1 – River of dreams
The mighty river that gives the region its name stretches from its source in the Massif Central for over 1,000 kilometres to the Atlantic. Along the way, it meanders largely along a broad, flat valley through beautiful countryside, taking in sights as diverse as the hills of Sancerre to the city of Angers and some of the world’s most stunning châteaux.
2 – Garden of France
Thanks to its nutrition-giving qualities, the river makes the farmland flanking its gentle path perfect for growing produce. It’s for good reason that the Loire is known as the Garden of France, so any restaurant stop along the way will ensure the freshest fish (including river trout and pike), game, terrines, mushrooms and other vegetables on the menu. And then there’s the wine…
3 – Chenonceau
Perhaps the most stylish and refined of all the Loire châteaux, 16th-century Chenonceau is actually on the gently moving River Cher, and is a fine example of Renaissance design. Although the gardens are at their loveliest during the summer, try visiting off-peak to avoid the crowds.
4 – Chambord
François 1st called this his “little hunting lodge” apparently, but Chambord is anything but inglorious to the layman’s eye. It’s the Loire’s most famous and popular château and visitors are especially drawn to its famous double-helix staircase and its enormous and walled ‘game reserve’ garden.
5 – Châteaux heaven
While the big name châteaux like Blois, Saumur, Azay-le-Rideaux and Cheverny have no trouble attracting the hordes, head off the beaten tourist track to find some smaller gems. Some, like Beauregard, are more famous for their contents than architecture, while Le Plessis-Bourré north of Angers is a former fortress with full moat.
6 – Blooming marvellous
Green-fingered fans will not want to miss a trip to the Loire’s most famous gardens, of which Villandry – west of Tours – comes top of most people’s wishlist. Like an ever-changing tapestry, it alters each season around a Renaissance design. Tulips, roses and cabbages form part of the stunning garden layout in their respective seasons.
7 – Stained surprise
Of all the cathedrals in the region, Bourges’ 12th-century Cathédral St-Etienne is perhaps the most extraordinary A Gothic masterpiece, its flying buttresses are sublime, while the tympanum above the main entrance has a compelling carved Last Judgement. Inside, meanwhile, the stained glass windows around the choir are breathtaking in their richness of colour.
8 – Tours de force
The lively bourgeois town of Tours, with its elegantly wide 18th-century avenues, lovely public gardens and excellent shopping, is a must-visit. Art lovers will not want to miss the Musée des Beaux-Arts or the unusual museums, such as the Musée de Compagnonnage, which celebrates the work of the artisan thorughout history. Take in the sights and sounds of Place Plumereau, with its timbered houses and many cafés.
9 – Very vélo
The level plains of the Loire are perfect for cycling holidays, and what better sight imaginable en route than some of France’s best châteaux. Stop-offs for winetastings are, of course, obligatory. The ever expanding Loire à Vélo scheme is testament to the region’s commitment to vacances à vélo. See www.loire-a-velo.fr for more.
10 – Troglodyte towers
Back during the twelfth century, the Loire’s soft shellstone lent itself to the creation of lots of bizarre cave-dwellings in the area between Saumur and Angers. Many are open to visitors today, while some have now been converted to bars. Other caves are now used for the growing of champignons de Paris (button mushooms).