Travel Guide to the Loire Valley and its Chateaux

 

What’s The Allure?

The Loire Valley — a breathtakingly picturesque stretch of land in the middle of France – is widely known for its magnificent historic towns, vineyards, and chateaux. Furthermore, its beautiful cascading green hills and peaceful landscape have made it the ideal muse for many an enamored writer, artist or poet. Parts of it have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 and its eternal natural beauty has indeed earned it the nickname the “Garden of France”.

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With origins dating back to the mid-Paleolithic period, the Loire Valley boasts some of the most enchanting towns and architectural monuments in Europe such as Amboise, Blois, Saumur, Tours and remarkable castles including Chambord and Chenonceau. Everywhere you turn, you will be reminded of the artistic influence of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. Indeed, a visit here is like taking a historic trip back to a simpler yet aesthetically inviting time period.

View of the Saumur Valley and colorful flowers.

View of the Saumur Valley and colorful flowers.

A Historic Landscape

In the early 15th century, a young Joan de Arc led French troops in a number of important battles, which eventually resulted in the defeat over the English in the war for total control of this region. Even before this happened, the Loire Valley had been eagerly coveted by kings and queens since the 10th century. It’s of little wonder since this exquisite valley is surrounded by the Loire River – France’s longest river – and abundant with lush green forests, rich fertile lands and offers an ideal climate for wine harvesting.

As was customary at that time, only royalty, nobility, and wealthy citizens could afford the luxury of a superior education in the arts and in cultural pursuits. The best artists, historians, architects and writers of the day where often invited to enhance the court’s artistic cachet. Of these distinguished guests, famed artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was so intrigued by this remarkable place following an invitation from the king, that he established residence in the town of Amboise in 1516 and remained there until his death in 1519. His house – Le Clos-Luce – was eventually turned into a museum devoted to the genius of this man’s creations. This lovely town also features an inviting castle and a museum dedicated to the history of the postal service.

Le Clos-Luce, the former house of Leonardo Da Vinci, now a Museum.

Le Clos-Luce, the former house of Leonardo Da Vinci, now a Museum.

Another town worth visiting for its unique landscape and historical significance is Blois. Its famous Renaissance castle — Château de Blois – was once the home of King Louis XVII and sits at the very center of the city. The town itself was built on a steep hill with winding pathways that culminate in long stairways at different points – making it a most interesting place to explore. An amusing attraction found in Blois is La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin (The House of Magician Robert-Houdin) – the only public museum in France dedicated solely to magic and the performing arts.

The city of Tours also warrants a mention. Known for its charming medieval old town, 12th century cathedral and the distinction of being the city featuring the purest form of the French language, Tours boasts a livelier atmosphere than most other towns in the Loire Valley. On any given day, the main square – Place Plumereau – is alive with the bustling sounds of patrons in the many open air cafés, bars, and restaurants.

Captivating Castles

With more than 300 castles in the Loire Valley, one might feel a bit overwhelmed in determining which ones to visit during a short stay in the region. Although all of the castles have unique qualities that would make them special for individual visitors to visit, three that truly stand out are Chambord, Azay le Rideau and Chenonceau.

One of the oldest chateaux of the region, Azay le Rideau was named after Lord Ridel who decided to build a fortress on an island protected by a road that lead travelers from Tours to Chinon, in the late 12th century. King François I upgraded its appearance by commissioning the top French and Italian master architects and designers of the time. By the early 1500’s, the castle was bought by the French Minister of Finance as a gift for his son. The younger man promptly ordered renovations giving the chateau the curious “L” shape that it keeps to this day – suggesting the essence of a majestic French chateau combined with that of an Italian palazzo. Today, visitors can get of glimpse of the privileged life of royalty by wandering around its open spaces which include a lounge, a library and a master bedroom – all decorated with restored furnishings and vivid original tapestries.

Chateau Azay Le Rideau near the towns of Tours and Chinon.

Chateau Azay Le Rideau near the towns of Tours and Chinon.

Located in the small village of Chenonceaux — and seemingly floating on underwater arches — the majestic castle of Chenonceau is arguably the most romantic castle in the Loire Valley. Known as the “six ladies chateau” — for its famous female inhabitants, including a queen, a mistress and colorful society ladies–this beautiful castle is a historical wonder to behold. It is strongly suggested that you book a guide for this particular castle, in order to fully appreciate the fascinating stories associated with its engaging female inhabitants.

Today, Chenonceau is second only to Versailles in terms of being the most visited castle in France.

The majestic castle of Chenonceau, known as the six lady's chateau.

The majestic castle of Chenonceau, known as the six lady's chateau.

If time permits you to visit just one castle, then Chambord would give you the best representation of the lavishness of the 16th century chateaux, by featuring no less than 440 rooms! This immense castle, located deep in the forest, was first built as a summer lounge and hunting grounds for King François I. He purposely commissioned it to be this large in order to remind citizens of the court’s power. Although not completed in his lifetime, the castle stands as a regal reminder of the limitless power of the French crown at that time. Today, the castle grounds serve as a hunting reserve and national park, and as a feudal chateau museum, featuring four towers, a central dungeon, and three magnificent floors, accessible via a winding staircase.

King Francois I's Chambord Chateau with over 440 rooms!

King Francois I's Chambord Chateau with over 440 rooms!

When visiting any of the Loire Valley castles, it is important to keep track of the opening times that change seasonally and be aware that no food, drink, or camera flashes are allowed inside.

