Once we can all begin traveling responsibly again, France is on many travelers’ must-visit list. French resident John Walton goes beyond the world-famous castles to reveal some of his favorite quieter spots in the Loire Valley.
Cycling between idyllic sun-kissed villages on the banks of France’s greatest river. Gazing upon the magnificence of many of its most opulent châteaux, and even staying in them overnight. Wandering some of the most beautiful French cities, with medieval Unesco-registered historic centers. Sampling many of France’s wonderful — and very reasonably priced — red, white and sparkling wines, and some of its most delicious cheeses.
That’s what you’ll find on the banks of la Loire, the longest river in France, and particularly in the middle Loire section that stretches from Angers to Nevers.
There’s a special place in my heart for the small honey-colored villages and bustling market towns behind the levéed banks of the Loire, from Saumur to Vouvray, Chinon to Sancerre — and it’s perhaps no surprise that all of these are home to fabulous French wines named for each town or village.
I love staying locally in chambres d’hôtes, the sort of French equivalent of a bed-and-breakfast that may also often include a wonderful home-cooked dinner, perhaps even around your host’s own dining table. Find these in a normal family home, a manor, or a château, which can be an extraordinarily good-value unique experience. I’ll always remember being shown upstairs to my room in one genteel but worn house by my host and remarking on a particularly impressive tapestry: “Ah yes,” he said offhandedly, “it’s a Gobelins.”
There’s something about tumbling sleepily down to a café au lait and croissants, still-warm bread with fresh French butter and, perhaps, some of the host’s homemade jams.
Once up and at ‘em, I’ll decide on a village or town to visit and arrive mid-morning — whether by local TER train or by the convenient Rémi bus network — perhaps scheduling a visit the local chateâu(x). Those at Beauregard, Chambord, Cheverny and Villesavin are served by a special €3-a-trip shuttlebus from Blois station on many (but not all) days from late March to early November, so plan accordingly and visit the more famous ones early before the tour buses arrive. food
Outside the castles, the towns and villages of the Loire Valley are mostly quiet, verging on sleepy, while Tours’ beautiful town center is a must-visit. Explore on foot or by bicycle, and be French with a long lunch, accompanied by local wines. Remember, much of regional France apart from restaurants closes down between noon and 2pm, so make the most of the pause and tantalize your tastebuds. But don’t be late: French restaurants will usually like to have you seated by 1pm, especially if you’re going for a tasting menu, and note that many are closed on Mondays.
My top tip for restaurant finding: for great value and true local flavor, look for one with a gaggle of the typical French vans belonging to painters, masons, gardeners and other artisan tradespeople outside, or high-visibility vests and work jackets slung over the back of chairs. Ask your host for their recommendations too.
Everyday lunchtime menus of the day (menu/formule du jour) in France are usually less expensive than dinner, and you can almost always get two or three of the daily starters (entrée), main courses (plat) and dessert (er, dessert) for under €20, wine and coffee included, as you while away the lunchtime.
If you splurge on a more gourmet menu, and you should at least once, always flip through the wine list with a map app to find something very local, and always take the cheese course.
For getting around, rental bikes are a great idea, whether you pick up one of the local share-bikes to browse around a larger town or city, or rent something a little more comfortable for longer rides. Your chambre d’hôtes may even lend you one without any extra charge.
Tours is just over an hour from Paris on a high-speed TGV, whether you take the low-cost Ouigo or regular TGV/inOui trains, and prices start from just €15. There are even direct TGV trains from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, and while the trains take nearly an extra hour to circumnavigate Paris, it’s a very convenient one-seat ride. Prices and timings are similar to Orléans on the older conventional rail trains.