Many find a visit to the Loire Valley to be the highlight of their trip to France, as did we. When we were planning our journey I discussed our itinerary with my friend, Wayne. Wayne and his wife had traveled to France for their honeymoon and he shared with me that the best part of their trip was the time spent in the Loire Valley. With this recommendation alone it was worth planning some time in the Loire and we’re so glad we did.
Loire is actually an Arabic name meaning “unpassable”, coined by the Moors as this valley was the northern limit of their penetration into Europe. The Loire Valley traditionally separates Northern France from Southern France. It has been inhabited for thousands of years and many centuries ago was home to French and Norman royalty, including Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The valley was visited by Joan of Arc, where in Chinon she rallied King Charles VII to renew the fight against the British in the Hundred Years War. Royalty subsequently moved north to Paris and Versailles, but vestiges of it linger here. The Loire’s hillsides are dotted with innumerable castles and palaces, some in ruins but also with hundreds of well-maintained, fairy-tale like Renaissance chateaus constructed as palaces for pleasure rather than for defense. Many of these chateaus welcome your visit and, frankly, seeing them is the main reason to go to the region.
The Loire Valley is characterized by smooth flowing rivers, gentle rolling hills dotted with forests, vineyards, mustard and grain fields. It’s easy to see why the area is called the “Garden of France” (many people forget that France has a huge agricultural base and is a net exporter of food, especially cheese and wine). The valley is several hundred kilometers long and dotted with pleasant villages and small cities, and through it all flows the Loire River, the longest river in France and its only “wild” river, with no dam on it. The Loire Valley is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and for that reason should divert you to see it as all places I’ve visited on the UNESCO list have been very interesting.
We focused our time on the Western part of the Loire because of its closer proximity to Normandy, our next destination, but also because it was home to the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud which my wife really wanted to visit and which I’ll talk about in more depth on this blog soon. Our visit to the Loire also included stops in Chinon, Usse, Azay-le-Rideau and Villandry, featuring some of the elegant chateaus.
Things to do in the Loire Valley:
1) Drive through it. This is one place where it’s really nice to have a car and not rely on public transportation, so that you can get out and enjoy the countryside. Get off the toll roads and hit the smaller lanes. Make a point of getting lost — it’s a great place to do so. Turn up random alleys and lanes and see where they take you. It’s truly a wonderful place to explore.
2) Visit a few chateaus. These are the highlight of the valley and are among the best in Europe. Some of the most popular include Chambord (royal hunting estate), Cheverny, Chenonceaux, Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau. I wouldn’t recommend trying to cram in too many Chateaus into one trip. Pick one or two that most interest you and take the time to savoir them and their gardens. It’s easy to “burn out” by rushing around from one chateau to the next.
3) Enjoy some of the fine wine grown in the area, especially if you are a connoisseur. Vineyards are plentiful all over the valley but many do not offer tours, so you’ll need to do some research and call ahead to be certain you’ll get to visit those that interest you. As with most of France, the cheeses and cuisine of the valley are wonderful! Wash down that great meal with a fine glass of Loire valley wine.
4) Visit one of the abbeys in the region. Especially consider a visit to Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud (the subject of a future post).
5) Relax! After a week in the chaos of Paris, there’s no better place to decompress than a few days in the Loire.
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)