Visitors to France's valley of castles enter a fairytale world that was once the playground of monarchs. 1. Chateau de Chenonceau (below left) This castle is the epitome of the grace and splendour of the French Renaissance. Known as 'the ladies' chateau', its development was significantly guided by several remarkable women, chief among them King Henry II's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and his wife, Catherine de Medici. Chenonceau, which was built sometime before the 11th century, is the complete experience: a noble chateau that arches gracefully over the River Cher; an interior with every room decorated in Renaissance-period style; beautiful and extensive formal gardens and finely mown lawns; wooded parkland all around; and an excellent restaurant in the Orangerie. See www.chenonceau.com . 2. Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau This 16th-century castle is also set on water, surreally appearing to float upon the lazy, limpid River Indre. Azay-le-Rideau was built by Gilles Berthelot, a powerful nobleman. Suspected of embezzlement by King Francois I, Berthelot was forced to flee. The king then confiscated the chateau and passed it on to one of his cronies. The chateau and its park are located on a wooded island in the Indre, with the bijou town of the same name adjacent. See azay-le-rideau.monuments-nationaux.fr/en. 3. Chateau de Villandry This historic monument, 15km west of Tours, is renowned for its formal gardens, which are some of the most spectacular in the world. Recreated from Renaissance blueprints a century ago in an extraordinary labour of love by the Spanish proprietor, the gardens boast a beautifully meticulous centrepiece of nine squares laid out with vegetables and three with box hedges. Further up is a water garden with shady bowers and, to the side on an upper level, is the Garden of Love (below right), where sculpted hedges and blood-red flowers mark out the patterns of tender, fickle, passionate and tragic love. Inside the chateau is a fine collection of Spanish paintings, including Goyas, and a suite of rooms in richly colourful Second Empire style. See www.chateauvillandry.com . 4. Chateau de Blois Standing on a bluff high above the old city of Blois and overlooking the River Loire, this fortress-chateau has a turbulent past that includes much royal skulduggery. It stands out for its unique architecture, richly decorated interiors and brilliant sound and light show. Joan of Arc passed through in 1429 on her way to end the siege at Orleans; Catherine de Medici, Henry II's powerful widow, nursed a collection of poisons here; and Henry I, Duke of Guise, a rival for the throne, was murdered at the chateau on Henry III's orders in 1588. The chateau was built in four period styles from the 13th to the 17th centuries. The square courtyard is where the dazzling son et lumiere takes place nightly. See www.bloispaysdechambord.com/index.asp . 5. Chateau de Chambord Easily the largest Loire chateau, Chambord is a colossal riot of towers and turrets set amid vast lawns and a lake, around which spreads one of France's greatest hunting forests. Created in the early 16th century by great Renaissance monarch Francois I, who thereby set the trend for splendid residences in the Loire Valley, the chateau was completed by the Sun King, Louis XIV. These big names account for its enormity; it's not pretty, and its 440 rooms are virtually bare, but the sense of vaulting ambition and limitless power is unforgettable. The restaurant, logically, serves wild boar and venison. Cyclists will appreciate the riding opportunities offered in the park and surroundings. See www.chambord.org/index.htm . 6. Chateau de Brissac It's rare for a great chateau to have been continuously inhabited by the same aristocratic family for centuries. Possessing the title of the 'tallest chateau in France', this seven-storeyed pile, which dominates the village of the same name, west of Tours, has been in the hands of the dukes of Brissac since 1502. Indeed, the current Comte de Brissac is likely to welcome you in person, in perfect English. Richly decorated rooms are a feature, including a royal bedroom with a scarlet damask four-poster bed. Even better, it's a uniquely high-class guest house, with two suites and two 'historical bedrooms' available plus an own-brand wine cellar. See www.chateau-brissac.fr . 7. Le Prieure The former Benedictine priory is now a chateau hotel, outstanding for its views, its verdant park setting and its restaurant. Close to the historic wine-making town of Saumur, perched on a hillside above the Loire, the hotel's north-facing rooms have exquisite views over the broad river, which flows past wooded banks and islands. The cafe terrace and the picture-window restau-rant give similar transcendent views, especially on sunny summer evenings, when swifts, swallows and egrets flit over the water far below. See www.grandesetapes.fr/v2/fr/Chateau-hotel-prieure/index.html . 8. Chateau de Chinon Chinon is a medieval town with a maze of narrow streets dominated by an enormous hilltop fortress. This is where Joan of Arc made her way through the sneering courtiers to pick out the dauphin - recall Milla Jovovich and John Malkovich in 1999's The Messenger - and an amazing period of medieval history began. Before that, in the 12th century, Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine established the Plantagenet court in this castle. Chinon produces some well-regarded wines; opposite the castle entrance are the prestigious Couly-Dutheil vineyards and tasting rooms. See www.forteresse-chinon.fr . 9. Chateau de Marcay Most of the Loire chateaux are manageable mansions rather than grand palaces and it is these more modest abodes, relatively speaking, that tend to be revitalised as hotels. The four-star Chateau de Marcay is a fine example, set in the rolling fields south of Chinon, overlooking the village of Marcay and adjacent to its own vineyard. A four-towered white limestone edifice of 15th-century origin, it boasts an excellent restaurant gastronomique and a suitably baronial lounge and bar. See www.chateaudemarcay.com . 10. Chateau des Sept Tours This stately home-turned-resort hotel is in the agricultural heart of the Touraine region, 30km northwest of Tours. It is reached via rolling empty roads that wind through wheat fields and woods. Devoted to active pursuits, the hotel is set amid an 18-hole golf course with a clubhouse and a swimming pool plus a gourmet restaurant. The seven-towered building is an excellent example of a 19th-century fantasy chateau. The stables have been converted into a 24-room, contemporary-style annexe. See www.7tours.com .