BY ROYAL APPOINTMENT: AMBOISE
For all its impressive royal heritage, the city of Charles VIII and François 1er has got over any monarchical complexes to become a lively riverside town. What makes Amboise particularly appealing is that it gives a genuine sense of French small-town provincial life.
A good place for an overnight stop, this is a town that hasn't been tarted up, where you can stay simply or chicly. It has a good market, ordinary shops, genuine local cafés and bars, and a big, busy local junk dealer on the edge of town. Thankfully, Amboise is not in The Da Vinci Code, but Leonardo spent the last years of his life here, ensuring that the Loire Valley became the wellspring of the French Renaissance.
Descending in a series of terraces, the Château Royal d'Amboise ( www.chateau-amboise.com) is actually only a small yet still impressive fragment of the castle complex that once stood here, inhabited by countless of the royal brood and retainers, including Mary Queen of Scots. At the top is the tiny gothic chapel - recently restored - where Leonardo is supposedly buried. There are plenty of rumours as to the existence of a secret tunnel linking the château to the Clos Lucé ( www.vinci-closluce.com), the more intimate red brick manor house where Leonardo spent the last three years of his life from 1515 to 1519 as a guest of François 1er.
In any case, the road between the two makes a pleasant 10-minute stroll, lined with troglodyte dwellings. Inside the Clos Luce are reproductions of Leonardo's drawings and scale models of his inventions, including his armoured car, helicopter and helicoidal screw. In the grounds, the seven-hectare Parc Léonard da Vinci (open Apr-Nov daily) is a more family-oriented multimedia attraction, with lifesize interactive models looming amid the trees, and a restaurant where you can sample spicy Renaissance recipes.
In town, promenade along the river front and cross the old bridge, pausing at the island in the middle where there are several restaurants. Outside town, the Pagode de Chandeloup is an example of the 18th-century fascination with chinoiserie.
FAIRYTALE ENDING: CHINON
At the point at which the River Vienne's northward course is wrenched west, you find one of those adorable villes where you always want to stay another day. Partly, it is the simple cohesion of a town made of tall spires, steep roofs and winding lanes. Chinon clambers prettily up the hillside from the meadows of the Vienne valley to a château straight from a fairytale - with an extraordinary story to tell. In 1429, towards the end of the Hundred Years War, Charles VII of France ruled over a shrinking domain from the fortress, as the French nation crumbled and the English drew nearer. Joan of Arc arrived from Lorraine and convinced the king to entrust her with the command of an army. His promised reward: he would be crowned Lieutenant of the King of Heaven. The tide turned, and France was saved.
The château at Chinon (open 9am-6pm daily) is a shrine to Joan of Arc. Her extraordinary tale is told in the four storeys of the clocktower which guards the entrance. In the royal apartments, the fireplace where Joan made her appeal to Charles VII still stands. In the Coudray Tower you can find some 14th-century graffiti. The Knights Templars were seized and imprisoned by Philip the Fair in 1308; they thought this unfair, and took out their frustration on the walls that incarcerated them. Chinon has much more to offer, such as 15th-century churches and townhouses, not to mention classy restaurants and a Musée du Vin. The very helpful tourist office on the Place de Hofheim (00 33 2 47 93 17 85; www.chinon.com) provides a self-guided walking map and much more.
THE TEXTILE TOWN: CHOLET
If you've had your fill of pristine Renaissance châteaux, then the old textile town of Cholet at the southernmost tip of Anjou is a refreshing change. This is more of a Vendée town - the area caught up in the bloody Counter-Revolutionary battles of the 1790s, when peasants picked up their pitchforks alongside the local aristocrats against the Republican troops.
The Musée de l'Art et d'Histoire de Cholet, set in a converted 1970s shopping centre, has two sections. The worthwhile fine art collection focuses on the 18th-century, around unjustly forgotten local painter Pierre-Charles Trémolières, a cohort of Boucher, and 20th-century geometrical abstraction, notably Herbin, Kupka and above all, Cholet-born François Morellet, whose work is often inspired by mathematical formulae. The other half focuses on local history (well explained in French), especially the Vendée wars. If your approach to history is a little less scholarly you may want to visit the Puy du Fou ( www.puydufou.com, open mid-Apr-mid-Sept) southwest of town, an adventure park full of gladiators, Vikings, a medieval village, 18th century market town and rollicking entertainment. As a textile town, Cholet was celebrated for its red handkerchiefs. Hankies are still made in the area, as are French clothing labels including NewMan and Catimini. The Musée du Textile located in a 19th-century brick laundry puts on demonstrations on spinning and weaving and has an interesting garden of dye plants. Bargain hunters should visit factory outlet shopping village Marques Avenue, 5km outside town, with some 30 clothes, shoes and leather goods outlets.