The full story?
Rivers make entertaining travelling companions, and none more so than the mighty Loire.
France's longest river gurgles into life from the flanks of a windswept pillar of volcanic rock up in the Ardèche. The Loire then flows through a dazzling succession of landscapes all the way to the far western Atlantic coast.
Follow even some of the Loire's epic course and you'll discover productive vineyards draped over the hills like giant candlewick bedspreads, cheerful, time-warp farming villages, exquisitely manicured Renaissance gardens and, of course, the region's stunning châteaux, created for the pursuit of pleasure by kings and noblemen.
Not surprisingly, the heart of the Loire Valley is listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
Spoilt for choice?
Absolutely, so don't expect to see all of the river in one visit. It's a vast area, so select your touring base according to what interests you – for most people, this means within the central "Valley of Kings" between Angers and Sully-sur-Loire.
First-timers will find that Amboise takes some beating, with river cruises, a vast royal château (00 33 2 47 57 00 98; chateau-amboise.com; adult admission €9.70) and a cheerful historic heart bursting with boutiques, bars and varied dining options. You won't be far from Vouvray's vineyards, the city buzz of Tours, Chaumont's garden festival, the Château de Chenonceau (see panel) and a whole lot more.
Can I get active?
With a 650km network of clearly signed cycle routes, virtually the entire course of the Loire is welcoming to cyclists. As the routes are on or near the river banks, they are fairly undemanding. See loireavelo.fr for more details. Cycling for Softies (0161 248 8282 ; cycling-for-softies.co.uk) offers a five-night cycling tour based from Chinon from £827 (travel from the UK not included).
If you prefer to explore on foot then routes through river valleys, woodland paths, among well-tended vineyards and unspoilt landscapes are there to discover at your own pace.
Tourist offices can suggest self-guided walks to enjoy as part of your holiday, or if you're looking for a more serious walk of several days' duration, the GR3 long distance footpath follows the Loire, taking in châteaux such as Chambord, Cheverny and Blois. You can also book all-inclusive, self-guided walking or cycling holidays including detailed routes, baggage transfers, accommodation and meals.
Tour operators such as Headwater (01606 720033; headwater.com), Sherpa Walking Holidays (0208 577 2717; sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk) and Inntravel (01653 617001; inntravel.co.uk) offer walking holiday packages in the region.
And on the river?
Departure points for river cruises include Nantes, Angers, Rochecorbon, Saumur and Candes-St-Martin. Themed trips include wine, cooking, wildlife, sunset picnics – or you can rent a whole boat and its crew for an overnight adventure. Some trips departing from Chisseaux (00 33 2 47 23 98 64; labelandre.com) in a replica sailing barge or gabare pass under the arches of the Château de Chenonceau on the River Cher.
If you want to kayak there are many opportunities to hire one, either on the Loire itself or one of its tributaries. Examples include Loire Adventure at Amboise (00 33 2 47 23 26 52; loire-aventure. fr) and Loire Loire Vélo Nature at Bréhémont (00 33 6 03 89 23 14; loirevelonature.com). Tourist offices list nearby canoe clubs, which offer guided trips and welcome beginners.River cards, which provide useful information for keen canoeists, are available from the Maison du Parc at Montsoreau (00 33 2 41 38 38 88; parc-loire-anjou-touraine.fr); Canoe-Kayak Région Centre (00 33 2 47 63 13 98; canoe-regioncentre.org ) has detailed maps and a downloadable booklet. These organisations also suggest heritage sites worth seeing and detail the wildlife you're likely to encounter.
I'm seeking deepest France
Head for the Loire's less-travelled eastern reaches. Sancerre has an almost Provençal setting overlooking vine-covered hills, while nearby lie sleepy river ports and former towpaths – ideal for walking, cycling or picnicking. Or you can cross the Loire via the Pont-Canal de Briare, the world's longest navigable aqueduct.
A more mystical experience lies downstream at St-Benoît-sur-Loire, whose vast Romanesque abbey resonates to the sound of medieval plainsong (00 33 2 38 35 72 43; abbaye-fleury.com; free).
South of Orléans are the reclaimed marshlands of the Sologne, where forests and lakes offer a tranquil haven for wildlife.
A hobbit holiday?
The region is honeycombed with man-made caves and excavations, reminders of the huge quantities of tuffeau stone extracted to build the great châteaux. Using only simple hand-tools, armies of villagers quarried ever-deeper underground, the most spectacular results of which you can visit at La Cave des Roches, in Bourré (00 33 2 54 32 95 33; le-champignon.com; €6.50) near Montrichard.
