Often referred to as the Garden of France, the Loire Valley in north western France stretches for 280 kilometres to the sea following the Loire River. Starting in the Cevennes, in the east of France, the Loire is the longest river in France (1,013 kilometres/630 miles) and is famous for being the cradle of the French language. The town of Tours is where the purest French is supposedly spoken.
The Loire Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its splendid architecture in its many historic towns like Amboise, Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur and Tours, as well as for the magnificent chateaux scattered along the Valley. Equally famous are the crisp white wines that complement the goats’ cheese that is produced in the limestone caves throughout the region.
The Valley is full of historic châteaux, residences of the aristocracy and royals over the centuries. Particularly fine are the Château d’Amboise, Château de Chambord, Château de Chinon, Château du Rivau, Château d’Ussé, Château de Villandry and Chenonceau. There are over 300 in total (more than 100 are open to the public), with some dating back from the 10th century. Once the French kings started building châteaux in the Valley, the aristocracy were quick to follow, keen to keep close to the seat of power. There are Renaissance and Medieval gardens and parks scattered all over the region that are open to visitors. Part of the central area of the Loire Valley in 2000 was added by UNESCO to its list of World Heritage Sites.
The Romans were the first to grow wine in the area, back in the first century AD. Now the third most important grape growing region in France, some of the best wines can be found here. In particular, Chenin blanc, Sauvignon blanc and Melon de Bourgogne grapes are grown, with some red wines made around Chinon from Cabernet franc. Second after Champagne, the Loire Valley is also where you can find the most cremant or sparkling wines. Using ‘Méthode Traditionelle’ (champagne style), sparkling wines are produced, particularly in Saumur, that beat their Champenoise cousins for fruitiness as well as costing a fraction of the price. Most wine producers have cellars carved out of the local tufa rock and offer tours and wine-tasting. There are many wine-festivals in the summer that are worth visiting; look out for the ‘route de vignobles’ with tours around vineyards.
Complementing the fine wines, the local cuisine is noted for high quality fruits like apples, cherries, pears and strawberries, many of which are also used to produce liqueurs. Asparagus grows well on the sandy soils of the banks of the Loire. Goat cheeses are quite a speciality with 70% of France’s goat cheese coming from here – and France is the top producer in the world. Game, Charolais cattle, lamb and veal are typical dishes served with a beurre blanc sauce. The renowned champignons (mushrooms) of Paris grow here and this is the home of the delicious Tarte Tatin, traditionally made with apples.
The Loire Valley is easily accessible from Paris, taking less than an hour to reach Orleans by high speed TGV train or a couple of hours by road. If you don’t want to fly via Paris, you can fly direct to Tours from London and Dublin.
Sleeping, eating and shopping
Auberges (guest houses) can be found throughout the region. A popular area for hiking and cycling, there are also many campsites. Or if you’d prefer something a bit more in keeping with the surroundings, a number of chateaux offer B&B, like the Chateau du Vau, or hotel accommodation like the Chateau du Breuil.
Many of the small auberges also have good restaurants that serve regional specialities. For a gastronomic experience, try the Restaurant L’Orangerie du Château in Blois. To pick up some of the region’s specialities, try L’Etape Gourmande, La Giraudière or L’Epicerie Gourmande in Villandry.
After Paris and the Riveria, the Loire Valley is the most popular region in France for visitors. It has something to appeal to everyone: historic cities, beautiful châteaux and cathedrals, unspoiled countryside, Loire valley villas, fine wines and cuisine. Take a trip to the region and experience the wonderful sights, sounds and taste for yourself!