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Loire Valley, France

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Did You Know … ?

  • Joan of Arc’s greatest victory over the English in the 100 Years War occurred in Orleans (1429).
  • The largest chateau, Chambord, has 440 rooms and 365 fireplaces.
  • When Leonardo da Vinci came to the French court (1516), he brought the “Mona Lisa.”
  • The valley’s Maison Cointreau produces 30 million bottles of the orange-flavored liqueur a year.
  • Jules Verne, author of fantasies like “Around the World in 80 Days,” was born in Nantes (1828).

Where royals frolicked

France’s Loire Valley is best known for its incredible collection of chateaux built for crowned heads, their lovers and others who had the financial wherewithal to build them. Some remain privately owned, but open for visits just the same.

The valley reaches from central France, where the Loire is born, and follows the waterway’s meandering route in a westerly direction to the coast. It empties into the Atlantic just beyond Nantes. Other towns and cities that could be on an itinerary, east to west, are Orleans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Saumur and Angers. The area’s popular chateaux of Chambord, Chenonceau and Chinon are also candidates, as is the Fontevraud monastic complex.

Touring the area is a little like seeing Sleeping Beauty’s castle over and over, and no wonder. The Usse Chateau, on the Indre River tributary, is believed to be the original for the 17th century story by Charles Perrault.

There is more to the Loire Valley. It is an agricultural area that produces a variety of foods and wines that travelers may wish to sample.

Part of the Loire Valley region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the area, including forests, is protected in a local park. Visitors can choose recreational activities along the river, on a horse or bicycle, not to mention on foot.

The region, especially around Saumur, is rich with soft, white tufa limestone, which provided the building material for most of the chateaux — the source of the creamy white color that nicely complements Renaissance architectural styles and makes the chateaux stand out in ways they would not if built of darker material.

Digging for the limestone, over the centuries, left many caves and tunnels which were, in some cases, converted into shelter (sometimes for safety in wartime) and business establishments. Some are still in use, and there is a troglodyte village museum in the valley.

Finally, despite some damage during World War II, the urban centers that surround the in-town chateaux offer another kind of touristic experience amidst old stone or half-timbered houses, historic churches and cathedrals and striking public buildings.

It would be easy to spend several days here.

Things to do for Venturers

  • In the Saumur area, overnight in a hotel with rooms that are in caves cut into the area’s limestone. This could be a B&B or something fancier.
  • Take a tour of Maison Cointreau, makers of the liqueur, located just outside Angers.
  • Travel by canoe or kayak on the Loire in the 670,000-acre Loire-Anjou-Touraine Nature Park, which extends between Tours and Angers. You may alternatively follow the river on a bicycle.
  • At Villaines-les-Rochers, watch a basket weaver work his magic, then take lessons, available at several establishments.
  • Cycle some part of the officially designated 500-mile La Loire a Velo (Loire by Bicycle) trail along the Loire and its tributaries. A network of more than 200 hotels, gites (holiday homes for rent), guesthouses and campsites are prepared with services meant to accommodate cyclists.
  •  See the valley and its chateaux from a hot-air balloon. You may depart from Chenonceau.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Sign on for a tour of the Loire Valley by horseback. Depending on the choice, you may overnight in guesthouses or chateaux that have been converted into hotels. The Saumur Chateau has a museum devoted to horseback riding. Horse shows, such as the one at Chambord, are on offer, too, costumed riders and all.
  • Plan your tour at the Amboise Chateau to include a tour of its underground passageways. The underground tour must be prearranged. And, at Chenonceau, after your tour inside, boat on the river, stroll the gardens and/or attend a sound and light show.
  • Plan a wine tasting itinerary. Many local wineries welcome visitors, tasters — and buyers, of course.
  •  For food, try rillettes and rillons (pork dishes) from Tours, fouaces (buns cooked on a wood stove) and the local goat’s cheese. At Saumur, try mushrooms grown in the area caves.
  • Plan a driving tour along the Indre River, a Loire tributary and site of still more chateaux. Consider staying in a chateau hotel.
  • For an eye-opening experience, walk through the Musee Paysan de Rochemenier, a troglodyte village museum which includes barns, wine cellars, stables, housing and a meeting room, all dug out of the area’s limestone.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Break up a day of sightseeing with lunch in a cave restaurant in the Saumur area.
  • At the chateau of Clos Luce, visit what was Leonardo da Vinci’s home the last three years of his life and see displays of machines or devices that were his inventions, including a flying machine.
  • See a sound and light show at Amboise or Blois — or at any of several other chateaux that also have such spectacles. Also, at Blois, tour the town in a horse-drawn carriage.
  • Book a tour or plan an itinerary that includes the most popular chateaux. They are popular for a reason.
  • See a reconstruction of the house in Orleans where Joan of Arc stayed after defeating the English in 1429.
  • If medieval monastic life is a special interest, include Fontevraud on the itinerary. England’s King Henry II, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and two of their children, King Richard Lionheart and Isabelle of Angouleme, are buried there.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Atout France-France Tourism Development Agency at http://us.rendezvousenfrance.com