Places to visit in the Centre Region of France: Val de Loire and Orleans

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Orleans is the capital city in the Centre region of France. Located in the north-west of the country, its main claims to fame are the numerous chateaux that are dotted throughout the region. But of course Centre is also renowned for the wonderful Loire Valley.

Why is it called Centre?

Good question. Firstly, Centre is now, as you would suppose, in the centre of France. As we mentioned its in the north-west – slightly below and to the left of Paris for want of a better way of putting it.

Centre is a very unlike French way of naming a region. And I’ve no idea why it was choosen though there is a campaign underway to relabel the area as Val de Loire (Valley of the Loire). Which is much nicer. And definately more French.

Places to visit in Centre – Val de Loire

Orleans

The inspiring city of Orléans is forever associated with the story of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc).

The city lies in a bend of the Loire, and belongs to the vallée de la Loire sector between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes-sur-Loire, which was in 2000 inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Looking towards Orleans cathedral

The capital of Orléanais, and for a time the capital of France, Orleans lies 130km (80 miles) south-west of Paris. It’s bordered to the north by the Beauce region and the forêt d’Orléans, and the Sologne region to the south.

Surrounding the city, Orléans Forest covers about 50,000 hectares, two-thirds of which are owned by the state making it the largest state-owned forest in mainland France.

It comprises three massifs: Lorris, Ingrannes and Orléans, and stretches north of the Loire over 60km between the surroundings of Orléans and the borders of Beauce and Gâtinais.

If you’re visiting Orleans make sure you see:

The Musée des Beaux Arts
The Maison de Jeanne d’Arc
The Parc floral de la Source

The war effect

The First World War stole the town’s children and the Second struck at its very heart causing widespread destruction. During the years following liberation by General Patton’s troops, Orléans undertook a huge reconstruction campaign.

In the 1960s, the town was marked by population growth and industrial decentralisation, and by the creation of the La Source neighbourhood, where the University Campus and the Floral Park were set up.

Today, loyal to its past, Orléans is focusing on developing the economy, culture and teaching in order to maintain the quality of life for which it has always been famous.

Azay-le-Rideau

Fundamentally, the small town of Azay-le-Rideau is all about its chateau, a stunning piece of work, built from 1515 to 1527 on an island in the Indre River, and one of the earliest French Renaissance châteaux. Occupying the site of a former feudal caste, its foundations rise straight out of the water in dramatic fashion.

The incredible chateau at Azay-le-Rideau

There is a church dedicated to Saint Symphorien near the château that is interesting for the number of architectural periods incorporated in its design.

Wine lovers will be pleased to hear that Azay-le-Rideau is the centre of the Touraine Azay-le-Rideau AOC for white and rosé wine.

Chateau visits

Open
Daily
October to March: 1000 to 1715
April to September: 0930 to 1800 (July and August: 0930 to 1900)

Closed
January 1, May 1 and December 25

www.azay-le-rideau.fr

Blois

Renowned for its chateau, Blois was the residence of French kings, who successively transformed the town from the early 16th century, when they moved there from Amboise (see below).

The inevitable entourage of followers, servants, tradespeople and general hangers-on ensured a period of prosperity for the town.

To the north of Blois lie the wind-milled plains of Beauce, while to the south, the lovely landscapes of Sologne.

The splendid town of Blois

Blois lies at the interface between the limestone geology around Orléans and the more chalky country of Tourraine. The popularity of the region has led to the development of all sorts of leisure activities and a wide variety of organised events.

This is certainly the place to get to grips with the history of French royalty, and visitors should plan on spending at least one full day here.

For those who love French castles, there are no fewer than 10 chateaux within 20km (12 miles) of Blois. Prominent among these are Chambord and Cheverny.

Not to be missed

A visit to the Château Royal de Blois (www.chateaudeblois.fr) – the favoured haunt of French kings

Take time out for the Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin (www.maisondelamagie.fr) – a wonderful museum dedicated to the history of magic

Don’t miss a boat trip on the Loire – ask at the tourist information office for information

If you have the time, take a stroll around the Old Town. It’s full of narrow streets and ancient buildings that exude typical Gallic charm.

Amboise

The medieval fortress of Amboise gave way to a royal residence in the reigns of King Charles VIII and Francis I (late 15th-early 16th century).

The Court and many European literati and artists stayed at Amboise as the sovereign’s guests, for example Leonardo da Vinci who lies at rest in the château chapel.

The town of Amboise and its chateau

This important place in the history and culture of France has a magnificent collection of Gothic and Renaissance furniture which testifies to the artistic sophistication of the early French Renaissance.

After visiting the royal apartments and the imposing horsemen towers, time can be spent in the beautiful panoramic gardens which overlook the Loire Valley, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Chinon

Chinon is in an enviable location on the Vienne, surrounded by lush Veron countryside, and extensive vineyards. It is a very relaxing place and its chateau, built to protect Anjou from Capetian intent, is a fascinating place to visit.

The medieval houses in the town are so tightly packed they seem to lean on each other in companionable togetherness, and this gives the town more than a little tang of past Courtly glory.

A narrow street in Chinon

Where is Chinon?

At the meeting place of three provinces: Anjou, Poitou and Touraine, the rocky outcrop on which Chinon’s royal fortress is built is a strategic site, occupied since antiquity and fought over for ages.

A castle was installed there in the 10th century if not before: at that time the count of Blois had a tower built there. But it was Henry II Plantagenet, the count of Anjou and King of England from 1154 on, who gave the fortress its present design.

Of course, the area is also synonymous with quality wine, and those produced here, mostly from Cabernet Franc grapes are best when they are young. A guided tour of the vineyards (Feb-Mar) is time well spent. (Reservation obligatory: Tel: 02 47 93 17 85).

As a place to visit and relax, Chinon is hard to beat offering plenty of opportunity to walks as well as cycling tours, horse riding, boat trips on the river and flights in hot air balloons.

Sancerre

The villages and countryside around Sancerre produce some of France’s best-known wines, the sampling of which is usually the most honest reason for visiting the town.

But the town is at the heart of a delightful region perfectly suited to leisurely exploration and outdoor holidays, on bike, on foot or on horseback. Moreover, a stroll around the Old Town, where many interesting houses reveal an architectural heritage worth seeing, will be time well spent.

The Esplanade de la Porte César is a superb viewpoint over the vineyards to the woods and lakes of the Puisaye region. But of the castles and chateau of the counts of Sancerre, all that remains is the 14th-century tower, equally suitable as a viewpoint.

What is Sancerre wine?

‘Sancerre’ is a French wine Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) for wine produced in the environs of Sancerre. Almost all of the appellation lies on the left bank of the Loire, opposite Pouilly-Fumé.

It is well regarded for and primarily associated with Sauvignon blanc. Some Pinot noir is also grown, accounting for around 20% of the region’s production.

Vineyards surround the town of Sancerre

The majority of wine produced in the region are light red wines for quaffing under the designation of Sancerre Rouge. A rosé style from Pinot noir is also produced in a style similar to Beaujolais.

White Sancerre was one of the original AOCs awarded in 1936, with the same area being designated for red wines on 23 January 1959.

What makes Sancerre wine so good?

The town lies on an outcrop of the chalk that runs from the White cliffs of Dover down through the Champagne and Chablis.

A series of small valleys cut through the chalk, each with their own soils and microclimate and terroir making this one of the lesser-known wine regions of France.

Between the town and Verdigny the soil consists of marl and gravel – “les caillottes” – producing fruity, well balanced wines.

And in the south-west, away from the river towards Menetou-Salon, the chalky “terres blanches” (white ground) produce weightier wines.

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