The Loire River Valley and the smaller rivers that flow into the Loire, lies to the south west of Paris and the Valley is renowned for its Châteaux, spectacular gardens and historic villages.
The valley has a history dating back to Roman times and even pre-Roman times and the main towns here – Orleans, Tours, Le Mans, Blois, Angers, Saumur, Bourges and Chartres, all have history that dates back to those times. It was the Romans who brought the grape vines to the Valley, and still today the Loire Valley wines are considered some of the best wines in France.
THE TOWNS -
Orléans – is where Jean d’Arc is celebrated as the heroine who saved the City from the English in a siege in 1429 and on Place Charles deGaule there is the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc. The city has a large floral park, many old buildings in the city centre and in mid-late September there is a large festival happening. If you are planning to stay, look for a place on or near the Rue de Bourgogne where most of the bars and activities are located. Jean d’Arc (1412-1431) was born in the village of Domrémy and burned at the stake in Rouen on the basis that she was a witch. She is the Patron Saint of France, canonized as a Saint in 1920.
Blois – is located between Orléans and Tours on the Loire River with a long stone bridge with several arches crossing over it here. Right in the centre of the City is the Château de Blois and just opposite it is the house of the famous Magician and clock maker, Robert Houdin (1805-1871) who was born in Blois. This magnificent home is now a museum dedicated to the magician. The American Magician, Harry Houdini (1874-1926) whose real name was Ehrich Weisz was in Hungary before moving to Wisconsin in the USA, aged four. He took the name ‘Houdini’ in honour of Robert Houdin.
Tours – is a University and market town so has a young vibe about it. There are the old colourful, half-timbered houses here with a great central Square (Place Plumereau) and the magnificent Gothic Cathedral of St Gatien. The city also has a number of parks and gardens, the best known one being the Jardin de Prebendes with its lake and small bridges that cross over it. Many of the big Châteaux are close by Tours, which makes it a popular place to find a place to stay before visiting the various Châteaux that are located in the Valley – such as Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, Langeais/Villandry and Chenonceau.
Le Mans – is located on the Sarthe River and while the City is best known as the home of the 24 hour car race that takes place in July, the city has a lot of history too, with its 1000 year old St Julian’s Cathedral, cobbled streets and a 1300 metre long stone wall and towers, built by the Romans. For car racing enthusiasts, look for the Musée de la Sarthe – see www.musee24h.sarthe.com
Angers – is on the Marne River and the centrepiece of this town is the huge Château d’Angers – a vast walled Castle/Fortress with its high walls and 17 towers surrounded by a moat. The Castle dates back to the 13th Century and inside you will find the vast Apocalypse tapestry, and also formal gardens and many other things of interest. Also there is the St Maurice Cathedral that also dates back to the 13th century and the Maison d’Adam from the 1500’s. Angers is also the home of Cointreau – the orange flavoured liquor that dates back to 1875. The Cointreau Distillery is located at 2 Bretonnieres Carrefour Molière and they have guided tours to see through the Distillery too.
Saumur – is a beautiful town/village surrounded by vineyards located on the Loire River where the Thouet River joins it. The town dates back to the 4th Century BC, with the Château de Saumur at its centre. Saumur has a number of churches – the most famous being the Nantilly Church that dates back to the 12th Century and the 14th Century Notre Dame des Ardillieres. The beautiful Abbey of Fontevraud is here too. Saumur is also the home of a famous Horse Riding school, the Le cadre Noir that dates back to 1815 and even earlier to 1771 when it was a School of Chivalry for training French Army officers. Between February to October there are public shows – see www.ifce.fr/en The Military Musée de Blindes is also in Saumur too where you can see lots of historic cannons, tanks and other armaments. Close by the town there is the Château d’Ussé – a great fairy tale castle to see with its towers and turrets. The Distillery Combier is here too, also a number of wineries and even a Mushroom Museum – see www.musee-du-champignon.com
Bourges – is located on the Yèvre River and is next to a large marshland area said to cover around 135 hectares in area. The city also dates back to Roman days and it was the Capital of Aquitaine at the end of the Roman Empire. There is also a massive Cathedral here in the city – the Cathedral of St Etienne built between 1195 and 1255. There are many architectural gems in the city, the most notable being the Palace of Jacques Coeur – a wealthy merchant, but also streets that are lined with the half-timbered houses for which the city is famous.
Chartres – is located around 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Paris on the Eure River and it is most famous for its Gothic Cathedral – the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres that was built around 1220. With its twin spires and lit up at night, it is one of the most impressive Cathedrals in all of France. You can also take a tour of the Cathedral and climb a stairway to a high point overlooking the city below you. The Stained glass windows use a unique ‘blue glass’ with the large circular ‘Rose Window’ no doubt the most impressive of all the windows here. In the Nave also look for the Labyrinth in the floor. The Labyrinth is around 13 metres (42 feet) in diameter containing a tortuous pathway within it (Like a Maze) a Pilgrim’s trail as it were, although the origins and purpose of Labyrinths is shrouded in mystery.
While the above towns are the bigger centres and have more accommodation options, there are also many smaller villages surrounding these towns.
