The Châteaux of the Loire
The stunning Loire Valley is full of historical splendour and intrigue...
Resplendently lush and supremely regal, France's Loire Valley is a fairytale land of Medieval and Renaissance chateaux, strung out like cream-coloured pearls along the sweeping Loire, Maine, Vienne and Indre rivers. It is a UNESCO-protected national park of hunting forests, vineyards and landscaped gardens. A place where sleepy hamlets and Romanesque churches juxtapose troglodyte dwellings whose hobbit-chic interiors are carved into the pale tufa rock. Then there's the gastronomy: with dozens of appellations of wine - including some highly quaffable sparkling Vouvrays and well-rounded Saumur-Champignys - and local specialties like pike-perch in butter, the Loire Valley is one wholly sophisticated bourgeois seventh heaven.
For over 250 years it was the seat of power of the Valois kings, who preferred to rule from towns like Amboise than Paris. Then under François I (1494-1547) it became the wellspring of the French Renaissance, as architects and artists from Italy were brought in to design and build royal palaces. The trail of crowd-pleasers left behind from this era is arguably one of the best in the world: A little too crowd-pleasing in the high season (April-Sept), when snap-happy tourists arrive by the coach load.
The gateway to the Loire Valley is Tours, which lies just an hour away from Paris by TGV. From here you should hire a car as many of the best châteaux lie in the countryside around the main towns of Amboise, Chinon, Saumur and Angers. They make ideal springboards from which to launch yourself into the surrounding sights: the Loire's heritage is so vast and varied that spur-of-the-moment sightseeing is par for the course, and driving will help you manage your time more easily. The journey along the River Loire (D952, D947 and D751), away from the autoroutes is always atmospheric. You'll see fishing boats tethered to the riverbanks, wineries coaxing you in for a tasting, troglodyte dwellings and châteaux of course, fit, quite literally, for a king.
If ever you don't wish to hire a car, Tours' Tourist Office organises minibus excursions to several of the sites listed below (02.47.70.37.37/ www.ligeris.com) should you decide to sit back and let others do the driving.
The best châteaux and sites around...
Views of the iconic 10th-century Château can be enjoyed from all angles from below (like the rest of the town, it's carved from the region's pale Tuffeau stone, formed when the Loire Valley was a seabed over 90 million years ago). But don't miss the opportunity to climb up to the (well-signposted) viewpoint that takes in the town, the river and the castle from above. Then head over to explore the castle from the inside, reached via a dramatic
At just a leisurely 20-minute drive east from Tours (D952), Amboise is a good place to start. Overlooking the River Loire, it is a small town of narrow streets and quaint residences whose pretty contours are best appreciated when seen from the north bank of the river. You can easily spend a whole day here, sharing your time between two star sites: the imposing Château Royal d’Amboise (02.47.57.00.98), set on a rocky spur, where Louis XI and
Medieval Chinon is best described like its famous Chinon wines: full of local flavour with a hint of sophistication. Its dinky town-centre looks like the set of a period movie with remarkably preserved half-timbered medieval houses (plus a few 17th-century ones thrown in for good measure) and a majestic medieval fortress ruin, the Forteresse Royale (02.47.93.13.45), perched precariously over the streets below, dating mainly from the reigns of
Angers, the former capital of Anjou on the River Maine, does a healthy trade in Anjou wines, medicinal plants, flowers and seeds. It is an all-year-round city with a thriving student population, decent museums, a direct TGV link to Paris and a tradition for the arts, which comes to a head during July’s Festival d’Anjou, a month long celebration of drama, music and poetry. It is also home to the famous medieval Apocalypse tapestry (inside
It seems unreal, drifting like a bird on a warm breeze above the pepperpot-towered châteaux of the Loire, but that’s exactly what Montgolfières d’Anjou (02.41.40.48.04/www.montgolfieres.com, flights €190-€320) do between Easter and October, when six of its balloons ship a lucky few up, up and away into the air above the Loire. The castles are impressive enough from the ground, but nothing can prepare you for the delights of their
When to go: The region is very busy during the summer holidays, and several sites are closed between November and Easter, so either check before you come or visit in the spring and autumn, when everywhere is open and crowds are less dense. That said, lovers of French theatre should brave the crowds in June and July for the month-long Festival d'Anjou, France's second most important theatre festival after Avignon, which is held at various locations across the Loire.
Getting there and around: Easiest by far is to take the TGV from Paris to either Tours (57mins) or Angers (1hr 30mins), then hire a car (try Avis or Europcar). The Loire is quite easy to cycle too, with 800km (500 miles) of cycle paths cover the area between Sancerre in the east and the Atlantic Ocean beyond Nantes. Route and bike hire information can be found on www.loire-a-velo.fr.
Tourist offices: Amboise, Quai du Général de Gaulle (02.47.57.09.28/www.amboise-valdeloire.com). Angers, 7 pl Kennedy (02.41.23.50.00/www.angersloiretourisme.com). Azay-le-Rideau, 4 rue du Château (02.47.45.44.40/www.ot-paysazaylerideau.com). Chinon, Pl Hofheim (02.47.93.30.44/www.chinon.com). Fontevraud, Pl St-Michel (02.41.51.79.45/www.saumur-tourisme.com). Saumur, Pl de la Bilange (02.41.40.20.60/www.ot-saumur.fr). Tours, 78-82 rue Bernard Palissy (02.47.70.37.37/www.ligeris.com).