While larger workings later served as wine-cellars and mushroom farms, others provided secure dwellings for their creators' families and farm animals. Whole communes lived this way – even during the 19th century around half of the population of the Saumur region, for example, still lived in "troglo" homes. A century or so later, most had been abandoned, but their potential as eco-friendly homes have found many troglodyte structures being restored. In fact, you'll find troglo chapels, restaurants, character B&Bs and self-catering accommodation for visitors. For a taste of troglo life, Le Troglododo (00 33 2 47 45 31 25; troglododo.fr) offers B&B from €58 for a double in charming chambres d'hôtes in Honoré de Balzac's beloved "Vallée du Lys" near Azay-le-Rideau.
Some city buzz?
Start at Angers, whose mighty chateau (00 33 2 41 39 48 98; angers.monuments-nationaux.fr; €6) contains the Apocalypse Tapestry – the longest tapestry in the world, which depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation.
The city mixes swirling art nouveau and belle époque with sharp art deco, along with medieval and even older survivors. Add fabulous art collections, elegant shops and restaurants and you'll see why Angers is one of the Loire Valley's essential visits (00 33 2 41 23 50 00; angersloiretourisme.com).
Upstream from Angers, Tours is big and bold, but with an ancient heart centred on the medieval Place Plumereau. Grab a vacant café table, then enjoy the magical setting among half-timbered townhouses. The vibrant café culture extends to the banks of the Loire, beside the graceful Pont Wilson. This cultured city, the official home of definitive spoken French, is also a thriving language learning base (00 33 2 47 70 37 37; ligeris.com).
Next comes Blois, once the preferred seat of French monarchy, and still dominated by the vast, glittering Château Royal. At its heart lies a warren of narrow streets, home to chic restaurants, boutiques and a pervasive sense of medieval mystery (00 33 2 54 90 41 41; bloispaysdechambord.com/fr).
Don't neglect Orléans, where the flame of Jeanne d'Arc still burns among the trappings of modern-day city living. One of the Loire's finest beaches is here at Ile Charlemagne – on the Left Bank (00 33 2 38 24 05 05; tourisme-orleans.com).
What will I eat?
Each morning except Monday, the Garden of France's rich variety of fruit and vegetables fills Nantes' Marché de Talensac. The traditional cuisine, though, (often referred to as V C Rabelaisian, after the Chinon-born Renaissance writer) favours meats and sausage. Around Tours, items such as rillons de Tours (pork belly seasoned and preserved in fat) are survivors from the days when whole animals were processed and preserved for the larder. Here and in nearby Vouvray a selection of typical Touraine preserved meats are sold by Hardouin (00 33 2 47 40 40 40; hardouin.com). The modest Le Petit Patrimoine restaurant in Tours (00 33 2 47 66 05 81; closed Sunday and Monday), serves a classic Touraine menu.
The forests of the Sologne provided wild game for peasants' pots and the nobility's grand tables. Venison and rabbit (often served with wild forest mushrooms), pigeon and wild boar still feature locally, including the Michelin-starred restaurant of the Grand Hôtel du Lion d'Or, in Romorantin-Lanthenay (00 33 2 54 94 15 15; hotel-liondor.fr); daily except Tue lunch, closed 14 Feb-31 Mar.
A few river fishermen still land carp, trout, pike-perch and eels for riverside auberges serving the day's catch. In Blois try Au Rendez-vous des Pêcheurs (00 33 2 54 74 67 48; rendezvousdespecheurs.com; open daily except Sunday and Monday lunchtime).
Other specialities to look out for include AOC fromages de chèvres (goat's cheeses) and traditional preserved fruits known as pommes- or poires-tapées – intensely flavoursome dried apples and pears. Speciality confectionery and chocolates are a legacy of the sugar and cocoa shipped into Nantes; visit Gautier-Debotté (00 33 2 40 48 23 19; gautier-debotte.com; open 9am-7.15pm daily) whose interior is as stunning as the chocolates it sells.
A vintage tour?
The Loire Valley has produced wine since the Romans planted the first vines beside the river's western reaches more than 2,000 years ago. Today the region produces wines for all tastes, occasions and budgets, and there's no better way to discover them than on a relaxed wine-tour.
Signposted itineraries help you get started – just look for "Route des Vignobles". The routes take you through diverse scenery, from the billowing hills of Sancerre in the East to the Pays Nantais, almost on the Atlantic Coast. Along the way countless vignerons welcome visitors, share their passion for wine and explain the effects of terroir (a combination of landscape, climate and geology) which underpins drinking qualities. The settings are often charged with history. Once you've explored, previously baffling names on wine labels will make sense.
