The Loire has a justifiable reputation as one of the greatest, grandest and most striking rivers anywhere in Europe. In its most characteristic stretch, from the hills of Sancerre to the city of Angers, it flows past an extraordinary parade of castles, palaces and fine mansions; unsurprisingly, when it came to choosing which should be awarded the title of World Heritage Site, UNESCO simply bestowed the label on the entire valley. Although the most striking feature is the beautiful views, there are simpler pleasures, such as the outstanding food and drink and the noticeably gentler pace of life.
The region’s heartland, Touraine, long known as “the garden of France”, has some of the best wines, the tastiest goat’s cheese, and the most regal history in France, including one of the finest châteaux, in Chenonceau. Touraine also takes in three of the Loire’s pleasantest tributaries: the Cher, Indre and Vienne. If you have just a week to spare for the region, then these are the parts to concentrate on. The attractive towns of Blois and Amboise, each with their own exceptional châteaux, make good bases for visiting the area upstream of Tours. Numerous grand châteaux dot the wooded country immediately south and east of Blois, including Chambord, the grandest of them all, while the wild and watery region of the Sologne stretches away further to the southeast. Downstream of Tours, around handsome Saumur, quirky troglodyte dwellings have been carved out of the rock faces.
Along with its many châteaux, the region has a few unexpected sights, most compelling of which are the gardens at Villandry, outside Tours, and the abbey at Fontevraud. The major towns of Angers, Tours, Nantes, Le Mans and Orléans have their own charms, from Orléans’ astonishing cathedral, to Angers’ lively nightlife.
The Loire itself is often called the last wild river in France, mostly because unpredictable currents and shallow water brought an end to commercial river traffic as soon as the railways arrived, and the many quays remain largely forgotten, except by the occasional tour boat. Such an untamed river also makes for dramatic floods, but for most of the year it meanders gently past its shifting sandbanks, shaded by reeds and willows, and punctuated by long, sandy islands beloved by birds.