Spotlight on the Loire Valley
Known as the garden of France, the Loire Valley is a lush green land of undulating countryside, where rich vineyards are interspersed with charming towns and magnificent châteaux.
There are over 300 châteaux in the region. Some of the best include Château de Villandry with its superb Renaissance gardens, romantic Château de Chenonceau and Château de Chambord, the largest and most extravagant of them all.
But there is more to the Loire Valley than châteaux. Explore the lively cities of Tours and Orleans, and the delightful towns of Saumur, Amboise and Blois. The climate is perfect for outdoor activities too. Walk or cycle through beautiful gardens or take to the water for a jaunt down the river. And of course, no visit would be complete without sampling the excellent local wines.
Châteaux near Tours
Tours is the largest city in the Loire Valley, located between two rivers; the Loire to the north and the Cher to the south. The city has a lively cosmopolitan atmosphere, packed with café-lined boulevards. There are gorgeous public gardens, a lovely old quarter and superb shopping opportunities. For awe-inspiring architecture, check out Cathedrale St-Gatien, which showcases fantastic Romanesque and Gothic design. Tours is also home to many museums, including Musée des Beaux-Arts, where the outstanding collection includes Rembrandt and Mantegna paintings.
Head west from Tours and your châteaux adventure begins.
Château de Villandry is one of the most visited châteaux in France. Completed in 1536, it is most famous for its superb Renaissance gardens. The property was purchased in 1906 by Joachim Carvallo, who saved it from demolition. He poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into restoring it and creating the spectacular gardens, which include a water garden, ornamental flower garden and vegetable garden.
Follow the Indre River downstream to find Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. Built on an island, its foundations rise straight out of the river. The château ranks among the most famous and most graceful in the Loire. Built between 1518 and 1527, it is one of the earliest Renaissance chateaux, with charming ornamental features and a richly decorated facade.
Located in Rigny-Ussé, nine miles west of Azay is Château d’Ussé. Built in 1462 as a battlemented fortress, it has been transformed into a flamboyant aristocratic château. With gleaming white turrets, terraced gardens and Chinon forest as a backdrop, it is said to have inspired the author of Sleeping Beauty. This is the ultimate fairytale castle – children will love exploring. Some rooms are occupied by waxwork figures illustrating the classic Sleeping Beauty story.
Saumur to Angers
Further west, between Tours and Angers is the serene town of Saumur, best known for its sparkling wines and national horse riding school. With predominantly white stone buildings and a strong 19th century provincial flavour, Saumur is delightful to wander around. The highlight is graceful Château de Saumur, set on a hill above the town. In the past it has been both a palace and a prison but today it houses two very different museums, Musée des Arts Decoratifs featuring a collection of paintings, tapestries and ceramics, and Musée du Cheval whose exhibits are all horse related.
Angers is located on the river Maine, a thriving town with wide boulevards, timber-framed houses and beautiful public gardens. The Cathedrale St-Maurice was built in the 12th century – the facades are adorned with impressive Gothic sculptures. Also in the old quarter is Château d’Angers. The huge fortress has drum towers and curtain walls, rising up to 60 metres in height. Shielded inside the massive ramparts is the Apocalypse Tapestry, the largest known medieval tapestry in France.
Angers is also home to Cointreau liqueur, made from a blend of sweet and bitter orange peels. The distillery was founded here in 1849 by the Cointreau brothers. You can visit the museum and take a tour, it concludes with a Cointreau cocktail.
In and around Amboise
Upstream of Tours is the relaxed town of Amboise, set on the banks of the Loire nestled under a fortified château. Worth a visit is Clos-Lucé, a graceful manor house on the outskirts of Amboise, said to be where Leonardo da Vinci spent the final few years of his life. This has now been turned into a museum exhibiting the artist’s inventions.
Near Amboise, romantic Château de Chenonceau is the most popular in the region attracting 600,000 visitors every year. The gorgeous château stretches across the river Cher and is surrounded by elegant formal gardens. The château owes a large part of its charm to the women who have lived there. It was built in 1513 by Katherine Briconnet and then made even more attractive by Henri II’s mistress Diane de Potiers. Later his widow Catherine de Medicis added her feminine touch, and finally Louise Dupin saved it from the rigours of the French Revolution. There are many beautifully furnished rooms to explore including Catherine de Medicis study and the 60 metre long Grand Galerie, plus a waxwork museum, restaurant and play area for young children. You can also buy wine from Chenonceau’s own vineyards.
Blois to Orléans
Further north, situated between Tours and Orléans is the bustling town of Blois. Considered the tourist capital of the area, it has narrow winding streets and picturesque old buildings. Look out for Maison des Acrobates, a half timbered medieval house, ornately carved with acrobats and jugglers. Château de Blois is a located in the centre of town, a unique mix of three distinctive architectural styles – Gothic, Renaissance and Classical. Over the years it has been home to Kings Louis XII, Francois I and Henri III.
Close to Blois is Château de Chambord, the largest and most extravagant of all the Loire châteaux. Commissioned by Francois I as a hunting lodge, it has an impressive 440 rooms and 85 staircases, including an innovative double spiral staircase said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Ascend to the roof terrace to enjoy stunning views over the surrounding forest. The château grounds are extensive and well marked with walking, cycling and riding trails – plus it’s the perfect spot for a picnic.
Chambord hosts many events and festivals during the summer months and each night there is a sound and light show, projected upon the château’s famous north facade.
The city of Orléans lies at the northernmost point of the Loire River. Known as the ‘city of roses’, there is a stunning Gothic cathedral and beautiful gardens to explore. One of Orléans’ most famous residents was Joan of Arc. Her legacy is honoured throughout the city with statues and museums. You can visit a reconstructed version of the warrior-saint’s home which contains exhibits about her life.
Sancerrois wine tour
Sancerrois is a region in eastern Loire renowned for its wine and goats cheese. Surrounded by rolling hills and mile after mile of vineyards, this is an excellent area for a wine tour and you’ll experience the best the Loire has to offer. A good starting point is the sleepy hilltop town of Sancerre. Visit caves and taste fresh fragrant white wines made from the Sauvignon grape, or charming light reds and rosés made from the Pinot Noir.
Vinon, Bue and Verdigny are other popular wine villages where you can visit cellars, sample local produce and buy a few bottles to take home. Also in the Sancerrois region is Chavignol, where one of the best goat’s cheeses is produced. Known as Crottin de Chavignol, the flavour combines perfectly with the dry white wines of Sancerre. Try it warm and grilled – in a salad or as an addition to your cheeseboard.
The Loire Valley is the perfect holiday destination, combining fascinating architectural history, stunning countryside and a relaxed way of life – why not discover the region for yourself?