The Loire is the longest river in France with 1012 kilometres. The river originates in the Ardèche and then flows further through places like Orléans, Tours, Angers and Nantes to flow into the Atlantic Ocean at Nazaire.
Ever since the 16th century, the Loire Valley has also been called “the garden of France”. At the end of 2000, UNESCO declared part of the Loire, namely the area between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes-sur-Loire, a World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO, the Loire Valley is an “exceptional cultural landscape of great beauty, with historic villages and towns”. You will also find world-famous castles and beautiful vineyards.
The Loire Valley has about 140 Renaissance castles. They are mainly found along the river in the central French departments of Maine-et-Loire, Loir-et-Cher and Indre-et-Loire. Some castles are open all year round for tourists, others only in summer. And some have particularly beautiful castle gardens. In certain ones you can also stay overnight!
Although there are many castle routes to download from the Internet, we went on the Bonnefooi one. We started in Bourré near Montrichard with an overnight stay in the Château de Vallagon, a somewhat smaller castle, which by Dutch standards is still large. From here we followed the Loire towards the beautiful student city of Tours where we stayed for a few days to explore the area well. After Tours we drove eastwards to Sancerre, the last destination of our fantastic drive in the garden of France.
Below are some castles that we have seen during our relatively short stay in this part of France and that are certainly worth a visit. A number of beautiful castles in the Loire Valley, such as those of Chaumont-sur-Loire, Ussé and Chambord, we did not see and therefore will definitely return.
Château Chenonceau is one of the most special and romantic castles in the Loire Valley. The castle Henri II gave to his mistress in the 16th century and which is still privately owned, is situated over the water of the river Cher. It is open all year round. In summer it is open until eight o’clock in the evening, in winter until five o’clock. Also visit the beautifully-kept gardens!
Just like the castle of Chenonceau is the castle of Villandry on the Cher, near the Loire. Jean Breton, the new owner, completely demolished the medieval castle, except for the moat and the old, grey tower, at the beginning of the 16th century. He then turned it into a Renaissance castle and, inspired by Italian garden art, created fantastic gardens.
The Château de Chinon is a medieval fortress made up of three castles built in different periods. These castles were built in the 12th to 14th centuries as the main residence of the kings of England on ancient Roman fortifications. It was not until the 15th century that the kings of France lived there. They moved in because the area around Paris was not safe during the war with England. The 500 metre- and 100-metre-wide fortress is open to the public. The old bell tower offers a fantastic view over Chinon and the Vienne River.
Delicious wines from the Loire region
The Loire region is not only known for its many beautiful castles but also for the production of fresh and fruity, mostly white wines of world class quality. The most famous wines of the region include Sancerre, Menetou Salon (less well-known but as good as Sancerre and often a bit cheaper), Touraine and Pouilly-Fumé. There are also a little more fruity, sparkling wines in the region produced according to “la méthode traditionnelle”.
We started our wine journey in Touraine, where most of the wine is produced in the Loire region. Well-known wines are the white Sauvignon and the red Gamay of the Touraine. They are aromatic and slightly flavoured.
In the region, there are many cooperatives and small, independent winegrowers, as well as large wine producers. Most producers have their own wine cellar, which they have carved out in the tuff environment. Many offer guided tours and (free) wine tastings. For this reason, it may be wise to rent a bicycle to visit a number of wineries.
Wine festivals are regularly held during the summer months. These are definitely worth a visit. Also try out the different “routes de vignobles”. These are routes where you can drive by some selected or special vineyards. You can find out more information at the local tourist offices. You can usually rent a bike here.
Best time to visit the Loire Valley
The best months to visit the Loire Valley are from June to October. Keep in mind that in July and August it can not only be hot but also very crowded with tourists.
Although there are many okay to good ‘basic’ accommodation in all price ranges to be found in the Loire region, it is of course very nice to stay for one or more nights in a ‘châteaux-hôtel’. Only a few of the many examples are the Domaine de la Tortinière, the Château de Beauvais, the Château De L’Olivier, the Château De Pray, the Chateau des Grotteaux, the Chateau des Arpentis and the aforementioned Château de Vallagon. If you like the hustle and bustle of an old town with lovely terraces then look for accommodation in beautiful cities in the Loire Valley, such as Tours and Orléans.
Moving around in the Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is a two-hour drive south of Paris. It takes an hour by train. You can do the whole thing with your own car or camper van of course. Another option is to fly to Paris or even Tours. You can continue with a rental car here. You can also go from Paris by high-speed train to the main cities in the region, namely Montsoreau, Saumur, Angers, Orléans, Tours, Blois, etc.