One of France’s
most famous regions is the Loire Valley, the
former playground of the French monarchs, whose traces and grand
palaces attract many visitors today. The ‘centre’
of France from Chartres to Châteauroux
and from Tours to Bourges includes
the départements of Eure-et-Loir, Loiret,
Indre, Loir-et-Cher, Indre-et-Loire and Cher.
The Central Loire includes the famous Châteaux
country, perhaps the region most visited by foreign tourists to
France. Through it flows a part of the Loire River,
the longest river in France, and considered to be its most capricious,
often reducing to a mere trickle of water in a bed of sand. It
has been called a ‘useless’ great river, because it
drives no turbines or mill wheels and offers few navigable waterways.
The Cher is a quiet, slow-moving river, flowing
calmly through grassy meadows and mature forests. The château
of Chenonceaux stands quite literally on the river, a
working mill in the early medieval period when the Cher
flowed more vigorously, it was transformed into perhaps the most
graceful of all French châteaux, its court rooms running
clear from one bank to the other on a row of delicate arches.
Chenonceaux’s development owed much to a succession of beautiful
and powerful noblewomen, and its charm is of an undeniably feminine
nature. The Indre, a river of calm reflections.
Lilies abound and beautiful weeping willows sway on its banks.
The château at Azay-le-Rideau was designed
to make full use of these qualities and stands beside several
small man-made lakes, each reflecting a different aspect of the
château. Water is moved to and from the river and between
the lakes through a series of channels. The water gardens and
its reflections of the intricately carved exterior more than compensate
for the slightly dull interior. The Vienne is
essentially a broad stream. It glides gracefully beneath the weathered
walls of old Chinon, where several important
chapters in French history were acted out.
The château of Blois, which is, architecturally
speaking, one of the finest and is certainly the most interesting
in terms of history and stands in the centre of the ancient town
of the same name, towering over the battered stone houses clustered
beneath its walls.
Chambord, several miles south of the Loire,
is the most substantial of the great châteaux. Standing
in a moat in the centre of a vast lawn bordered by forests, the
body of the building possesses a majestic symmetry. In contrast,
the roofscape is a mixed jumble of eccentric chimneys and apartments.
Some have attributed the bizarre double-helix staircase to Leonardo
da Vinci. The five châteaux described above are
generally ranked highest amongst the Loire châteaux and
form the core of most of the organised tours. There are, of course,
dozens more that can be visited and it is even possible to stay
overnight in some of them. The Loire Valley is
very warm and crowded with tourists during the summer.
Besides châteaux, there is much else of interest in the
Loire Valley and surrounding areas. There are magnificent 13th-century
cathedrals in Chartres and Tours,
as well as abbeys and mansions and charming riverside towns and
villages. Other places of outstanding interest include Orléans,
famous for its associations with Jeanne d’Arc,
with a beautiful cathedral, the Musée des Beaux
Arts and 16th-century Hôtel de Ville,
and Bourges, a 15th-century town complete with
old houses, museums and the Cathedral of St-Étienne.
The charming little town of Loches, southeast
of Tours, has a fine château and an interesting
walled medieval quarter. It was in the heartland of the Touraine
that the true cuisine of France developed.