With fairy-tale castles and gardens, delicious cuisine, gorgeous weather and countless hidden secrets to discover, the Loire Valley is one of France’s hidden gems. The underdog in comparison to Paris, the Riviera, Champagne or Normandy, the Loire is the perfect holiday destination for families and young adventurers alike, looking for something slightly off the beaten track.
As the main focal point of the Loire Valley is its waterway, the best way to explore the secrets of this iconic river is to get on it. This could take the form of a delightfully laid-back river cruise or a little jolly in a rented boat. This way you can watch the scenery drift by before stopping at each fascinating little point of interest usually only the locals guides will know is worth a stop. From there, you can take a bike and rove inland a little bit to see the fascinating châteaus and cute towns that speckle the valley’s landscape.
Loire boasts over a hundred beautiful castles and châteaus, all with their own unique stories, charms and sights. Château de Chenonceau has to be seen simply for its stunning architecture, let alone its fabulous gardens, built over the water as a magnificent multi-arched bridge that has to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, if it’s strolling the lawns and smelling the flowers in the summer sun you’re after, Château de Cheverny is for you. In addition, the rather unique Château de Brézé, near Saumur,is mostly underground. A château upon a château, in Brézéyou can follow the trails and tunnels that make up a fascinating way of life as well as ingenious defensive works. If you think you group may not enjoy the delights of oil paintings, white plaster architecture and serene gardens, there’s sure to be a historical enactment, falconry show or even musketeer fencing tutorials to keep them occupied. If weird and wacky is more your cup of tea, a visit to Nantes will feed your imagination to bursting point. As well as being a beautiful medieval city on the river, the Machines of the Isle of Nantes is like a crazy steampunk parallel universe. Here, you can even ride a huge mechanical elephant, which has a sun deck and castle on its back, around the city as if it’s as normal as popping out for a baguette.
There are lots of towns and cities with great cultural and historical significance too. The port of St Nazaire specialises in huge cruise ship production nowadays but in 1942 was the scene of one of the British army’s most daring raids in history as they sabotaged the Nazis’ main U-boat docks. Many historical conflicts are spread over this region of France such as the famous battles of Poitiers, Tours and the siege of Orleans. Here, France’s heroine, the maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc changed the fortunes of the French during the Hundred Years War and became one of history’s first feminist icons.
All this history, battlefields, gardens and architecture sits on the backdrop of some of France’s most tranquil and idyllic scenery. Nicknamed the ‘Garden of France’, you’ll feel like you’ve fallen through a portal into J.R.R Tolkien’s Shire, especially when you see the troglodyte houses burrowed into the side of cliffs and caves. All this makes Loire the perfect place to have a casual bike ride away from the river to discover quiet villages where you can walk through the quaint weekend markets and sample the local delicacies fresh off the stall. Notable cuisine includes fresh fish with shallots and creamy sauce, a number of pâtés and cheeses, stored in the local caves, and tartetatin for desert with a host of regional wines to try as you watch the sun set down the water. If you’re feeling adventurous, Futuroscope theme park is about an hour away by car while Versailles, the châteaus to trump all others, is the same distance to the north.