If you prefer not to drive, consider a personalised, guided wine tour offered by firms such Loire Uncorked (00 33 2 47 59 12 61; loireuncorked.com): they take you in comfort around a wide selection of vineyards.
Where does it end?
The Loire reaches the end of its long journey in a liaison with the Atlantic just beyond Nantes. The former seaport was known as the Venice of France until its canals were filled in, in the process saving the imposing quayside mansions built by wealthy ship-owners from collapse. You can see the lines of 18th-century facades, decorated with nautical emblems known as mascarons and leaning at crazy angles, on the now-landlocked Ile Feydeau.
Start the day in the perfectly preserved 1900s interiors of the Brasserie La Cigale (00 33 2 51 84 94 94; lacigale.com; breakfast from 7.30am, €11).
The ancient heart of the city holds more surprises, not least the neo-classical Passage Pommeraye, opened in 1843 as an elegant shopping arcade and later star of the 1960s French cinema classic Lola.
Nearby are the vast and extravagantly restored Château des ducs de Bretagne (00 33 2 51 17 49 48 ; chateau-nantes.fr; €8), now home to a city museum.
Fit for a king: The top châteaux
There are many to choose from, but the greatest of all the Loire châteaux is Chambord (00 33 2 54 50 40 00; chambord.org; adult admission €9.50) with a royal hunting estate the size of Paris. It was created for François I by an unknown architect – possibly the King's protegé Leonardo da Vinci.
Meanwhile, Château d'Azay-le-Rideau (00 33 2 47 45 42 04; azay-le-rideau.monuments-nationaux.fr; €8) shimmers amid the waters of the River Indre, and is a hauntingly beautiful Renaissance jewel.
Château et Jardins de Villandry is a sensitively restored Renaissance château (00 33 2 47 50 02 09; chateauvillandry.com; €9) convincingly upstaged by vast formal gardens, with immaculately maintained parterres and an ornamental lake.
For exquisite interiors, visit Château de Cheverny (chateau-cheverny.fr; €7.50), which is still home to the family who created it, so the sumptuous furnishings and surrounding historic hunting estate are perfectly preserved.
Sitting astride the River Cher is the exquisite Château du Chenonceau (00 33 2 47 23 90 07; chenonceau.com; €8), which once belonged to Catherine de Medici, and which possesses not one but two huge Renaissance gardens.
There's no better introduction to the architecture of the Loire Valley than a visit to the Château Royal de Blois (00 33 02 54 90 33 33; chateaudeblois.fr; €8), where several French kings resided and indulged their passions for art.
Finally, Domaine de Chaumont (00 33 2 54 20 99 22; domaine-chaumont.fr; €15) is a fairy-tale château overlooking the Loire which hosts internationally acclaimed garden festivals.
The Loire: Five things you probably weren't expecting
Leonardo da Vinci's tomb
King François I's protégé is buried in the Chapelle St-Hubert at the Château d'Amboise (00 33 2 47 57 00 73; chateau-amboise.com; €9.70) near his final home, Clos Lucé (vinci-closluce.com; €12.50).
A 12-metre high mechanical elephant – and a giant steel tree
You can ride the Grand Eléphant, stroll through the branches of the Arbre aux Hérons and see other fantastic creatures being created in the former naval workshops on the Ile de Nantes (lesmachines-nantes.fr; €7).
A Louis Blériot monoplane, a guillotine – and a London bus
A vast mechanical museum (00 33 2 47 45 36 18; musee-dufresne.com; €10) in the countryside near Azay-le-Rideau overflows with these and countless other unimaginable things collected over a lifetime by an eagle-eyed scrap dealer.
An underground town of stone
La Ville Souterraine is being sculpted by a young stonemason as a spare-time labour of love at the Cave des Roches (00 33 2 59 32 95 33; le-champignon.com; €6.50), a vast network of abandoned quarries in Bourré.
A time-warp château with a complete Orient-Express train in the grounds
The Château de La Ferté St-Aubin (00 33 2 38 76 52 72; chateau-ferte-st-aubin.com; adults €8.50) is a 350-year-old estate being lovingly restored by its family owners in the Sologne.
Additional research by Laura Ridgers
Roger Moss is the author of Footprint's new guide to the Loire Valley, which is out now. To purchase any of the Footprint France series at a special rate of just £10 including P&P, visit www.footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde01 in the coupon code at checkout.