There may be some eight million visitors to the Loire Valley every year, but few experience it quite like French writer and historian Gonzague Saint Bris. For eight days each summer, he and his family board a raft and sail down the Loire River. Along the way, they drink white wine and sleep on sandy islands. "The châteaus were meant to be seen from the water," he asserts. "You really get the best view from there."
The châteaus in question are very much the region's main draw. In total, there are more than a hundred. Some resemble forbidding medieval fortresses, while others display breathtaking finesse and beauty. A handful are immense and world-renowned. Several smaller ones have been transformed into hotels, offering guests the opportunity to live like nobility, if only for a few nights.
The labyrinthine Love Gardens at Château de Villandry.
It would be easy to spend a week exploring nothing but châteaus, but they are only one of the ingredients that make the Loire Valley so magical. "The rolling countryside, charming villages, and golden sunlight all seem to come together to conjure up the true essence of France," enthuses Timothy Corrigan, a Los Angeles–based decorator who has owned a nearby château for more than a decade. There are picturesque hilly towns like Amboise or Chinon, whose paved streets are lined with both august mansions and quaint half-timbered facades. There is also one of the largest concentrations of troglodytic dwellings in Europe, as well as a 500-mile wine route, the longest in France.
Vineyards have existed in the region since at least the first century A.D. Thanks to a series of microclimates, the Loire Valley today produces an astonishing array of wines: reds, whites, and rosés; sweet, sparkling, and dry. They may not win the same international acclaim as wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, but there are treasures to be found. White lovers should keep an eye out for the deliciously expressive Rémus from the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis-sur-Loire.
The spiral staircase in the courtyard of Château de Chambord.
Of course, where there is good wine, there is often good food. Regional specialties include rillettes, a pâté-like meat spread; a log-shaped goat cheese called Sainte-Maure de Touraine; and a black chicken known as géline de Touraine. Restaurants run the gamut from rustic taverns and inventive neo-bistros to Michelin-starred eateries. Many of the best can be found in hotels, like the stellar Domaine des Hauts de Loire or the wonderfully convivial Auberge du Bon Laboureur in Chenonceaux.
Officially, the Loire Valley extends nearly 175 miles from Orléans in the east to Angers in the west. Its heart, however, is the stretch between Blois and Saumur, and its nerve center is the town of Tours, which served as the capital of France between 1450 and 1550 (today it can be reached in little more than an hour via high-speed train from Paris). As Corrigan notes, "Aside from Paris, no other place in France is as steeped in cultural heritage and history." Joan of Arc met King Charles VII of France in Chinon, Richard the Lionheart was buried at the majestic Abbaye de Fontevraud, and Leonardo da Vinci crossed the Alps by mule and spent the last three years of his life at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. Nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac, meanwhile, would regularly take refuge from his creditors at the Château de Saché, which today houses a museum in his honor.
The Château de Noizay hotel.
Of all the châteaus, three stand out. Chambord is the most visited, most imposing, and most prestigious, with 426 rooms, 77 staircases, and 282 chimneys. "Its architecture is completely insane," remarks Flore de Brantes, a Brussels-based antiques dealer brought up in the region. It was commissioned as a hunting lodge by François I, who spent only about 40 days there, and it was later frequented by Louis XIV, who organized the premiere of Molière's comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in its keep. In contrast, Chenonceau is the most picturesque and romantic, with a 200-foot-long, triple-height gallery perched atop five arches spanning the Cher River. Villandry, meanwhile, owes its reputation to mind-bogglingly beautiful gardens, in particular the geometric Ornamental Kitchen Garden, featuring 40 different vegetable varieties arranged by form and color.
A guest room in the Château de Verrières.
The passionate Saint Bris also recommends visiting some of the "delicious, small châteaus," like Villesavin, Réaux, and Rivau. Yet, no place is closer to his heart than Clos Lucé, where he was raised. Da Vinci arrived there at the age of 64 and spent his time sketching engineering and architectural projects, as well as organizing extravagant parties for his benefactor, François I. Now open to the public, it has a number of the great man's quotes posted on its walls, one of which reads: "A well-spent day brings happy sleep." If that's true, then a trip to the Loire Valley is a fail-safe guarantee of nocturnal bliss.
Château de Chenonceau spanning the Cher River.
The country code is 33.
Take to the air. A wonderful way to view the area's châteaus is from the skies. Air Touraine (airtouraine.fr) offers helicopter and hot-air balloon rides.
Think green. France's most creative garden festival is held from April to October at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire (domaine-chaumont.fr); this year's guests include designer Patrick Jouin. Horticulture fans should also check out Château de la Bourdaisière (labourdaisiere.com)—its tomato conservatory holds 650 varieties.
Go underground. Many of the area's ancient cave dwellings are now home to guesthouses, wine cellars, and museums. To see how they were once inhabited, visit the subterranean farms and chapel at the Rochemenier Troglodytic Village (troglodyte.fr).
Catherine de Medici's chamber at Château de Blois.
Abbaye de Fontevraud, Fontevraud l'Abbaye; 2-41-51-73-52; abbayedefontevraud.com: This majestic 12th-century abbey served as a prison from 1804 to 1963. Check out the polychrome tombs of the Plantagenet dynasty in the breathtakingly beautiful church, as well as the playful installation by artist Vincent Lamoureux.
Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, Azay-le-Rideau; 2-47-45-42-04; azay-le-rideau.monuments-nationaux.fr: Perched on a small island on the Indre River, this picture-postcard château combines both French and Italian architectural styles.
