Known as the “Garden of France,” the Loire Valley is equally famous for its châteaux built by kings and nobles. This land of vineyards, flowers and rolling green hills dotted with more than a thousand castles was the favorite residence of French royals during the Renaissance period.
Located in central France, La Vallée de la Loire is distinguished by the country’s longest waterway, the Loire River, which flows 634 miles (1020 km) from the Cévennes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), France’s high-speed rail service, it is possible to get from Paris to the heart of the Loire in less than an hour.
Here are some of the places and events you won’t want to miss on a trip to the Loire:
The Best Itinerary
Day 1: Start in Tours at the junction of the Loire and Cher Rivers.
Day 2: Check out le Château d´Amboise (in Amboise; www.chateau-amboise.com) in the morning and cycle to nearby Château Chenonceau (in the village of Chenonceaux; www.chenonceau.com ) in the afternoon.
Day 3: Visit historic Chinon and its castle from which the Plantagenet dynasty, a line of English kings in the 12th to 15th centuries, ruled England and half of France. It was here that Joan of Arc, French military leader and national heroine, convinced the dauphin in 1429 to claim the throne of France and save the country from English domination.
Day 4: Spend the morning in Azay le Rideau for its château and the afternoon in nearby Château de Villandry (in Villandry). Leave lots of time to explore the extensive gardens.
Day 5: Spend the morning in Blois and visit the Château de Blois; in the afternoon, take the shuttle to the Châteaux de Chambord (in Chambord; www.chambord.org) and Cheverny (in the town of Cheverny; www.chateau-cheverny.fr).
You can either move from town to town each day or stay in one central town and take local trains or drive to the next location. The distances between each town and château are very modest. July and August are considered the “high season,” with special events scheduled such as sound-and-light shows at the châteaux, and extra train runs to accommodate more tourists.
At other times of the year, take careful note of train departure times so as not to be stranded for several hours. You can pick up a booklet listing the schedules at any SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, France’s railway company) station.
The Best City
The bustling university town of Tours makes an excellent home base from which to explore the region. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe. Today, it is a rail hub and traditional gateway to the Loire Valley, as it is easy to get to any other town in the region from here.
The medieval Old Town features beautiful Renaissance and neo-classical mansions clustered around the famous Plumereau square, filled with open-air cafés. Visit the Cathedral of St. Gatien and stay at Hôtel Mirabeau for clean, relatively large rooms and bathrooms, a warm welcome and a convenient five-minute walk from the train station (www.hotel-mirabeau.fr; 89 bis blvd. Heurteloup, 37000 Tours; dbl. €40-52; 25 rooms).
My favorite restaurant is Le Mastroquet (19 place Gaston Paillhou, 37000 Tours, closed Sunday evening and Monday, about US$ 30 for the prix fixe menu without wine).
The Best Château
Yes, it’s highly subjective and there are some serious competitors for the title, but Château Villandry, (www.chateauvillandry.com) 9.3 miles (15 km) west of Tours, offers the best total château experience. Villandry, which dates from the late Renaissance period, is most famous for its formal gardens.
Splendid views of the gardens can be seen from the château’s upper floors and battlemented tower. Extensive restoration within has expanded what is available to see in the château (train to Azay le Rideau or Savonnières and then taxi; daily from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. in the high season, closing as early as 5 p.m. in the low season).
The runners up for the title? Chenonceau (with an impressive view of the Cher river) and Chambord (the largest of all the castles).
The Best Spectacle
The 17th century Château de Cheverny has lovely furnished rooms and an elegant white tuffa-stone façade, but the real show happens at 5 p.m. when 70 hunting hounds are served dinner.
Once the dogs are finally allowed to eat the food that was placed in the center of the kennel several minutes earlier, they turn from happy, hyper, bouncy hounds into a writhing, snarling, snapping, heaving, jumping, plunging, fighting mass of scavengers for about two minutes, until all the food is gone and order is restored.
A convenient shuttle service from Blois twice a day offers transportation and reduced entry fees to both Chambord and Cheverny, along with some highly diverting, error-filled commentary in a hilariously fractured form of English. (I’ll bet you didn’t know that “General” Hitler dropped nuclear “stuff” in the Loire, did you?)
The Best Restaurant
Au Rendez-Vous des Pêcheurs specializes in local seafood. Be prepared to spend the whole evening and about US$ 100 per person for the prix fixe menu, without wine, for an extraordinary gourmet experience that delivers more than you expect at every turn. The service is warm and attentive, and the food is truly memorable with unusual food pairings such as red pepper-and-raspberry sorbet (27 rue du Foix, Blois).
The Best Way to Spend an Afternoon
Rent a bike at one of several shops in Amboise and cycle along the well-marked path to the beautiful Château de Chenonceau, 7.5 miles (12 km) away. The path traverses the lovely forest of Forêt d’Amboise, passes through fields of wheat and oats edged with poppies and other wildflowers, and farming villages.
Yes, there are some challenging hills, but you’re on vacation with nothing to prove; walk your bike to the top if it becomes too much like work. The trip down the other side of the hill is a blast!
The Hôtel Diderot in Chinon, a lovely old family home built in the 15th century, was restored in the 18th century and converted to a small hotel by a team of two sisters and a brother. The rooms are much larger than average, and attractively furnished and decorated. There is a lovely garden lining the patio where you can take breakfast, or you can eat in the country-style dining room with beamed ceiling. Either way, you will be offered an assortment of delicious homemade jams (www.hoteldiderot.com; 4, rue de Buffon, 37500 Chinon; sgl. €41- 52; dbl. €51-71).
Hot, fresh baguettes and chocolate croissants are baked on the premises of Hôtel le Blason in Amboise, which also dates from the 15th and 18th centuries (www.leblason.fr; 11 place Richelieu, 37400 Amboise; sgl. €44-56; dbl. €49-56; 25 rooms). Whoever said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day definitely ate here.
Whether you are tracing the route taken by Joan of Arc, exploring châteaux, or in search of fine wine, the Loire Valley has much to offer. Enjoy your stay in the Valley of the Kings.
If You Go
Western France Tourist Board
Loire Valley Regional Tourist Guide
Castles of France
French Tourist Office