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;
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
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
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
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;
Tours, the main rail hub for the valley, connects to Amboise (£10), Angers
(£22), Chenonceaux (£10), Blois (£8) and Saumur (£12). A château shuttle bus
runs from Blois train station to Chambord, Cheverny and Beauregard, then back
to Blois (from 88p; tlcinfo.net).
When to go
Festival season, with Fêtes de Jeanne d’Arc (fetesjeannedarc.fr)
in Orléans and Le Printemps de Bourges (printemps-bourges.com),
is March to May. June is best for cycling and September and October are good
months for wine tasting.
How to go
Ryanair flies from Stansted to Tours (from £100; ryanair.com). The Eurostar from London to
Paris (from £100; eurostar.
com) connects by train with Orléans (£25), Blois (£35) and Angers (£45).
Car hire is available at the airport (from £25 per day; europcar.com).
The article 'Mini guide to Loire Valley, France' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.