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Destination: Loire Valley

Sep 5th, 2013 Destination Guides, Europe

The Loire Valley is a fairytale region of rolling countryside sprinkled with old-world hamlets, storybook chateaux, cathedrals, abbeys, gardens and vineyards. Just an hour from Paris by fast train, this stately area was once the playground of kings. Today, it’s a cultural must-see, offering an unmatched glimpse into European history. Travel along as we explore its rivers, bicycle paths and cobblestone streets.

Chenonceaux – Chateau of the Women

Chenonceaux

The Loire Valley’s biggest attractions are its outstanding chateaux (castles)—numbering over 300. Past the small village of Chenonceaux and through the forest, you’ll find one of its most magnificent. Chateau de Chenonceau (the spelling of the village name differs from the castle name) stands out due to its position directly over the Cher River. Dating back to 1513, it blends the French Gothic architecture of its day with the newer Italian Renaissance style. Its unique history as a castle built, administrated and protected chiefly by women makes it even more interesting. During Henry II’s reign (1547–1559), Chenonceau became central to royal intrigue. Following his marriage to 14-year-old Catherine de Medici, 15-year-old Henry fell for Diane de Poitiers, a 35-year-old courtier who became his chief mistress. He even gave the castle to her as a gift. With the influence and power given to her as the court favorite, Diane added the castle’s dramatic centerpiece—a romantic arched bridge—and the exquisite French-style gardens. When Henry became mortally wounded in a jousting tournament, wife Catherine took control, barring mistress Diane from seeing him, forcing her to return the crown jewels and banishing her to another castle. Catherine then set about trying to outdo Diane’s accomplishments by adding to the bridge and constructing a new series of gardens.

Madame Dupin, the wife of the chateau’s 18th-century owner, saved the castle from destruction during the French Revolution. It later served as a field hospital during WW I and as part of the WW II escape route for French citizens fleeing Nazi-occupied territory.

Providing a quintessential glimpse into royal life, Chenonceau contains remarkable tapestries, period furnishings, old masters’ paintings, fireplaces, a black room (decorated in morbid hue for the grieving widow of Henry III), a stellar kitchen large enough to feed 200 and fantastic floral arrangements (all from the garden). You can dine in the orangerie or visit the teahouse for a break. Re-created farmhouses and a wax museum offer further interest, while the manicured gardens are the crowning glory.

Villandry – Living Art of the Loire

Villandry

A profusion of parks, arboretums, castle gardens, rose gardens and potagers (vegetable gardens) make the Loire Valley “The Garden of France.” One great example is the Chateau de Villandry, a breathtaking countryside villa known for its superb flora. Bordered by the charming village of Villandry on one side and a wooded forest on the other, the chateau boasts three levels of lavish gardens inspired by a classic 16th-century Renaissance-style garden. Romantic symbolism, gazebos, fountains and ornamentation make it a delight for the senses. Six exquisite parterres (formal gardens arranged in symmetrical patterns of planting beds) are made up of ornamental flowers, vegetables and herbs. The amazing intricacy reaches a pinnacle in the Love Garden, which tells the story of romantic love—its passion, fickleness, turmoil and tragedy—through the color and shapes of flowers and shrubs. The meticulously designed Kitchen Garden was based on the geometric monastic gardens of the Middle Ages that were used for food. Its layout changes with each planting to achieve harmony in form and color.

Gardeners from around the world descend on Villandry for courses in formal gardening. The last weekend of September, the chateau hosts the Journées du Potager (Kitchen Garden Days), when master gardeners give advice and guided tours of the Kitchen Garden. Special demonstrations and workshops make this a great weekend for gardening buffs.

Elsewhere in the Loire Valley, the 79-acre grounds of Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire host the International Garden Festival from April to late October, which features the design creations of artists selected by jury. You can visit other fantastic Loire Valley gardens as a series of one-day or two-day guided tours.

Amboise – Stories of the Rich & Famous

Amboise

Set in a picturesque medieval village along the Loire River, Chateau Amboise is full of intrigue. The fantastic 13th-century Gothic castle approx. 15 miles east of Tours was built as a strategic fortress overlooking the Loire. King Charles VIII (who purportedly had six toes) later brought Renaissance influences from Italy to transform the former medieval fortress into a Gothic wonder. The picturesque chateau became a sign of power and wealth in its 16th-century heyday, once standing five times its present size. Numerous wars and lack of funds reduced its footprint, but it still boasts unique features and important architectural innovations such as spiral turrets and two horsemen’s towers. The latter were built with interior spiral ramps that allowed horses and carriages to easily move from the lower town to the chateau’s higher terraces.

