Loire Valley

In 9 words: Amazing land of castles; great food and wine included.
For your visit you need no less than two full days to be able to enjoy all of major locations.
Plan for certain amount of driving between castles; car is essential.
Don’t miss lingering at the attraction of your choice (say, Villandry gardens) and imagining yourself a romantic hero of the Renaissance.
Worthy attractions: Chambord; Cheverny; Chenonceau; Azay-le-Rideau; Villandry; Langeais; Chartres; many other castles and towns.
Left for another visit: Orléans; Tours.
Last visit: October 2007.
 

Chateau de Chambord
Loire Valley, if visited not at the heart of the tourist season, is tranquil and idyllic. Well-preserved grand medieval castles. Quaint and seemingly deserted villages. Empty narrow roads going across fields.

The food and the wine are close to being unmatched in the western world, which is an added bonus. The people… not so bad, largely friendly and ready to defy our stereotypes about the French. You run occasionally into the mind-boggling service-as-a-privilege approach at some establishments, but courtesy and accommodation does prevail overwhelmingly.

Things to See

People come to the Loire Valley to tour castles, of which there are a couple of hundred. The few most popular ones should probably figure on any tour itinerary.

It is important to note that, from a certain perspective, once you visit one castle’s interior, you visited them all. Authentic medieval furnishings consist of beds, chests, chairs and tapestries, which can continuously fascinate only a connoisseur. Distinguishing characteristics of major castles are normally in the location and settings. If you are like me, this little detail would not preclude you from visiting as many castles as possible. But some people may find it tedious.

Chambord ♥♥♥, the grandest of them all, is a magnificent piece of work. Its two main features, the double-helix staircase and the ornate roof with hundreds of decorative chimneys, are more than worth a visit by themselves. The castle is vast and monumental. It is really a stretch to call it a castle, to start with; it was certainly built as a palace.

Unfortunately, aside from the stairs and the roof, Chambord tends to disappoint. Its rooms are largely empty, decorated mostly by portraits, with an occasional piece of furniture thrown in. Some of the rooms house exhibitions, linked with the region, of middling interest.

Having been to Chambord twice, we have not explored its immense domaine to any degree.

Cheverny ♥♥♥ is quite the opposite. It is not very grand – even understated – on the outside, although being set on a large expanse of open parkland helps with the impression. On the inside, though, Cheverny is exquisitely furnished in the post-Renaissance style (not at all medieval, which makes it a standout among main destinations).

The mostly-wooded estate is huge. You can tour it via cart and then boat, with some commentary provided by the caretakers (extra cost). In addition, the estate is famous for breeding hunting dogs; the pen is not far from the castle, and you may chance upon the feeding, which is reportedly very interesting. There is also an exposition dedicated to the comic-book hero Tintin (extra cost as well), part of whose adventures happened at the castle inspired by Cheverny.

Another of the most widely-known Loire châteaux is Chenonceau ♥♥♥. Straddling river Cher and fronted by two beautiful gardens, it is a lovely sight, befitting the castle shaped by the women who inhabited it: Queens and royal mistresses. As you approach the castle via a long straight wooded alley, you can imagine yourself galloping down it for a rendezvous with the queen of your heart.

Interior is less striking than exterior, although a couple of massive fireplaces, lower-level kitchen and services, and supposedly the very first straight staircase built in any castle are quite interesting. The great gallery that sits right above the river is also unique. The gardens and the surrounding park are worth lingering in.

Much smaller and even intimate is Azay-le-Rideau ♥♥♥. Surrounded by a pond, it projects the aura of a “real” castle of some minor feudal lord. Again, the interior is somewhat unremarkable, aside from a couple of amazing fireplaces, but on the outside, the castle is nothing short of striking.

Chaumont ♥♥ has just as “right” appearance as Azay, when viewed from inside its grounds. There are a couple of interesting rooms inside. More interesting are 19th-century stables on the castle grounds. There are no horses, but the exhibition related to horse-breeding and -keeping is very nice.

Chaumont is also home to an annual garden festival, which sees prominent landscape artists create imaginative gardens on small plots of land. At the end of the summer season (normally, in early October), all gardens are dismantled; starting in April of next year, new gardens are created. (extra cost)

Another of the prime destinations is Villandry ♥♥♥, which is primarily remarkable for its fantastic gardens. The castle, when viewed from the gardens, fits into the landscape quite well, but our recollection of the visit to the château itself in 2002 suggests nothing especially interesting.

