Covering 800 km2, the Loire Valley is the largest UNESCO World Heritage listed area and is located in the middle stretch of the Loire River. South of Paris, from Orleans to the Atlantic Coast, this region holds over 1,000 chateaux, is known as the ‘Cradle of the French Language’, has some of the country’s best wines and has a wealth of historic towns that could send anyone into their own fairy tale.
The larger towns have their own unique features: uneven roofs of the medieval houses in Tours and Blois, along with small cobbled streets and impressive medieval cathedrals. Many of the buildings date back centuries and have been so well preserved that you feel the presence of thousands of past visitors walk through the rooms with you to accompany you on your trip.
Orléans even dates back to the Roman Empire, its impressive Roman Catholic Dioecese bearing remnants of that period.
You may already know that George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Leonardo Da Vinci all have strong roots in the Loire Valley and dedicated much of their inspiration to the beauty of their respective homes. Many of their works that reside in some of the world’s most important museums today were originally conceived in Nohant, Saché and Amboise. It’s not hard to be inspired by towns like Chedigny which is entirely decorated with roses!
See where history left its mark
From Joan of Arc’s footsteps, to the Huguenots uprisings, and Revolutionary battles, some of the country’s biggest historical moments took place in this part of France.
Of course, the Loire Valley is well known for its famous royal castles. Many of which can claim a strong British presence, like King Charles VII’s Chateau of Loches which was designed and occupied by Henry II of England and his son Richard the Lionheart! But until Louis XIV decided to move his home to Paris with Versailles, French royalty had been calling the Loire Valley home for centuries.
Many of the Chateaux in the area carry Anne of Brittany’s ermine tail emblem, mainly because her marriage to Charles VIII and, later, Louis XII depicted a grand union between France and Brittany. You can spot it all over the impressive Blois Chateau, where Francis I resided. This building is really a beautiful showcase of various architectural styles, especially illustrating a strong Italian influence mixed with gothic style.
In fact, as an important patron of the arts, it was Francis I who convinced Leonardo Da Vinci to move to the Chateau du Clos Lucé where he decided to spend his final years. Nearby was the Chateau of Amboise overlooking the river, and connected to the Clos Lucé by an underground passageway. This it was where Henry II and Catherine de Medici raised their children alongside Mary Stuart, who had been promised in marriage to future king Francis II.
Francis I took ownership of the beautiful Chateau of Chenonceau in the 16th century which later was run by Diane de Poitiers who received it as a gift from Henry II, Francis I’s son. Diane lost the chateau to Catherine de Medici on Henry II’s death – his wife which became another bone of contention between these two ladies famed for their lavish parties in the castle’s beautiful grounds. In fact, that’s how it got its nickname is ‘Chateau des Dames’ or ‘The Ladies’ Castle’.
Francis I’s impressive hunting lodge is none other than the Chambord Chateau and is arguably one of the most recognisable chateaux in the world.
Did you know that the ‘French’ accent is said to come from Touraine in the Loire Valley?
How best to enjoy it today
Gone are the magnificent horses and stately carriages, today it’s the Loire à Vélo trail, an extensive cycling path, which takes you to the doorstep of many of these beautiful riverside chateaux. For a picnic, head to one of the local shops and buy traditional rillettes and paté, and wash it down with one of the region’s famous wines like Chinon, and top it off with some poires tapées (pressed pears). Maybe you’ll be able to catch a glance of the famous Loire September festival and its 500 barges in the Orleans harbour along the way?
Where to sleep?
- New: A charming 18th century home, La Feuillaie is now a 5-bed guesthouse with a 3 acre park complete with its own small lake. Gastronomic meals and a culinary school complete the package.
- Luxury: Les Hautes Roches in Touraine, is a truly troglodyte hotel with converted bedrooms cut into the cliffs. Facing the Loire, in an authentic and original environment, visitors can enjoy the many charms of this surprising estate.
- Niche and quirky: Guests will spend a unique night on the Amarante – a traditional Loire river boat. Departing from Candes St Martin, one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages, the room has 360 degree views out onto the splendid Loire River’s unique natural environment.
Where to eat?
- Refurbished: Olivier Arlot – the young Touraine chef given 3 ‘chef’s hats’ by the Gault & Millau restaurant guide – awaits you in his gourmet restaurant, La Chancelière, in Montbazon just a few miles from Tours in the heart of the Loire Valley.
- On a budget: The Côté Loire Inn has a great location by the river, and is near enough to the centre to take a walk round the town. It is a beautiful old building dating back to around the 15th century; the decor is very warm, homely and French! Previous patrons include Madame de Sévigné, she may have settled down here to pen a letter or two – who knows!
- Niche and quirk: Ver di Vin is one of Orléans’ quirkiest establishments. It is a high tech underground wine bar located in a cellar, which – courtesy of temperature-controlled Enomatic machines – pour doses of wine at the press of a button.
Where to have fun?
- Held on 4 – 6 November 2013 Euro Gusto – the European meeting of taste, biodiversity, and food cultures – will promote the slow food movement, and heritage, with the help of workshops, entertainment and lots more.
- East of Auxerre, the Canal de Briare is one of the oldest in France and the iron canal bridge in Briare itself, built by Gustave Eiffel, is Europe’s longest. Rent a licence-free houseboat to discover this treasure.
- ‘Loire à Vélo’ cycle trail was the winner of the Best European Tourism Project Award in 2012, and is an original way of discovering the riches of the Loire Valley. Share in and make the most of the local landscapes, châteaux, gastronomy and crafts with a tour along its paths.
How to get there?
- By plane: Direct flights from London and Manchester to Tours with Ryanair.
- By train: From London to Tours and other cities (via Paris or Lille) with Eurostar and TGV.