Wining and Dining

Due to its agreeable climate and aforementioned fertile lands, the Loire Valley enjoys an abundance of fresh produce, fruit, dairy products and high-quality wine and liqueurs. As with many other regions around the world, each city is known for their own delicacies. For example, sunny Tours produces tasty plums and melons, shady Touraine boasts wonderful mushrooms and asparagus while Orléans is known for the poultry raised on its vast farmlands.

As the Loire Valley is located in the north of France, its best wine regions are found on south-facing slopes. Some of the best wines in the country including Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé come from here. Villages featuring exceptional sparkling wines include Montlouis, Saumur, and Vournay.

Visiting wineries in the Loire Valley is often as simple as contacting them and making an appointment. Wine tasting in this part of France is a leisurely experience and the wine is often paired with regional cheeses or other tasty morsels. Since there are many different types of wine from different areas — such as reds from Chinon, whites from Angers and sweet wines from Vouvrey – one must either search for wineries in their preferred area that might be open to visitors or consult expert tour guides who can escort you to several wineries over the course of a few days. Hiring this type of service can save you a lot of valuable time and energy, as there is an overwhelming amount of wineries to choose from. One such company with over 25 years of experience in the Loire Valley is called Le Tasting Room. They can arrange a day out to specific wineries, or conduct an introductory wine tasting of the entire region to give you an idea of what’s on offer.

Visitors seeking to enjoy exceptional traditional cuisine in an elegant but inviting setting should book a reservation at the 1* Michelin Le Bon Laboureur in Chenonceux. Apart from the reasonably priced 3 course menu, this small hotel and restaurant offers guests a sizable cheese and dessert plate plus a selection of the best wines of the region.

The small interior of the Michelin rated Le Bon Laboureur Restaurant.

The small interior of the Michelin rated Le Bon Laboureur Restaurant.

If you prefer French food with a more contemporary flair, try Les Linottes Gourmandes in Tours. Located in the heart of the Old Town, this restaurant features a marvelous twist on such classics as Foie Gras de Canard, (duck liver paté) and Noix de St. Jacques (scallops) and a knowledgeable, friendly staff.

For a truly remarkable dining experience, book a table at L’Orangerie du Château de Blois, a fine dining experience in every sense; the cuisine is an oasis of creatively combined flavors — the presentation of the dishes is impeccable and the service is delightful. It is best to select the tasting menu then sit back and enjoy the adventure.

Stay For Awhile

Deciding on where to stay in the Loire Valley depends on the itinerary that you choose for yourself and of course the length of time you plan to stay in the region. A good option if you’re looking for a charming location right outside of Tours with easy accessibility to the rest of the region is Domaine de la Tortiniere, an 24-room former chateau (some rooms located outside the castle) turned 4* hotel. The environment is serene and relaxing, boasting a lovely park and terrace – a reasonable distance from the castles of Azay-le-rideau and Chenonceau as well as the wine regions of Montlouis or Vouvray. For a cozier stay in the town of Chinon, try the Hotel Diderot, a divine mini-mansion featuring clean, tastefully–decorated rooms, a beautiful courtyard and garden, as well as a welcoming croissant, homemade jam and fresh juice breakfast.

The hotel Domaine de la Tortiniere is located in a converted chateau.

The hotel Domaine de la Tortiniere is located in a converted chateau.

For budget travelers wishing to see the Loire Valley by car or bike, an excellent choice would be the Cote Loire Auberge Ligerienne in the pretty town of Blois. This small unassuming hotel features comfortable rooms close to the river and is located just minutes away from the town’s castle. Your stay here begins at a reasonable 56 euros per night.

Find the best hotel deals in the Loire Valley at TDLodging.com!

The Logistics Of It All

Due to its close proximity to Paris, visiting the Loire Valley can be anything from a fast-paced day trip to an extended visit to fully discover the region. If you are on limited time, book a coach bus from Paris that can take you on an escorted tour to visit 3 to 4 castles in just one day. Prices for these services start at 150 Euros per person. If you are the adventurous type, rent a car and drive 2.5 to 3 hours into the Loire Valley yourself and explore the region at your whim, for as long as you want. Expect to pay a minimum of 30 Euros in tolls (one-way), plus the price of the rental car. To really get a feeling of the area, take a TGV (fast train) from Paris into Tours in only 35 minutes, and then take local transportation to visit the castles from there. Alternately, take a train from Paris to Blois – which will get you there in about 1.5 hours — and begin your visit of the region in this charming little town. Prices for these trains vary , but generally start at 45 Euros one way.

One interesting way to explore the area, for travelers with a little more time, is to take a bicycle tour. Cycling is a fun and relaxed way to experience the charming scenery of the Loire Valley. The company BikeToursDirect books self-guided cycling trips through the Loire Valley that range in length from 5 days to two weeks. Orleans to Angers is a popular route, that traverses the entire valley, and takes about 9 days at a leisurely pace.

Whatever you decide, it’s advisable to visit during the spring months (March-May) when the sun is shining — plus the flowers and gorgeous landscapes are in full bloom — or in the early fall months of September and October — during the harvest season, when the weather is still mild and the foliage dramatically changes to warm auburn and yellow tones.

The Loire Valley — the ideal playground for kings and queens over several centuries — comes alive again with every new visitor that is seduced by its enchanting beauty. There is undeniably so much to see and experience in this remarkable region that you will soon find yourself wondering when you can return. However long you do decide to stay, what is certain is that it will be an experience you will always cherish.

Photo Credits: Oliver Lajuzan, Anthony Robson, Xavier Olivereau

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Jessica is an American freelance writer who has lived on four different continents and counting. Her articles focus primarily on travel, lifestyle and the luxury market. Visit her website.