Living in the Loire Valley of France is like living in the midst of an abandoned fairy tale. Though the knights on horseback and the feuding kings of medieval times are long gone, the shadows they left behind conjure the magic of days gone by. You’ll find yourself constantly amazed at the enchanting villages you discover. Quiet lanes, scarce of inhabitants, ancient buildings and awe inspiring churches are virtually unaffected by modern times.
Looking at the flowing waters of the Loire River today, devoid of its merchant vessels, it is hard to believe that it was once a bustling center of commerce. To understand this, you must first know that the Loire River is the longest river in France. It spans some 629 miles or 1012 kilometers. The origin of the river is high in the mountain range of the Central Massif in southeastern France. The river flows north to Orleans then west to the Bay of Biscay in St Nazaire on France’s Atlantic coast. This river was the main route of transportation until the early nineteenth century.
Because the river became so crowded with travelers, a medieval toll system was created. Boats chained to the banks, and to each other, would create a barrier across the Loire only allowing those who paid the toll to progress on their journey downstream.
Alain, who grew up on the river, tells many stories of life on the Loire. He takes voyagers on Loire river sailings aboard a replica of a sand barge that he built himself. He explains that the river was once called “Le Route du Sel” because it was used to transport the most precious of cargos, salt. In ancient times salt was bartered for goods and used as if it were money. The flat bottomed, wooden sand barges were built in Orleans. As well as salt and other goods, large mounds of sand taken from the river, needed for construction, would also be loaded onto these boats upstream.
The sailors would make the eight day journey downriver to Nantes. There in port, the boats were unloaded and dismantled and the wood used in the construction of housing. Why wouldn’t they sail back up the river? Due to the fast water current, the journey could take as long as three months and relying solely on the finicky wind to power the canvas sails! So, instead, the sailors would use horseback to return to Orleans to begin their river journey, once again, downstream.
One of the most amazing facts about the Loire is that it is a wild “living river”. Because its base is constantly shifting sand, a motorized pilot boat must navigate the river twice daily to move buoys that mark the deepest paths of the river to prevent mostly pleasure boats from running aground. Swimming in the turbulent river is very dangerous and not recommended. The presence of ‘quick sand’ is a very real possibility. In the winter, the rushing water frequently overflows it banks and floods the ancient bordering villages.
The fertile and lush Loire Valley is aptly called “The Garden of France” because it produces the bulk of the fruits and vegetables grown here thanks to the waters of the river keeping the soil watered and lush.
The Loire River is our connection from the times past to the times present. The market towns, the 1000 chateaux and the vineyards that line the river are the remnants that remain today ready to be discovered and enjoyed.