Although a favorite of Loire connoisseurs, the 16th-century Château de Chaumont is often overlooked by visitors who are content to ride the conveyor belt of big châteaux like Chambord and Chenonceau. It's their loss. Set on a dramatic bluff that towers over the river, Chaumont has always cast a spell—perhaps literally so. One of its fabled owners, Catherine de' Medici, occasionally came here with her court "astrologer," the notorious Ruggieri. In one of Chaumont's bell-tower rooms, the queen reputedly practiced sorcery. Whether or not Ruggieri still haunts the place (or Nostradamus, another on Catherine's guest list), there seem to be few castles as spirit-warm as this one.
Built by Charles II d'Amboise between 1465 and 1510, the château greets visitors with glorious, twin-tower châtelets—twin turrets that frame a double drawbridge. The castle became the residence of Henri II. After his death his widow Catherine de' Medici took revenge on his mistress, the
fabled beauty Diane de Poitiers, and forced her to exchange Chenonceau for Chaumont. Another "refugee" was the late-18th-century writer Madame de Staël. Exiled from Paris by Napoléon, she wrote De l'Allemagne (On Germany) here, a book that helped kick-start the Romantic movement in France. In the 19th century her descendants, the Prince and Princess de Broglie, set up regal shop, as you can still see from the stone-and-brick stables, where purebred horses (and one elephant) lived like royalty in velvet-lined stalls. The couple also renovated many rooms in the glamorous neo-Gothic style of the 1870s. Today the castle retains a sense of fantasy: witness the contemporary art installations displayed in different rooms or the latest horticultural innovations showcased during the Festival International des Jardins, held from April to November in the extensive park. The château is a stiff walk up a long path from the little village of Chaumont-sur-Loire, but cars and taxis can also drop you off at the top of the hill.