Chateau Amboise also contains plenty of stories. At age 28, King Charles died an unfortunate death when he hit his head on a castle doorframe and fell into a coma. Later, Leonardo da Vinci moved to the area at the invitation of King Francis I (1494–1547), whom he had delighted with a mechanical lion during a visit to Italy. With the Mona Lisa in tow, da Vinci took up residence in the nearby Chateau Clos Lucé, where he spent the last years of his life innovating.

If you travel to Amboise before September 30, you can join special guided tours of the towers and a maze of underground passageways (tours are in French).

Loire Valley Waterways – Scenery by the Boatload

Amboise

Although it’s the longest waterway in France, the Loire River offers surprisingly little cruising because it’s only partially navigable. You can take a 50-minute mini cruise with Naviloire from the vicinity of Tours to admire nature. Just east of Chenonceaux in the hamlet of Chisseaux, you can board a barge on the Cher River, one of the many tributaries of the Loire. This 50-minute cruise glides under the arches of the romantic Chateau Chenonceau for a splendid view that many visitors miss. If you’re looking for a multiple-day journey, try the hotel barge Nymphea, which navigates the Cher and castle, or the Meanderer, which cruises the famous Briare Canal Bridge, an aqueduct designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) to get boats over the Loire. Onboard amenities on these hotel barges include private bathrooms, Internet access, lounges, deck spas and prepared meals, making it easy to live like river royalty. You can also disembark to go on guided tours of chateaux, wine tastings, bicycling trips or even hot-air balloon rides. If you’d rather captain your own ship, rent a cabin cruiser to explore at your own pace. For more exercise, try a kayak or canoe excursion.

Regional Wining & Dining

Wining and Dining

Known as the “Garden of France,” the Loire Valley is famous for exceptional white wines, delicious fish, wild game and high-quality fruit and vegetables. You can learn everything you need to know about the area’s wines and wineries on the superb Vins de Loire website, which also provides stellar suggestions for driving, walking and cycling itineraries, along with interesting sights and events along the vineyard route. Just shy of 500 miles, la Route des Vignobles (Route of the Vineyards) is the longest wine road in France. Easily accessible wine cellars abound, and small, family-owned gems like Chateau Gaudrelle offer tours and tastings of Vouvray wines with heartfelt passion.

In addition to wine, you can indulge in mouthwatering local dishes in marvelous places that range from grand chateaux and busy brasseries to small village bistros serving simple fare. Michelin-starred restaurants are peppered throughout the valley—there are seven in the Tours area alone. The two-starred Domaine des Hauts de Loire resides in an epic 19th-century hunting lodge as part of the venerable Relais & Chateaux family. In the same area, Touraine Gourmande—an association committed to promoting the products of the Tours region and its cherished art de vivre (art of living)—celebrates 30 years in 2013 with a guide of its member restaurants that work to showcase the area’s bounty.

Cycling the Countryside

Sunflowers

One of the best ways to tour the Loire Valley is by bicycle. The almost flat terrain and a superb network of Loire à Vélo bike trails—stretching all the way to the Atlantic Ocean—provide a perfect way to see this bountiful land. Bicycle shops in many towns rent by the day and offer maps and suggestions so you can explore independently. Rental agencies like Loire Vélo Nature provide bike delivery and pick-up at hotels and train stations, as well as luggage transfers between cycling points. In the Anjou region, you can download a smartphone app that puts easy navigation and points of interest in the palm of your hand.

Multiple-day journeys are also a great option. Start with Loire à Vélo, which has a wealth of information on routes and itineraries. Then, decide if you want to take a guided tour or if you’d rather go it alone and let companies like Biking France or Bike Tours Direct arrange your itinerary, hotels, restaurants and baggage transfers. Choose a route by interest, duration, comfort level or difficulty. You can stay in B&Bs, hotels or rustic inns and dine in all manner of eateries along the way. If you prefer a home base to cycle home to every night, try LoireLife Cycling.

