France's lavish royal past is everywhere in the gentle landscapes of the Loire Valley. Hundreds of majestic châteaux and palaces follow the course of the country's longest river as it makes its largely untamed way to the Atlantic. Such is the beauty of the ancient towns, limestone hills and historic castles that Unesco felt compelled to designate a 300km-long stretch of the valley as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
The valley's exceptionally fertile land drew France's rulers during the 15th century, when they created ever more elaborate royal residences as the French Renaissance was getting into full swing. Not to be outdone, the nobility soon followed, turning this so-called Valley of the Kings into a wonderfully over-the-top game of architectural one-upmanship.
They didn't stop at architecture: their gardens had to be just as ornate, notably the ones at Villandry (00 33 2 47 50 02 09; chateauvillandry.fr) and Chaumont-sur-Loire (00 33 2 54 20 99 22; domaine-chaumont.fr), home to one of France's biggest garden festivals which runs from April until October.
Come summer, the châteaux become even more magical during the evening son-et-lumière shows and spectacles that light up their grounds in July and August, with some extending the season from April to September.
One of the most pleasurable ways of exploring the châteaux is by bicycle, thanks to the completion of Loire à Vélo (cycling-loire.com), an 800km route from Nevers in the centre of France to the Loire estuary. An extra network, Les Châteaux à Vélo (www.chateauxavelo.com), meanders through forests for 300km around Blois, Chaumont and Chambord. Other scenic paths follow the Loire's tributaries including the Indre, Cher and Vienne.
If château fatigue sets in, the cities and towns of the Loire have plenty to entertain. At the western fringe near the Atlantic is Nantes, home to the Machines de l'Ile (00 33 2 51 17 49 89; www.lesmachines-nantes.fr), an artistic project which has transformed the city's river island docks (until 31 August). Fittingly in the birthplace of Jules Verne, a huge mechanical elephant and a Victoria-style carousel of giant sea creatures captivate visitors. The city's commitment to the environment led the European Commission to designate it the European Green Capital for 2013.
The spirit of Orléans' medieval heroine, Joan of Arc, hovers over its lively old town and imposing neo-Gothic Sainte-Croix cathedral. The ancient university city of Tours celebrates summer with a riverside festival called Tours sur Loire (tours.fr). Until 22 September, music, theatre and dance acts perform on the river banks near Pont Wilson. Angers, towards the west, combines historical landmarks – namely its medieval château and 14th-century tapestry – with some of the area's most vibrant nightlife. While Amboise has one of the most popular château in the Loire Valley, it also draws visitors to the former residence of Leonardo da Vinci, Close-Lucé (00 33 2 47 57 00 73; www.vinci-closluce.com; €13.50). The château where he spent the last three years of his life is now a fascinating museum celebrating his inventions. In August, it holds outdoor events and from 27-29 September there's an annual European Festival of Renaissance Music.
Known as the "garden of France", the Loire Valley produces succulent fruit and vegetables as well as some excellent wines. Chinon, Saumur and Sancerre are atmospheric bases for exploring the surrounding vineyards.
On 7-8 September, the Vignes Vins et Randos festival (vignesvinsrandos.fr) offers 15 different guided walks through vineyards from Nantes to Blois, sampling wines along the way.
Tucked in among the vineyards are strangely beautiful troglodyte caves carved into limestone cliffs. After the quarrymen of centuries past had excavated the tufa stone to make the Loire's distinctive creamy white houses, they moved into the empty caves. They now make quirky homes and guesthouses, as well as a handy place to cultivate mushrooms or store wine.
There are more than 100 châteaux open to the public. The largest, Château de Chambord (00 33 2 54 50 40 00; chambord.org; €11), François I's multi-turreted creation, is as royal as it comes.
Two other royal residences are also impressive: the four wings of the 15th-century Château de Blois (00 33 2 54 90 33 33; chateaude blois.fr; €9.50) include France's largest Gothic hall; Château d'Amboise (00 33 2 47 57 00 98; chateau-amboise.com; €10.50) looms over the Loire.
Château de Chenonceau (00 33 2 47 23 90 07; chenonceau.com; €11) marks its 500th anniversary this year, a testament to the power of its female owners. Henri II's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, created the distinctive bridge over the river Cher, to which Catherine de' Medici added an Italian-style gallery.
