The Loire has a justifiable reputation as one of the greatest, grandest and most scenic 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 regal châteaux, majestic palaces and sweeping vineyards; unsurprisingly, when it came to choosing which should be awarded the title of World Heritage Site, UNESCO bestowed the label on the entire valley. The region’s biggest draw might be the striking landscapes, but it’s also famed for its rich gastronomy, laidback pace of life and hugely popular Loire à Vélo cycling trail.
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 most pleasant 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, and the abbey at Fontevraud. The major towns of Angers, Tours, Nantes, Le Mans and Orléans each 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.
Angers, capital of the ancient county of Anjou, is a hugely likeable, vibrant town which seems to happily straddle the ancient and modern worlds. For fans of heritage tourism, it has two stunning tapestry series, the fourteenth-century Apocalypse and the twentieth-century Le Chant du Monde, plus its own hilltop château.
The city has a strong collection of shops, bars, restaurants, and nightlife spots along with its many interesting cultural aspects.
The Château d’Angers is a formidable early medieval fortress, with its mighty kilometre-long curtain wall reinforced by seventeen circular towers. Inside are a few miscellaneous remains of the counts’ royal lodgings and chapels, but the chief focus is the astonishing Tapestry of the Apocalypse. This 14th-century tapestry series is a masterpiece depicting the Book of Revelations. The English-language audioguide comes in handy, but a Bible would be even better. It’s spellbinding, operatic stuff, and its sheer grandeur will appeal whatever your religious views.
If you're looking for a relaxed but pleasant afternoon, Terra Botanica is the place for you. This plant themed pleasure park is ideal for strolling around and enjoying the wildlife, whilst also hopping on some rides in between to mix things up a little.
In Saint-Éloi lies the glorious 'logis Barrault' mansion, home to the Musée des beaux-arts d'Angers. The museum hosts a range of rich collections of artworks acquired over many centuries and the complex itself includes the garden of Fine Arts, the David d'Angers gallery and the city library.
Built during the 11th and 16th Centuries, the Cathedrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers was classified as a national monument in 1862 recognised for its pleasing mixture of Roman and Gothic architectural styles. It's stained glass windows are particularly impressive and considered a French masterpiece of 13th-Century glasswork.
For guaranteed warm weather, the best time to visit Angers is during mid-June to September. The winter months can be quite chilly, although this does not make a trip to Angers dull.
Top Image: Angers Cathedral © Kiev Victor / Shutterstock
The Château de Blois, the handsome former seat of the dukes of Orléans, is magnificent, and its great facade rises above the modern town like an Italianate cliff. There are stretches of woodland within striking distance including the Forêt de Blois to the west of the town on the north bank of the Loire, and the Parc de Chambord and Forêt de Boulogne, further upstream. To the south and east, the forested, watery, game-rich area known as the Sologne lies between the Loire and Cher, stretching beyond Orléans almost as far as Gien. A good reason to use Blois as a base is its proximity to several châteaux.
There are some real bargain hotels in Blois and a lovely chambres d’hôtes too; with so many châteaux in the area, you will probably find yourself spending at least one night here.
A pleasant cycle ride from Blois, the little-visited Château de Beauregard, 7km south of Blois on the D956 to Contres, lies in the Forêt de Russy. It was – like Chambord – one of François I’s hunting lodges, but its transformation in the sixteenth century was one of beautification rather than aggrandizement. It was added to in the seventeenth century and the result is sober and serene, very much at ease in its manicured geometric park.
The highlight of the château is a richly decorated, long portrait gallery, whose floor of Delft tiling depicts an army on the march. The walls are entirely panelled with 327 portraits of kings, queens and great nobles, including European celebrities such as Francis Drake, Anne Boleyn and Charles V of Spain. All of France’s kings are represented, from Philippe VI (1328–50), who precipitated the Hundred Years’ War, to Louis XIII (1610–43), who occupied the throne when the gallery was created. Kings, nobles and executed wives alike are given equal billing – except for Louis XIII, whose portrait is exactly nine times the size of any other.
It’s worth strolling down through the grounds to the sunken Jardin des Portraits, a Renaissance-influenced creation by contemporary landscaper Gilles Clément, who was responsible for Paris’s futuristic Parc André Citroën.
The Château de Blois was home to six kings, and countless more aristocratic and noble visitors. The impression given is one of grandiloquent splendour, mixed with awe-inspiring spectacle, especially the way in which the predominantly Renaissance north wing is dominated by a superb spiral staircase. The impression given is one of grandiloquent splendour, mixed with awe-inspiring spectacle, especially the superb spiral staircase that takes centre stage in the Renaissance north wing. The classical west wing was built in the 1630s by François Mansart for Gaston d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIII. To the south side, you go back in time 140-odd years to Louis XII’s St-Calais chapel, which contrasts with the more exuberant brickwork of his flamboyant Gothic east wing.
