The Traveller's Guide To: The Loire

France’s longest river valley is home to lush countryside and striking châteaux. Cathy Packe enjoys the culture and cuisine on a journey to the heart of the nation

Where?

The longest river in France meanders through the centre of the country from the Cévennes mountain range in the south-east, continuing for 1,020km until it merges with the Atlantic at the port city of St-Nazaire. Its best-known and most appealing stretch is between Orléans and Angers, an area which combines historic walled towns, vineyards, attractive countryside and the châteaux that are the Loire Valley’s greatest attraction. Highlights south of Orléans include the dramatically located cathedral town of Le Puy-en-Velay; downstream from Angers it flows through Nantes and onwards to the sea.

A good riverside base?

Angers, the Loire valley’s western gateway, is a small, attractive city with a striking château: a huge, forbidding fortification with thick walls and round towers built in layers of black and white stone. Inside is the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, a medieval masterpiece depicting the events leading up to Judgement Day. This inspired a series of 10 20th-century tapestries, Le Chant du Monde or “the Song of the World”, which are housed on the opposite side of the river in the Hôpital St-Jean (00 33 2 41 05 38 00; tiny.cc/ emFR9). Designed by Jean Lurçat, who died before they were completed, the works contrast nuclear war with the joy of life. The Hôpital opens 10am-noon and 2-6pm daily except Monday, and daily from 10am-6.30pm in summer; admission €4.

Further east is Orléans, whose excellent Fine Arts Museum in the Place Sainte-Croix contains an impressive collection of European paintings. Many of the town’s other attractions focus on Joan of Arc, “the maid of Orléans”, who was born in Lorraine but is cherished here more than anywhere else.

Her life story is told in a series of stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix (tourisme-orleans.com), open daily 9.15am-noon and 2.15-5pm (until 6pm in May, June and September, until 7pm in July and August). Her statue stands in the Place du Martroi; and the house where she stayed, albeit briefly, at 3 place de Gaulle (00 33 2 38 52 99 89; jeannedarc.com.fr) has been reconstructed and turned into a museum. Joan of Arc Day is celebrated on 8 May with a medieval fair.

Show me some chateaux

More than 300 fortifications and fine houses are scattered on the banks of the Loire. The oldest châteaux are medieval fortresses, some built to keep out the Vikings, others marking the border between French and English troops during the Hundred Years’ War. At the end of the war, Charles VII took up residence at Loches. The royal apartments (00 33 2 47 59 01 32; chateau-loches.fr) inside the town’s impressive walled citadel are now open daily to visitors; admission €7. Gradually the region was colonised by other royals, nobility and the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. Their legacy is a series of impressive and varied architectural masterpieces, many, such as the Château de Villandry, set in elegant gardens (00 33 2 47 50 02 09; chateauvillandry.com; admission to château and gardens €9.

One of the most popular is Chenonceau (00 33 247 23 44 02; chenonceau.com; admission €10, a Renaissance property arching gracefully across the river Cher. Another Renaissance château is Azay-le-Rideau (00 33 247 45 42 04; tiny.cc/5EtK3; admission €8, standing on an island in the Indre river.

Château de Cheverny was built a century later in the more austere Louis XIII Classical style. The Château de Chaumont is now best-known for its annual International Garden Festival (00 33 2 54 20 99 22; chaumont-jardins. com) which takes place this year from 29 April until 18 October; admission €9.50.

West of Chaumont, Amboise is in an impressive position on the banks of the river Loire. From the Tour des Minimes there is an excellent view along the river in both directions, while nearby, the smaller Clos-Lucé (00 33 2 47 57 00 73; closluce.com) is also worth visiting. It opens 9am-7pm daily, until 8pm in summer, with shorter hours in winter; admission costs €12.50. This was the home of Leonardo da Vinci for three years at the end of his life and contains an interesting collection of his inventions.

On an altogether larger scale is Chambord (00 33 254 50 40 00; chambord.org), built by François I in the 16th century. It is ostensibly a hunting lodge; but with some 440 rooms and 85 staircases it certainly fulfils his desire to be more imperial than the Holy Roman Emperor. Admission costs €8.50 from October to March.

Can I stay overnight?

Not in any of these castles, although the extravagant, seven-storey Château de Brissac (00 33 2 41 91 22 21; chateau-brissac.fr), some 15km south of Angers, is open for both guided tours and overnight stays. A room for the night will cost you €390, including breakfast and a tour of the place; the tour on its own costs €8.80.

A number of the region’s other châteaux have been turned into luxurious accommodation, and several of them are part of the Relais et Châteaux group (relais chateaux.com). These include the Château de Noizay (00 33 2 47 52 11 01; chateaude noizay.com), a 16th-century building that was once a Protestant stronghold; doubles from €150, with an extra €21 per person for breakfast.

