Loire Valley enchants with chateaus, gardens

The Chateau de Chambord, one of the largest chateaus in the Loire Valley, is a must-see for first-time visitors.
The Chateau de Chambord, one of the largest chateaus in the Loire Valley, is a must-see for first-time visitors. Photo Credit: D Darrault/CRT Centre VdL

For Francophiles, the thought of picking a favorite region is almost akin to choosing a favorite child. Can't be done.

That said, if forced I would set my sights on the Loire Valley, a popular but not overrun destination that got its hooks into me when I was a college student living in Paris and has never let go.

Back then, it took hours on the train to get from Paris to Tours, the de facto capital, from where we would set out in all directions depending on how much time and disposable income we had to spend.

Enter, in 1990, the TGV high-speed rail service, which zips from Paris' Montparnasse station to Tours in about an hour, and all that changed -- putting the Valley of Kings within easy daytrip distance.

But just because you can get there and back from Paris in less time that it takes many people to commute to work doesn't mean you should; making the region home base for a multiday stay is an even better idea.

Les chateaux

There are more famous chateaus in the region than you could count, but 42 of them are considered exceptional enough to be Unesco World Heritage Sites. 

It's important to note that this is not a case of "seen one, seen them all," because each chateau is unique and reflects the personality of whichever French royal commissioned it all those centuries ago -- as a country house, a hunting lodge or a place to stash a mistress or two.

First-timers to the region will probably want to hit at least a few of the big ones, including Chateau de Chambord, Chateau Royal d'Amboise, Chateau de Villandry and Chateau de Cheverny.

The water mirror effect on the Chateau de Chenonceau, which spans the river Cher.
The water mirror effect on the Chateau de Chenonceau, which spans the river Cher. Photo Credit: ADT Touraine/Loic Lagarde

A personal favorite, Chateau de Chenonceau, spans the river Cher and has an intriguing history that includes a stint as a conduit for people escaping Nazis during World War II.

What's more, the chateaus often put on seasonal events, like light shows at night, wine tastings and concerts.

Or spend a few days in castle towns that are a little less likely to draw busloads of tourists, like the Forteresse Royale de Chinon, whose hillside ruins -- complete with interior light displays -- overlook a charming town with winding cobblestone streets, caves for wine tastings -- don't skip the Chinon red -- and dozens of restaurants vying for your attention.

Art lovers can take advantage of Leonardo da Vinci's Galleries, which opened at the Chateau du Clos Luce in the summer of 2021, or the Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau, whose galleries and gardens underwent a massive restoration in 2017 and whose reflection in the river Indre, creating a so-called water mirror, has made it the subject of countless photographs.

La cuisine

Those of us who enjoy eating our way through France will find plenty to tempt the palate in the Loire Valley.

Chef Christophe Hay, for example, named 2021 Chef of the Year by the Gault & Millau guide and the recipient of two Michelin stars for his restaurant La Maison d'a Cote, will move to a new home this summer, the Fleur de Loire https://fleurdeloire.com/en/ in Blois. Once the property of the brother of King Louis XIII, the new five-star hotel and gourmet restaurant will feature 44 rooms, including 11 suites, a bistro, a pastry outlet, swimming pool and Sisley branded spa.

Or check out the menu of chef Catherine Delacoute at Le Lancelot, a formerly abandoned farmhouse and now gastronomic bistro near the 16th-century Chateau de Chamerolles in Orleans. Delacoute has the distinction of being an actual knight as well as having previously worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Orleans.

The village of Sancerre, known for its white wine, also features the Michelin-starred l'Ardoise du Marche, helmed by chef Julien Medard and featuring a cuisine that blends local and Asian influences.

More Michelin-starred cuisine is available at L'Evidence in Montbazon and overseen by chef Gaetan Evrard, whose tasting menu runs to a whopping five courses.

Vines in Sancerre, which is known for its white wine.
Vines in Sancerre, which is known for its white wine. Photo Credit: D Darrault/CRT Centre VdL

La nature

Looking to work off all that good food? The Loire Valley offers everything from walking and hiking trails to horseback riding and kayaking.

Brenne Regional National Park, for example, offers a dizzying 250 guided excursions -- or you can just wander among the 1,600 plant species, including wild orchids, and keep an eye out for the many species of animals and birds.

The French royals back in the day engaged in a form of one-upmanship with their gardens, and the results are still spectacular, drawing serious horticulturists as well as gawkers who don't know one flower from another.

Some gardens to check out include the Ainay Water Gardens at Chateau d'Ainay-le-Vieil, which dates to the 16th century; the 62-acre Domaine de Poulaines, with its arboretum featuring more than 1,200 plants; and Le Jardin de Marie near Sancerre, with its masses of colorful flowers in spring and fall.

Or time your trip to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the International Garden Festival at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire from April 21 to Nov. 6, with special events on tap during the event.

As to how to get around, you can, of course, rent a car, but the Loire Valley is bike-friendly. La Loire a Velo offers tours suitable for first-timers, families and experts.

Les hotels

La Maison Tatin in Sologne opened in June on the site of the former Hotel Tatin, where the famous tarte Tatin dessert was originally created in the 19th century.

Each of the 16 guestrooms features works by local wildlife photographers, and, yes, guests can try the tarte Tatin in the tea salon or restaurant. In the planning phases are a spa with a hammam and sauna.

Set to open this summer in the medieval town of Loches, the four-star Hotel de la Cite Royale will be located in a 19th-century building that was once the Palais de Justice.

The 45-room property will have a spa, pool, lounge and restaurant overseen by chef Christophe Vasseur and views of the Cite Royale de Loches, one of France's best-preserved medieval towns.

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