The lure of the Loire: where to stay, eat, drink and more - Halong Junk Cruises

The lure of the Loire: where to stay, eat, drink and more

Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord. Photograph: Ludovic Letot

Originating in the rugged central Ardèche region of France and emptying into the Atlantic near the shipbuilding port of Saint Nazaire, the 1,000km-long Loire river is as French as the Mississippi is American. This is the river the French love best: for the soft green beauty of the regions it waters and because it has so profoundly shaped their culture and identity. The constellation of magnificent chateaux found in the Loire valley has stoked the world’s romantic imagination, making the area between Orléans and Angers one of the most storied and visited destinations in France.

Beyond their beauty, the chateaux of the Loire are an acute expression of the region’s history, too. During the middle ages, fortified seigneurial residences were the focal points around which towns and villages grew. During the hundred years war between the French and the English the Loire valley was a frontier zone, so many castles transformed into fortresses. When peace came during the mid-15th century, they were remodelled as pleasure palaces for the aristocracy.

Besides castles and spectacular scenery, several lively towns and cities, each with their own charms, add appeal – from Nantes, a thriving cultural hub in the west, to the ancient cathedral town of Tours, the main town in the valley, and Angers with its busy nightlife.


The final 500km of the Loire, between Sancerre and Nantes, also measure out one of the great wine regions of France, producing a delicious complement to the region’s gastronomic credentials. The Loire valley is often referred to as the garden of France too, thanks to the superb produce – top restaurants in Paris get their fresh ingredients here. Colourful markets grace most towns (the daily one in Tours is worth a stop), with everything from rich, varied charcuterie to speciality cheeses – try Sainte Maure de Touraine, a popular crumbly goat’s cheese.

The gateways to the region are Nantes and Tours, which have international airports served by easyJet, Flybe and CityJet from various UK airports. Trains run from London St Pancras to Tours, Angers and Nantes, via Paris (raileurope.co.uk), with local services to towns in the area on TER SNCF (ter-sncf.com).

Once there it pays to hire a car, but cycling is a great way to explore too. Loire a Velo (cyclingloire.com) is an 800km signposted trail which runs from Cuffy (near Nevers) to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins (close to Saint-Nazaire). There’s a handy app to help you plan a visit, and bike hire is easy to come by in most towns.

Chateaux

Loire Valley, Azay le Rideau Castle
The castle at Azay-le-Rideau
Photograph: Alamy

At every turn in the road, it seems, a magical chateau appears. More than 100 are open to the public, but it’s best to focus on a few. Sixteenth-century Azay-le-Rideau is a fairytale castle, with its turrets and moat (adults ¤8.50, under 18s free; azay-le-rideau.monuments-nationaux.fr). The vast Château of Blois, located in the middle of the town, has been frequently remodelled, with buildings dating from the 13th to the 17th centuries dotted around the courtyard. The sound and light show is impressive (adults ¤9.80, ages 6-17, ¤5; chateaudeblois.fr). Chambord, the largest of the Loire chateaux, is a white-limestone masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, begun by King Francois in 1519 and completed a century later by Louis XIV. Besides exploring the sumptuous interiors there’s everything from horse and carriage rides to boat hire available (adults ¤11, under 25s free; chambord.org). Chenonceau, spanning the Cher river, was built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet and embellished by Diane de Poitiers and then Catherine de Medici. Illuminated night walks in the summer make it extra special (adults ¤11, ages 7-18 ¤8.50 chenonceau.com). Exquisitely furnished with antiques, Cheverny is still inhabited by the latest generation of the noble family the Hurault de Vibrayes, who built it from 1624-1634 (adults ¤9.50, ages 7-25 ¤6.50 chateau-cheverny.fr).

Great gardens
Some of the chateaux gardens are destinations in their own right. Château de Villandry is a Renaissance building renowned for its small but exquisite art collection, and its gardens are considered to be among the best in the world. Restored by the Spanish nobleman Joachim Carvallo and his wealthy American wife, Anne Coleman, after they bought the property in 1906, there’s a maze, an ornamental garden with parterres planted in the form of symbols of love (fickle, tender, passionate and tragic love), and a spectacular potager, or vegetable garden (chateauvillandry.fr). Another appealing garden is the one at Château de la Bourdaisière. It was established by Prince Albert de Broglie in 1989, and he still cultivates over 400 varieties of heirloom tomatoes here, which are sold fresh and as preserves (labourdaisiere.com).