Mansart’s breathtaking staircase leads you round to the less interesting François I wing; the garish decor here dates from Félix Duban’s mid-nineteenth-century efforts to turn an empty barn of a château into a showcase for sixteenth-century decorative motifs. One of the largest rooms is given over to paintings of the notorious murder of the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, by Henri III. As leaders of the radical Catholic League, the Guises were responsible for the summary execution of Huguenots at Amboise. The king had summoned the States-General to a meeting in the Grande Salle, only to find that an overwhelming majority supported the duke, along with the stringing up of Protestants, and aristocratic over royal power. Henri had the duke summoned to his bedroom in the palace, where he was ambushed and hacked to death, while the cardinal was murdered in prison the next day. Their deaths were avenged a year later when a monk assassinated the king himself.
The château was also home to Henri III’s mother and manipulator, Catherine de Médicis, who died here a few days after the murders in 1589. The most famous of her rooms is the study, where, according to Alexandre Dumas’ novel, La Reine Margot, she kept poison hidden in secret caches in the skirting boards and behind some of the 237 narrow carved wooden panels; they now contain small Renaissance objets d’art. In the nineteenth century, revolutionaries were tried in the Grande Salle for conspiring to assassinate Napoléon III, a year before the Paris Commune of 1870. You can return to the courtyard via the Salle des États, where the arches, pillars and fireplaces are another riot of colour.
Across the courtyard to the ground floor of the François I wing, you’ll find the archeological museum, which displays original stonework from the staircase and dormer windows.
Summer visitors can usually just turn up at the gate for the son et lumière – it’s one of the best in the region, rising above the usual mix of melodrama, light and musical effects by making the most of the château’s fascinating history and lovely courtyard setting, and thrillingly recreates the murder of the Duke of Guise.
The Château de Chambord, François I’s little “hunting lodge”, is the largest of the Loire châteaux and one of the most extravagant commissions of its age. Its patron’s principal objective – to outshine the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – would, he claimed, leave him renowned as “one of the greatest builders in the universe”. If you are going to visit – and it’s one of the region’s absolute highlights – try to arrive early and avoid weekends, when the crush of visitors can be overwhelming.
Before you even get close, the gargantuan scale of the place is awe-inspiring: there are more than 440 rooms and 85 staircases, and a petrified forest of 365 chimneys runs wild on the roof. In architectural terms, the mixture of styles is as outrageous as the size. The Italian architect Domenico da Cortona was chosen to design the château in 1519 in an effort to establish prestigious Italian Renaissance art forms in France, though the labour was supplied by French masons. The château’s plan (attributed, fancifully, to da Vinci) is pure Renaissance: rational, symmetrical and totally designed to express a single idea – the central power of its owner. Four hallways run crossways through the central keep, at the heart of which the Great Staircase rises up in two unconnected spirals before opening out into the great lantern tower, which draws together the confusion on the roof like a great crown.
The cold, draughty size of the château made it unpopular as an actual residence – François I himself stayed there for just 42 days in total – and Chambord’s role in history is slight. A number of rooms on the first floor were fitted out by Louis XIV and his son, the Comte de Chambord, and they feel like separate apartments within the unmanageable whole. You can explore them freely, along with the adjacent eighteenth-century apartments, where the château was made habitable by lowering ceilings, building small fireplaces within the larger ones, and cladding the walls with the fashionable wooden panelling known as boiseries.
The second floor houses a rambling Museum of Hunting where, among the endless guns and paintings that glorify hunting, are two superb seventeenth-century tapestry cycles: one depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt; another, based on cartoons by Lebrun, tells the story of Meleager, the heroic huntsman from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The Parc de Chambord around the château is an enormous walled game reserve – the largest in Europe. Wild boar roam freely, though red deer are the beasts you’re most likely to spot. You can explore on foot, or by bike or boat – both rentable from the jetty where the Cosson passes alongside the main facade of the château.
Catherine de Médicis forced Diane de Poitiers to hand over Chenonceau in return for the Château de Chaumont, 20km downstream from Blois. Diane got a bad deal, but this is still one of the lovelier châteaux.
The original fortress was destroyed by Louis XI in the mid-fifteenth century in revenge for the part its owner, Pierre d’Amboise, played in the “League of Public Weal”, an alliance of powerful nobles against the ever-increasing power of the monarch. Pierre found his way back into the king’s favour, and with his son, Charles I of Amboise, built much of the quintessentially medieval castle that stands today. The Renaissance design is more obvious in the courtyard, which today forms three sides of a square, the fourth side having been demolished in 1739 to improve the spectacular views over the river. Inside, the heavy nineteenth-century decor of the ground-floor rooms dates from the ownership of the Broglie family, but a few rooms on the first floor have been remodelled in Renaissance style. The large council chamber is particularly fine, with seventeenth-century majolica floor tiles and walls adorned with intricate sixteenth-century tapestries showing the gods of each of the seven planets known at the time.
Fifteen kilometres southeast of Blois, the Château de Cheverny is the quintessential seventeenth-century château. Built between 1604 and 1634, and little changed since, it presents an immaculate picture of symmetry, harmony and the aristocratic good life. This continuity may well be because descendants of the first owners still own, live in and go hunting from Cheverny today. Its stone, from Bourré on the River Cher, lightens with age, and the château gleams in its acres of rolling parkland. The interior decoration has only been added to, never destroyed, and the extravagant display of paintings, furniture, tapestries and armour against the gilded, sculpted and carved walls and ceilings is extremely impressive. The most precious objects are hard to pick out from the sumptuous whole, but some highlights are the painted wall panels in the dining room telling stories from Don Quixote; the vibrant, unfaded colours of the Gobelin tapestry in the arms room; and the three rare family portraits by François I’s court painter, François Clouet.