Concentrate on the gardens. There is a vegetable one, an ornamental one, and a water garden. Plus, a maze, a picnic area, a children’s playground, and enough acreage of woodland for hiking. Viewed from the height of the Belvédère, the geometric and colorful layout of the vegetable and ornamental gardens is entirely spectacular.

Langeais ♥♥♥ is a bit less popular destination, but it is one of my favorites. The main reason for that is that the castle is furnished quite well, and you can move around the rooms among the furniture (unlike many other places where you have to shuffle along a path, separated from the exhibits by ropes). There are beautiful tiled floors (probably, not original, since you are allowed to walk on them), several luxurious fireplaces, and some interesting tapestry. A wax figure composition, depicting the secret wedding of King Charles VIII and Anne of Bretagne, is accompanied by a fine presentation every 15 minutes (but three out of four are in French).

Langeais sits in the middle of a small village, whose main street is very picturesque.

Château d’Ussé ♥ was reputedly the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty castle. You can see the lineage when looking at it. We never ventured inside, but stopping by for a look is probably worth it, especially when you have daughters in tow. Next to the castle is a great local specialties and gifts shop, if you want to make your visit to Rigny-Ussé even more worthwhile.

On our trip in 2007, we also attempted to go to a castle well off the beaten path, and selected Champchevrier for that purpose, but it was closed for refurbishment. The middle-of-nowhere location called for some interesting driving on deserted roads.

Two more castles that we visited in 2002 are worth a look. Amboise ♥♥ and Blois ♥♥ both reportedly boast nice period furnishings, but our recollections are not of anything impressive. However, Amboise is dramatically located high above the Loire and is home to Chapel of St-Hubert, which is the alleged burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. Blois is singular in that its four wings are built in four different architectural styles, making for an amazing combination; the spiral staircase on the façade of François I wing is the castle’s most renowned feature.

Both Amboise and Blois dominate nice towns of reasonable size and vibrancy.

Another such town is Chinon ♥♥, whose medieval center is graced by a number of half-timbered houses, a rarity this far to the South of Europe. Loire embankment in town center is comparatively lively and pleasant. We also climbed to the upper part of the town in search of château access, but did not locate it.

Loches ♥ is a smaller town, with very compact medieval core and a larger “old town”. The château (which we did not intend to visit) and the main town church are best viewed from public gardens on the other bank of river Indrois; the park also has a playground, which always goes well with children bored by castle-hopping.

On the same little river, even smaller town is picturesque Montrésor ♥, considered one of the most beautiful villages on the Loire. It has its own castle, a couple of churches, intimate curving streets – truly a step-back-in-time village. Walking along the other bank of the river opens up great views on the castle and the village. We did not visit the château.

Another picturesque village, Rochecorbon, we only drove through along the Loire bank. Hotel rooms that are built into the caves inside white chalk cliffs overlooking the river are a fascinating sight. The village itself looked very inviting for a stop, but we were unfortunately short on time.

The biggest towns in the region, Orléans and Tours, hold many attractions themselves, but we stayed away from them on both of our trips to the area.

It should be noted that touring castles is not a child-friendly enterprise. No matter how inquisitive or interested in medieval history and architecture your offspring are, the certain repetitiveness and sameness of various destinations will make them grow bored. There are a few family attractions in the region that help you diversify the activities, of which we only visited Parc Mini-Châteaux ♥, outside of Amboise. The park contains over 60 models of the major Loire Valley castles, and is especially fun to visit towards the end of your trip, allowing children to play at recognizing the places they might have visited.

On a different note, anyone who enjoys self-driving tours will be handsomely rewarded in their exploration of the area. There are many excellent glimpses and panoramic views of castles and towns and exciting passages through villages all over the valley.

Finally, in summertime, most major castles hold Music and Light shows in the late evenings, which are reportedly spectacular. This is one of the things that we never managed to experience ourselves, since our visits to the area occur outside of summer months. We would if we could.

Lodging

Domaine de la Tortinière ♥♥♥ is in Montbazon near Tours. In its present form, the château was rebuilt in the second half of 19th century. It sits on a wooded estate high on the hill above river Indre, with magnificent views towards Montbazon. The grounds are expansive and conducive to hiking. There is plenty of outdoor chairs for idle lounging.

