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The Allure of the Loire

By Amy Lively Jensen

The Loire Valley is considered by many as one of the most memorable places to visit in France. The scenery in this 175-mile valley is gorgeous, with quaint cities on the Loire River crisscrossed by smaller rivers and rolling hills. It is home to more than 1000 enchanting castles and palaces that are an expression of the region’s history. Loire Valley is known as the Garden of France with its many vineyards, parks, and gardens. Famous locals Leonardo da Vinci and Joan of Arc are idolized here. In the plethora of museums, you can see artwork from Monet to the world’s largest tapestry. The unforgettable wines of the Loire Valley range from sparkling Vouvrays to vibrant Sancerres; they are especially renowned for their white wines. In addition to wine, the area is known for Cointreau which originated here.

Among the fascinating cities in the Loire, I chose four to highlight: Angers, Tours, Orléans, and Amboise. These are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

We were based in the thriving city of Angers, which is both medieval and contemporary. Our first stop was the impressive 13th century fortress, the Angers Castle. With 17 towers set into ramparts, it is the largest fortress in the Loire Valley. It offers a stunning overlook of the Maine River, and you can also get a sweeping birds-eye view of the city from the parapet. The ramparts hide a lovely garden, chapel, and Royal Residence. The Angers Castle is home to the famous Apocalypse Tapestry, the world’s largest medieval tapestry spanning 460 feet. Woven in 1375, it is made entirely of wool and depicts the struggle between good and evil as written in the Book of Revelations. I was amazed at how intricate the scenes were; if you didn’t know their history, you might think they were paintings. Before you set off to explore the rest of the city, pop in at Anjou Wines to sample the local vintages-red, white, rosé and sparkling.

Most of Angers’ historical and cultural sites are situated in its centre, within walking distance of one another. Following a blue line painted on the pavement which guides your two-mile trail of Old Town, you will come to the 12th century Cathedral of Maurice. The grand entrance is suited for a triumphal processional. The twin spirals and gold altar are impressive, but the stained-glass windows steal the show. With vibrant colors, they are exquisite.

Along the route, stone fountains, a painted carousel, breezy outdoor bars and restaurants, museums and historical buildings mingle among the pleasant streets. Some 40 half-timbered houses have survived. Throughout the city you can stroll through many parks and gardens, including 200-year-old Arboretum Park with 4300 types of trees. On our visit, a musician’s guitar playing along with the burbling of a stream enhanced the joy of the beautiful flowers. Also, riverside cycle paths and boat and kayak trips are fun outdoor activities in Angers.

Just 10 minutes by car from the city centre, Terra Botanica is Europe’s only theme park dedicated to plants. Tropical, water, Japanese and various climate zone gardens appeal to adults, and it also has family activities. Play areas, high rope walks in the woods, amber mining, and boat and train rides keep the children happy. You can even soar 500 feet up in a tethered balloon to look down on the colorful gardens, lakes, and glasshouses.

Angers is the birthplace of Cointreau, an orange flavored liqueur which you can taste at many restaurants and bars, or as you tour the famous Cointreau factory. You can also pair your Cointreau with the local specialty fricassee de poulet a l’angevine made of chicken, onions, mushrooms, cream and Anjou wine. Another popular dish is pike or perch with a delicate beurre blanc sauce or sometimes, a prune sauce. For your sweet tooth, sample Cremet d’Anjou, a dessert made of whipped cream topped with berries or Quernons d'Ardoise which are delicious blue chocolates that are crispy on the inside.

Saved from the English siege by Joan of Arc in 1429, Orléans’ citizens have gone to great lengths to keep this heroine’s memory alive. You can find scenes of her life depicted in stained glass, along with a statue of her sitting tall on a horse in the heart of the city, and a recreation of her timbered house. Small gold discs on the ground show her path when she freed the city. Naturally, there is a road named after her, and even a La Johannique beer, a local white brew with honey and spice that pays homage to Joan of Arc’s fiery personality.

The Cathedrale Sainte-Croix adorns the central city square. It’s the place where Joan of Arc celebrated her first victory, and the stained-glass windows inside depict the story of her efforts. The sheer majesty and scale of the church make it remarkable. Its Gothic beauty has similarities to Notre Dame Cathedral. In the evening its façade and two imposing towers are lit up, adding to the beauty.

