We asked the experts at Loire Brakes to tell us about some of their favourite places to visit in the Loire Valley. Their tours by e-bike take you to the prettiest chateaus, the most historic towns and villages and to off the beaten-track gems that most visitors never discover…
Azay le Rideau
The chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is a dreamy little castle that sits in the river Indre like a pearl in an oyster. Its pointy towers, turrets and tall roof give it a fairy tale air. Surrounded by a charming park in an enchanting village, Azay isn’t at the top of the list of the “Loire big Chateau” list but it should be! Enter via a bridge over the moat into the main courtyard and you’ll spot carved into the facade “F” for Francois, King Francois, the Renaissance King of France who’s love of the Renaissance style gave him that title. It wasn’t his castle but that of his financial ministers Gilles Berthelot who sadly for him was caught up in a financial scandal meaning he never got to live in his beautiful castle.
It is beautifully preserved with a vaulted kitchen, glorious stone staircase and lavishly furnished rooms. The town is well-worth a little detour with narrow cobbled streets and pretty little boutiques.
The town of Richelieu is a bit of a secret place and hardly known to visitors. Not far from the royal town of Chinon, Richelieu was build by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s Minister of State. He seemed to have more pressing matter than religion on his mind and, at that time as one of the most powerful men in the world, he planned Richelieu to be his capital, house his court and administration, close to a castle he was having built. It was the first planed new-town since the Romans. Incredibly he knocked down 9 important castles nearby so that they couldn’t compete with his, and to use the materials from them. Some parts remain of his magnificent palace which was destroyed after the French Revolution, and the town is pretty and well worth a visit.
The great Gothic fortress of Chinon was one of those that was partially destroyed by Richelieu. Even the great hall where Joan of Arc met with the Dauphin of France to tell him God has sent her to him to raise an army and save France. All that remains is the fire place. But thankfully there is enough left that you can see how astounding the castle atop a hill once was.
The town of Chinon is just lovely. It’s a happy place with old houses covered with climbing roses lining cobbled streets in the medieval district. A fabulous market is held each week in Place Jean d’Arc and there are lots of delicious foodie shops and excellent restaurants. (Read more about Chinon in our free magazine: magazine.thegoodlifefrance.com)
Famous for its mind-bogglingly beautiful gardens, the Renaissance style Chateau of Villandry is also gorgeous inside. The formal gardens are laid out over three terraced tiers. You don’t need to be a gardener to appreciate their stunning symmetry, like a painting that’s come to life. A mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers planted in a chequerboard plan with heart shaped beds surrounded by hedges that are crisply clipped to perfection.
This is another town that’s not that well-known and yet it’s fabulous! Melons grow on the hillsides along side the vines, and the weekly market is superb. The castle on top of a hill, surrounded by houses, is pickled in the past. It’s beautifully furnished and lavishly decorated with ostentatious fireplaces. Here Anne of Brittany married Charles VIII of France. She arrived for the big day with a huge luggage train carrying not only her wedding dress, but 160 sable furs. Her wedding chest is still in the castle.
The town of Saumur is fascinating for its history, it’s castle its famous horses, wine and mushrooms. The castle overlooks the town from the top of a hill and very majestic looking and has stupendous views over the town and countryside. Saumur’s Cavalry school was started in 1763. Napoleon called it the Cadre Noir and initiated black uniforms decorated with fold and curious two-cornered hats. The Cadre Noir is now part of the National Riding School. And the old buildings are now a cavalry museum with superb collections. Around Saumur the tufa (a type of limestone) cliffs are home to caves and tunnels where mushrooms are grown and wine is matured.
The Chateau d’Ussé is often called the “real sleeping-beauty castle” as the author of the tale of Sleeping Beauty, the French author Charles Perrault stayed there and is said to have based the story on the beautiful castle. See it for real and easy to see how this ravishing chateau could have inspired a fairy tale.
Chateau de Candé
In 1937 Wallace Simpson married her King in the Loire Valley. Well by then he Edward Windsor was no longer a king, he had abdicated the year before. Wallace stayed at the Chateau de Candé which was owned by friends of friends of hers. This castle was never built by or for royals but it is still magnificent. A wonderful collection inside includes some of Wallis Simpson’s wardrobe including a handbag with a little crown motif.
At Fontevraud Abbey there are remarkable stone effigies commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine of herself, her favourite son Richard the Lionheart, her husband Henry II, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of Eleanor’s younger son, King John. The biggest monastic centre in France, some of the buildings are now an arts and culture centre. But the Abbey remains an atmospheric and monumental masterpiece.
Château de l’Islette
At the pretty little Chateau Islette, not far from Azay-le-Rideau, the sculptor Rodin used the great hall as his workshop. Staying there with his muse and lover Camille Claudel, Rodin created his sculpture of the writer Balzac who came from Tours not far away. It’s the loveliest little chateau, and very romantic.
Loire Brake bike tours take you to the heart and soul of the Loire Valley. Find out more and book your tour at: loirebrakes.com