From the moment you enter the looming portals of the great chateaux, your imagination takes over. Chambord, the mightiest of them all, was built as a hunting castle in the 16th century, by François I. You can join a horsedrawn carriage through the woods and muse on the hunter kings who enjoyed the chase on the very ground on which you ride, and marvel at the ingenuity of the lusty King François, who had a double twisted staircase built into his chateau solely to avoid awkward encounters -- between his wife and numerous mistresses -- on the way to bed.
The nearby chateau of Chenenceaux is probably the most famous in the world, a dreamy, creamy castle spanning the Cher River and surrounded by geometric-shaped gardens. Some chateaux are moated (in winter puzzled swans skate along the icy channels), others are now marooned in the reclaimed fields surrounding them. But all are different: Loches has an awesome collection of torture instruments in its shadowy cellars, Chaumont a creaky drawbridge and Villandry elaborate terraced gardens.
Today's Loire dwellers are acknowledged throughout France for their savoir vivre -- a 'knowing how to live' attitude they're happy to share with visitors. There are many auberges (guest- houses) scattered through the valley, most have simple dining rooms where weary travellers can feast on the local fare at the drop of an olive. The Luxury Travel Bible also recommends checking into one of the
chateaux that now provide the ultimate luxury accommodation in the area.
As most of the castles are within a baguette's throw of one other, we chose to stay in Tours and make daily mini road trips into the countryside. Tours is the great food and wine centre of the Loire, with a busy local market (Les Halles), countless boulangeries, patisseries and cafés, where you can buy terrines, local cheese and scented stone fruits for impromptu summer picnics. A walk through the cobbled streets lined with ancient wooden houses is obligatory, but don't linger too long -- the countryside awaits.
A one-day trip took us to the Bas-Vendomois, the Vallee du Loir, a lesser known region on a tributary of the Loire. Here you'll find the pretty village of Troo, a fine place to stop for a ravishing lunch of marinated local ham served with potatoes baked in salt, followed by a splendid pear tart. Or try the ash-coated goats' cheese of Sainte Maure, and the simple salads of tomatoes dressed with mint. Ambrosial. There's a minor chateau to visit too. At the nearby town of Vendome, be sure to take a stroll among the ancient cloisters and the grand Abbaye de Ia Trinite before venturing to the town's celebrated market.
Today's Loire dwellers are acknowledged throughout France for their savoir vivre -- a 'knowing how to live' attitude they're happy to share with visitors.
Next stop, Chamerolles, and its famous Perfume Museum. Housed in a dark stone building, the museum resembles an elderly alchemist's workroom; legions of bottles line up alongside mysterious scented oils and blocks of amber and frankincense, all eventually to be melded into heady perfumes. Then it's off to Cheverny, one of the rare Loire chateaux still in private hands. Like all French countryside aristocrats, the family are mad-keen hunters, so make sure you visit the kennels to see the hounds who wear dribbly, daft expressions. You'll also see the long trophy hail, lined wltn stag neacis, some or tnem hanging very low (mind that you don't tangle with an antler). It's a pretty chateau with a warmth generated by hundreds of years of family living, and is definitely worth the journey, or 'vaut Ic voyage', as they say in the splendid Michelin guides.
While the chateaux are the reason most tourists choose to visit the Loire Valley, there are many other attractions. In summer the fields are mesmerising: orderly meadows of yellow rape peppered with dazzling red poppies; vast stretches of sunflowers; regimented rows of vegetables planted in tiny gardens; and flowering fruit trees. In winter, the valley takes on a different guise: moody and grey and mysterious while the river sends up ghostly drifts of mist. The chateaux are wall-to-wall people in summer, yet virtually deserted in winter. Each season has its own seductions, but year-round, the Loire Valley is one of the most rewarding of all great travel adventures.
Bible insider says:
A frequent visitor to France our The Luxury Travel Bible correspondent Recommends eating tart tatin at the Hotel Tatin on the outskirts of Lamotte-Beuvron, where the tart of caramelised apples was invented accidently by the Tatin sisters, Stephanie and Caroline.
She also points out that there are three phrases you'll find yourself repeating ad infinitum in this beautiful part of the world .
ça dent bon! - That smells good
ça me plait beaucoup - I like it a lot
Je m'entiche de Ia Loire - I'm besotted with the Loire.
She particularly likes the last one.
Words:Jill Mullens. 30/3/10
Photos: © ATOUT FRANCE. Photographers: Jean-François Tripelon-Jarry, Léonard de Serres, Y. Wemaëre, Catherine Bibollet