One of the most interesting regions to visit on a France tour has to be the Loire Valley, not too far from Paris.
If you happen to be in Paris on your France tour and are wondering where else to visit that isn’t too far away, given you have a few days available, then do consider the Loire Valley. The reasons to visit are a) it is home to a large number of superb chateaux (a cross between a castle and a stately home), b) it offers history, culture, and medieval towns, and c) it is the third leading wine district in France. I should also add the scenically attractive countryside. It has been described as “The Garden of France” due to the many vineyards and fruit orchards found along the river banks. It is, as an entity, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Loire Valley is actually less than an hour way from Paris via the TGV express train, and it takes about 2 hours by road to reach it. However, bear in mind it stretches for around 280 kilometres/170 miles along the River Loire, roughly east to west.
The Fabulous Chateaux of the Loire Valley
There is no doubt the chateaux are the number one attraction for visiting the region. I was amazed to learn that there are over 300 of them in the Loire Valley. The first to be built was in the 10th century and they were continually built for the next 500 years, the latter definitely being the more splendid and well preserved. They were built not only for French royalty but also for French nobility. Many of the chateaux were built on top of hills, some overlooking the river. My view is that these are France’s equivalent of Britain’s stately homes and palaces. Although there are so many chateaux in the region, I have selected 5 chateaux of prominence, which are also very appealing.
The Chateau de Chenonceau, located near Tours, is one of the most elegant. It has beautiful formal gardens, rare Renaissance-era furniture, a collection of 16th and 17th Century tapestries, and a superb art collection which includes works by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Tintoretto among many other famous painters. Chenonceau dates back to the 1500s. In the 18th century, it received fashionable guests such as Voltaire and Rousseau. One of the highlights is a 60 metre/38 foot long checkerboard-floored Grande Gallerie. On summer evenings, the grounds are illuminated.
The Chateau de Chambord is the largest chateau in the Loire Valley, located close to the town of Blois and again built in the 1500s. It boasts around 400 rooms, over 80 staircases, and 365 fireplaces, and is situated in a very large park. It is said that 1800 labourers worked for twelve years on the construction of this chateau without really finishing it. One feature is the 800 sculpted columns and an extremely elaborately decorated roof. During the Second World War, artworks from the collections of the Louvre were moved for safety reasons to the Chateau de Chambord.
Not far from Amboise is the Chateau de Villandry, with its six wonderful landscaped gardens. These are some of the finest gardens you’ll find on your France tour – full of flowers, ornamental vines, vegetables, manicured trees, high hedges, and fountains. Visiting the gardens in the spring and summer sees them at their most spectacular. They consist of the Water Garden, the Sun Garden, the Ornamental Garden, and the Kitchen Garden. There is also a children’s maze and play area. The chateau itself has limited interest, but don’t be deterred from visiting Villandry, if only for the gardens.
The Chateau d’Amboise, situated in the town of Amboise, is a little older than the above-mentioned. It has a claim to fame which surprised me when I learned about it. Leonardo da Vinci, the famous painter, arrived at Amboise in 1516 as a guest at the invitation of the then king. After spending three years on and off, he passed away and according to his wishes, was buried at this chateau. His tomb can be found in the Saint-Hubert’s Chapel. Death seems to haunt this particular chateau as King Charles VIII died here in 1498 after hitting his head on a door frame. The royal apartments, the chapel, and the surrounding gardens are all open to the public, although parts of the castle such as the interesting underground passages can only be visited on organized tours at restricted times.
The last of the major chateaux is the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, near the town of the same name. It is considered one of the best examples of early French Renaissance architecture and enjoys a beautiful location on an island in the middle of the River Indre. It is a very picturesque chateau especially with its image reflected in the river below. The furniture inside the chateau has influences from the Italian Renaissance. There are also 16th and 17th Century Flemish tapestries on display, plus other art treasures.
There are a number of charming chateaux which have been converted into hotels and which could give you the experience you might have had if you had been the guest of French royalty years ago.
The Medieval Towns of the Loire Valley
Tours is the largest city in the Loire Valley, though not the capital, which is Orleans. It is famous for its original medieval district which is called le Vieux Tour – with its preserved half-timbered buildings and the Place Plumereau, a square with many cafes and restaurants where you can sit outside watching the world go by. It is the liveliest spot in the city in the heart of the historic centre. Tours is also famous for its many bridges crossing the River Loire. Plus, the gothic-styled Saint-Gatien Cathedral, which was built during the 13th and 14th centuries, is known for its remarkable stained-glass windows. Check out the covered markets in Tours selling cheeses, selected meats and delicatessen products, local foie gras, wine, and oysters – all designed to invade your culinary senses.
Orleans has had a checkered history having been occupied and influenced by the Romans and the English. This is the city of Joan of Arc, “The Maid of Orleans,” whose house has been recreated to resemble the original. There are also Romanesque churches including the Cathedral which has a similar design to that of Notre Dame in Paris, half-timbered medieval houses, and a selection of museums.
Blois offers great insights into French history. This town with its medieval architecture is a very attractive place in which to spend time. The Chateau Royal de Blois is a work of extraordinary architecture. Inside is the Musee des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum) which exhibits 16th to 19th Century paintings, sculptures, and tapestries. Blois’ medieval and Renaissance old town is well worth strolling in, especially around the 17th Century St-Louis Cathedral, with its multi-storey bell tower. Across from the chateau is the Museum of Magic, the one-time home of a conjurer called Houdin (1805–71), after whom the American magician, Harry Houdini, named himself. The museum has exhibits on Houdin and the history of magic, displays of optical trickery, and several daily magic shows.
Another historic town is Saumur, which is surrounded by vineyards. The skyline of this historic town is exceptionally attractive and includes the Chateau de Saumur, yet another chateau. If you climb up the steps to the chateau, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the town and a lovely stone bridge crossing the River Loire below. There is a tank museum called the Musee des Blindes which contains over 850 armoured vehicles, most of them from France but also other countries. Saumur has a special weekly market on Saturday mornings with hundreds of stalls open for business.
Angers is the cradle of the Plantagenet Dynasty and was once, one of the intellectual centres of Europe. The old medieval centre is dominated by the huge Chateau of the Plantagenets, which has the biggest medieval tapestry collection in the world, spread over a number of sections that total close to 70 scenes. The chateau was built between 1230 and 1240 by Louis IX of France. The immense walls are about one kilometre/ half a mile long with 17 towers. Once again, in the town, there are many old half-timbered houses which add to the atmosphere, including the Maison d’Adam, one of the city’s best-preserved medieval houses, which is decorated with carved, bawdy wooden sculptures.
The Wine Regions of the Loire Valley
The Loire is not only a large wine producing region but is also responsible for some of the world’s best-known wines. When it comes to white wines, it is France’s major producer. I found out that it was the Romans who planted the first vines here in the 5th century. There are several micro-climates in the Loire Valley, which allow it to produce both good white and red wines. To name names, these are some of the better-known wines – Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet, Vouvray, and Sancerre. If you are considering visiting a winery on your France tour, they are simply scattered from one end of the Loire Valley to the other.
So, if you have a few days to spend on your France tour and would enjoy any one of the visits to various chateaux, medieval towns, and wineries, the Loire Valley is definitely the place to head to.