With some of France’s most beautiful countryside, most stunning chateaux and finest wines, it's no wonder the Loire Valley is a perennial fave
Known with some justification as ‘the heart of France’, the Loire Valley, more than any other region, really epitomises rural France. Images of the area adorn tourist posters and travel brochures, and every summer, coaches converge here from across Europe. But that isn’t what first drew me to this district. No - that happened way back in my schooldays. I’ve always had a fascination for maps, and one day in the school library I stumbled across a medieval map of France. I was amazed at how many tiny bits of land it was divided into, each governed by a different member of the aristocracy, and each with their own heavily defended seats of power. I remember thinking how the Loire area in particular must almost have a castle on every hill.
Several years later, when I finally found the opportunity to explore the region, I was able to congratulate myself on a pretty accurate assumption! The whole area is littered with some of the most beautiful chateaux, and impressive fortifications, in the whole of France. The biggest problem you will have is deciding which places are the ones you most want to see.
I have two golden rules for exploring the Loire Valley. First, stay in the area. Quite apart from it being one of the most visually appealing areas of France, it’s not an area to travel about in quickly, so the closer you are to the places you want to see the better. Somewhere in the Blois–Tours–Saumur area is best.
I was fortunate to find a superb small farm with gites to rent, which is run by a British family. Le Chapy is just outside Saumur, very reasonable, and the hosts – Bill and Fiona Hanna – are extremely welcoming. If you prefer to be catered for, then the Hotel Mercure, in Blois, is a good choice. Overlooking the river, not far from the town centre, it’s within easy reach of all the main chateaux.
My second rule is: stay independent. Ignore the many pre-arranged coach trips to the main chateaux, as they bind you to tight schedules, meaning you never have the time to appreciate all there is to see. They also charge quite high prices for what they offer. Instead, either take your own car or, better still, hire bikes and cycle the area. There are plenty of cycle paths, and it’s a perfect way to follow the river and visit the various places of interest. You can buy a 'Passport to the Loire' ticket from the local tourist offices, which gives you entry to 10 of the National Monuments in the valley. It will save you a good deal of money if you are planning to visit a number of attractions.
So where do you visit? Well, of course that’s largely a matter of personal taste. My recommendation for the best of the chateaux would have to be Chenonceau and Azay-le-Rideau. These magnificent Renaissance masterpieces are national treasures, and are always busy. I always try to go early, and be there at opening time. That way you get to at least get a first look around before the coaches arrive! Close behind these two for visitor appeal are the sprawling, ornate Chambord, with its mass of spires, and Blois, with its four wings each representing a different era.
Less glamorous, but no less impressive, are the more historic fortifications of the region. The medieval citadel at Loches is certainly worthy of some time, but I like to seek out some of the lesser-known sites too, such as the menacing Chateaux Langeais. Overlooking the river between Tours and Saumur, it is still as it was in the 15th century –including the furniture – when the marriage of Charles VIII and Duchess Anne of Brittany took place here, thus keeping a peace with the threatening Bretons.
Of course there are other attractions to see in this area. The Loire itself has some glorious riverside walks, although its fast and unpredictable nature rules out most boating and swimming activities.
Just west of Tours are my favourite gardens of the region. The extensive Villandry gardens are representative of the types that were found in many of the old chateaux, and have the added bonus of a wonderful location. This area produces the best French wines, and where better to enjoy them than sitting in these colourful gardens, overlooking the point where the River Cher flows into the mighty Loire.
In truth, wherever you decide to explore in the central Loire region, you’ll find more than enough to occupy your time. Every town and village has a story to tell, as you would expect in an area with such a long and volatile history. From the ancient troglodyte caves near Saumur to the scars from the Second World War, the Loire is steeped in history, but is still a fascinating, beautiful and relaxing place to visit. Take your time, and visit the unusual as well as the popular, and you will see why it’s a place I enjoy returning to as often as I can.
Two restaurants I would recommend are L’Orangerie Restaurant, in the grounds of Saumur Chateau, and Le Grande Monarque Restaurant, in Azay-le-Rideau.
Bike rental is available from the Lac de Loire campsite, on the outskirts of Blois