by Trevor Claringbold
Known with some justification as ‘The Heart of France’, the Loire Valley, more than any other region, really epitomises rural France. Images of the area adorn tourist posters and travel brochures, and every summer coaches converge here from across Europe. The whole area is littered with some of the most beautiful chateaux, and impressive fortifications, in the whole of France. The biggest problem you will have is deciding which places are the ones you most want to see.
There are two golden rules for exploring the Loire Valley:
First, stay in the area. Quite apart from it being one of the most visually appealing areas of France, it’s not an area to travel about in quickly, so the closer you are to the places you want to see the better. Somewhere in the Blois – Tours – Saumur area is best, and is reached in just a couple of hours from the Channel ports. If you are happy to go self catering, there is a superb small farm with gites to rent, run by a British family. Le Chapy is just outside Saumur, (www.lechapy.com) is very reasonable, and the hosts – Bill and Fiona Hanna – are extremely welcoming. If you prefer to be catered for, then the Hotel Mercure, in Blois, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a good choice. Overlooking the river, not far from the town centre, it’s within easy reach of all the main chateaux.
The second rule is ‘stay independent’. Ignore the many pre-arranged coach trips to the main chateaux, as they bind you to tight schedules meaning you never have the time to appreciate all there is to see. They also charge quite high prices for what they offer. Instead, either take your own car, or, better still, hire bikes and cycle the area. There are plenty of cycle paths, and it’s a perfect way to follow the river and visit the various places of interest. Sadly public transport in the Loire Valley is very much geared to the locals, so busses and trains will generally not help you get to and from the principal Chateaux at times which best suit the tourist.
You can buy a ticket from the local tourist offices (called a Passport to the Loire) that gives you entry to ten of the National Monuments in the valley. This will save you a good deal of money if you are planning to visit a number of attractions.
So where do you visit?
Well, of course that’s largely a matter of personal taste. The best of the chateaux would have to be Chenonceau and Azay-le-Rideau. These magnificent Renaissance masterpieces are national treasures, and are always busy. Don’t be put off by the crowds, as both really are on the ‘must-see’ list for this region. Try to go early, and be there at opening time. That way you get to at least get a first look around before the coaches arrive! If you can, go in midweek, as that also is a bit quieter. Close behind these two for visitor appeal are the sprawling ornate Chambord, with its mass of spires, and Blois, with its four wings each representing a different era. With all the Chateaux, leave plenty of time. They are deceptive in their size, and if you want to see them properly, including the often extensive but magnificent grounds, they shouldn’t be rushed.
Less glamorous, but no less impressive, are the more historic fortifications of the region. The medieval citadel at Loches is certainly worthy of some time, but also seek out some of the lesser know sites such as the menacing Chateaux Langeais. Overlooking the river between Tours and Saumur, it is still much as it was in the 15th Century –including the furniture – when Charles VIII and Duchess Anne of Brittany’s arranged marriage took place here, thus keeping a peace with the threatening Bretons. So much for the romantic French!
Further downstream, at Angers, the mighty medieval castle, with its seventeen huge round towers, guards one of the Loire’s most famous and greatest works of art. The tapestry of the Apocalypse is over 100 metres long (although it was originally 140 metres), and was completed for Duke Rene of Anjou in 1378. It’s a truly awe-inspiring sight.
Of course there are many other attractions to see in this area. The Loire itself has some glorious riverside walks, with quaint cafes and bars to stop at. Bike rental is popular, or if you’re more adventurous it’s possible to arrange pony trekking and even carriage rides. The river itself has little traffic, as its fast and unpredictable nature rules out most boating and swimming activities.
Just west of Tours are the best gardens of the region. The extensive Villandry Gardens are representative of the types that were found in many of the old chateaux, and have the added bonus of a wonderful location. This area produces the best French wines, and where better to enjoy them than sitting in these colourful gardens, over looking the point where the River Cher flows into the mighty Loire.
In truth, wherever you decide to explore in the central Loire region, you’ll find more than enough to occupy your time. Every town and village has a story to tell, as you would expect in an area with such a long and volatile history. From the ancient troglodyte caves near Saumur, through embattled medieval towns, to the scars from the Second World War, the Loire is steeped in history, but is still a fascinating, beautiful, and relaxing place to visit. Take your time, and visit the unusual as well as the popular, and you’ll see why so many visitors return year after year.