For centuries the Loire Valley was frequented by French royalty, and the great river winds its way past some of France’s most magnificent châteaux. Its stunning architecture, troglodyte caves, tiny Romanesque churches and magical son-et-lumière productions are just an hour from Paris by TGV.
But for all the grandeur and majestic landmark buildings, the region is thoroughly natural and very much a rural haven. Known as the Garden of France, the Loire Valley is a patchwork of lush fields, cool forests and meandering rivers. With plenty to amuse the kids on family days out (there is much more to the region than old buildings!) and plenty of opportunities for easy going excursions and forays to interesting local villages and colourful markets.
Château de Sully-sur-Loire at night
The châteaux of the Loire
Back in the troubled times of the 15th and 16th centuries, the kings of France realised that the Loire Valley was far enough away from the discontented crowds, the diseases and unsavoury smells of the capital to be safe.
Today there’s so much choice it’ll be hard to know where to start so don’t be too ambitious and when château-bagging, plan your itinerary carefully. We love the over-the-top curves of Chenonceau (the one that straddles the river and appears to float on the water) but there are plenty more: from the restrained elegance of Cheverny with its perfect symmetry (that inspired Hergé’s Marlinspike Hall - Château de Moulinsart - in the Tintin comics) to the multi-turreted whimsy of Ussé, Sleeping Beauty’s original haunt.
Château de Amboise from the river banks
The famous château in central Amboise is near Clos Lucé where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years.
South of Blois and with gorgeous Delft tiled floors, this houses a remarkable portrait collection.
Château de Chambord
This huge structure built in the Italianate style by Francis I was the star of the Renaissance, set amid vast grounds larger than the Ile de Paris where the king and court would hunt.
A strong, fortified 15th century château set high on the cliffs above the river in a commanding position.
Château de Chenonceau (interactive)
Perhaps the most recognisable of all the châteaux, Château de Chenonceau elegantly spans the River Cher in all its mixed Gothic and early Renaissance style
A lovely old town with sprawling ruined château and narrow medieval streets that seem to have a direct connection back to medieval times.
Standing proudly overlooking the town below, the château is distinctive and built from the local white tufa stone.
Château de Villandry in full bloom
Famous for its extraordinary gardens, laid out in elegant sections with colourful borders and richly varied vegetables. The aspect from the viewing terrace is simply sensational.
Camping in the Loire Valley
The region is a popular choice for campers and caravanners of all kinds. It’s also a good choice for first timers abroad as the region is easily reached within a day from the major ports.
Other attractions are the fact that pitches are usually of generous size, flat and grassy with good access. Aside from the major châteaux on the tourist trail there are innumerable smaller gems, country houses or manors which are gorgeous and which have a campsite in their sprawling grounds.
These campsites usually come with old stable blocks, outbuildings and barns which are sensitively converted to create modern facilities such as restaurants, characterful bars, games rooms and receptions which add to the general ambience.
Château de Chambord along with Chenonceau are among the most visited châteaux in France
The Loire wines
Following the course of the Loire are the vineyards that produce some of France’s most renowned wines in a range of styles. There are chunky cabernet franc reds like Bourgueil with its distinctive cigar box perfume, light refreshing gamay reds, often served chilled and refreshing. Classics from Saumur Champigny, Saint Nicholas de Bourgeuil and Reuilly are irresistible around the barbecue.
Whites range from the crisp, aromatic sauvignons like the iconic Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines from the upper Loire to the light chenin blanc whites from Touraine and the central region. Unique wines like Vouvray and Montlouis are made dry, medium and sweet, with some achieving greatness over many years cellarage.
Côteaux du Layon can be aged in great vintages to become one of the world’s great sweet wines, right up there with the finest Sauternes. And there’s even sparkling wine in the form of mousseux fizz from Saumur – a high quality and great value alternative to Champagne.
Winding roads through vineyards
This is a region of game – wild duck, pheasant, hare, quail and venison – along with plentiful fish such as the prized pike from the many rivers. Mushrooms are grown in the cool, dark caves around Saumur and cheeses like Pouligny St Pierre and Ste. Maure de Touraine are highly sought after. The region has countless orchards with huge crops of apples, cherries and pears. Sweet treats include the classic tarte tartin, pithiviers and bourdaines, baked apples stuffed with jam.
Château de Azay-le-Rideau - the earliest example of a château built in the French Renaissance style.
The Loire à Vélo long distance cycle path offers visitors the chance to discover the region’s charming villages and historic cities while enjoying all that nature has to offer. There are other ways to explore the beautiful, unspoilt countryside: take a canoe and paddle down the slow moving rivers for a really unique perspective of the scenery. You’ll also see the wildlife up close in all its glory.
Take to the skies in a hot air balloon for something really special, ideally setting off as the sun breaks on a misty morning. As the sun climbs in the sky, burning off the haze to reveal sensational châteaux below, it’s truly the experience of a lifetime.
And of course take to the paths and trails on foot and get to know this most peaceful and relaxed of regions. These walks criss-cross the region and the going is always easy, with no serious hills or rough terrain to cope with. Just pack a small backpack with water, sunscreen and perhaps a map and enjoy the independence.