Elsewhere, you can find rustic gîtes (gites-de-france.com) and chambres d’hôtes, the French version of a B&B (chambresdhotesfrance.com). Try Bowhills (0844 847 1333; bowhills.co.uk) for upmarket farmhouses, villas and other quiet rural retreats, or VFB (01452 716 840; vfbholidays. co.uk) for cottages and gîtes. There are also lots of opportunities for camping, which can be arranged through companies such as Canvas Holidays (0845 268 0827; canvas holidays.co.uk).

I need a drink

The Loire valley is one of the great wine-growing regions of France. Highlights include the fine wines of Sancerre, sparkling Vouvray and Saumur, the rosés of Anjou, the red wines of Bourgueil and the sweeter wines of the Côteaux du Layon

A number of the producers welcome visitors for tours and tastings. Just outside Saumur, for example, the Caves Bouvet-Ladubay offer hour-long guided tours which explain the wine-making process and end with a tasting. The winery is at 1 rue Jean Ackerman in Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent (00 33 2 41 83 83 83; bouvet-ladubay.fr); tours take place daily, price €1. Signposted routes link many wine-producing villages; maps and details are available from local tourist offices.

Other highlights?

Plenty. Gien is celebrated for its blue earthenware pottery. Downstream at Briare, high above the river is a stunning Belle-Epoque aqueduct, the Pont Canal. Just 13km from Saumur is Fontevraud Abbey (00 33 2 41 51 73 52; abbaye-fontevraud.com), which contains the tombs of the Plantagenet kings (10am-6pm daily, until 7pm in summer, until 5pm from November to March; admission is €8.40 (£7) from October to April). Inside the grounds of the Abbey, one of the priories, the Prieure St-Lazare (00 33 2 41 51 73 16; tiny.cc/CoL3) has been converted into comfortable two-star accommodation; rooms from €60.

Another interesting monastic complex is the Abbaye de Fleury (00 33 2 38 35 72 43; abbaye-fleury.com) in St-Benoît-sur-Loire, 35km from Orleans, which is the home to both an active Benedictine order and the relics of St Benedict himself. The abbey’s main basilica is open 6.30am-10pm daily; admission free.

How do I get there?

Rail travellers can take Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras to Paris Nord, transferring to Paris Montparnasse for trains towards Angers, about an hour and a half away, or St-Pierre-des-Corps, an hour from Paris, which lies on the outskirts of Tours and which is linked to the city centre station by a frequent shuttle service. Trains towards Orléans depart from Paris Austerlitz and take about an hour. Rail Europe (0844 848 3064; rail europe.co.uk), Trainseurope (0871 700 7722 ; trainseurope. co.uk) and several other specialists sell tickets to any destination in France. The lowest fare to the Loire in standard class is usually around £79 return.

Motorists can use any of the Channel crossings, but the western approaches – from Portsmouth to Caen or St-Malo on Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittanyferries.co.uk) – offer a more tranquil drive that avoids Paris.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) serves Nantes airport daily from Stansted and several times a week from East Midlands and Liverpool. The same airline also flies to Tours airport several times a week from Stansted.

... And get around?

A regional rail line links Orléans with Tours, Saumur and Angers along the right bank of the Loire, and stopping trains, augmented by buses departing from the railway stations, serve many of the smallest villages. The French Railways’ website (voyages-sncf.com) is an excellent source of timetable and fare information.

The Loire is one of the best parts of France for a cycling tour. La Loire à Vélo (loire-a-velo.fr) is a network of more than 400km (250 miles) of cycle trails that thread through the countryside from Sancerre to Ancenis, west of Nantes. Les Châteaux à Vélo (chateauxavelo.com), an alternative, strings together routes that follow lanes and quiet minor roads through tiny villages and vast vineyards close to some of the main châteaux.

In Tours, bikes can be rented from Détours de Loire at 35 rue Charles Gille (00 33 2 47 61 22 23; locationdevelos.com). A list of other bike-rental suppliers is available from the two websites mentioned above.

Estuary art

The stretch of river between Nantes and St-Nazaire is the location of an unusual series of festivals, entitled Estuaire (00 33 2 51 82 15 00; estuaire.info) and designed, according to the festivals’ director, Jean Blaise, to create an artistic corridor between the two cities. “Artists will use the banks of the river to create installations in situ, reflecting the local places, industries and so on – things that could only be seen on the estuary,” he says. After each festival, some of the works will remain beside the water, and by the end of the third, in 2011, there will be more than 20 permanent exhibits. This year’s Estuaire runs from 6 June until 23 August, and a list of participating artists will be announced in late March. Nantes and St-Nazaire will be linked by boat and coach so that the works can be viewed at close quarters.

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