Châteaux, vineyards, cathedral cities, riverside towns and glorious scenery – the Loire Valley is fabulous. By Sue Dobson
The great River Loire and its tributaries wind through spectacular countryside, where vineyards hug hills and line valleys, picture book villages perch along riverbanks and medieval cities reveal their glories. Legendary châteaux, seemingly straight out of fairytales, make the Loire Valley France’s ‘Valley of the Kings’.
In the east, the steep streets of the hilltop town of Sancerre look down on vistas of vineyards and magical river views. The rival vines of Pouilly-Fumé lie across the Loire. To the west, Muscadet country spreads out below Nantes. In between are towns and villages with names, like Vouvray and Saumur, guaranteed to brighten the day of any wine lover.
In this land of wine and water, farms produce the finest goats cheeses, vegetables and orchard fruits, forests give up their game and mushrooms in the autumn and freshwater fish is a staple on the menu.
The Loire River flows through the heart of some interesting towns: Orléans, Joan of Arc’s city; Blois, famed for its château in town, a royal favourite with Louis XII, Francois I and Catherine de Medici, and an array of magnificent châteaux in the woods to the south; and the university town of Tours that has some fine cobblestone streets, grand mansions and timber-frame houses.
Highlight châteaux along the route include the glamorous and much visited Chenonceau, which Henry II gave to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, but his wife got her own back on the king’s death and made her rival exchange it for the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire, which now hosts a collection of fine art and an innovative International Garden Festival every summer. A long succession of royals made the sumptuous Château d’Amboise home– Charles VII, Louis XI, Charles VIII, François I, even the young Mary, Queen of Scots – and Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the St Hubert Chapel.
Stretching for 280km from Sully-sur-Loire in the Loiret to Chalonnes-sur-Loire in Anjou, the Loire Valley has received UNESCO World Heritage status for its architectural heritage and unspoilt nature. The spectacular cathedrals of Chartres and Bourges, masterpieces of Gothic art in appealing cities to the north and south of the Loire Valley, are also on the UNESCO list. The cathedral at Chartres has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and boasts the finest stained glass windows in the world.
There’s a vast range of campsites in the region, among them some of the smartest in France. The environmentally friendly Huttopia campsite has ridge tents inspired by the Yukon and wood cabins complete with wood-burning stoves. It’s on Lake Rillé between Tours and Saumur, a watersports centre and bird sanctuary well situated for visiting some of the finest Loire chateaux,
Half way between Orléans and Bourges, the Parc des Alicourts has a superb new spa centre offering massage and hydrotherapy treatments, Turkish bath, saunas and an outdoor solarium. Surrounded by forests, the site has several swimming pools, plus a lake and sandy beach and is well organised with a restaurant, shops, sports and activities for adults and children. Youngsters will enjoy the nearby Beauval Zoo Park, where lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys and koala bears are among the 4000 animals and birds residing in the 55-acre park.
A clutch of châteaux lie within easy driving distance. The magnificent 440-room Renaissance Château de Chambord, symbol of royal power under the profligate François I, stands on an estate almost the size of Paris, while the elegant Château de Cheverny is considered the most richly furnished in the Loire Valley.