For pure romance, the 16th-century Château d'Azay-le-Rideau (00 33 2 47 45 42 04; azay-le-rideau.monuments-nationaux.fr; €8.50), above, never fails to enchant.
Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) has a 12-day holiday, walking from castle to castle. The price of €850 includes fullboard, luggage transfers and walking notes; flights extra.
Two wheels good
The Loire à Vélo trail has made cycling in the Loire Valley a real joy, with its 800km of safe, signposted routes and easy terrain. Hire shops are found in every town at railway stations, hotels and even restaurants, offering a full range of equipment including child carriers.
Daily rates are about €13 to €15, but they go down the longer you hire the bike. Détours de Loire (00 33 2 47 61 22 23; locationdevelos.com) is based in Tours but allows you to hire a bike in one town and drop it off in another for a nominal fee.
Freedom Treks (01273 224066; freedomtreks.co.uk) has a six-night self-guided cycling holiday doing a circular 250km tour from Blois. The price of £730pp includes B&B accommodation, bike hire, luggage transfers and maps, but excludes travel to the region.
Raise a glass
Some of France's most celebrated wines come from the vineyards of the Loire Valley, notably the crisp whites from Sancerre, Pouilly-sur-Loire and Vouvray. They make superb partners for the nutty goat's cheese from Chavignol. Similarly, it's hard not to have a glass of Muscadet without some form of seafood on the plate. Then there are the underrated red wines of Chinon and Bourgueil and the sparkling wines from Saumur (which also produces a fine red).
Arblaster & Clarke (01730 263111; winetours.co.uk) offers a six-night Loire from East to West group tour for £1,799pp, leaving 26 October. The price includes Channel crossing, half-board accommodation with wine (including one meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant), coach travel, tastings and vineyard visits.
One of the most pleasant ways to explore the river is on the traditional flat-bottomed wooden boats called toues, left, once used to transport goods along the Loire and its tributaries.
Trips can be anything from an hour's jaunt to a two-hour picnic cruise or an overnight stay. River outings run by Millière Raboton, Homme de Loire (00 33 6 88 765 714; milliere- raboton.net), start at 90-minute cruises for €16, setting off at either Chaumont-sur-Loire or Amboise.
Further west, Bateau Amarante (00 33 2 47 95 80 85; bateauamarante.com) runs a similar service from the neighbouring villages of Candes-St-Martin and Montsoreau, with 90-minute trips for €14.
European Waterways (01753 598555; gobarging.com) also offers a luxury six-night cruise taking in chateaux and vineyard visits. The price of £3,750pp includes all food and drink on board, excursions, bicycle hire and transfers, flights extra.
Where to stay
Get a taste of château life at Château de Chissay (00 33 2 54 32 32 01; chateaudechissay.com), above, a 15th-century fortified castle near Chenonceau. Doubles from €135, room only. Or you could cosy up in a converted troglodyte cave, where summer's heat is kept at bay: Troglododo (00 33 2 47 45 31 25; troglododo.fr) in Azay-le-Rideau has five rooms from €65 per night, room only. France's only luxury troglodyte hotel, Les Hautes Roches (00 33 2 47 52 88 88; leshautesroches.com) on the Loire's banks at Rocheborbon near Tours, has doubles starting at €220, room only.
Self-catering options are plentiful; try French Connections (01580 819303; frenchconnections.co.uk); Cottages4You (0845 268 0760; cottages4you.co.uk); HomeAway Holiday Rentals (020-8827 1971; homeaway.co.uk); and Holiday Lettings (01865 312030; holidaylettings.co.uk).
The Loire Valley has two international airports. Nantes is served by CityJet (0871 663 3777; cityjet.com) from London City, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Liverpool, and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Manchester and Southampton.Tours is served by Ryanair (0871 240 0000; ryanair.com) from Manchester and Stansted.
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittanyferries.co.uk) has services from Portsmouth and Plymouth to St Malo in Brittany and from Portsmouth to Le Havre and Caen in Normandy. DFDS Seaways (0871 574 7235; dfdsseaways.co.uk) has services from Portsmouth to Le Havre, as well as Dover to Calais.
Rail Europe (0844 848 4078; raileurope.co.uk) has high-speed trains from London St Pancras via Paris to Tours, Angers and Nantes, with local services on TER SNCF (ter-sncf.com) to Orléans, Saumur and Chinon. Buses (tourainefilvert.com) connect Tours to the major châteaux, but it may be more practical to hire a car.