Inspired by the Château de Cheverny, Hergé created Marlinspike Hall as a country home for Captain Haddock in the Adventures of Tintin and the Hergé Foundation has a small but fascinating permanent exhibition at the château, which is worth a visit.
You can explore the elegant grounds on foot, or take a tour on a little train or by boat. The kennels near the main entrance are worth a peek too: a hundred lithe hounds mill and loll about while they wait for the next stag, and feeding time (5pm) is something to be seen. Cheverny’s hunt culls around thirty deer a year, as set by the National Forestry Office.
Stretching southeast of Blois, the Sologne, depending on the weather and the season, can be one of the most dismal areas in central France: damp, flat, featureless and foggy. At other times its forests, lakes, ponds and marshes have a quiet magic – in summer, for example, when the heather is in bloom and the ponds are full of water lilies, or in early autumn when you can collect mushrooms. Wild boar and deer roam here, not to mention the ducks, geese, quails and pheasants, that far outnumber the small human population. It was this remote, mystical landscape that provided the setting for Alain Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes; Fournier himself spent his childhood in La Chapelle d’Angillon, 34km north of Bourges, and the story’s famous “fête étrange” took place in the Sologne.
Bourges, the chief town of the region of Berry, is some way from the Loire valley proper but linked historically. It has one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in France, rising gloriously out of the well-preserved medieval quarter, which provides enough reason for making a detour.
The exterior of the twelfth-century Cathédrale St-Étienne is characterized by the delicate, almost skeletal appearance of its flying buttresses and it’s a captivating sight. The exterior of the twelfth-century cathedral is characterized by the delicate, almost skeletal appearance of its flying buttresses. A much-vaunted example of Gothic architecture, it’s modelled on Notre-Dame in Paris but incorporates improvements on the latter’s design, such as the astonishing height of the inner aisles.
The interior’s top feature is the twelfth- to thirteenth-century stained glass. The most dazzling windows surround the choir, and were all created between 1215 and 1225. You can follow various stories – the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, Christ’s Crucifixion and the Apocalypse; binoculars come in handy for picking up the exquisite detail. The painted decoration of the astronomical clock in the nave celebrates the wedding of Charles VII, who married Marie d’Anjou here on April 22, 1422. On the northwest side of the nave aisle is the door to the Tour de Beurre, which you can climb for fantastic views over the old city. There are guided tours of the crypt (roughly every hour), which shelters the alabaster statue of a puggish Jean de Berry; a bear, the symbol of strength, lies asleep at his feet. It’s also possible to climb unsupervised to the top of the north tower, rebuilt in Flamboyant style after the original collapsed in 1506.
Of all the Loire’s many tributaries, the slow-moving Cher and Indre are closest to the heart of the region, watering a host of châteaux as they flow northwest from this little-visited region to the south. Twenty kilometres southeast of Tours, spanning the Cher, the Château de Chenonceau is perhaps the quintessential Loire château for its architecture, site, contents and atmosphere. Further upstream, Montrichard and St-Aignan make quieter diversions from the endless stream of castle tours. To the south is the Château de Valençay, with its exquisite Empire interiors. A short drive west of here, on the River Indre itself, is the lovely town of Loches, which possesses the most magnificent medieval citadelle in the region.
The gentle River Cher flows so slowly and passively between the exquisite arches of the Château de Chenonceau that you’re almost always assured of a perfect reflection. The château is not visible from the road so you have to pay before even getting a peek at the residence. While the tree-lined path to the front door is dramatic, wind your way through the gardens for a more intimate approach; they were laid out under Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. During summer the place teems with people and it can become uncomfortably crowded, so try to visit first thing. Visits are unguided – a relief, for there’s an endless array of arresting tapestries, paintings, ceilings, floors and furniture on show (although you could opt for the worthwhile iPod guided tour).
On the ground floor, the François I room features two contrasting images of the goddess Diana; one is a portrait of Diane de Poitiers by Primaticcio, and the other represents a relatively aristocratic Gabrielle d’Estrées. The room also features works by or attributed to Veronese, Tintoretto, Correggio, Murillo and Rubens, among others. The tiled floors throughout, many original, are particularly lovely. There are some unique decorative details as well, such as the seventeenth-century window frame in the César de Vendôme room, supported by two carved caryatids, and the moving ceiling in the bedroom of Louise de Lorraine, which mourns her murdered husband Henri III in black paint picked out with painted tears and the couple’s intertwined initials. The vaulted kitchens, poised above the water in the foundations, are also well worth a look.
