The Loire valley is a land of chateaux, hunting lodges and cathedrals, and is often visited by those with an interest in Medieval and Renaissance architecture. It is also a perfect place to walk and to cycle; the flat countryside by the river proving ideal for those on bikes or on foot.
There are plenty of lakes and smaller rivers and the fertile landscape is covered with lush woodland, orchards, and fields of maize and sunflowers.
Breathtaking architectural masterpieces abound. You’ll stumble across tiny discoveries hidden in the folds of the landscape, accommodation that ranges from delightful to sumptuous.
The excitement of great food and wine along with sports and leisure activities all make this an ideal spot for an unforgettable stay.
Visitors delight in the hotels and inns on picturesque cobblestone streets and take day tours to the many points of interest including wonderful towns, spectacular castles, and stunning villages just minutes away from any of the major accommodation towns.
Towns in the Loire Valley
The main towns are Orléans, Blois, Amboise and Tours, with Chartres and Bourges not far away. But don’t overlook a visit to Chinon or Saumur, especially if you like wine. And the classic cobbled city of Angers is well worth a visit.
Some of the best troglodyte settlements are found in the Loire valley, notably at Saumur and Vouvray, and along the Loir valley. Much of this area corresponds with the region known as the ‘Centre’, a name that is not well-known outside France, and not much used within it.
The region is also one of the primary French wine regions, known especially for white wines such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
In the north of the region lies the area known as la Beauce, one of the two historic breadbaskets of France. This is a gently undulating plateau where vast wheat fields stretch as far as they eye can see.
The area’s main city, Chartres, is famous for its magnificent cathedral, one of the earliest and finest gothic cathedrals in France.
Chambord and its Chateau de Chambord
Chambord, 180km (112½ miles) south of Paris, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a veritable ‘Gateway to the Loire Valley’, the most famous and most impressive of the Loire châteaux, rising out of the Sologne marshes not far from Blois.
Created by François 1 in about 1518, this chateau-cum-hunting lodge imitates the structure of a mediaeval fortress with its vast rectangular surrounding wall.
Its architecture, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, is both a symbol and model of the Renaissance. Do not miss the double helix staircase, Francis I’s and Louis XIV’s apartments, the chapel, the terraces and its forested estate the size of Paris.
Exhibitions and events throughout the year. Horse show, horse drawn carriage rides, biking and boat rental from April/May to end of September.
To understand this magnificent building, you have to appreciate the elation and extravagance of François I who, at the tender age of twenty-five, wanted to show the world in spectacular fashion what his two favourite pastimes were: hunting and architecture.
This is the largest by far of the Loire chateaux, and gave a foretaste of what was to come at Versailles. Already listed as a World Heritage cultural site in 1981, the estate is now listed as part of the Val de Loire site, specifically the “Val de Loire between Sully and Chalonnes” area.
A visit towards the end of the day will reward with a spectacular display of sunlight on magnificent architecture; and if that fails, there is often a lovely display when the castle’s lights are turned on.
Allow at least two hours to tour the castle and its grounds, which are located about 1½ hours’ driving south-west of Paris.
Angers – the perfect base to explore the Loire Valley
Ranked among the finest of the Loire valleys towns and cities, Angers, formerly the capital of the historic province of Anjou, is today the capital of the Maine-et-Loire département. Its distinctive characteristic is its architecture which is influenced by slate and the predominance of blue and white stones.
Angers is a classic French city, with cobbled streets, medieval half-timbered houses, a cathedral and a dramatic castle. The city also offers the greenest city landscape in the whole of France, with over 1,500 acres of parks and green spaces.
Angers in the Loire Valley
The Loire Valley has always been popular with British and American visitors fascinated by its history and culture. The Area is known as the ‘Valley of the Kings’ as it was once home to the Plantagenet kings who ruled both France and England.
Angers lies at the heart of wine-making country with the Anjou and Saumur vineyards making some of France’s finest wines. The area boasts 32 AOC appellations and is the third largest wine-growing region in France.
The wealth of its heritage and the care taken with its promotion have enabled Angers to obtain the prestigious ‘Villes d’Art et d’Histoire’ label awarded by the Department of Architecture and Heritage.
This vibrant and cultured city on the River Maine was once the centre of the Plantagenet kingdom, a realm that embraced the whole of England and half of France. But the city can trace its roots to Roman times, when it was known as Juliomagus.
Take a short stroll from the Cité to the Doutre, where you can find a lively student atmosphere, or enjoy the quiet banks of the Maine.
This quarter on the right bank has a rural charm, characterised by its wood-framed houses, its private townhouses, its Angevin residences with their pale tufa façades, and its many green spaces.
Things to do in Angers
The Chateau d’Angers a beautiful French castle tells the story of King René, but the city is also noted for the impressive twin spites of the 12th-century Cathedral Saint-Maurice.
The Musée Jean-Lurçat et de la Tapisserie contemporaine, housed in the ancient hospital of St Jean (12th century), epitomises the revival of the art of tapestry.
The Museum of Technology, embraces the story of Cointreau, the orange-flavoured French liqueur ‘invented’ by Édouard Cointreau, who was born here in 1849.
Exploring beyond Angers
Use Angers as a base, and take time out to visit Le Mans. Likewise, you can discover the Basses Vallées Angevines area.
This is one of Europe’s richest and most beautiful natural wetlands. It has vast floodplains to the north and south, crossed by three rivers – the Mayenne, the Sarthe, and the Loir, which come together to form the Maine before pouring into the Loire.
