The complete guide to the Loire Valley

History is everywhere in this beautiful part of France - from the fairy-tale châteaux and the walled towns to the troglodytes' homes. And it's not only the willow-hung rivers that flow - the region veritably oozes fine wine


WHERE EXACTLY IS IT?The Loire meanders languidly across central France from the Cévennes mountains in the east right across to the Atlantic. However, the section where you find the most dense concentration of the region's clichés - imperious châteaux, romantic tributaries, undulating vineyards and historic walled towns - is neatly tucked between Angers and Orléans.

WHERE EXACTLY IS IT?The Loire meanders languidly across central France from the Cévennes mountains in the east right across to the Atlantic. However, the section where you find the most dense concentration of the region's clichés - imperious châteaux, romantic tributaries, undulating vineyards and historic walled towns - is neatly tucked between Angers and Orléans.

IN THE THICK OF FRENCH HISTORY THEN?Yes, but not just French. Exploring the region, you quickly discover how entwined it is with English history. For example, our Henry II spent most of his reign in Angers, consolidating the Plantagenet family's Anglo-Angevin empire, which eventually crumbled in the Hundred Years War. The massive ramparts of the Château d'Angers towering above the cobbled streets of la vieille ville remain the best example of a truly defensive castle anywhere in the Loire.

Upriver at Fontevrault Abbey, near Saumur, you can creep in to the crypt where Henry's remains lie beneath a peaceful-looking stone effigy. Next to him are his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine; their son, Richard the Lionheart, looking stern and authoritative with one hand on his staff; and Isabelle of Angoulême, daughter of King John.

In Orléans, you will find Joan of Arc everywhere. The city's most famous daughter not only has a museum dedicated to her life, but there is also a Jeanne d'Arc main street, various statues of her at prayer and on horseback, countless cafés Jeanne d'Arc, and a series of stained-glass windows telling the story of her martyrdom at the hands of the cruel English.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE CHATEAUX?Descriptions of gleaming white Azay-le-Rideau, surrounded by a moat diverted from the Indre tributary, usually end up as strings of lyrical superlatives. Balzac called it a "cut diamond set in the Indre". Even the most cynical are staggered by its graceful beauty as they gaze upon its turrets and crenellations, and graceful, understated ornaments (for up-to-date opening hours and prices, call 00 33 247 45 42 04).

Perhaps only Chenonceaux matches Azay-le-Rideau's capacity to exceed expectations. This is another treasure of Renaissance architecture, spanning the lazy Cher tributaries with five arches. Its beauty is best appreciated from the water, but the tour of the château itself is one of the best in the Loire. Instead of a compulsory guided tour, you simply wander at will (00 33 247 23 90 07).

Chambord, the most visited of all, is a different kettle of fish. If the sun is shining from behind you as you round a corner at the end of the straight D112, cutting through the Forêt de Boulogne, you might have to shield your eyes from the glare. The greatest of all the Loire châteaux, in terms of size, it was built on the orders of the unfathomably conceited François I, ostensibly as a hunting lodge but in reality a monument to his boundlessly expanding ego and megalomania. Its boisterous exterior is in complete contrast to the feminine charms of Azay-le-Rideau or Chenonceaux, but don't miss this awesome folly (00 33 254 50 40 00).

Once you've checked out this trio, take your pick from any of scores more châteaux open to the public. They range from medieval fortresses such as the Château d'Angers and the grim dungeons of Meung, downstream from Orléans, to graceful mansions exhibiting historic furniture, paintings and tapestries such as the châteaux of Montgeoffroy, near Angers, and Cheverny, south of Blois.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I SEE?To start with, explore the sleepy backwaters and tributaries away from the main tourist trail. There are some enchanting drives along the banks of the Sarthe and the Mayenne, which merge just north of Angers, and at villages such as Cheffes there are rowing boats and bicycles for hire.

Further upstream, the vineyards in the valley of the Vienne sweep up to historic Chinon. The Indre, which splinters into a delta of islands, marshes and streams as it joins the Loire, is packed with Balzac associations; the great writer used to hole up for months at a time at the village of Sache. The house where he stayed is now a museum dedicated to his life and work (00 33 247 26 86 50, open daily from 10am to 6pm, entrance about £2.50). Most arcane of all is the Loire's tributary, the Loir - a sublimely peaceful, understated and little-visited willow-hung stretch of river.

Finally, to get a real overview of this beautiful region, contact Vol en Montgolfiÿre (00 33 238 62 04 88) for details of hot-air balloon trips.

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING A BIT MORE ACTIVE?Try paddling a kayak down the Loire. Various places hire them out, such as the Canoë-Kayak Club d'Amboise (00 33 247 23 26 52) and the Val d'Indre Canoë-Kayak (00 33 247 73 13 19). You go with or without a guide, for an hour, a half-day or a full day (a half-day trip costs around £10 per person). No previous experience of canoeing is needed and it is a wonderful way to see a stretch of the river, as well as being fun.

Cyclists might also want to contact Vélotel (00 33 238 70 32 74), an association of hotels and inns which cater for the needs of pedalling tourists while they explore the region by bike; they provide bike sheds, picnics and cycle-route maps, and can carry out cycle repairs.