Our rooms were not in the main château, but rather in the row of cottages nearby. We had two adjoining double rooms. A bit on the smallish side, they nevertheless were quite comfortable, with recently renovated bathrooms. A small carafe of local liqueur provided a welcoming touch in each room.

One small drawback is that the cottages sit against the domaine’s wall, with a road on the other side. It is not a busy road, but any car driving on it in the middle of the night may wake up light sleepers.

There is a pool on a terrace in front of the château, but in October it was – not unreasonably – closed.

The lower level of the château is a nice restaurant, serving continental breakfast in the morning (cereals, juices, fruit, salami, various cheeses, boil-it-yourself eggs, pastry, tea, coffee). Breakfast cost is extra (€16 per day per adult, €8 per child). Dinner service is very good (see further below).

Location is convenient especially for Villandry-Azay-Uss#0233;-Chinon run, and not bad for many others. Tours is, obviously, just a few minutes away. Chambord, Cheverny, Chamount and Blois, on the other hand, are about an hour away. Last stay: 2007.

Château des Tertres ♥♥♥, another 19th century family castle, is in Onzain. If memory serves me right, the estate was just as nice (if smaller), the rooms – in the château itself – were more spacious, the view was as magnificent, and the breakfast was comparable. Children are not allowed at that hotel. The location is preferable for Amboise-Chenonceau and Blois, closer to Chambord (not significantly) but farther away from Villandry-Azay-Chinon triangle. Last stay: 2002.

Places to Eat

If you like French cuisine, it’s hard to go wrong in France. Walk into practically any place, and you are likely to leave satisfied. And for lunch, anyway, we would buy bread and pastries and eat on a bench in a square.

It should be noted that many eateries in this part of France emphasize menu-du-jour style of dining; you can select à la carte but that is hardly economical.

I will refrain from explicitly mentioning wine – we had great local varieties at every place that we went to. Same for cheese selection for dessert.

All places last visited in Fall 2007.

Restaurant L’Étape Gourmande ♥♥♥ is located on a farm about one kilometer from Villandry. Not a large room, with a stupendous open fireplace in the middle. Very cozy. Family owners are very nice, and the service is perfect. The food is out of this world: foie gras, terrine de chèvre, magret de canard, cochon. Very nice desserts. Several menu du jour options, all less than €25.

Auberge de Launay ♥♥ we remembered from our first visit to the area in 2002. It is located on N152 between Onzain and Amboise. The management changed in the intervening years, but the experience remained very positive. Excellent service. Great food, especially terrine of rabbit, quails and the chicken from kid’s menu. On a weekday, menu du jour is only €19, rising to €25 on a weekend.

Restaurant Le Cheval Blanc in Bléré ♥♥ is of more upscale variety and is located in the center of the village on a beautiful square. The service is beyond reproach. The portions are fine. But overall impression was slightly less positive than at the ones before. Maybe, because neither Natasha nor Becky could finish their côtes d’agneau, and I had to finish it for them after consuming my filet de boeuf. The desserts all came under a cupola of intertwined custard strings – very attractive. Inexpensive menu du jour was at €21, but the next choice was twice that.

Jean Bardet at Château Belmont in Tours is quite renowned. We did not expect it to be as expensive as it was, though (the menu is available online, we just goofed in blindly following someone’s advice). The service is positively recherche and the atmosphere is quite refined (although they still allow people to smoke in the restaurant, which eventually created a bit of a problem – as of February 2008 all smoking in restaurants will be prohibited in France). The food is indescribably good, especially minestrone de coquillages and some mix of potatoes, ham and foie gras. But!!! The prix-fixe menu (not a menu du jour, where you can select your courses, but a preset combination that worked only for my taste preferences, but not for anyone else in the family) was €60; there are two degustation menus – supposedly to be shared by more than one person – at over twice that. The cheapest appetizer on the à la carte menu is around €40 all by itself… I really liked the place, honest, but I cannot give it any endorsement at these prices; hence, no hearts.

In Langeais, we actually had lunch at a restaurant called Le Pont Levis ♥, right in front of the castle. Very reasonable. Special lunchtime menu (appetizer, main dish, dessert) – €13.

The restaurant at the Domaine de la Tortinière ♥♥ is quite sophisticated, and apparently used for professional banquets frequently (which is the only drawback, when you are looking for an intimate dinner date). The service is impeccable, the food delicious. It was also the only place where there was no limitation on how many different samples of cheese (out of two dozen or so varieties) I could select for dessert. Menu du jour €40.


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