For centuries the Kings of France made the Loire Valley their royal playground, a favourite place to hunt, eat, drink and be very merry. With a mild climate, fertile soil that makes it the market garden of France and excellent wines, it’s no surprise that the lure of the Loire was irresistible. It still is, and Tours makes a great base for a weekend in the Loire Valley says Janine Marsh…
Every year Kings and queens and the nobility of France made their way from Paris to stay in their beautiful castles and create glorious gardens. They took with them beds, furniture, tableware, all the things that made life pleasant. In those days, items such as this were not so readily available and often had a huge price tag. King Francis 1, he who built the vast Renaissance chateau of Chambord, had so much baggage it took 12,000 horses to carry it all.
Thankfully many of those glorious chateaux survived the destruction of wars and the French Revolution and a whole new legion of fans of the Loire Valley came along and it became especially popular with Parisians since, as it never ceases to surprise me, you can hop on a train in the centre of Paris and alight in Tours, the gateway to the Loire Valley, not much more than an hour later.
Tours – at the heart of the Loire Valley
Tours is central to the UNESCO-listed (World Heritage of Humanity) Loire Valley with its majestic chateaux which give it the nickname ‘the valley of kings’. Surrounded by tranquil countryside, verdant vineyards, historic towns and charming villages, Tours itself is well worth a visit and makes a great base if you only have time for a weekend or short visit.
Within a radius of less than 30 miles are some of the Loire Valley’s most stunning castles – picturesque Chenonceau, and Clos Lucé where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his last years having ridden a donkey across the Alps from Italy, carrying his not quite finished Mona Lisa with him. And a stone’s throw away, Amboise is where da Vinci is laid to rest. Meanwhile Villandry has quite possibly the most marvellous gardens of the Loire, Ussé AKA the ‘sleeping beauty castle’ is magical. And then there’s the stunning Azay-le-Rideau set on its own little island, plus the nearby charming, less well-known Chateaux de l’Islette where the great sculpture Rodin stayed with his muse and lover Camille Claudelle, and Saché where Honoré de Balzac wrote some of his greatest works, often walking there from Tours, where he was born.
Those Summer nights
In the summer months, don’t miss the fabulous Guingette de Tours. Just a few minutes from the centre of the city, you’ll find it by the landmark Ferris Wheel. Nip down the big staircase and there you’ll enjoy a laid-back meal at possibly Tour’s most welcoming, and delicious, outdoor restaurant as you bask in the twinkling lights alongside the mighty Loire, France’s longest river. There’s something a bit magical about the guingette, the sort of place a grown up harry Potter would love. On summer nights, as the sky turns the colour of the ripest peaches you ever saw, the sun’s rays create a glittering kaleidoscope reflecting off silver disco balls, as birds swoop across the river and people tango with abandon with a dance teacher on hand to help novices. If that sounds all too energetic, simply pluck a book from the shelves and relax in one of the comfy chairs.
The food is outstanding. It’s happy food. You look around and people are smiling as they eat. Bursting with flavour, pesto, basil, the freshest and local products. The portions are generous, but you won’t want to miss a single mouthful! This bar and restaurant is perfect for a romantic night out, for solo travellers like me, for families and for friends.
This little piggy went to market
France excels when it comes to mouth-watering markets – but the one in Tours, known as the belly of Tours – stands out. It’s the place to go for fabulous fresh produce, from pastries to chocolate and cheese, vegetables, wine and a whole lot more. The covered market is absolutely delicious. I didn’t intend to spend a whole morning here but I was so transfixed by the displays and the produce, some of which I’ve never seen anywhere else – like Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese and pressed pears tapée (dried) tart – I couldn’t help myself.
History and culture
Visit the old town and wander the cobbled streets to admire the ancient half-timbered houses. Follow the historic Circuit Saint Martin in the footsteps of Saint Martin to discover the main monuments relating to the Roman officer who became Bishop of Tours. When he died in nearby Candes in November 397 AD, monks rowed his body to be interred in Tours and it was said that where they passed, flowers bloomed, trees grew leaves and birds sang giving rise to the French phrase St Martin’s Summer (in English Indian Summer). The pilgrimage of Tours is one of the oldest of Christendom.
There are several art venues and museums including the Musée du Compagnonnage which is extraordinary. Dedicated to trades guilds, it’s located in the former monks dormitory of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Julien (13th-18th century). UNESCO listed (Intangible Cultural Heritage) Compagnonnage dates back from the end of the Middle Ages, ”knighthood of the working class” George Sand called it). You’ll discover an impressive display of tools, engravings, woodwork and even a chateau made of sugar.
Stay at: Hotel de Cygne in the centre but in a quiet street, in one of oldest mansions in Tours. The renovated 18th century rooms are charming and have oodles of character.
Stay longer and take a fabulous tour by e-bike and discover the Loire Valley with Loire brakes
Tourist Office: touraineloirevalley.com
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