Getting Oriented

The Loire Valley, which pretty much splits France in two, has been heavily traveled through the ages—once by power-hungry armies and peaceful Santiago pilgrims, now by Bordeaux-bound TGV trains. Yet it retains a relaxing backwater feel that mirrors the river's languid, meandering flow. Tours is the main gateway to the region, not only for its central position but because the TGV links it with Paris in little more than an hour. Angers (at the west end of the valley) and Orléans (at the east end) are also well connected to the capital by train. Coming to the Loire by rail and renting a car on arrival in any one of these three cities will save you the hassle of Paris traffic, while still letting you enjoy the flexibility of a châteaux driving tour.

  • The Eastern Loire Valley. East from Tours, strung like precious gems along the peaceful Loire, royal and near-royal châteaux are among the most celebrated sights in France. From magical Chenonceau—improbably suspended above the River Cher—to mighty Chambord, with its 440 rooms, to Amboise (where Leonardo da Vinci breathed his last), this architectural conveyor belt moves up along the southern bank to deposit you at Orléans, burnished to old-world splendor with its pedestrian-only centre ville historique. (It was here that Joan of Arc had her most rousing successes against the English.) Heading back to Tours on the northern bank, you'll discover the immense palace at Blois and some of the best hotels in the region.
  • Central and Western Loire Valley. Get your fairy-tale fix by castle-hopping among the most beautiful châteaux in France, from Villandry's fabled gardens to Ussé, which seems to levitate over the unicorn-haunted Forest of Chinon. From the Renaissance jewel of Azay-le-Rideau, continue west to Chinon for a dip in the Middle Ages along its Rue Haute St-Maurice—a pop-up illuminated manuscript. Continue time traveling at the 12th-century royal abbey of Fontevraud, resting place of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Then fast-forward to the 15th century at Saumur’s storybook castle and Angers's brooding fortress.

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