Wine tasting

Dawn light starts to fill the skies above the village and vineyards of Sanerre.
Dawn light starts to fill the skies above the village and vineyards of Sancerre.
Photograph: Alamy

Vine-covered slopes surround the valley, and while it may not be as well known as those of Bordeaux or Burgundy, the Loire produces some fine wines. There are countless opportunities for wine tasting at vineyards across the region, but a good place to start is at the Maisons des Vins de Loire in Nantes, Angers, Saumur and Tours. Here you can learn about all things winey, plan a route, and sample a wide selection (vinsvaldeloire.fr). Among the best-known quaffs from the region are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown around the villages of the same name, and Muscadet, also a white wine, made at the western end of the valley near Nantes.

There are other superb wines to be discovered in a region with more than 100 AOCs (appellation d’origine contrôlées) and IGPs (indication géographiques protégées). Wine buffs should check out Bourgueil, a red made from Cabernet Franc grapes, which is available at Domaine de la Chevalerie, a lovely family-run vineyard in Restigné in Chinon (+33 2 47 97 46 32, domainedelachevalerie.fr). For Vouvray, produced from Chenin Blanc grapes, head to Domaine Marc Bredif in the heart of the Touraine valley, where you can tour the caves and sample their wares (+33 2 47 52 50 07, deladoucette.net). Menetou-Salon is a village at the eastern end of the valley which has its own appellation. Try it at Domaine Philippe Gilbert (+ 33 2 48 66 65 90, domainephilippegilbert.fr). It’s always best to call ahead and check their opening hours, which are liable to change.

Where to eat

Auberge du Cheval Rouge
Auberge du Cheval Rouge

L’Aigle d’Or, Azay-le-Rideau
Jean Luc Fèvre’s delicate contemporary French cooking is proudly based on seasonal, regional produce. The prix-fixe menu offers value and a delicious choice of dishes, such as goat’s cheese tart garnished with cooked and raw vegetables, duckling glazed with strawberry vinegar, and roasted peaches with pistachio ice-cream.
10 Avenue Adélaïde Riche, +33 2 47 45 24 58, laigle-dor.fr. €30 prix-fixe menu

Auberge du Cheval Rouge, Chisseaux
After working at Le Meurice in Paris, young chef Jacques Guillaumat recently took over this auberge down the road from Chateau de Chenonceau, and has turned it into one of the best-value restaurants in the area for modern French cuisine. Expect dishes such as foie gras flan with Port gelee and Serrano ham, guinea hen breast with pasta with a garlic cream sauce, and yogurt souffle with apricot sorbet.
30 rue Nationale, +33 2 47 23 86 67, auberge-duchevalrouge.com. €29 prix-fixe menu

Café de la Promenade, Bourgueil
This relaxed and welcoming auberge in an old gasworks on the outskirts of the wine town of Bourgueil is a place the French would describe as having du gueule, or a lot of character. The delicious home cooking runs to generously garnished salads, freshly made tarte flambé and quiche, and a house speciality, the hambougueil, a juicy burger topped with sautéed foie gras and onions deglazed in Bourgueil wine. There is also a superb wine list.
1 avenue du Général de Gaulle, +33 2 47 95 10 87, cafedelapromenade.com. €30 a la carte, on average

Casse-Cailloux, Tours
Chef Hervé Chardonneau’s market-driven contemporary French menus are not only inventive and superbly well-cooked but excellent value for money. They change regularly, but run to dishes like a warm salad of white beans and mussels, steak in red-wine sauce with new potatoes, and runny chocolate tart with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream.
26 rue Jean Fouquet, +33 2 47 61 60 64, casse-cailloux.fr €30 prix-fixe dinner menu

