Fairytale châteaux, wine, cheese and river life
Have you ever had a fantasy? No, not like that….rather the kind of fanciful notion where you’re a princess or a knight in a magnificent white castle with soaring turrets, grand galleries, fine tapestries, wide moats and romantic grounds? Welcome to France’s Loire Valley where your dreams are about to come true.
Here you’ll find not only 300 historic chateaux, but also traditional vineyards and wine cellars, beautiful Loire boats, and old-world towns with half-timbered houses. Spanning 280 kilometres along the Loire in central France, the region is reachable from Paris in a couple of hours making it super accessible and yet it feels like a world apart. It’s a land for feasting with a plethora of working farms offering cheese, saffron, snail, and mushroom tasting tours; Michelin starred restaurants and rustic eateries serving mouth-watering home-cooked fare.
Touraine Loire Valley is one of France’s top destinations, where life is enjoyed to the full at all times of the year. The biggest crowds are drawn during the warm summer months when the weather is at its dependable best and the queues are long. For a proper escape, we’d suggest a visit between October and March when holidaying families stay home and the coach trips have shut up shop. Autumn is beautiful in here the Loire, if occasionally frosty. Wildflowers still bloom and the colours along the river are stunning, shimmering as they turn from green to orange, before falling to form a leafy carpet. Winter and early spring remain pleasant if chilly. The coldest months can dip to 3 or 4°C with some morning fog. Nonetheless, walking or cycling in the crisp country air is a wonderful way to spend a day, ending with a hearty meal and a glass of Malbec (called Côt here) by a crackling log fire. You might choose to escape the chill in a stylish hotel spa or Turkish hamman. And of course, it’s the very best time to explore the chateaux in peace and for your princess to kiss her frog prince.
The Land of the Chateaux
From medieval fortresses to Renaissance palaces and hilltop castles, you’re spoilt for choice. The 15th century marks the beginning of the chateaux golden age as French royalty, tired from years of war, relaxed in the Loire Valley in their gilded finery. Lesser nobility followed and then over the years, wealthy celebrities jumped onto that bandwagon too. The result is that the whole valley is now recognised by UNESCO for its contribution to the historic, artistic, architectural and intellectual development of the nation. You can’t miss the biggest players of course, and low season is the best time to do so without the summer hoards. The top picks are huge Chambord built by François I as a mere hunting lodge; Château Amboise home to many royal children including Mary Stuart; and stunning Azay-le-Rideau built on an island in the River Indre. Don’t forget though to check out the smaller, often more fascinating sites like those at Chateaux de Moulin, de Chemery and de Fougères-sur-Bièvre.
The River Loire
The longest waterway in France, the river historically splits the country into north and south. It’s been a border during several wars and remains culturally and agriculturally significant. If you feel like you’re getting chateaux burn out, explore the river itself. The well-established “Loire à Vélo” trail takes in pretty towns and villages, vineyards and wineries. You can bring your own bikes or rent by the day or week. E-scooters and off-road Segways are another option. Take a boat ride in a traditional river vessel. Although mainly catering to the summer visitors, there are companies that operate throughout the year.