What is the Loire Valley?
The middle of this region is characterised by the low-lying valleys of the river Loire and its tributaries. This area was popular with the kings of France and their dukes during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
It is rich with magnificent châteaux and castles, notably Chambord, Azay-le-Rideau, Blois, Villandry, Langeais or Chenonceaux.
Finding a way through no fewer than 10 departments, the Loire is the lifeblood of this part of France, rich in both history and architecture.
The Loire valley features meandering streams, majestic oaks, quiet roads, and lush green countryside. Its royal patronage and pastoral villages grace an overwhelming natural beauty.
Between Orleans, Blois and Vierzon lies a vast area of forest and heathland known as La Sologne, popular with hunters, nature-lovers and hikers.
This area, known as le Berry, is a deeply agricultural area, with mixed farming. Its capital is the city of Bourges, with a fine historic centre.
Finally, to the south-west of the town of Chateauroux lies an area known as La Brenne, the “Land of a Thousand Lakes”, and one of the most important wetlands in France.
Things to do in the Loire Valley
The urban area of Tours plays a leading role in the Loire valley, and is a perfect base from which to visit the chateaux of the Loire.
It lies at the crossroads of the North-South and East-West communication lines of Europe, and is only one hour from Paris by high-speed train. The city, a real hub of motorway and railway connections, is accessible from all directions.
Tours, a thriving university town, is the capital of the Indre-et-Loire department. It stands on the lower reaches of the Loire, between Orléans and the Atlantic coast.
Touraine, the region around Tours, is known for its wines, the alleged perfection of its local spoken French, and the Battle of Tours in 732.
Tours is the largest city in the Centre region of France, although it is not the regional capital, which is the region’s second-largest city, Orléans.
In addition to some fine religious architecture, the medieval area around the Place Plumereau is a magnificent display of Gothic work, bordered by 15th-century residences built of stone and wood.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts (18 place Francois Sicard), in the former Bishops’ Palace, which houses work from the chateaux at Richelieu and Chanteloup and from the abbey of Touraine.
The Musée du Compagnonnage (8 rue Nationale) which contains fine examples of the work of local craftsmen.
Other places to explore in the Loire Valley
Ainé le Vieil: Enchanting small chateau built inside the defensive walls of a medieval fortress which is surrounded by a moat.
Bourges: Attractive historic centre, with great gothic cathedral, later than that of Chartres: fine medieval sculptures and stained glass; also the famous Renaissance town residence of Jacques Coeur.
Gargilesse: Picturesque village, with the home of 19th century novelist George Sand.
Abbaye de Noirlac: one of the Best preserved Cistercian monasteries in Europe, founded on the banks of the river Cher in the year 1136.
La Brenne: Area of 1000 lakes, major wetland renowned for its birds.
Valençay: A fine Loire château, further from the Loire than most others.
Chinon: Attractive small town, dominated by its large medieval castle, built by King Henry II of England, who was also Duke of Anjou. Henry is buried in nearby Fontevraud abbey, in the Pays de la Loire region
Loches: Small town built around a medieval fortress and Renaissance castle. Old city gates, and narrow cobbled streets.
Chartres: Arguably the most famous Gothic cathedral in France, Chartres is famous in particular for its medieval stained-glass windows.
Illiers-Combray: A village near Chartres Marcel Proust depicted life in Illiers in his novel, arguably the greatest French novel of the 20th century. Illiers was the model for Proust”s Combray, and today has a Proust museum in “La Maison de Tante Léonie”. Illiers changed its name to Illiers-Combray in 1971, on the centenary of Proust’s birth.
Briare: the Canal bridge. Located at the northern end of the Loire valley canal, and opened in 1896, it was until 2003 the longest navigable aqueduct in the world. It connects the Loire canal to the Briare canal, one of the oldest canals in the world, completed in 1642.
Orleans: Regional capital, an historic city on the banks of the Loire. The centre has many historic buildings, and a cathedral that was rebuilt in the 17th century.
Blois: Historic town on the northern bank of the Loire, with a Renaissance castle.
Bourré, near Montrichard: Unique subterranean village, sculpted into the soft local stone.
Zoo Parc de Beauval in the Loire valley area. Over 4000 animals, with one of the largest wildlife collections in France.
Why is the Loire Valley called Centre?
Centre is the name used administratively, although the region – unaffected by the 2015 changes to the regions of France – is commonly called Centre-Val de Loire or the Loire valley. The Loire valley and its châteaux are classed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Centre region encompasses the central départements of Cher, Indre, Indre-et-Loire, Loir-et-Cher, Loiret, and Eure-et-Loir.
It is bounded by the regions of Normandy and Île-de-France to the north, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté to the east, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to the south-east, Nouvelle-Aquitaine to the south, and Pays de la Loire to the west.
The capital is Orléans, although Tours is the largest city, and undoubtedly the region’s cultural capital.
France’s longest river (1,020km/634 miles), the Loire bisects the region, flowing from its source in the mountains in the southern Massif Central to the Atlantic south of Brittany, and defines the region.
It has always been wealthy thanks to the fertility of the land. The river is the dividing line between the cold north and warmer south, although it may not always feel that way.
Historically, the ‘Centre’ Region included the three provinces: Orleans (now Loiret, Eure-et-Loir, Loir-et-Cher); Berry (Cher and Indre) and Touraine (Indre-et-Loire).
These identities and their traditions remain in the hearts and minds of the local people, despite government reorganisation.