Where to drink

Les Becs a Vin, Orleans, France
Les Becs à Vin, Orléans

Le Caravage, Loches
A rare outpost of big-city lounge-bar culture in the midst of the Loire valley, this well-run bar is popular with locals and travellers for its well-made cocktails and themed nights, which range from Cuban salsa, African-Caribbean and more, and attract visiting jazz musicians, guitarists and singers.
Porte des Cordeliers, +33 2 47 91 62 07, no website

Le Cercle Rouge, Angers
One of the friendliest and most popular wine bars in the Loire valley is a great place to sample limited-production vintages from the area’s new generation of natural (no sulphur) and organic winemakers. You’ll find many winemakers and importers in the crowd, too, and since the French almost never drink without a nibble, it also serves plates of charcuterie, cheese and richly flavoured homemade terrines and rillettes.
4 Rue des Deux Haies, + 33 2 41 87 49 66, no website.

Les Becs à Vin, Orléans
In the old quarter of Orléans, this vinophiles’ address leads a double life – it’s a bistro by day and a wine bar in the evening. One of the owners is Thierry Puzelat, one of the Loire valley’s best-known natural winemakers, and the winningly funky look and atmosphere is a reflection of the man and his winemaking style. All of the food served here is organic, including the rillons, succulent cubes of slow-roasted pork belly that are a speciality of the Touraine, and served at night.
8 Place du Châtelet, +33 9 65 16 64 09, becsavins.com

Where to stay

Le Fleuray Hotel & Restaurant, France
Hotel Le Fleuray, Amboise

Château de Chambord gîtes
Ideal for a family or a group of friends, the three newly opened gîtes on the estate of Chambord are not only among the most unusual lodgings in the Loire valley, they are great value too. The four-star rated “Cerf” and “Salamandre” both sleep eight in four bedrooms – two with queen beds, two with twin beds – and come with fully equipped kitchen, dining room, lounge and full bathrooms; the three-star La Gabillière sleeps six. Garden furniture and a barbecue are provided at all gîtes, but their real appeal is insider access to one of the great monuments of France – once the daytrippers have gone home you’ll have the site to yourself.
+33 2 54 50 40 00, chambord.org. High season: five-night (Mon-Fri) rental of Salamandre €890

Hotel Le Fleuray, Amboise
Created from several vintage farm buildings by a friendly Anglo-French family, this 24-room hotel offers a tranquil setting in the country just outside Amboise, and stylish comfort at very reasonable rates. The spacious rooms are named after flowers, decorated in traditional French style, and many have private terraces overlooking the gardens. There’s also a restaurant and heated outdoor swimming pool.
Cangey, Amboise, +33 2 47 56 09 25, lefleurayhotel.com. Doubles from €98

Le Grand Monarque, Azay-le-Rideau
Relaxing over a drink in the tree-shaded garden of this 25-room hotel (created from an 18th-century coaching inn and a mansion) is a pleasure after a day of cycling or touring, and the property is air-conditioned, too. The contrast between the creamy local tuffeau stone walls and beamed ceilings and contemporary furnishings create a French country chic, and there’s a cosy bar with a fireplace for autumn and winter travellers.
1 rue du Chateau, +33 2 47 45 40 08, legrandmonarque.com. Doubles from €77

Le Mouton, Blaison Gohier
Dutch owner Mirjam Ekkelboom created this homely five-room, riverside bed-and-breakfast in a village near Angers from a 17th-century longère (long house), which was once a tollhouse for boat traffic on the Loire. An outdoor swimming pool with hot tub, a boules court and a pitching green are available to all guests, and dinner can be provided by arrangement. There are also six summer-only gîtes, or independent tented units with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a porch.
Port de Vallée, +33 2 41 68 27 45, le-mouton.fr. Doubles from €110

Hotel la Roseraie, Chenonceaux
Everyone from Winston Churchill to a Rockefeller or two have stayed at this lovely old-fashioned French auberge, a creeper-covered 18th-century stone house converted into a 15-room hotel. Rooms are done up in chintz or toile de jouy, many have beamed ceilings, and all are en suite. There’s an outdoor pool (in season), a bar with wood-burning fire, and a good restaurant that serves big salads for lunch and a good-value €29 prix-fixe menu in the evening.
7 rue du Docteur Bretonneau, +33 2 47 23 90 09, hotel-chenonceau.com. Doubles from €60

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