The section of the château that spans the Cher is relatively empty. The seemingly incongruous chequerboard flooring of the elegant long gallery is in fact true to the Renaissance design, though potted plants have replaced the classical statues that Louis XIV carried off to Versailles. Catherine de Médicis used to hold wild parties here, all naked nymphs and Italian fireworks. She intended the door on the far side to continue into another building on the south bank, but the project was never begun, and these days the gallery leads to quiet, wooded gardens. During the war, the Cher briefly formed the boundary between occupied and “free” France, and the current proprietors, who rode out Nazi occupation, claim the château’s gallery was much used as an escape route. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend in June and every evening in July and August, as part of the “Nocturne à Chenonceau”, the gardens and château are lit up between 9.30pm and 11pm, and classical music is played through speakers. You can take boats out onto the Cher in the summer months, and there’s a self-service café and restaurant on site.
An elegant marriage of classical and Renaissance styles, with its domed round tower and beautifully manicured gardens, the refined Château de Valençay paints a striking picture. Originally built to show off the wealth of a sixteenth-century financier, the lasting impression today is the legacy of its greatest owner, the Prince de Talleyrand.
One of the great political operators and survivors, Talleyrand owes most of his fame to his post as Napoleon’s foreign minister. A bishop before the Revolution, with a reputation for having the most desirable mistresses, he proposed the nationalization of church property, renounced his bishopric, escaped to America during the Terror, backed Napoleon and continued to serve the state under the restored Bourbons. One of his tasks for the emperor was keeping Ferdinand VII of Spain entertained for six years here after the king had been forced to abdicate in favour of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. The Treaty of Valençay, signed in the château in 1813, put an end to Ferdinand’s forced guest status, giving him back his throne. The interior is consequently largely First Empire: elaborately embroidered chairs, Chinese vases, ornate inlays to all the tables, faux-Egyptian details, finicky clocks and chandeliers. A single discordant note is struck by the leg-brace and shoe displayed in a glass cabinet along with Talleyrand’s uniforms – the statesman’s deformed foot was concealed in every painting of the man, including the one displayed in the portrait gallery of the graceful Neoclassical wing.
For picnic items, stock up at the superb market, held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in the winding streets just above the château gate.
Loches, 42km southeast of Tours, is the obvious place to head for in the Indre valley. Its walled citadelle is by far the most impressive of the Loire valley fortresses, with its unbreached ramparts and the Renaissance houses below still partly enclosed by the outer wall of the medieval town.
The northern end of the citadelle is taken up by the Logis Royal, or Royal Lodgings, of Charles VII and his three successors. It has two distinct halves; the older section was built in the late fourteenth century as a pleasure palace for the Dauphin Charles and Agnès Sorel. A copy of Charles’s portrait by Fouquet can be seen in the antechamber to the Grande Salle, where in June 1429 he met Joan of Arc, who came here victorious from Orléans to give the defeatist Dauphin another pep talk about coronations.
From the Logis Royal, cobbled streets lined with handsome townhouses wind through to the far end of the elevated citadelle, to the donjon, the best preserved of its kind in Europe. You can climb up to the top of the massive keep, but the main interest lies in the dungeons and lesser towers. The Tour Ronde was built under Louis XI and served as a prison for his adviser, Cardinal Balue, who was kept locked up in a wooden cage in one of the upper rooms. Perhaps he was kept in the extraordinary graffiti chamber on the second floor, which is decorated with an enigmatic series of deeply carved, soldierlike figures estimated to date from the thirteenth century. From the courtyard, steps lead into the bowels of the Martelet, home to a more famous prisoner: Ludovico “il Moro” Sforza, duke of Milan, patron of Leonardo da Vinci and captive of Louis XII. In the four years he was imprisoned here, from 1500, he decorated his cave-like cell with ruddy wall paintings, still faintly visible.
Chinon lies on the north bank of the Vienne, 12km from its confluence with the Loire, and is surrounded by some of the best vineyards in the Loire valley. While the cobbled medieval streets and half-timbered townhouses give a marvellous sense of history, it’s a quiet town, and the actual sights won’t keep you occupied for any more than a day or two. However, the tree-lined promenades and hilltop château are undeniably pretty and the growing population of English expats bring an international flavour to the many cafés, restaurants and bars.
Chinon’s château, strictly speaking, is actually a fortress, rather than a typical Renaissance castle, perched high on a hill over the town, with a stunning view over the Vienne.
A fortress existed here from the Iron Age until the time of Louis XIV, the age of its most recent ruins. Henry Plantagenet added a new castle to the first medieval fortress on the site, built by his ancestor Foulques Nerra, and died here, crying vengeance on his son Richard, who had treacherously allied himself with the French king Philippe-Auguste. After a year’s siege in 1204–5, Philippe-Auguste finally took the castle, from the English King John, ending the Plantagenet rule over Touraine and Anjou.
Over two hundred years later, Chinon was one of the few places where the Dauphin Charles, later Charles VII, could safely stay while Henry V of England held Paris and the title to the French throne. When Joan of Arc arrived here in 1429, she was able to talk her way into meeting him. The story depicted in a tapestry on display on the site is that as Joan entered the great hall, the Dauphin remained hidden anonymously among the assembled nobles, as a test, but Joan picked him out straight away. Joan herself claimed that an angel had appeared before the court, bearing a crown. She begged him to allow her to rally his army against the English. To the horror of the courtiers, Charles said yes. The reality is rather more prosaic: records show that Joan attended a small meeting with the king, so already knew who he was.
