The town of Amboise on the Loire is associated with some of the best known figures in European history. Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood and teenage years at the Chateau before she returned to Scotland. Leonardo da Vinci had a house here after the French king France I invited him to live in Amboise. He also died in Amboise and is buried in the castle’s chapel.
When we drove to Amboise, we know nothing about this. We were on our trip from Spain to Germany, relocating our car on a four-day road trip that was both exciting but also daunting. Our choice of Amboise as our stop for the night was merely of a practical nature. Little did we know about the charming atmosphere of the medieval town, the role it played in history.
So, how lucky were we, how blessed to find this little gem on our way north to our new home in Germany?
Disclaimer: This post may include affiliate links (*).
Amboise in the Loire Valley: Romantic Towns, Fairytale Castles
As it turned out, with all the history, the impressive castle, the quaint old town streets and the views of the river, we couldn’t have asked for a better stopover!
Through my former work at an online travel agent I knew about the castles of the Loire and that the region was a popular tourist destination. But I had never bothered to look up the exact location. I only knew that it was somewhere in the middle of France. Nor did I ever thought of visiting the area myself, although I could understand the lure of this place.
The chateaux of the Loire were a perfect romantic destination with lots of small towns and villages with medieval feel and castles of extraordinary splendour in their midst.
Château de Chenonceau may come to mind when you hear about the Loire castles. It is a beautiful white chateau, built like a bridge that spans the river Cher. A fairytale palace that reflects on the surface of the water, surrounded by formal gardens and adorned with playful turrets.
It is just one of dozens of chateaux in this historic area. What I didn’t realise until we had actually arrived in Amboise, was that with the Château d’Amboise we had just arrived in the heart of it all.
Our Romantic Stay at Hotel Le Choiseul in Amboise
After driving through the historic centre of Amboise, we found a free parking spot right by the river. Our hotel for the night was Hotel Le Choiseul, an old mansion that the king had given to his most favourite apothecary. There are many so-called castle hotels in the region. Not all of them are actually castles, but many of the hotels used the old structures of stately homes and mansions of which there were plenty in the area.
Our room at Hotel Le Choiseul was a in period style and felt authentic. High ceilings, classic wallpaper, windows opening to the Loire, a disused fireplace. The floorboards moved with every step. The bathroom was hidden behind the interior wall, set into the former “invisible” service area of the servants. Staying at this romantic hotel was an unexpected treat, a reward for our strenuous trip from Spain to Germany.
Our new quarters set the right mood for our stay in Amboise. Even though we were tired from driving and from the oppressive summer heat, we couldn’t wait to walk into the city to explore the Château d’Amboise and the timber-frame houses surrounding it.
Exploring Château d’Amboise: the Da Vinci Chapel, Formal Gardens, Dollhouse Views
Château d’Amboise stood tall in the centre of Amboise. The impressive high defensive walls were on top of a rock that was riddled with caves like a Swiss cheese. Surrounding the structure, we saw balconies, windows and barred doors. Countless gargoyles looked down on us. The walls had clear signs of damage from artillery fire. Swallows swirling above our heads.
On the riverside, the castle looked forbidding, like a fortress. But once we had turned the corner and approached the building from the town, it looked more fairytale-like and welcoming.
On the grounds, we first visited the chapel which is now the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci. What we learned that day was that Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Amboise. The French king Francis I had wanted him close by. The artist and inventor da Vinci worked for him on a lion that would be able to walk forward and would hold a cluster of lilies in his chest. Da Vinci lived in a house close to the castle in Amboise called Clos Lucé which can also be visited today.
Whether or not Leonardo da Vincci really lay buried to our feet in the chapel of Château d’Amboise remains speculation. There is currently DNA testing underway to find out the truth. For now, all we could do was looking at his presumed final resting place which was commemorated with two plaques, one in French and one in Italian.
Looking down from the castle gardens, the views were outstanding with the houses of Amboise appearing like dolls houses. The Loire looked like a green ribbon, with little rapids curling the surface near the only bridge. The flags with the French fleur-de-lis were blowing in the wind, making flapping sounds. We explored the formal garden with the spherical clipped shrubs, the small vineyard, the beautiful Lebanese cedar. Mediterranean herbs added their perfume to the mix: lavender, jasmine, rosemary.
The Historic Connections of Amboise Chateau: From Da Vinci to Mary Queen of Scots
It was time to go inside. By comparison, the castle lacked a bit of appeal. We walked through the stately rooms, looked out the windows onto the Loire. Imagined how Mary Queen of Scots may have spent her childhood here at the French court. How Leonardo da Vinci may have led inspiring discussions with his friend, the King of France.
It was all very grand. Yet, it didn’t quite set itself apart from other castles that we had seen in the past. At least we had fun walking up and down the narrow spiral staircases. We spent quite some time just looking out the windows and inspecting the gargoyles at close range.
It was only towards the end of our visit that we saw something truly extraordinary. The exit of the castle was a spiral walkway leading down a tower. It was built in a way to allow a carriage to climb the ascent to the castle. Along the walls we saw some of the most amazing stonework, masks of faces, devils and animals, grotesque and each of them unique in their own way.
Amboise: A Perfect Location to Explore the Romantic Castles of the Loire Region
Hungry and tired we ended our exploration on the market square of Amboise. Even though quite touristic, we managed to find a small table at a good restaurant. To finish the day, we ordered cold foods and onion soup and glass of cool white wine. Outside a big storm rolled in.
Amboise with its chateau was an unexpected find, the biggest treat on our journey back home to Germany. We wished we had had more time here to explore more of Amboise and the many other castles in the Loire region. I guess we will have to come back soon. More photos as you scroll down ↓