Château de Chambord
Chateaux de Chambord © Arnaud Scherer
Eleven miles (18km) east of Blois, the vast Château de Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley. It was commissioned by François I, who wanted to outshine the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the result is a spectacular Renaissance masterpiece with 450 rooms. It was designed by an Italian architect in 1519, but was worked on by French masons. The outside is essentially French medieval - massive round towers with conical tops, and an explosion of chimneys, pinnacles and turrets. The details inside, however, are pure Italian: the Great Staircase (attributed by some to da Vinci), panels of coloured marble, niches decorated with shell-like domes, and freestanding columns. Wandering through, one can get a good feel for the contrasting architectural styles, which have combined to create a very decadent, if at times discordant, whole. The château is surrounded by a 20-mile (32km) wall containing a 5,261-hectare (13,000-acre) deer park. It is one of the most impressive castles in the world.