The fortress has been sensitively and impressively restored. The Logis Royal, or royal quarters, includes the apartments of Charles VII and Mary of Anjou, and visitors can also explore the middle castle, the Fort Coudray and the Fort Saint George. There’s also an excellent Joan of Arc museum on site, where you can see fragments of bone said to have been rescued from under the stake where she died.
Though it’s better with a good meal, if you want to try a glass of Chinon you could visit the Caves Painctes, off rue Voltaire, a deep cellar carved out of the rock where a local winegrowers’ guild runs tastings. “Paincte” was supposedly the name of a wine cellar owned by the father of Rabelais, who was born at the manor farm of La Devinière, 6km southwest of town, where there’s a good but rather dry museum on Rabelias’ life. Tastings take place July & Aug Tues–Sun, 11am, 3pm, 4.30pm & 6pm and cost around €3.
The Loire is renowned for its mild climate and the rich soils, 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. 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 green lentil, which 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 goat's 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, including 27 AOC classified wines. Sancerre, the easternmost Loire appellation, produces the best white wines in the region from the 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 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 excellent sparkling varieties, a fraction of the price of champagne, while the orangey liqueur Cointreau is made in a distillery close to Angers.
Le Mans, the historic capital of the Maine region, is synonymous with its famous 24-hour car race, which takes place in June. During the rest of the year, it’s a much quieter place; what it lacks in obvious beauty it makes up for in historical background, being the favourite home of the Plantagenet family, the counts of Anjou, Touraine and Maine. The old quarter, in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral, is unusually well preserved, while outside town you can visit the serene Cistercian abbey of Épau and, of course, the racetrack, a must-see pilgrimage for petrolheads.
The high ground of the old town has been sacred since ancient times, as testified by a strangely human, pink-tinted menhir now propped up against the southwest corner of the very impressive Cathédrale St-Julien, which crowns the hilltop. The nave of the cathedral was only just completed when Geoffroi Plantagenet, the count of Maine and Anjou, married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, in 1129, thus founding the English dynastic line. Inside, for all the power and measured beauty of this Romanesque structure, it’s impossible not to be drawn towards the vertiginous High Gothic choir, which is filled with coloured light filtering through the stained-glass windows.
The first 24-hour car race at Le Mans was run as early as 1923, on the present 13.6km Sarthe circuit, with average speeds of 92kph (57mph) – these days, the drivers average around 210kph (130mph). The Sarthe circuit, on which the now world-renowned 24 Heures du Mans car race takes place every year in mid-June, stretches south from the outskirts of the city, along ordinary roads. When the competition isn’t on, the simplest way to get a taste of the action is just to take the main road south of the city towards Tours, a stretch of ordinary highway which follows the famous Mulsanne straight for 5.7km – a distance that saw race cars reach speeds of up to 375kph, until two chicanes were introduced in 1989. Alternatively, visit the Musée des 24 heures on the edge of the Bugatti circuit – the dedicated track section of the main Sarthe circuit, where the race starts and finishes. It parades some 150 vehicles dating as far back as 1873, ranging from the humble 2CV to classic Lotus and Porsche race cars. The focus of the museum is the characters who made the race famous. Vintage newsreel along with newspapers and mannequins in period costume keep this interesting even for non-car fans.
During the race weekend, you’ll need a ticket to get anywhere near the circuit. Buy them direct from the organizers at lemans.org. You’ll need a separate ticket to get access to the grandstands, and be sure to book well in advance.
Outside of race days, you can watch practice sessions, and there’s the bikers’ 24 Heures Moto in early April and the Le Mans Classic in July.
Thanks to the Loire à Vélo scheme, 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. These routes thread inland among the forests, linking the area’s many châteaux.
Tourist offices provide detailed maps and information, but you can download maps, plan your route and book your trip on the Loire à Vélo website. Almost all routes are easy and largely flat, making it simple for first-timers, and French villages and car drivers are well accustomed to cyclists.
All larger towns have at least one rental agency and bikes can be rented at many hotels, campsites, tourist offices, train stations and even restaurants along the way. Look out for the green “Accueil Velo” signs, which indicate accredited Loire à Vélo accommodation and services – here, cyclists are ensured secure bike parking, repair equipment and an energy-boosting breakfast. The cooperative bike scheme also means you can pick up a bike in one place and drop it off in another, and many offer baggage transfer services too. Expect to pay around €15 a day for bike rental and €20 for baggage transfer, but many companies offer special deals for groups or longer trips.
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 serene setting, surrounded by a moat.
BloisAn impressive stronghold, with its four wings representing four distinct eras.
ChambordThe triumph of François I’s Renaissance, this monstrously huge château features a dual-spiral staircase allegedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
Cheverny A prime example of seventeenth-century magnificence.
AmboiseOne of the most compelling and striking Loire châteaux, rearing above the Loire like a cliff.
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:
ValençayThe simple elegance of this sixteenth-century château is overshadowed by its series of resplendent Renaissance gardens.
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.
Over the last decade, the rejuvenated, go-ahead city of Nantes has transformed itself into a likeable metropolis that deserves to figure on any tourist itinerary. At the heart of this ambitious regeneration project stands a must-see attraction, the Machines de l’Île – home of the Grand Éléphant – but the city as a whole is also scrubbed, gleaming, and suffused with a remarkable energy.
