Mini guide to Loire Valley, France
ChÃ¢teau de Chambord, the largest chateau in the region, has 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 77 staircases. (Richard Sowersby/BBC)
Centuries ago, the Loire river was a strategic frontier between northern and southern France. Kings, queens, dukes and nobles built their country seats along the valley, which is now lined with some of France’s most extravagant castles and fortresses.
Leonardo da Vinci took up residence at Clos Lucé in 1516 on the invitation of Francis I, where he spent his time dreaming up contraptions: the house is jammed with scale models and the gardens are dotted with full-size replicas, including a proto-automobile and primitive helicopter (00 33 2 47 57 00 73; vinci-closluce.com; Amboise; £11.50).
Cheverny represents the zenith of French classical architecture. Owned by the Hurault family for the last six centuries, the interior is filled with sumptuous furnishings and art (00 33 2 54 79 96 29; chateau-cheverny.fr; from £7).
One of the last Renaissance châteaux to be built in the Loire, Villandry is famous for its vast landscaped gardens lined with manicured lime trees, ornamental vines, box hedges and tinkling fountains, plus a maze and kitchen garden (00 33 2 47 50 02 09; chateauvillandry.com; £8.50).
Devoted to local heroine Joan of Arc, Orléans is filled with plaques and statues of commemoration as well as a striking cathedral and outstanding art museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts (00 33 2 38 79 21 55; Orléans; £3.50).
There’s an air of Parisian sophistication in Saumur – the food, wine and riverside location are gorgeous. Sample sparkling Crémant de Loire at the Langlois- Chateau wine school, where you can also tour their wine caves and participate in an introductory wine-making course (00 33 2 41 40 21 40; langlois-chateau.fr; Saumur).
Eat and drink
Since 1913, award-winning chocolatier and patisserie Bigot has been whipping up some of the Loire’s best macaroons, éclairs, chocolates and petits fours (00 33 2 47 57 04 46; bigot-amboise.com; Amboise; cakes from £1.50).
Chez Noé is a cheerful place, full of character and characters tucking in to brasserie food such as garlic snails and grilled salmon steaks (00 33 2 38 53 44 09; Orléans; lunch menu £11, mains from £10).
The jaunty strains of Django Reinhardt waft from Le Pot de Lapin across its outside terrace. Chef Olivier serves the tables himself, proposing perfect wine pairings with the food. Spain meets France in his well-seasoned shrimp brochettes (00 33 2 41 67 12 86; Saumur; tapas from £1.50, mains from £10).
Cap Sud’s modern red interior complements the refined, stylishly presented cooking. Tender braised pork is accompanied by creamy polenta and steamed baby vegetables. Octopus and tuna come with a green curry chantilly and cherry tomatoes (00 33 2 47 05 24 81; capsudrestaurant.fr; Tours; mains from £14).
Expect classic French dining and exquisite attention to flavour at Les Années 30. The interior dining room is lit a warm golden hue downstairs and cool blue upstairs, while tables are set out under the streetside pergola in summer. The sumptuous menu ranges from traditional coq au vin to wild boar (00 33 2 47 93 37 18; lesannees30.com; Chinon; mains from £24).
At 19th-century renovated farmhouse La Levraudière, communal breakfast is taken at an oak table laden with homemade jams and pastries. Heavy-beamed rooms are dressed in French linen and period furniture (00 33 2 54 79 81 99; lalevraudiere.free.fr; Cheverny; from £55).
Floorboards creak and vintage posters adorn the walls at Hôtel de l’Abeille. It’s deliciously old-fashioned, from the scuffed pine floors to its bee-print curtains. For breakfast, there’s coffee, tea, pastries and exotic jams (00 33 2 38 53 54 87; hoteldelabeille.com; Orléans; from £65).
Irish expats Mary and Conor welcome you to Château de Beaulieu with a glass of crémant. Rooms are grand but comfortable with four-poster beds, bold wallpapers and wooden floors. Sun yourself by the pool or play billiards in the grand salon (00 33 2 41 50 83 52; chateaude beaulieu.fr; Saumur; from £75).
Le Pavillon des Lys is decorated in a style associated more with the Côte d’Azur. Take a coffee-hued 18th-century townhouse and fill it with designer lamps, roll-top baths and deep sofas, and you’re halfway there; then throw in a renowned restaurant, elegant patio garden and quality bath oils (00 33 2 47 30 01 01; pavillondeslys.com; Amboise; from £90).
Ensconced within the woods of a 1,600 sq metre park, every room of the impeccable, 19th-century Château de Verrières is decorated in a sumptuous style, with king-size beds, antique desks, original artwork and woodpanelling. From some rooms, you can watch the sun rise over the nearby Château de Saumur (00 33 2 41 38 05 15; chateau-verrieres. com; Saumur; from £165).