HOW ABOUT THINGS TO DO WITH CHILDREN?Kids are fascinated by troglodyte dwellings - especially those who have read The Lord of the Rings - and there is a long tradition in the Loire valley of living in underground homes quarried out of the soft, white stone of the area. You can see troglodyte homes cut into the rock at Trÿo and, at Rochemenier, you can visit an underground village that, until the 1930s, was inhabited by farming families.

Alternatively, there are good zoos at Doue, south of Angers, and at Beauval on the Cher, but don't expect zoos as we understand the concept in Britain. Watching animals as caged exhibits simply isn't the approach. The starting point is the animals' habitats, with explanations (in French only) of how various animals adapted to the African savannah, the Amazon rainforest and so on. In both zoos, mini-habitats have been created, with great efforts taken to allow visitors to observe the animals from discreet viewing points. Apart from keeping the big cats and bears at a safe distance, there is very little caging.

Back on the château trail, Château d'Usse on the Indre is pure fairy tale. Terraced gardens rise up from the river to this brilliant white castle of turrets, towers and crenellations, perched on a cliff at the edge of the Forest of Chinon. This was the setting chosen by Charles Perrault when he wrote The Sleeping Beauty, and every last drop is squeezed out of the association in the guided La Belle au Bois Dormant tour (for details, 00 33 247 95 54 05).

A long and narrow staircase climbs up to the parapets, threading through a chain of castle rooms, in each of which there is a waxwork display of a chapter in the story, complete with a scary Wicked Fairy, a smarmy Handsome Prince (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Peter Mandelson), and the alluring beauty herself. So, for once, this is a château where children will squeal with delight rather than yawn at their umpteenth Flemish tapestry or 17th-century chair.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT

Local WinesThe Loire valley is one of the great wine-growing regions of France. It is not quite up there with Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, but together with the Rhÿne and Alsace, it ranks next. What the Loire does offer is a breadth of wine styles unmatched in any other region. There are the gentle roses and whites of Anjou; superb dry méthode champenoise from Saumur; gutsy reds such as Chinon and Bourgueil alongside more delicate medium or dry whites in Touraine; sweet or sparkling Vouvray; and the superlative Sancerre at the eastern end of the region.

These are just a few of the Appellation Contrÿlée wines in the area. Wherever you go, there are opportunities for tastings ( dégustations), whether at a regional "Maison du Vin" run by a consortium of all the producers and merchants within an area, at the headquarters or winery of a major producer, or simply in the cellar of a small farmer. Tasting is nearly always free but beware - it is often accompanied by pressure to buy.

Some of the Maisons du Vin, such as the one just opposite the château in Angers, are excellent (for more information, contact the Tourist Office in Angers on 00 33 241 23 51 11). Literature and information on the regions and styles is available and you can taste, by way of introduction, a range of carefully chosen examples of local wines. These are labelled anonymously as generic wines of the region, so that the particular producer's identity remains a secret. These places operate rather like tourist offices and you should feel no obligation to buy, unless you want to.

The same is true at the caves of large-scale producers such as Ackerman-Laurance in Saumur (for more information, contact the Tourist Office in Saumur on 00 33 241 40 20 60) where you can take an interesting tour of the cellars and learn how the Champagne method works, or Maison Audebert et Fils in Bourgueil (for more information, call 00 33 247 05 40 01) where you are offered "vertical" (different vintages from the same vineyard) and "horizontal" (wines of the same year from different vineyards) tastings. In cases such as these you will probably want to buy some wine, particularly at Audebert where there is a great selection from which to choose.

However, when you accept the invitation of a small farmer to taste his wine, you have to be more careful. If you are seriously interested in buying a case or two, feel free to have a quick taste of various different vignerons' wines in an area before you make your choice. But if you spend half an hour drinking glassfuls at your host's expense, he will certainly expect you to buy a few bottles.

WHAT ABOUT PLACES TO STAY?

Try Bowhills (01489 877627, www.bowhills.co.uk) for a good selection of upmarket farmhouses, villas, water mills and other quiet rural retreats throughout the area. For cottages and gîtes you might also want to try VFB (01242 240310, www.vfbholidays.co.uk) and also Inntravel (01653 629010, www.inntravel.co.uk), which offers holidays geared towards walking, cycling or wine-tasting, usually staying in small two- and three-star hotels. Winetrails (01306 712111, www.winetrails.co.uk) also organises guided group walks and bespoke itineraries for wine-lovers and gourmets, stopping at vineyards and choice restaurants.

WHAT ABOUT CAMPING?

If you're willing to camp, there are lots of opportunities. The easy way is to rent a ready-erected tent complete with everything from beds, tables and chairs to gas hobs and mains electricity. Companies with good selections of these, particularly in peaceful woodland settings on the tributaries, include Canvas Holidays (01383 644000, fr-holidaystore.co.uk) and Eurocamp (01606 787666, eurocampindependent.co.uk). At some of these sites, prefab holiday trailers, or mobile homes with kitchens and bathrooms, are also available.

If you have got your own equipment or a caravan, Sites Abroad (01606 787669, eurocampindependent.co.uk) will book ferries and reserve site pitches for you.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Contact the Conseil Régional at 9 rue St-Pierre Lentin, 45041 Orléans (tel: 00 332 38 70 32 74; e-mail: CRTL.Centre@wanadoo.fr; net: www.loirevalleytourism.com) or the French Travel Service at 178 Piccadilly, London W1V OAL (0906 8244123, calls cost 60p per minute).

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