As the capital of an independent Brittany, Nantes was a considerable medieval centre. Great wealth came later, however, with the growth of Atlantic trade; by the end of the eighteenth century, it was the principal port of France. An estimated 500,000 Africans were carried into slavery in the Americas in vessels based here, and even after abolition in 1817 the trade continued illegally. Subsequently the port declined, and heavy industry and wine production became more important. For fifty years now, since it was transferred to the Pays de la Loire in 1962, Nantes has no longer even been in Brittany.
Recent redevelopment schemes have shifted the focus of the city back towards the Loire itself. For visitors, nonetheless, once you’ve seen the machines, the main areas you’re likely to spend time in are the older medieval city, concentrated around the cathedral, with the Château des Ducs prominent in its southeast corner, and the elegant nineteenth-century town to the west.
Though no longer on the waterfront, the Château des Ducs still preserves the form in which it was built by two of the last rulers of independent Brittany, François II, and his daughter Duchess Anne, born here in 1477. The list of famous people who have been guests or prisoners, defenders or belligerents, of the castle includes Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard), publicly executed in 1440; Machiavelli, in 1498; John Knox as a galley-slave in 1547–49; and Bonnie Prince Charlie preparing for Culloden in 1745. In addition, the Edict of Nantes was signed here in 1598 by Henri IV, ending the Wars of Religion by granting a degree of toleration to the Protestants. It had far more crucial consequences when it was revoked, by Louis XIV, in 1685.
The stout ramparts of the château remain pretty much intact, and most of the encircling moat is filled with water, surrounded by well-tended lawns that make a popular spot for lunchtime picnics. Visitors can pass through the walls, and also stroll atop them for fine views over the city, for no charge.
The incongruous potpourri of buildings that encircle the courtyard within include the Musée d’Histoire de Nantes, where highlights include a fascinating scale model of the city in the thirteenth century, and a determined attempt to come to terms with Nantes’ slave-trading past, with its display of pitiful trinkets used to buy slaves in Africa.
Inaugurated in 2007, and initially centring on the fabulous Grand Éléphant, the Machines de l’Île is a truly world-class attraction, which is continuing to develop and expand year after year. Part hommage to the sci-fi creations of Jules Verne and the blueprints of Leonardo da Vinci, part street-theatre extravaganza, this is the lynchpin of Nantes’ urban regeneration. The “machines” in question are the astonishing contraptions created by designer/engineer François Delarozière and artist Pierre Orefice; the “island” is the Île de Nantes, a 3km-long, whale-shaped island in the Loire, ten minutes’ walk southwest of the tourist office, that was once the centre of the city’s shipbuilding industry.
Twelve metres high and eight metres wide, the Grand Éléphant is phenomenally realistic, down to the articulation of its joints as it “walks”, and its trunk as it flexes and sprays water. Visitors can see it for free when it emerges for regular walks along the huge esplanade outside, which is arguably more impressive than paying for a ride. That said, riding a gigantic mechanical elephant is an experience in itself, and you get to wander through its hollow belly and climb the spiral stairs to the balconies around its canopied howdah.
The latest addition to the machines, the Marine Worlds Carousel, is a vast merry-go-round on the banks of the Loire. Unveiled in 2012, it consists of three separate tiers of oddball subaquatic devices. There are two options for visiting the carousel – “Discovery mode”, where you can tour but not ride the carousel, and “Fairground mode”, where you get to climb on board creatures such as the Giant Crab, the Bus of the Abyss, and the Reverse-Propelling Squid, each individually manoeuvrable.
As well as riding the carousel or elephant, visitors can pay to enter the Gallery, which displays a changing assortment of completed machines, and peek into the vast hangars where the machines are kept and constructed. It’s a worthwhile addition offering a closer look at the machines and demonstrations of their moveable components.
Orléans is the northernmost city on the Loire, sitting at the apex of a huge arc in the river as it switches direction and starts to flow southwest. Its proximity to Paris, just over 100km away, has always shaped this ancient city, and Orléans today is a vibrant cultural hub, with high-speed train and motorway links to the capital bringing in a steady influx of visitors. It’s an attractive place, too: the ancient riverside quays have been redeveloped, and the pedestrianized old town buzzes with activity day and night.
Upstream from the city, the rambling Forêt d’Orléans spreads north. Along the river are plenty of lesser-known attractions, most notably the abbey at St-Benoît, the château at Sully-sur-Loire, the small town of Gien, the aqueduct at Briare and the hilltop town of Sancerre, where the famous dry white wines are produced.
Orléans is most famous for its heroine, Joan of Arc, and her deliverance of the city in May 1429. This was the turning point in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), when Paris had been captured by the English and Orléans, as the key city in central France, was under siege. The legend says that Joan, a 17-year-old peasant girl in men’s clothing, had talked her way into meeting Charles, the heir to the French throne, and persuaded him to reconquer his kingdom. The reality may be a little different as it seems that Joan was in fact born of nobility. The myth may have coloured her actual achievements, but she was undeniably an important symbolic figure. Less than three years later she was captured in battle, tried as a heretic, and burnt at the stake. Today, the Maid of Orléans is an omnipresent feature, whether in museums, hotels or in the stained glass of the vast Neo-Gothic cathedral. One of the best times to visit is on May 8 (Joan of Arc Day) or the evening before, when the city is filled with parades, fireworks and a medieval fair.
