Holiday Destination - The Loire Valley

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 October 2013

Blois

Blois

not Archant

You’ll fall in love with the Loire. Visit the garden of France for vin, vélo and châteaux

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In ‘A Little Tour of France’, Henry James described the Loire Valley as ‘the land of Rabelais, of Descartes, of Balzac, as well as good dinners and good houses’. A foodie and wine lovers’ heaven, the area is rich in a myriad things to eat and drink and as proof of the region’s joie de vivre, has been home to royal residences since the middle ages.

Some 69 miles southwest of Paris, the relatively small city of Orléans used to be an important trading route. The city has an astonishing cathedral and despite quite a few roadworks while I was visiting, plenty of lovely streets to explore away from the diggers. Tucked away, a real hidden gem is Ver di Vin. Off a small side street and in a cavern, the restaurant and wine bar is run by a lovely couple, Sabine, the sommelier and her husband who does the cooking. The menu is relatively small and full of local produce, with Sabine offering perfectly paired wines, ranging from €3.50 to €19 a glass(verdivin.com).

For architecture lovers, the Château in the Royal City of Blois (€9.50) takes you from its earliest Gothic parts, to later additions in the 18th century. But if the magic of another Château isn’t quite enough, the House of Magic (€8 adults/€5 children) just opposite is perfect to keep children entertained. The city, the gateway to Sologne, is full of winding streets to explore and in the centre, a large market with piles of local produce and locals with overflowing wicker baskets.

With so many châteaux and so little time, there is need to be a little picky. The imposing fairytale-like Château de Chaumont is an impressive example of both defensive Gothic architecture and the more romantic Renaissance. It stands high above the Loire River, offering fantastic views, and since 1992 has hosted the International Garden Festival (running from April to October 20). Tickets for the gardens, festival and château are €16). This year’s theme, ‘Garden of Sensations’ sees 20 worldwide designers showcasing their diverse landscape talent, from a garden that transports you back to childhood through a ‘magic wardrobe’, to a garden filled with sounds you control.

From Chaumont-sur-Loire, a leisurely two-hour boat trip down the Loire River with wine tasting and local food pairing is perfect after a long day of château-hopping (milliere-raboton.net €28). Our very enthusiastic guide helped us spot local wildlife and plants, track beavers and learn all about the river, while we sipped on glasses of Vouvray and munched rillettes on fresh, French bread.

The Château de Chenonceau’s history spans 500 years, with a prominent woman’s touch running through its past. Built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, it was successively made more attractive (and larger) by Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Médicis and was even spared during the Revolution by Madame Dupin. You can easily explore the château at your own pace with a handy video iPod guide, strolling through the richly decorated rooms and marvelling at the sumptuous decoration, including a fabulously flamboyant gift from Louis XIV of a huge, ornate gold-framed painting of himself by Rigaud. The château’s estate comprises several gardens, a maze, forests and a canal and it really would be very easy to spend an entire day exploring. Chenonceau is a very popular tourist destination, so it’s a good idea to start early to avoid the bigger crowds (€16 with audio guide).

The quaint and blooming village of Chédigny is perfectly picturesque and great for a lazy afternoon amble in the sunshine, but do beware of cars! The mayor planted roses all over the village several years ago and today, it is definitely a bit of a competition to see who can grow the biggest and best. If passing through, make sure you lunch at Le Clos aux Roses, a lovely restaurant set in the heart of the village, offering a delicious set menu and the best beef I ate in France.

For a different château experience, the fortified town of Loches houses an imposing medieval structure, with a huge keep and prison that was used until 1926 (€7.50). While in the town, for something different, visit the underground mushroom gallery(galerieduchampignon.fr €7). Our guide – a Gérard Depardieu lookalike – took us through the hugely complicated processes of growing mushrooms in the past and today in the sprawling caves filled with old mushroom machines. After learning about mushrooms, dinner and wine tasting at Les Coulisses (lesflaveursdelaterre@wanadoo.fr) offers a great selection of wines paired with simple but delicious local produce, including eel, rillettes and some wonderful six-month-old goat’s cheese.

If you want to improve your French while away, inhabitants of the university city of Tours are renowned for speaking the ‘purest’, devoid of any accent. The large city is built between two rivers – the Loire and the Cher – and is famous for its medieval district, le Vieux Tours. The touristy la Place Plumereau, is a square filled with bars and restaurants, perfect for people watching and admiring the wooden-framed buildings. You can explore the city on foot, by surprisingly cheap horse and cart, or spend 40 minutes on le petit train (€6.50).

The UNESCO World Heritage Site (a label awarded to the entire valley) is best explored by car or bike, or both. The 800km Loire à Vélo, stretching from Cuffy, near Nevers to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, opposite Saint-Nazaire is mostly flat and dotted with so much to see, including many châteaux, unmistakably French villages and gardens. If you don’t fancy the entire 800km, companies offer to transfer your luggage between various stretches, so you can enjoy smaller sections of the route without worrying about packing light (cycling-loire.com).

The simple quality of local produce, beauty of the region and ability to surround yourself with history, or escape into untouched French countryside within a couple of miles helps make a visit to the Loire Valley an unforgettable experience.

Where to stay?

Quality Hotel

20 rue de la République

45000 Orléans

+33 2 38 53 24 64

www.qualityinn.com

€60-70/night

Best for: Budget conscious, central location

Hôtel Château de la Menaudière

144 route d’Amboise

41400 Chissay-en-Touraine

+33 (0)2 54 32 54 34

www.chateau-menaudiere.com

From €85 to €350/night

Best for: Escaping, peace & quiet

Résidence Le Moulin des Cordeliers (Pierre & Vacances)

1 Rue des Ponts

37600 Loches

+33 891 70 10 78

www.pierreetvacances.com

Studio : From €150/weekend, €250/week

Best for: Families

What to eat and drink?

Fruit and vegetables: The Loire has rich soil and a favourable climate, which helps grow fabulous fruit and vegetables. There will always be huge piles of seasonal produce at market stalls, but be sure to try the asparagus, strawberries, Anjou pears and mushrooms cultivated in caves.

Eel: While there will be fish on most restaurant menus, eel is a particular, delicious speciality. Try it lightly smoked and simply served with homemade mayonnaise and fresh bread.

Rillettes: If you’re having a picnic, wine tasting or casual lunch, there will always be some rillettes to hand. Traditionally, it is made with pork, but goat, venison and duck are great alternatives.

Goats’ cheese: There are several goats’ cheeses on menus (and must try): Sainte-Maure with a straw running through its centre, the puck-shaped Crottin de Chavignol, flattened pyramid-shaped Valençay, the tart Chabichou and flat, round Selles-sur-Cher.

Wine: The Loire Valley is one of France’s most diverse wine regions. While the area is best known for its crisp, dry white wines, there are some lovely, aromatic Chenin Blancs and interesting Muscadets. The red wines are never overwhelmingly powerful, but move from the fruity Pinot Noir and Gamay, to the richer, earthier Cabernet France and Malbec. If you like bubbles, there are very affordable Vouvray varieties.

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