About Western France – the Loire Valley
Playground of the Renaissance court, the Loire Valley stretches along the fertile banks of France’s longest river, host to a delectable array of châteaux and vines, orchards and woodlands. The land of a thousand châteaux (a blanket term used to describe anything from a fortress to a pleasure palace to a glorified country house) also has a reputation for devouring unwary tourists alive. Seduced by guide books, enthusiasm and the sheer proximity of the châteaux, many visitors overdo it. The result, château-fatigue, can put you off turrets and tapestries for life.
The chateaux are the best places to visit, but the region offers all kinds of alternative distractions. One of the most compelling is picnicking. Do a château in the early morning before the crowds, then find a suitable stretch of river bank for the afternoon armed with a wedge of rillettes, the local coarse pork pâté, goat cheese from Saint-Maure, fresh bread, fruit and a bottle of Chinon. The banks of the Loire itself are not recommended. When not in spate (swirling with torn branches and flooding the pastures and woods), it can be a treacherous maze of sandbanks and quicksands. Tributaries such as the Vienne near Chinon; the Loir north of Angers, the Indre which winds its way down to Loches; or the Cher around Chenonceaux are delight and safe for swimming and kayaking.
Château country is also ideal cycling terrain, with bicycle hire in ever main town and at most SNCF stations. Campsites are plentiful and well-equipped (the lle d’Or site at Amboise has a pool, bike and kayak hire plus a free view of the son et lumière show at the château). All the major châteaux are open daily, and local tourist offices have details of son et lumière performances on summer evenings. Another welcome innovation is the gradual phasing out of the guided tours, a form of unmitigated torture for non-French speaking visitors. Decent foreign language leaflets now assist self-guided tours.
This section concentrates on the Loire between Angers and Blois, linked to Nantes and Paris by the A11 and A10 autoroutes respectively.
Local trains and some buses serve the main towns along the Loire; TGV train services from Paris stop at Tours. Public transport services are rather hit-and-miss when it comes to visiting the châteaux, see Blois and Tours (both below) for further details and suggestions.