The Loire River gives this valley its lifeline. It is the longest river in France (630 miles) and the last wild river in all of Europe. Once the stomping ground of French royalty, the Loire Valley in France is known for its wine, impressive châteaux (castles), and amazing gardens. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Loire is characterized by its rich cultural landscape illustrating the ideals of the Renaissance on Western European thought and architecture. Upon choosing the Loire as a World Heritage site in 2000, the committee said that the Loire is “an exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities and villages, great architectural monuments – the Châteaux – and lands that have been cultivated and shaped by centuries of interaction between local populations and their physical environment, in particular the Loire itself.”
The fertile and green river valley is dotted with many amazing and world-famous chateaux, including the Châteaux d’Amboise, de Villandry and Chenonceau. Although most known for the biggest and most impressive castles, the Loire is home to over 100 castles in total. When French Kings began building their castles in this lush river valley, nobles soon followed suit, not wanting to be far from the seat of power. After King Francois I shifted power back to Paris from the Loire in the 16th century, the Loire became a popular summer residence for Kings and nobles, who would escape to the rolling green hills and countryside for the summer months. Today, these castles serve as private homes, bed and breakfasts and major tourist sites. The largest and most impressive castles like Chenonceau and Chambord are owned by the national government and leave their doors open for visitors year-round.
Major Castles of the Loire Valley
Chateau de Chenonceau
This beautiful and iconic castle’s history is as interesting as this castle is beautiful. It was built on the River Cher on the site of an old mill sometime in the 11th century. However, the castle did not take its current shape until King Henry II gave the castle to his mistress Diane de Poitiers in 1547. It was Diane de Poitiers that built the arched bridge over the river and had the immense and impressive gardens built. Upon Henry II’s death, his wife, Catherine de Medici, seized the castle from Poitiers and made Chenonceau her own favorite Loire Valley residence. It was Medici who finished the grand gallery over the bridge across the river, which Chenonceau is known for today. The castle and its sprawling gardens are open to the public and after Versailles, it is the most visited chateau in France.
Chateau de Chambord
This immense castle is one of the Loire’s most recognizable due to its uniqe French Renaissance architecture that blends traditional medieval forms with classic Italian structures. The chateau was built by King Francois I to serve as a hunting lodge, who maintained his royal residences in nearby Chateau d’Amboise and Bhateau de Blois. Perhaps most famous in this castle is the unique and double helix staircase, which is rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci and the elaborately decorated roof line, which Froncois I wanted to look like the skyline of Constantinople.
This castle is built on a promontory overlooking the Loire River and served as the home and center of court for Kinf Francois I. The huge chateau also was the home of Gaston d’Oreleans (brother to King Louis XIII) and was used as a prison during the noble rebellion in France called the Fronde during King Louis XIV’s childhood.
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Chateau de Villandry
This castle was never the home to kings, but has some of the most impressive gardens in all of France. The Renaissance gardens are laid out in formal patterns with low box hedges and has an ornamental flower garden, water garden and vegetable garden.
>>Read more about the stunning castles of the Loire, which has lots more juicy pics, too.
The Loire Valley is world-famous for its many vineyards and excellent wines. In fact, the Loire is France’s third largest wine region and is the second largest region for sparkling wine (after Champagne). Visitors to the Loire Valley can seek out one (or more!) of the hundreds of both small and large wineries for tasting tours.
The cool climate of the Loire insures that the wines will always have a lean acidity that balances well with their fruit and alcohol. Although many Loire Valley wines age magnificently, most can be appreciated in their youth. They show their best qualities with food, and they possess enough flavor and body to stand up to almost all styles of cooking. These are not wines to be collected and displayed; they are wines to be enjoyed.
Visiting the Loire
The Loire Valley is the third most popular tourist destination in France after Paris and the Riviera. The ancient cities, famous châteaux and cathedrals, the unspoiled character of the Loire itself, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, and the fame of the vineyards attract large numbers of visitors all year.
Most of the historic cities of the Loire Valley lie along major train lines. Numerous trains from Paris — and several directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport — daily, including the high-speed TGV, make the trip in a few hours, and local trains provide convenient connections to smaller towns. Tickets can be booked in the United States at www.raileurope.com.
Visits to vineyards can be combined with trips to the châteaux and other sights of historic and cultural interest. The Loire Valley is excellent country for cycling and camping. Each region offers unique attractions.
There are several historic, beautiful and popular towns for tourists to visit in the region including Tours, Nantes, Amboise, Saumur, Blois, Orelans and Chinon.
The Loire is known for its mild climate year-round. It is known for its mild springs and autumns, tolerably chilly winters and hot, sunny summers. Highs in the summer usually average in the 80s and highs in the winter are usually in the mid-40s. The pleasant weather and beautiful fall foliage also makes the Loire an ideal place to visit in the autumn.
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