The Best Of The Loire Valley

Okay, let's be clear. We're not talking about the whole of the Loire Valley here, we're focusing on the Touraine wine region, which stretches 35 miles east from its principal city, Tours, to Blois.

Okay, let's be clear. We're not talking about the whole of the Loire Valley here, we're focusing on the Touraine wine region, which stretches 35 miles east from its principal city, Tours, to Blois. This gentle part of the French countryside is rich in history, chateaux, world-class wine, goat's cheese and um ... asparagus. White asparagus to be precise, which is a popular spring/ summer item on every good local restaurant's menu.

Roughly contained between the rivers Loire and Cher, Tours is a relaxed and friendly city. History and culture is everywhere from the gothic St Gatien cathedral and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which houses paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Dégas and Monet, to the maze of medieval streets and restored half-timbered houses surrounding Place Plumereau. For a quieter life, head east along the Loire, past the vineyards of Vouvray, to the pleasingly petite town of Amboise where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years.

Best hotel

For city-centre chic, the Hotel du Theatre (00 33 247 05 31 29) at 57 rue de la Scellerie, Tours, can't be beaten. The 15th-century building of timber and stone is delightfully warren-like and each of its 14 rooms, spread over three floors, has its own bright colour scheme which highlights any exposed beams. Doubles from €43 (£29) per night.

Across the Loire in an affluent residential area, the Jean Bardet four-star hotel and restaurant (00 33 247 41 41 11; www.jeanbardet.com) couldn't be more different. It sits in eight acres of grounds, complete with swimming pool, vegetable garden and vineyard. Doubles from €131 (£87).

Best restaurant

On the outskirts of Amboise, the hotel Le Choiseul (00 33 247 30 45 45; www.le-choiseul.com) is celebrated for its chef, Pascal Bouvier, who has earned the dining room a Michelin star. More recently, he has added Le 36, a bright new restaurant for foodies who fancy a little light lunch. If you want to skip the main course, opt for the menu jardin, which will tempt you with starters such as the aforementioned asparagus and tempuras de légumes et poissons in a soya and ginger sauce for €15 (£10).

New competition at this end of the market has arrived with the return of a couple of young hoteliers to Touraine after honing their skills in Cannes and London. Francois and Helene Thévard bought the 18th-century Auberge de Launay hotel-restaurant at 9 rue de la Rivière (00 33 247 30 16 82; www.aubergedelaunay.com), four miles east of Amboise. They opened it in March and the restaurant has since become extremely popular for dishes such as rabbit terrine with Loire white wine jelly, followed by sea bream with artichoke and fresh fruits with Vouvray wine and raspberry sorbet to finish. Expect to pay €20 (£13) per head without wine.

In Tours, La Furgeotière at 19 Place Foire-le-Roi (00 33 247 66 94 75) is a long-established restaurant offering cuisine described as both traditional and personalised. How about semi-cooked duck foie gras with five-berry pumpkin chutney to start, sole with seaweed broth, sautéed oyster plant and anchovy croutons as the main course and crème brûlée with pink sugared almonds and twists of orange peel for dessert? Expect to pay €35 (£23) per head for four courses without wine.

Best cultural attraction

In a region filled with chateaux, most of which have regal and bloody histories, it's difficult to single one out. But the Chateau Royal d'Amboise (00 33 247 57 00 98; www.chateau-amboise.tm.fr) has the considerable advantage of being the place where Leonardo da Vinci is buried. Add to that its many Italian Renaissance features, created by artisans from Naples, and its Disney-esque appearance from the river and it becomes a must-see.

Nearby is the Chateau du Clos Lucé (00 33 247 57 00 73; www.vinci-closluce.com) where Leonardo lived during his time in Amboise. It's now a museum in his name.

Best shopping

Along this part of the Loire, there are man-made caves which serve as excellent wine cellars. At Loire et Terroirs at 29 rue national, Amboise (00 33 247 23 14 79), €5 (£3.30) will buy you a pretty good quality red, white or rosé, while €10 (£6.60) takes you into the serious stuff.

Chocaholics should head for Patisserie Bigot in Place Michèle Debré, Amboise (00 33 247 57 04 46; www.bigot-amboise.com), which has been making cakes, chocolates and ice creams since 1913.

Best sightseeing

During the day, St Gatien cathedral in Tours is a must for its ornate stonework, flying buttresses and stained-glass windows. Just a short walk away is the Musée des Beaux Arts with its Renaissance paintings and a huge 200 year-old cedar of Lebanon tree in the courtyard. In the evening, perhaps the most spectacular sight in the entire valley is to be found in Blois, where, as darkness falls in the summer evenings, its magnificent chateau is lit up by a son-et-lumiere show, recounting its history.

Best nightspot

The Loire is not exactly buzzing with night life, but that, of course, is part of its appeal. Place Plumereau with its countless cafés competing for space in the attractive historic quarter of Tours is where art students, families and tourists come to eat and drink al fresco until late in the evening.

Meanwhile, in Amboise, the young at heart converge on the Shaker Bar (00 33 247 23 24 26), a kind of shack with decking on the Ile d'Or in the middle of the Loire. The atmosphere is lively and stays that way into the small hours.

Best way to get there

Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) operates a daily flight to Tours from London Stansted with fares from £108 in August. Eurostar ( www.eurostar.com) runs daily services to Paris with an onward TGV train ride to the Loire region of approximately one hour, with return fares from £79 in August. For further information on the Loire Valley visit www.visaloire.com

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