If you’re going to be staying in Sancerre, your first priority is probably going to be the wine, so it makes sense to have an idea of which are the best vineyards in the area. There are numerous quirks of wine production here; for instance, wines aren’t allowed to carry an individual vineyard’s name, instead being sold under the name of the producer or, very occasionally, the cuvée.
First port of call for wine enthusiasts should be the Maison des Sancerre on 3 rue du Méridien (02 48 54 11 35) a fourteenth-century townhouse with a great view over the vine-clad hills around. With its entertaining film shows and interactive exhibits, you’ll get a comprehensive picture of winemaking in Sancerre and a tasting is included. The Maison also organizes bespoke tours of wine- and cheese-makers in the region combined with cycling or canoeing activities.
To accompany your wines, try the local crottin de Chavignol, a goat’s cheese named after the neighbouring village just 4km away in which it’s made; Dubois-Boulay offers the best selection. Henri Bourgeois (02 48 78 53 20), up the hill, has been making wine for ten generations. Call ahead to book a two-hour tour with a dégustation.
Saumur is a good-sized town notable for two things in particular: its excellent sparkling wine (some would say as good as champagne) and its wealth of aristocratic military associations, based on its status as home to the French Cavalry Academy. The centre ville, with its warren of cobblestone lanes and jumble of half-timbered buildings and grand white tufa townhouses, runs along the waterfront in the shadows of the majestic château.
A large number of manufacturers of the famous Saumur sparkling wine cluster in the suburb of St-Hilaire-St-Florent, and are especially prominent along the riverside rue Ackerman and rue Leopold-Palustre. Particularly good cellars include Ackerman-Laurance, Bouvet-Ladubay, Langlois-Château, Gratien & Meyer, Louis de Grenelle and Veuve Amiot; choosing between them is a matter of personal taste, and possibly a question of opening hours, though most are open daily throughout the warmer months.
Thirteen kilometres southeast of Saumur, lies the stunning Romanesque complex of the Abbaye de Fontevraud. The monastery housed four seperate communities all managed by the same abbess - an unconventional move, even if the post was filled solely by queens and princesses. The buildings date from the twelfth century originally built in 1101 by the Archpriest of Diocese, Robert of Arbrissel, and are immense, built to house and separate not only the nuns and monks but also the sick, lepers and repentant prostitutes.
At the heart of Abbaye de Fontevraud the tombs of the Plantagenet royal family, eerily lifelike works of funereal art that powerfully evoke the historical bonds between England and France. There were originally five separate institutions, of which three still stand in graceful Romanesque solidity.
The abbey church is an impressive space, not least for the four tombstone effigies: Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died here, their son Richard the Lionheart and daughter-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême, King John’s queen. The strange domed roof, the great cream-coloured columns of the choir and the graceful capitals of the nave add to the effect.
Elsewhere in the complex, you can explore the magnificent cloisters, the chapterhouse, decorated with sixteenth-century murals, and the vast refectory. All the cooking for the religious community, which would have numbered several hundred, was done in the – now restored – Romanesque kitchen, an octagonal building as extraordinary from the outside (with its 21 chimneys) as it is within.
In 1804 Napoleon decided to transform the building into a prison, which continued till 1963. It was an inspiration for the writer Jean Genet, whose book Miracle of the Rose was partly based on the recollections of a prisoner incarcerated here.
Top Image: Abbaye de Fontevarud © Corentin / Shutterstock
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’ArtignyNr Montbazon (02 47 34 30 30). 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 (02 47 55 50 11). 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 (02 47 34 35 00). 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.
Straddling a spit of land between the rivers Loire and Cher, the ancient cathedral city of Tours is the chief town of the Loire valley. It has the usual feel of a mid-sized provincial city, with some discordant shifts between the strikingly grand and stripped-down modern. Its charms, however, include some good bars and restaurants, an interesting collection of museums – including an above-average Beaux-Arts museum – and many fine buildings, most notably the Cathédrale St-Gatien.
The city’s two distinct old quarters lie on either side of rue Nationale, the busy shopping street that forms the town’s main axis, while the main tourist area lies around picturesque place Plumereau, some 600m to the west. Tours is also the main transport link to the great châteaux of Villandry, Langeais, Azay-le-Rideau and Amboise.
Twenty kilometres upstream of Tours, Amboise is one of the highlights of the Loire region, with its beguiling mix of beauty, excellent gastronomy and a genuine sense of history. The château dominates the town, but there are many other attractions, most famously Leonardo da Vinci’s residence of Clos-Lucé. Amboise draws a busy tourist trade in high season, which may detract from the quieter pleasures of strolling around town, but does mean it’s a lively destination.
