Dozens of châteaux dot this verdant river valley southwest of Paris, a region that UNESCO designated a World Heritage site for its cultural monuments that “illustrate to an exceptional degree the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment on western European thought and design.” The most famous of its castles is perhaps the Château de Chambord, constructed in the 16th century as a “hunting lodge” for King François I. Other Loire towns such as Amboise, Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur and Tours possess châteaux of equal splendor.
The region is also celebrated for its superb white wines, with appellations such as Sancerre, Saumur and Touraine among the best known. The most notable red is the Cabernet Franc-based Chinon. The Loire is at its best in June and September, when the crowds are thinner and the gardens are in full bloom.
Destinations for Gardeners
Since 1989, Prince Louis Albert de Broglie’s garden of heirloom tomatoes — more than 700 varieties in all — and 400 variations of dahlias at the Château de la Bourdaisière (25 Rue de la Bourdaisière, Montlouis-sur-Loire) has become a mandatory destination for gardeners during the summer. There is also a shop on the grounds that sells the prince’s well-known line of garden tools and accessories under the name Le Prince Jardinier, a teahouse and a micro-farm.
Another favorite horticultural destination is the Château de Villandry (3 Rue Principale, Villandry), where vast Renaissance gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges. They include a maze; ornamental parterres planted in symbols intended to express fickle love, tender love, passionate love and tragic love; and a spectacular potager, or vegetable garden.
A Cycling Adventure
A wonderful addition to the Loire Valley is the 500-mile Loire à Vélo cycling route linking the small town of Cuffy to Saint-Brévin-les-Pins. It winds along scenic riverbanks and sandy beaches, through charming villages and peaceful countryside, and past renowned castles. The paths are well-marked, safe and level. There are also more than 400 guest accommodations, accredited with the French Accueil Vélo label, along the route that are tailored to the needs of cyclists.
Cointreau, an orange-flavored liqueur, has been distilled in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou since the late 1800s. It is drunk as an aperitif, a digestif or as a component of many well-known cocktails, including margaritas and cosmopolitans. A tour of the Carré Cointreau (2 Boulevard des Bretonnières) distillery and museum makes a fascinating stop between visits to the region’s many châteaux. Mixology classes are offered on a regular basis but book up quickly, so plan in advance. Tours by appointment only. Closed Sunday and Monday.