THE CHATEAUX –
There are around 60 castles/Châteaux in the Loire Valley and its surround valleys and all of these Châteaux have their own architectural features, histories and stories. You could easily spend weeks here in the Valley exploring. Most of the Châteaux charge an entrance fee of around 10 to 15 euro, so the costs can quickly mount up if you intend to visit a number of Châteaux. They are all located relatively close together – roughly 20 to 50 kilometres from the main towns along the River. If you have limited time and want to be right in the centre of the Valley – the best towns to stay in would be Tours or Saumur, but all of the towns listed above are relatively close to a number of Châteaux.
Château de Chenonceau – is probably the most popular and picturesque of all the castles as it is located on the River Cher – with the river flowing through the arches under the Château itself with the long gallery above it and an avenue of yew trees leading up to it. The Château was built in the early 1500’s with all its furnishings, grand Ballroom, galleries, chapel, kitchens, grounds and gardens here that you can see through.
Château de Chambord – near Blois on the Loire River. This Château is huge! The biggest in the Loire Valley – on the Loire River it was built as a Hunting Lodge for the King Franҫois I – his actual Palaces being the Château de Blois and Château d’Amboise. Inside the Château de Chambord there are said to be 400 rooms and 84 staircases. Over 100 of the rooms are furnished to see through. It is a massive complex, but as much as the interior is amazing, the roof structure is even more so – a mass of different towers, chimneys, gables and window facades. There are also the grounds, stables, carriage houses and even a game reserve.
Château d’Amboise – is located in the village of Amboise and it is the Royal Castle of King Charles VIII and Franҫois I with the castle built in the 15th Century. Here you can see through the Royal Chambers, and see the furnishing and décor inside the myriad of rooms that are here. There are magnificent gardens and underground passageways. What makes it even more famous is that the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci is located here. He lived his last 3 years of life here in Amboise in another castle – the Château du Clos-Lucé next to the Park named in his honour – the Parc Leonardo da Vinci. where you can see many of the models of his inventions within the Parc or Château.
Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire – is located overlooking the Loire River and it is home to over 20 hectares of gardens, hosting an International Garden Festival – that runs from mid-April to the start of November each year. There is also a grand Palace for the horses too, but it is the Gardens that make this Château most famous.
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau - As much as the stories and wealth of the aristocrats that lived in the Châteaux are what people mainly come to see, you also have to admire the great skills of the artisans and tradesmen that built these magnificent buildings. There is of course a lot of upkeep and the expense of this, but equally in our ‘throw away’ society, the fact that the Châteaux are still standing hundreds of years after they were built is a testimony to the skills of those who built them. The Château d’Azay-le-Rideau was built between 1518 and 1527 and it is located on an island in the middle of the Intre River. With its grand staircase, apartments, fireplaces, drawing rooms and the genius of its creators it is well worth spending time here.
Château de Brézé – is about 10km from Saumur. This is an amazing place to see. The Château dates right back to 1063 making it one of the oldest Châteaux in the Loire. It is surrounded by vineyards and when you see it from a distance it stands out with all the features of a true castle that you would expect. Up close and you will see that the Château has also been built like an island below ground encircled by high cliffs around it – the cliffs also having Troglodyte rooms built into them. A drawbridge crosses over at ground level to the Château, and inside the Château has all the great rooms and décor, but under the Château there is a vast array of tunnels to see. It is truly amazing to see. Check it out on www.chateaudebreze.com
Other Châteaux – There are so many Châteaux to visit that we could detail here, but the best idea is to choose your accommodation first – be that in one of the towns above or in a Village and then explore the area and villages around you and take a local tour and listen to a commentary about what you are seeing, or if you have a car plan a journey that will take you to one or more of the Castles that are close by.
Most of the big Châteaux have their gardens and grounds and with many of the Châteaux dating back to the 1500’s, there are many trees that are over 100 or more years old. There are also wooded forest areas too and you can well imagine the Aristocrats doing a ‘spot of hunting’ to pass the day.
Some of the Gardens that you might like to see are –
From Châteaux to Troglodytes –
There are a number of Châteaux for sale in the Loire Valley and if you are looking for a home with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and have a few million Euro to spend, then you could well buy a Château to live out your dreams here. There are also a number of Châteaux that have been turned into hotel accommodation too or have ‘gites’ – guest accommodation.
There are of course other options too including farm houses, village and town houses to see and admire and some of the most interesting houses of all are the Troglodyte houses that have been built underground in the rocky ridges. Some of these houses date back to the days of the Mur people in very early history and just some of the places to see some of these Troglodyte houses are in the villages of Troo, Doué-la –Fontaine, Turquant, Rochemenier and St Remy sur Creuse close to the town of Saumur. The houses are carved in the Tufa Rock and in recent times they have been used as accommodation and also by weavers, for growing mushrooms, as restaurants, shops, galleries and by wineries.
As you can see from the above, there is a lot to see in the Loire Valley and no doubt you will enjoy seeing the Châteaux and the towns and villages that are here in the Valley. There are also wineries and other food related venues – from places selling cheeses to mushrooms, cured meats and of course bakeries and gift shops – so no matter where you are you will find great food to eat, souvenirs and scenery.
I hope you have a great time here in the Loire Valley.