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LOIRE VALLEY  - THE GARDEN OF FRANCE

A typical medieval facade, seen in many towns and villages of the Loire Valley Reg Butler discoveres that  a Loire Valley holiday seems very close to England, both in location and history.

Regrettably at school I always closed my ears when the history master started droning about the Plantaganets. 

But our courier on an 8-day WA Shearings coach tour, spread a refresher course over the week, directly related to the sites we visited. Mike, the driver, was equally well informed, having specialised in French tours for twenty years.

For deeper background I relied on Michelin's Green Guide to Chateaux of the Loire, ticking off the ones we did. Otherwise it can be hard to remember which chateau was which.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Ask your travel agent about the range of coach tours. Cost of the Loire Valley tour is between £389 and £447 according to season. Or contact WA Shearings direct, phone: 01492 824 824. 

The Michelin Green Guide to Chateaux of the Loire costs £12. or £9.99 plus postage from Amazon

Michelin regional map number 518 covers from Paris to the heart of the Loire country.

Loire Valley brochures and information are available from French Government Tourist Office, Lincoln House, 300 High Holborn, London WC1V 7JH. Tel: 09068 244 123 (60p a minute).

Further information is also available from the Loire Valley tourist Board

Travelsphere escorted holidays

 

Memory can fade into a general blur of parklands and conical turrets, watch-towers and fortified gateways, broad staircases and narrow spiral stone steps. But every chateau offers something different. 

Year on year, tour itineraries can vary. The hotel choice for our trip was the 3-star, 30-room Hotel Bellevue at Montrichard. That's a charming medieval village on the River Cher, with some photogenic 15th and 16th facades typical of the period. 

Included in the tour is a full-day excursion to the chateaux of Chenonceau - only a few miles from Montrichard - and Villandry.

Chateau of Chenonceau - the gallery extension across the river CherFor sheer delight, Chenonceau takes some beating. From 1512 onwards this elegant chateau was created and modified by a sequence of royal wives, mistresses or queens. The main input came from Catherine de' Medici who extended a magnificent two-storey gallery over a bridge across the River Cher. Superb!

The grounds also feature a new wax museum, showing the women who built or improved the chateau, including Catherine de Bri‡onnet, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de' Medici, Mary Stuart, Loise de Lorraine, Madame Dupin and Madame Pelouze. The sumptuous collection of costumes were reproduced according to genuine documents.

It all helps bring the past to life.

Villandry, completed around 1536, was the last of the great Renaissance-style chateaux built along the Loire. It is most famous for an ornamental kitchen garden - a cabbage patch de luxe with 85,000 plants of forty vegetable species. 

Ten full-time gardeners also have 125,000 flower plants to hand-weed, and box hedges to trim, with complete replanting of the three-acre garden twice a year.

The Loire Valley has been known since medieval times as the Garden of France, rich with fruit, flowers, cereal crops and vineyards.

So of course we visited a wine cellar and sampled the range of dry, sparkling, medium and sweet white wines. Very close to Montrichard are chalk quarries, which have been converted into wine cellars or caves for the growing of mushrooms.

A characteristic of the region is the use of troglodyte caves for quite modern dwellings with a glorious river view.

The main road between Chenonceau and Villandry skirts the principal regional town of Tours, which can be explored in leisured style thanks to an optional train tour. Top favourite for visitors is Place Plumereau, the pedestrianised centre of Old Tours. 

One side of the square is lined with medieval half-timbered houses with decorative brickwork between the timber frames. Place Plumereau is entirely occupied by restaurants, cafes and open-air seating under umbrellas. 

Just around the corner the Leonardo da Vinci restaurant had everything: timber framing, decorative bricks, a bust of Leonardo and flowers on the window-sill.

A popular holidaymaker theory is that food on holidays has no calories. So there are ample opportunities to enjoy a tour of the Gateaux of the Loire - cream or chocolate cakes, macaroons and fruit tarts - without adding to the waistline count. 

12th-century kitchen chimneys at Fontevraud AbbeyOptional excursions may change, depending on the courier-driver's estimate on what the clients will prefer. One afternoon we visited Fontevraud Abbey where England's Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son Richard Lionheart are buried, along with the hearts of King John and Henry III. 

The 12-page Visitor Guide outlined the Plantaganet family tree. But I confess to finding much more interest in the fantastic architecture of the Abbey kitchen and its conical chimneys dating from 1160. 

Meanwhile, another included day's excursion visits Saumur: a compact "fairy-tale" castle, perfect setting for a Walt Disney fantasy. 

On the top floor, timbered galleries in the form of an inverted ship's hull are the setting for a Horse Museum: a reminder that Saumur has been a cavalry garrison town since 1761. Horse-riding and tank displays are given by the Black Squadron at the end of every July. 

Within easy reach is Chinon castle - another sightseeing highlight with strong Plantagenet links. Mostly it was built by Henry who became King of England in 1154, but lost by King John in 1205. 

Most of Chinon is ruined. But you can stand within the former walls of the Great Hall where Joan of Arc fired up the French king in 1429 to boot out the English from their siege of Orleans. 

That town itself is visited on the outward journey. Orleans today is a commercial town, mainly involved in the sale of agricultural products and Loire valley wines. It's also regarded as a City of Roses, due to the number of market garden centres in the area. 

During the Hundred Years War, Orleans was of great strategic importance to the English army who beseiged the city, and were on the point of victory when the defenders were running out of food and water. 
Model of Leonardo da Vinci's helicopter design, with Clos-Luce manor house in the background
But then Joan of Arc led an attack in May 1429 to liberate Orleans. Now of course there are monuments to the Maid of Orleans all over France, but the first was erected in Orleans in 1502. Every year on May 8th a big festival with pageantry celebrates that historic battle. 

To break up the homeward journey, a stop is made in the heart of Paris for a final sightseeing bonus.

Consider these other coach options:

 

ANNECY - French coach touring by TGV train

COACH TOURING - Armchair travel of Europe.

RHINE - Enjoy a classic Rhine/Moselle cruise

SALZKAMMERGUT - Sounds of Music with salt

TYROL - by coach tour

HEBRIDES - Hopscotch to the Western Isles

IRELAND WEST COAST - Coach-touring the west

SCOTLAND-NORTH - tour from Dornoch 


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Loire (Cadogan Guides)  by Philippe Barbour - A heavyweight 500-page paperback for visitors who want to have a seriously in-depth guide to the Loire Valley.

Loire Valley (Eyewitness Travel Guides)  - A very well-illustrated guide with excellent cutaway maps that help you enjoy the best of the chateau country.

Michelin Green Guide - Chateaux of the Loire - the ultra reliable pocket guide, in the familiar green format for the pocket.


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