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.Read More
First things first; though it is tempting to try and pack in as many châteaux as you can in a short period of time, this is counter-productive and frustrating. It’s far better to aim to visit three or four of the best in the area in which you’re staying, possibly with a one-day trip to one of the most spectacular set-piece châteaux.
Entry prices are undeniably steep, particularly for the châteaux that have remained in private hands – and there are a surprising number of French aristocrats still living in their family homes. This means that picking and choosing the best really will help you. There is no consistency in concessions offered, and children rarely go free. If you’re over 65, under 25, a student or still at school, check for any reductions and make sure you’ve got proof of age or a student card with you. Here’s a rundown of the very best châteaux to aim for:
Chenonceau Renaissance-period château in a glorious setting by the river.
Azay-le-Rideau A marvellous encapsulation of a long-gone period of grandeur and power, in a beautifully serene setting (surrounded by a moat).
Blois With its four wings representing four distinct eras, Blois is extremely impressive.
Chambord A monstrously huge château, the triumph of François I’s Renaissance. The key feature here is the dual-spiral staircase; legend has it this was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
Cheverny A prime example of seventeenth-century magnificence.
Amboise Urban château which rears above the Loire like a cliff; it’s one of the most compelling and striking Loire châteaux, even if the interior decoration leaves something to be desired.
Loches For an evocation of medieval times, the citadelle of Loches is hard to beat.
Langeais Impressive interiors are the main attraction here, especially the tapestries and intricate tile work.
Other châteaux are more compelling for their contents than for their architecture:
Valençay The interior of this Renaissance château is Napoleonic – and it’s a great spot for children.
Beauregard Most famous for its wonderful portrait gallery.
La Bussière Witness the obsessive nineteenth-century decoration, entirely dedicated to freshwater fishing.
Angers This stark, largely ruined medieval castle houses the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, the greatest work of art in the Loire valley, and worth a visit in itself.
The Loire by bike
The Loire by bike
Thanks to the Loire à Vélo scheme (wloire-a-velo.fr), the Loire valley is now one of the most charming places in the world to have a cycling holiday or take a day out on a hired bike. A mix of dedicated cycle paths and meticulously signposted routes along minor roads now runs all the way along the Loire from Orléans to beyond Angers – a distance of more than 300km. The region around Blois offers an additional 300km network, Châteaux à vélo (wchateauxavelo.com). These routes thread inland among the forests, linking the area’s many châteaux.
Tourist offices provide detailed maps and other information, and you can download most details, including maps, online. French villages are accustomed to cyclists, and most importantly, car-drivers are too.
All larger towns have at least one hire agency. Bikes can also be hired at hotels, campsites, tourist offices, train stations and even restaurants along the way. Orléans and Angers have share-bike schemes like the Paris Vélibs. Many have signed up to the Détours de Loire scheme (wlocationdevelos.com), which allows you to pick up a bike in one place and drop it off in another, paying inexpensive drop-off costs per zone crossed – on top of the bike rental charge.
Food and drink of the Loire
Food and drink of the Loire
The Loire is renowned for the softness of its climate and the richness of its soil, qualities that help produce some of the best fruit and vegetables you’ll find anywhere. From Anjou’s orchards come greengages, named Reine Claude after François I’s queen, and the succulent Anjou pear, Doyenné du Comice. Market stalls overflow with seasonal fruits, particularly local tiny sweet strawberries. Tours is famous for its French beans and Saumur for its potatoes and shallots. Asparagus, particularly the fleshy white variety, appears in soufflés, omelettes and other egg dishes as well as on its own, accompanied by vinaigrette made (if you’re lucky) with local walnut oil. Finally, from Berry, comes the humble lentil, whose green variety often accompanies salmon or trout.
Given the number of rivers that flow through the region, it’s hardly surprising that fish features on most restaurant menus, though this doesn’t guarantee that it’s from the Loire itself. Favourites are sandre (pikeperch, a fish native to Central Europe), usually served in the classic Loire beurre blanc sauce; stuffed bream; matelote (a kind of stew) of local eels softened in red wine and little smelt-like fishes served deep-fried (la friture).
The favoured meat of the Loire is game, and pheasant, guinea fowl, pigeon, duck, quails, young rabbit, venison and even wild boar are all hunted in the Sologne. They are served in rich sauces made from the wild mushrooms of the region’s forests or the common champignon de Paris, cultivated on a huge scale in caves cut out of the limestone rock near Saumur. Both Tours and Le Mans specialize in rillettes, or potted pork (rillauds in Anjou); in Touraine charcuteries you’ll also find pâté au biquion, made from pork, veal and young goat’s meat.
Touraine makes something of a cult of its goat’s cheese, and a local chèvre fermier (farm-produced goat’s cheese) can be a revelation. Four named goats’ cheeses are found on most boards: Ste-Maure is a long cylinder with a piece of straw running through the middle; Pouligny-St-Pierre and Valençay are pyramid-shaped; and Selles-sur-Cher is flat and round.
Though not as famous as the produce of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Loire valley has some of the finest wines in France. Sancerre, the easternmost Loire appellation, produces perhaps the best white wines in the region from the great Sauvignon grape, and the whites of Muscadet around Nantes are a great accompaniment to the local shellfish. Touraine’s finest reds – Chinon, Bourgeuil and St-Nicolas de Bourgeuil – get their ruby colour from the Cabernet Franc grape, while many of its attractive white wines are made from the Chenin Blanc including the highly fashionable Jasnières. At the other end of the spectrum is the honeyed complexity of Côteaux du Layon’s dessert wines – best with blue cheese or foie gras rather than pudding. Saumur and Vouvray both have sparkling varieties, a fraction of the price of champagne and easily equal to the taste. The orange-y liqueur Cointreau is made in a distillery close to Angers and appears in many cocktails and puddings in the region.
Staying in a château
Staying in a château
One of the great privileges of visiting the Loire is that there are a variety of châteaux that accommodate visitors. The standards range enormously: at the top end of the market, you are guaranteed deluxe accommodation, with room service, all mod cons, excellent food and all the amenities you would expect from a top-class hotel; at the other end, you are effectively staying in a bed and breakfast in someone’s house, which can be pot luck. The following are the pick of the hotels in the Tours area:
Château D’Artigny Nr Montbazon (take D17 from there) t02 47 34 30 30, wgrandesetapes.fr/en/Chateau-hotel-artigny. Stunning, beautifully restored château originally owned by the perfumier François Coty, and decorated in a Neoclassical style. The rooms are all large, lavishly appointed and very comfortable, and the excellent restaurant has sweeping views across the Loire valley. You can take cookery classes and enjoy wine tastings. If that all sounds too tiring, note that there’s a pool, jacuzzi, steam room and sauna to relax in, along with spa treatments.
Domaine de Beauvois Nr Luynes t02 47 55 50 11, wgrandesetapes.fr/en/Chateau-hotel-beauvois/index.html. Much of the appeal of this beautiful sixteenth-century mansion comes from its peaceful seclusion, with long country walks and beautiful bike rides the order of the day. There are some lovely, quirky touches in the rooms, too, which have beamed ceilings and painted frescoes, and the restaurant offers excellent food.
Domaine de la Tortinière Nr Montbazon t02 47 34 35 00, wtortiniere.com. Delightful family-run hotel, with friendly bilingual owners. Rooms range from the modestly comfortable to the spectacularly luxurious (such as the suites in the turrets, complete with circular bedrooms) and very good food is served in the dining room, overlooking an open-air swimming pool.