If the mythical horn of plenty had to be made tangible, it would probably end up looking a lot like the Loire Valley in France. This ridiculously bountiful region straddles the banks of the Loire River from Saint-Nazaire in the west to Briare in the east and is known for its abundant vineyards, verdant fruit orchards, picture-perfect riverside towns and exceptional wines – basically everything you’d imagine a real live fairy tale kingdom to excel at.
The Loire is one of those universally adored destinations that feature on our tours of France, which is why we thought we’d share some insider info about how best to spend 24 hours in this spectacular valley. Without further ado, let us introduce you to the ever so beautiful Vallee de la Loire …
Visit as many castles as you possibly can
Of course, just to cement its reputation as being the location that inspired the almost the entire Disney princess repertoire, the Loire Valley is filled to the rafters with castles of all shapes and sizes. We’re talking everything from crumbling châteaux cloaked in centuries-old vines to picturesque palaces that beckon from beyond manicured gardens. The sheer variety is truly astounding, so see how many of these gorgeous structures you can fit on your itinerary. If you’re pressed for time and keen to tick of the highlights, try to squeeze in at least Château de Chambord, Château de Chenonceau and Cathédrale de Notre dame Chartres – the latter of which is a remarkably well-preserved 12th century cathedral with a mysterious pavement labyrinth at its core…
Stop to smell the roses & gaze at gorgeous gardens
Affectionately known as ‘the garden of France’, the Loire Valley is the happy heir of historical gardens that remained after the great 17th century Renaissance gardening frenzy that broke loose during the reign of Louis XIV. At the time, it was all the rage to create astonishingly intricate gardens with everything from symmetrical and geometric planting beds, canals and terraces, stairways and ramps, cascades and fountains, monumental labyrinths and over-the-top statues. In short, the French created an entirely new gardening style and the Loire Valley has preserved some of the best examples that can be seen today – it’s mesmerising.
But it’s not only the French Renaissance gardens that make a splash. The Loire has everything from Oriental gardens, to ancient rose gardens, vegetable gardens and medicinal gardens. Our top picks include Jardins du Château de Villandry, the gardens at Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, Château de la Bourdaisière and Château de Beauregard – the latter of which boasts a garden that has been divided into 12 squares, each corresponding in colour and texture to the ambience of one of the 17th century portraits that grace the walls of château!
Top tip: The Rendez-vous aux Jardins garden festival takes place each year at the beginning of June and offers visitors the opportunity to venture into the Loire Valley’s most spectacular gardens, some of which are not open to the public for the rest of the year.
Eat, drink & be astonished at Loire Valley cuisine
We’ve already established that the French are foodie geniuses, so it follows that the Loire Valley food and wine offering would definitely be something to write home about, repeatedly and in incredible detail at that. Add to their innate French flair for cooking a great abundance of fresh local produce, talented farm-to-fork artists and some of the world’s foremost Michelin-awarded restaurants, and it’s easy to see why mealtimes become a long, lingering affair in this valley.
Your best bet is to avoid clearly ‘touristy’ eateries, and opt for small, local holes-in-the-wall where you can drink in the singular ambience of the region while you tuck into something delicious. As for must-taste Loire Valley staples, we highly recommend Fouée, a wood-fired bread with a texture akin to brioche; pork rillettes, a shredded, textured pâté; freshwater fish in a beurre blanc; and a selection of Loire Valley cheeses, e.g. an ash-dusted Selles-sur-Cher, creamy Sainte-Maure or Crottin de Chavignol, which goes marvellously with a nice icy cold Sancerre.
Which brings us to Loire Valley wine, which is (surprise, surprise!) exceptional. The region has many talented winemakers and we do recommend that you at least make a point of sampling a multi-faceted Chinon, temperamental St-Nicolas de Bourgueil, tantalising pétillant Vouvray or refreshing Muscadet before you call it a day.
The Loire Valley is a treat for all the senses. So stop pretending you don’t want to play princes and princesses in a fairy tale kingdom and just book your ticket already!