Montrésor – A Most Beautiful Village

There are beautiful villages in France, and then there are “The Most Beautiful Villages of France,” like Montrésor. Under special designation to preserve its picturesque beauty and ancient French heritage, Montrésor (translating as “my treasure”) shines like a river jewel. Serenely situated on the banks of the Indrois River halfway between Tours and Poitiers, this village of charming stone and half-timbered houses is clustered around the base of Chateau de Montrésor. Inside the walls of an 11th-century fortress, this Renaissance-era chateau and its spired towers recall the village’s past as a center for courtesans and royal servants in the 15th and 16thcenturies. Defensive walls and the town’s medieval covered market take you back to feudal times. Stroll through the narrow, sloping streets to the boulangerie (bakery) and café. Visit the ancient riverside lavoir (communal laundry) and check out the gothic abbey. Cross the river by footbridge to the tree-shaded riverbank that travels beyond the town for views of the castle and village. Stop in at the tourist office for tips on meandering the countryside’s lovely walking paths. To stay in this medieval treasure, rent a house or cottage and make it your base for exploring the area and nearby chateaux such as Amboise and Chenonceau.

Bourges – A Cathedral, Palace & Walking Enchantment

St. Etienne's Cathedral

A masterpiece of Gothic art due to its design and proportions, St. Etienne’s Cathedral is the centerpiece of Bourges, a city often overlooked by tourists. Its 12th-century cathedral features rare stained-glass windows, stone carvings, murals and frescoes that helped make it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Impressive Renaissance mansions and medieval dwellings—including over 400 half-timbered houses—surround the cathedral. The pedestrian zone of narrow medieval streets is strewn with fountains, small squares, courtyards, hidden passageways, French lanterns and wrought-iron details. Between May and September, you can take a self-guided walk of Bourges at dusk during the annual Nuits Lumière (Illuminated Nights). Follow the blue lanterns through the winding streets to see special lighting effects and visual projections on many of the town’s landmarks. Enchanting period music of string and flute transports you back to a glowing 15th-century Bourges. Visit the Bourges Tourist Office for more information.

In addition to lovely parks and gardens, Bourges also features the stunning Palais Jacques Coeur. Treasurer and financier to King Charles VII in the mid-15th century, Jacques Coeur earned vast sums (unusual for a non-royal) and built a number of homes, including the sumptuous palace in his hometown of Bourges. Although he never lived there, Coeur richly decorated and outfitted the interior with grand fireplaces, spiral staircases and indoor toilets. Take a tour of the palace, then head to the marshland north of the historic center. A vast allotment of private vegetable and flower gardens separated by canals makes this a lovely place for a walk or a boat ride.


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Travel Tips: Loire Valley

Paris is a vast city full of history, art, architecture, food and fashion, with intrigue waiting around almost every corner. Read these tips to find great ways to see the sights and look like a local as you stroll the streets.

Touring the Loire Valley

A tour is a great way to make sure you see the valley from its best angles. With the multitudes on offer, it’s best to think about your interests and needs to narrow down the options. Loire Valley Tourism is a great place to start your research. Fully guided tours take you by the hand from start to finish, while semi-guided tours offer both guidance and freedom. You can also book day tours from Paris or at local tourist offices—some will even take you by classic car.

Types of tours to consider:

  • Bicycle (one of the best ways to see the Loire Valley)
  • Castle
  • Garden
  • Helicopter
  • Hot-air balloon
  • Wine & Cuisine

Which Castle Should I Visit?

Over 300 chateaux (castles and manor houses) grace the Loire Valley, some of magnificent style and epic proportions. The following should be on your list if you want to see quintessential chateaux architecture:

  • Amboise: Built in Italian style, this castle is the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. His last home, Chateau du Clos Lucé, is just down the street.
  • d’Azay-le-Rideau: Constructed on the Indre River, this smaller castle holds fairy-tale charm for its architecture, setting and the picture-perfect village surrounding it.
  • Chambord: The biggest castle in the Loire is a Renaissance masterpiece.
  • Chenonceau: This romantic beauty built over the Cher River was a source of strife between the wife of King Henry II and his mistress. The succession of powerful French noblewomen who owned it gave it the name “Castle of the Ladies.”
  • Cheverny: Features fantastic, luxurious interiors. Its current owners live in one wing of the castle. Hunting still takes place in the surrounding forest.
  • Chateau d’Ussé: Said to have inspired Charles Perrault to write “Sleeping Beauty.”

The list goes on. You can get in-depth information from Michelin’s Green Guide Châteaux of the Loire, an ideal source to help you plan and to take with you. You can also visit Castles of France, Loire Valley Castles and Chateaux de la Loire online.

