castle; a cabinet of curiosities workshop for children; a workshop for making historic paper silhouettes; and a Mystery Night Tour, where you can discover rooms not usually open to the public.

The Anooki is a magical 10-minute light and sound show performed outside the castle.

Hotels

The Choiseul

Le Choiseul, in the town of Amboise, is a charming four-star hotel housed in an old 18th century residence just a 15-minute walk from Château Clos Lucé. Restaurant 36 serves classic French specialties in an elegant dining room. Chenonceau Castle is about 20 minutes by car from the hotel.

Loire Flower

Fleur de Loire is a recently opened five-star hotel-spa in the city of Blois. The hotel has a two-star Michelin restaurant, Christophe Hay, run by celebrity chef Christophe Hay. It offers three, six and nine course dinners using exclusively sourced and locally produced ingredients. There’s also a more casual restaurant, bakery, and patisserie, where everything is freshly baked on site. The Chateau de Blois is about a 20-minute walk from the hotel and the Chateau de Chambord is about 25 minutes by car.

Pro tip: Amboise is around 2 hours by train from Gare Montparnasse in Paris and Blois is around 2 hours by train from Gare Austerlitz in Paris. We strongly recommend that you rent a car to move between the different castles as there is little public transport.

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