The remains of the château d'Ambroise, once five times its present size, but much reduced by wars and lack of finance, still represent highly impressive accomplishment. It was in the late fifteenth century, following his marriage to Anne of Brittany at Langeais, that Charles VIII decided to turn the old castle of his childhood days into an extravagant palace, adding the Flamboyant Gothic wing that overlooks the river and the chapelle de St-Hubert, perched incongruously atop a buttress of the defensive walls. But not long after the work was completed, he managed to hit his head, fatally, on a doorframe. He left the kingdom to his cousin, Louis XII, who spent most of his time at Blois but built a new wing at Amboise (at right angles to the main body) to house his nearest male relative, the young François d’Angoulême, thereby keeping him within easy reach. When the young heir acceded to the throne as François I he didn’t forget his childhood home. He embellished it with classical stonework (visible on the east facade of the Louis XII wing), invited Leonardo da Vinci to work in Amboise under his protection, and eventually died in the château’s collegiate church.
Henri II continued to add to the château, but it was during the reign of his sickly son, François II, that it became notorious. The Tumult of Amboise was one of the first skirmishes in the Wars of Religion. Persecuted by the young king’s powerful advisers, the Guise brothers, Huguenot conspirators set out for Amboise in 1560 to “rescue” their king and establish a more tolerant monarchy under their tutelage. But they were ambushed by royal troops in the woods outside the town, rounded up and summarily tried in the Salle des Conseils. Some were drowned in the Loire below the château, some were beheaded in the grounds, and others were hung from the château’s balconies.
After such a colourful history, the interior of the château is comparatively restrained, though the various rooms still retain some sense of their historical grandeur. The last French king, Louis-Philippe, also stayed in the château, hence the abrupt switch from the solid Gothic furnishings of the ground floor to the 1830s post-First Empire style of the first-floor apartments. The most recently renovated parts of the château are the underground passageways, which have been both dungeons and larders in their time. The Tour des Minimes, the original fifteenth-century entrance, is the most architecturally exciting part of the castle, with its massive internal ramp, leading down to the pleasant gardens.
Even without its striking château, the quiet village of Azay-le-Rideau would bask in its serene setting, complete with an old mill by the bridge and curious, doll-like Carolingian statues embedded in the facade of the church of St Symphorien. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has become a magnet for tourists. On its little island in the Indre, the château is one of the loveliest in the Loire: perfect turreted early Renaissance, pure in style right down to the blood-red paint of its window frames. Visiting the interior, furnished in mostly period style, doesn’t add much to the experience although the grand staircase is worth seeing, and it’s fun to look out through the mullioned windows across the moat and park and imagine yourself the seigneur. In summer, the château’s grounds are the setting for a restrained and rather lovely son et lumière.
Twenty-three kilometres west of Tours, the small riverside town of Langeais huddles in the shadow of its forbidding château, which was built to stop any incursions up the Loire by the Bretons. This threat ended with the marriage of Charles VIII and Duchess Anne of Brittany in 1491, which was celebrated in the castle, and a diptych of the couple portrays them looking less than joyous at their union – Anne had little choice in giving up her independence. The main appeal here is in the way that the interior has resisted modernization, to give a genuine sense of what life would have been like in the fifteenth century, including fascinating tapestries, some rare paintings and a number of chaires (seigneurial chairs). The banqueting hall has a large U-shaped table, piled high with imitation food, while in the huge marriage chamber is the gilded and bejewelled wedding coffer of Charles and Anne.
Even if gardens aren’t normally your thing, those at the Château de Villandry are unmissable. Thirteen kilometres west of Tours along the Cher, this recreated Renaissance garden is as much symbolic as ornamental or practical.
At the topmost level is a large, formal water garden in the elevated classical spirit. Next down, beside the château itself, is the ornamental garden, which features geometrical arrangements of box hedges symbolizing different kinds of love: tender, passionate, fickle and tragic.
The highlight, spread out at the lowest level across 12,500 square metres, is the potager, or Renaissance kitchen garden. Carrots, cabbages and aubergines are arranged into intricate patterns, while rose bowers and miniature box hedges form a kind of frame. Even in winter, there is almost always something to see, as the entire area is replanted twice a year.
At the far end of the garden, overlooked by the squat tower of the village church, beautiful vine-shaded paths run past the medieval herb garden and the maze.
The elegant château was erected in the 1530s by one of François I’s royal financiers, Jean le Breton, though the keep – from which there’s a fine view of the gardens – dates back to a twelfth-century feudal castle. It’s worth a visit if only for the magnificent views over the grounds, but pales in comparison to its gardens. Le Breton’s Renaissance structure is arranged around three sides of a cour d’honneur, the fourth wing having been demolished in the eighteenth century.
Top Image: Château de Villandry © Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock
Fourteen kilometres west of Azay-le-Rideau, as the Indre approaches its confluence with the Loire, is the Château d’Ussé in Rigny-Ussé. With its shimmering white towers and terraced gardens, this is the ultimate fairy-tale château – so much so that it’s supposed to have inspired Charles Perrault’s classic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. The exterior resembles nothing so much as a Disney fantasy, while inside things are more restrained, apart from the rather kitsch Sleeping Beauty tableaux. The château’s gardens, designed by Le Nôtre, are pleasant to wander in, featuring a lovely Renaissance chapel, while the surrounding vineyards produce a sparkling Cuvée Prestige Brut, which is for sale in the grounds.