Planning Your Time

The Loire Valley covers 143 miles from east to west. One way to plan your itinerary is to divide your trip into regional segments. Stay in a base town and take day trips to see castles, gardens, abbeys and vineyards that suit your schedule and interests. For example:

  • Eastern Loire: Use Blois as home base to see the castles of Chambord, Cheverny, Chaumont and Chateau Blois—the latter has 75 staircases and 564 rooms, each of which has a fireplace.
  • Central Loire: Features the chateaux beauties of Amboise, d’Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceau and Villandry, known for its exquisite gardens. In this region, the city of Tours makes a great base. Try living the French cottage life or take up residence in your own chateau in lovely villages like Saché, where French author and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) was inspired to write several of his most famous novels.
  • Western Loire: Base yourself in Nantes (the region’s capital) or in a smaller town like Saumur —the French equestrian center and home of the National Riding School— to see the chateaux of Angers, Chinon and Ussé. Saumur has its own lovely castle and is near Fontevraud Abbey, the largest group of monastic buildings in Europe.

When to Go

Autumn brings Loire Valley forests, gardens and vineyards to glorious shades of red, orange and gold. Fall is also when you’ll find more affordable lodging and the full bounty of local harvest at restaurants. While September temperatures peak around 72°F (22°C), they can also drop to 39°F (4°C) at night. The crisp air is great for cycling, but you’ll need a jacket, sweaters and fleece for layering. Pack an umbrella —or a hooded jacket if you’ll be cycling—and a heavier coat for November.

Green Routes

France has an impressive national network of cycling paths:

  • Voies bleues (blue ways) run along rivers and canals in towns and cities.
  • Voies vertes (green ways) are quiet, easy countryside routes reserved for unmotorized vehicles, walkers and horses. They usually follow forest tracks, country trails, riverbanks and former rail lines.

The Loire à Vélo (Loire by bike) network comprises 497 miles (800 km) of pathways, two-thirds of which run along the Loire River. It also passes through six cities and numerous old-world villages, with chateaux, gardens and vineyards along the way. Start and stop where you want—approx. 20 of the country’s SNCF-TER rail stations have easy access to the paths to make it even easier.

What to Sample

The “Garden of France” is a cornucopia of cuisine. In addition to dining out, you can get a great sampling of local specialties and seasonal treats at local markets. Specialties to try:

  • Andouillette: Tripe sausage, often served with fries
  • Champignons: Wild mushrooms are wonderful in summer, but Cave des Roches—the world’s only underground mushroom farm—produces over 100 tons year-round
  • Cherries: Either in fruit form or as Guignolet liqueur
  • Desserts: Sables (French butter cookies) and tarte tatin, a caramelized upside-down apple pie
  • Fouaces: Buns cooked on a wood stove
  • Fruit and vegetables: Ask what’s in season
  • Goat’s cheese: Some of the best in France comes from this region
  • Poisson: Fish from rivers, streams and ponds include pike, eel, trout and carp
  • Rillons: Chunks of pork slow roasted until tender and often served with potatoes (specialty of Tours)
  • Rilletes: Slow-cooked pork, shredded and remixed with fat (specialty of Tours)
  • Wild game: Boar, duck, pheasant, grouse and venison are specialties of the fall hunting season
  • Wine: Try both the red and white Sancerre, the light red Chinon and Vouvray—a sweet, dry or semi-dry white that’s also available as a sparkling white

The Footpaths of France

Long-distance footpaths and hiking trails cover over 62,137 miles (100,000 km) of France. Passing through forests, fields, mountains, cities and rural villages where hikers can find accommodation, the trails make foot travel a great way to see the country. Signposts that show a white stripe above a red stripe appear regularly along the routes as guide markers. Main network arteries are designated by the letters “GR” (grand randonnée), followed by a number. The Loire Valley trail (GR3) is the oldest in France and travels from La Baule through Guérande, Brière, Nantes, Saumur, Orléans and Nevers all the way to the source of the Loire River.

On weekends (usually on Sundays), certain local villages host randonnées (walks) where you turn up and pay a small fee to join the group. If you read French, you can find listings in the Nouvelle Republic newspaper, or ask at a local tourist office.

Sound & Light Shows

Many of the Loire Valley chateaux present Son et Lumière (Sound and Light Shows) during the summer and into September. These shows feature music, dialog (usually in French) and images projected onto monuments or castle walls. While some are more contemporary, others take you back to a time when royalty ruled the castles. Even if you don’t speak French, you’ll be mesmerized by the visuals. Check with the castle or the town’s local tourist office for times and prices. Some may offer shows in English.

Ready to Go?

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