Château de Blois, Blois; 2-54-90-33-33; chateaude blois.fr: Highlights include the François I staircase in the courtyard and the stunning polychrome interiors. One wing houses a fine arts museum with paintings by Boucher and Ingres.
Château de Chambord, Chambord; 2-54-50-40-00; chambord.org: Admire the famous double-helix staircase and head up to the roof to marvel at the intricacy of the chimneys and take in the sprawling grounds, which are the size of Paris.
Château de Chenonceau, Chenonceaux; 2-47-23-90-07; chenonceau.com: This most enchanting of châteaus was inhabited by Catherine de Medici. Today it draws crowds not just for its architectural beauty, but also for its fine collection of 16th-century Flemish tapestries.
Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise; 2-47-57-00-73; vinci-closluce.com: A royal residence for 200 years, this is where da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. A guided tour takes in his bedroom and a chapel with frescoes painted by his disciples.
Château et Jardins de Villandry, Villandry; 2-47-50-02-09; chateauvillandry.fr: Home to some of the most awe-inspiring gardens in Europe, including the celebrated geometric vegetable gardens and a horticultural maze.
Château Royal d'Amboise, Amboise; 2-47-57-00-98; chateau-amboise.com: The 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine praised the view of the Loire from this château's terrace. Da Vinci's remains are interred in its chapel.
The antiques shop of Richard Gabillet.
Château de Noizay, Promenade de Waulsort, Noizay; 2-47-52-11-01; chateaudenoizay.com: Housed in a secluded 16th-century château, this hotel sets the standard with its bucolic views and 19 elegant, individually furnished rooms.
Château de Reignac, 19 Rue Louis de Barberin, Reignac-sur-Indre; 2-47-94-14-10; lechateaudereignac.com: The former residence of the Marquis de Lafayette offers 13 soberly chic rooms. The Fersen suite, with its bath lodged in the tower, is a particular favorite with newlyweds.
Château de Rochecotte, 43 Rue Dorothée de Dino, Saint Patrice; 2-47-96-16-16; chateau-de-rochecotte.fr: This 37-room hotel occupies a château once owned by the niece of wily diplomat and prime minister Talleyrand, and is surrounded by a pretty 50-acre park.
Château de Verrières, 53 Rue d'Alsace, Saumur; 2-41-38-05-15; chateau-verrieres.com: A sensitively decorated and enthusiastically run Napoleon III–style town mansion.
Domaine de la Tortinière, 10 Route de Ballan, Veigné; 2-47-34-35-00; tortiniere.com: Located in a small 19th-century château, this flawless establishment exudes charm and intimacy. A rowboat is offered for excursions on the Indre River.
Le Manoir Les Minimes, 34 Quai Charles Guinot, Amboise; 2-47-30-40-40; manoirlesminimes.com: Eleven rooms in an elegant 18th-century manor house, as well as an additional four in a garden pavilion.
The Château de Rochecotte hotel.
L'Auberge du Bon Laboureur, 6 Rue Bretonneau, Chenonceaux; 2-47-23-90-02; bonlaboureur.com: An admirable inn restaurant highly praised by locals. The food is impeccable, the setting cozy, and the service outstanding.
Barju, 15 Rue du Changé, Tours; 2-47-64-91-12; barju.fr: A superb modern bistro with dishes that combine finesse and originality. Be sure to try the sea bass cooked on a hot stone.
Domaine des Hauts de Loire, 79 Rue Gilbert Navard, Onzain; 2-54-20-72-57; domainehautsloire.com: This terrific two-Michelin-star dining room is at the heart of a luxury hotel.
Les Hautes Roches, 86 Quai de la Loire, Rochecorbon; 2-47-52-88-88; leshautesroches.com: Recommended for its excellent wine menu and bird's-eye view of the Loire.
Restaurant Olivier Arlot–La Chancelière, 1 Place des Marronniers, Montbazon; 2-47-26-00-67; lachanceliere.fr: A Michelin-starred eatery offering subtly innovative dishes, run by a young chef who trained at Taillevent in Paris.
The cloisters at Abbaye de Fontevraud.
L'Angle des Délices, 22 Rue de la Tonnellé, Saumur; 2-41-52-97-57: A one-stop shop for regional gastronomic specialties, such as wine biscuits and Combier orange liqueur.
Bigot, Place du Château, Amboise; 2-47-57-04-46; bigot-amboise.com: This chocolate and pastry shop has served local confections since 1913.
Château de Targé, Chemin de Targé, Parnay; 2-41-38-11-50; chateaudetarge.com: This picturesque vineyard offers not only a suave red called Quintessence, but also a direct delivery service to 34 U.S. states.
Hélène Stéfanica, 24 Rue Victor Hérault, Vouvray; 2-47-52-77-07; helenestefanica.blogspot.com: Exquisitely delicate ceramics.
Richard Gabillet Antiques, 27 Rue Emile Zola, Tours; 2-47-64-28-77; : This antiques dealer has a space devoted to 20th-century design by the likes of Olivier Mourgue and Marc Held; another holds 18th- and 19th-century furnishings.
Vinci Cave, 1 bis Quai des Violettes, Amboise; 2-47-23-41-52; vinci-cave.fr: Located on the banks of the Loire, this winegrowers' cooperative is a good place to stock up on a few bottles.
Château Royal d'Amboise.