Around the region

The area we now refer to as the Loire Valley sits little more than a third of the way down the map of France. The river, although a constant presence, is often upstaged by the star attractions which lie along its banks, and by the more abstract concept of l’art de vivre – literally ‘the art of living’ – which underpin the privileged lifestyle on offer here. The Loire trickles into life far from the spotlight as three springs on the flanks of Mont Gerbier de Jonc (1551 m), a windswept volcanic pillar in the Ardèche region of southeastern France. Resisting the temptation to join the nearby Rhône, the infant river instead flows northwards, rapidly gathering strength as it bypasses Le Puy-en-Velay and St-Etienne en route for Roanne, and a subtle northwesterly progression. After broadening out near Nevers the river begins a gentle sweeping arc which finally tightens around Orléans, before relaxing into a pattern of gentle meanders which will take it,
at last, through the fertile heartland and celebrated vineyards of the Loire Valley. The theory goes that in prehistoric times the river continued north to join the Seine, until a major geological or climatic event forced it westwards, where it formed an alliance with a stream surfacing near Gien. The result is the present course of the mighty Loire, which flows resolutely west and into the Atlantic beyond beyond Nantes at St-Nazaire.

Sancerre to the Orléanais

From the eastern edge of our area come two of the Loire Valley’s most renowned wines: noble Pouilly Fumé, developed by monks during the 12th century, and crisp, fruity Sancerre – the perfect accompaniment for the local Crottin de Chavignol goat’s cheese. A little further downstream is Briare, whose historic enamelled mosaic production is celebrated in a colourful museum. It’s also the point at which the 17th-century Canal de Briare crosses the Loire on a spectacular belle époque aqueduct almost 700 m in length. You’ll find another historic crossing, the 12-arched Vieux Pont, at nearby Gien, whose distinctive glazed earthenware is still produced by a company founded in 1821 by Englishman Thomas Hall. For a more spiritual experience visit St-Benoît-sur-Loire, where the ancient Abbaye de Fleury continues to resonate to the medieval chant of monks from the order of St Benedict, whose remains rest in the crypt. Across the river lies the moated chateau of Sully-sur-Loire, where Joan of Arc convinced Henry VII to accept the French crown in 1429. And if you like your history combined with city buzz then it’s well worth exploring Orléans, gateway to 50,000 ha of protected ancient forest offering a peaceful haven for away-from-it-all activities.

Blois & the Sologne

We now enter the Valley of Kings, whose gentle landscapes were enriched beyond measure by the presence of the royal court and a love affair with the Italian Renaissance, which saw austere military fortresses transformed into showpiece chateaux. At Blois’ sumptuous Château Royal you can see how powerful, visionary monarchs indulged their creative desires and began the wave of refinement which would inspire the great chateaux of the Loire Valley. Some, like family-owned Cheverny and François I’s vast and ruinously extravagant Chambord, still function as hunting estates, while others like Chaumont, with its internationally renowned garden festivals, have found exciting new destinies. But the region also holds many surprises in store, not least historic towns like Vendôme and Romorantin-Lanthenay, where you’ll discover the Espace Matra motor museum and the excellent Musée de la Sologne. There’s no better introduction to this under-appreciated natural haven, whose man-made lakes and ancient forests have sustained the local people for centuries, and which today have become a paradise for walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers. The beauty of the Sologne has also attracted a new wave of potters and other creative talents who live and work in the village of La Borne, amid one of the most inspiring settings imaginable.

The Touraine

Here the river flows, apparently unconcerned, through a dazzling concentration of some of the Loire Valley’s star attractions: exquisite jewel-like Renaissance creations such as Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceau are set among mighty fortress chateaux like Amboise, Chinon and Loches. Some, like Châtonnière and Villandry, are celebrated for their inspirational gardens, while others such as Langeais and Montrésor rise proudly above the distinctive slate rooftops of the atmospheric villages which grew around them. So it is with Tours, whose symbolic role at the very heart of the Touraine adds a vibrant, upbeat city buzz to its formidable architectural heritage. Don’t miss the exquisitely restored Flamboyant Gothic Cathédrale St-Gatien, or the medieval half-timbered and Renaissance stone façades around the famous place Plumereau, its market stalls now replaced by sought-after bar and restaurant tables. There are few better places in which to meet, wander or enjoy a fine meal than in the historic heart of Tours – make a special point of looking for menus offering delicious, freshly caught river fish. And you can make your own discoveries while sampling some of the Touraine region’s fine wines at vineyards around Bourgeuil, Chinon, Montlouis and Vouvray.

Anjou

The ancient former kingdom of Anjou today enjoys a certain cult status, qualifying it as one of the Loire Valley’s great discoveries for curious visitors. Here the Loire is swelled by several other rivers, including the Maine, which slips beneath the watchful gaze of the mighty 800-year-old Château d’Angers. Inside is the world’s longest hand-woven tapestry – the monumental Tenture de l’Apocalypse, created in 1375. The town itself has a fabulous wealth of architecture, many great bars and restaurants and is currently creating an efficient new tramway system. Nearby is Brissac-Quincé, highest of all the Loire Valley chateaux, whose estate vineyards were established five centuries ago. Further upriver lies Saumur, another historic town and a romantic setting for diners, with a fairy-tale medieval chateau plus its own fine wines. Not far away is the huge 12th-century Abbaye Royal de Fontevraud, where you’ll find the ornate tombs of the great Plantagenêt King Henri II and his wife Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine. It’s a far cry from the mysterious, subterranean world of Doué-la-Fontaine’s former stone quarries and trogolodytic dwellings. Alternatively, the natural richness and diversity of the world are revealed at Terra Botanica, a major new year-round family attraction close to Angers.

The Nantais

The Loire’s long journey to the Atlantic brings the now-mighty river to the historic seaport of Nantes, birthplace of Jules Verne and for centuries the seat of the powerful Ducs de Bretagne. Standing in midstream is the Ile de Nantes, the fast-redeveloping site of the city’s former naval dockyards, where you can ride a giant mechanical elephant and other fantastic Machines de l’Ile. Today the vibrant, forward-looking city’s bold, modern architecture contrasts with its historic quarters, whose lost quays and waterways once made Nantes the ‘Venice of France’. Similarly atmospheric are the palatial 19th-century salons of the legendary Brasserie la Cigale, and the Passage Pommeraye, a magnificent early 19th-century shopping arcade which became a classic French cinéma location. Alternatively, just below Nantes you can visit world-famous vineyards producing crisp, refreshing white wines including Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine which, in the hands of dedicated winemakers, are now achieving generous fruitiness. For a quieter mood, head upriver to historic villages like Champtoceaux, where you can enjoy one of the finest elevated panoramas
of the river, find perfect peace in a woodland walk down to the riverbank, or look out for wildlife during a gentle summer river cruise.

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