Right next door to the Cathedral is the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Here you’ll find an impressive collection of paintings by renowned artists like Picasso and Gaugin. There is also a contemporary Art Museum and several other museums of interest.

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The true beauty of Orléans is by the banks of the Loire River. There is a gorgeous path on the riverside to enjoy a stroll or settle on a bench to admire the scenery. The area is a common stop for migratory birds, so you’re able to see dozens of species in just a single glance.

Tours is the largest city in the Loire Valley region, full of cultural sites, good food and shopping galore.

You’ll want to make your way through Vieux Tours, the medieval district in the city. Here you’ll see remarkably restored buildings, especially the half-timbered houses and renaissance mansions. Condemned for demolition in the middle of the 20th century, this “Old City of Tours” was rescued and renovated to become one of the favorite parts of the city. You’ll find plenty of small cafes and bars tucked away as you stroll through the district.

It would be a shame to visit Tours and not go to one of the abundant chateaux. Tours is touted as a gateway for these sensational pieces of French royal or noble heritage. One of the finest is Château de Villandry. Built in 1532, this monumental chateau has been carefully renovated to its former glory with original furniture and beautiful paintings. But the star attraction is its superlative gardens. With all the picturesque beauty of the area, it would be hard to think that anything manmade could top nature. In this case, it comes very close. There’s a water garden, labyrinth, sun garden, and ornamental garden. The most remarkable is the formal medieval kitchen garden.

Tours is famous for its markets; if you’re at a loss for gift ideas, these markets are stocked with all the best products of the region. Every Sunday, 180 vendors display their wares Marché Velpeau. There is even a saffron market and seasonal truffle market. The city’s indoor market, Les Halles de Tours is a food-lover’s heaven. You may want your camera because the cheese, charcuterie, seafood and in-season fruit and vegetable counters are presented with real flair.

Tours is one of France’s chocolate capitals. The traditional French dark chocolate is the least sweetened chocolate in the world. They use less butter, cream and sugar in their chocolates so French chocolate is less fattening! Other food specialties you’ll enjoy include rillettes (fatty, shredded meat that are a great afternoon snack when spread on a baguette). Try their excellent cheeses made of full-fat goat’s milk, and the local cheese, Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. It is known for its cylindrical shape and the straw that pierces through the center. Don’t leave without trying nougats de Tours, a cake made from sweet dough, almond paste, candied fruit, and apricot jam.

Tours is part of the third largest wine region of France. You’ll relish sipping on Vouvray or Chinon rosé which are ideal on a hot summer day. Don’t forget to sample the much-beloved Syrah.

On your sightseeing list should be the Tours Cathedral. Building began in 1170 and wasn’t completed for 400 years. The original 13th century stained-glass windows seem to generate their own light. At Musée des Beaux-Arts you can see sculptures by Rodin, paintings by Rembrandt, Monet and Degas and 1000 other artworks.

One suggestion for a lovely time in Tours is a toue river cruise. Because the waterways can get very shallow in this section of the Loire River, flat-bottomed sailboats are used. Called “toues”, they can carry between 12 and 30 passengers. Choose from hour-long trips, or even a romantic dinner cruise.

The quiet little town of Amboise is well known for its most famous resident, Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian genius retired here in 1516, where he devoted himself to perfecting his inventions. He arrived with his favorite paintings, including the Mona Lisa. He settled in the Château du Clos-Luce, a plush palace of French royalty where he spent the last three years of his life. The Château is very well preserved, and today it serves as the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. You can see his bedroom, study, and workshop. The gardens contain 40 full-size models of his engineering inventions, such as a tank, parachute, and bicycle. The topiaries and views from the grounds are stunning. Also, there is a new art exhibition gallery that you shouldn’t miss.

Another DaVinci site is the Château Royal d’Amboise, which he partially designed and is buried in the Château’s lacy, petite chapel. It also has wonderful gardens, where you can overlook Old Town Amboise and the Loire.

The troglodyte cave-dwellings of Ambroise were created in the 11th century after widespread quarrying produced cavities in the cliffs.

People lived in the caves until the start of the 20th century. Some have brightly painted front doors, windows, shutters, and flower boxes. You can have a unique dining experience in the troglodyte caves at La Cave Aux Fouees.

This chronicle of four cities in the Loire Valley gives you an idea of why UNESCO listed the Loire as one of the most fascinating places to visit in France. There are many other storybook villages that are treasures to see. This was my first visit to the area; I was enchanted. You will be, too.

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