By Quentin Sadler
The Loire Valley encapsulates everything I think of when daydreaming about La Belle France. As Ratty said, ‘there is nothing – absolutely nothing, half so worth doing as – simply messing about in boats!’ As a confirmed landlubber of course I stretch the principle somewhat to include messing around near boats. Life always seems more pleasurable and peaceful near a river and the Loire is one of the most tranquil and picturesque rivers that I have ever seen. It meanders through gorgeous places and seems to cast a spell over all of them. Buildings that would seem quite ordinary elsewhere, exude an enticing charm. Luckily a great many of them are cafés and restaurants whose gardens and terraces provide tranquil views of the Loire or one of its many tributaries.
Think of the Loire Valley and it isn’t long before castles spring to mind, there are over 80 châteaux here and they are key to the region’s image. In fact they were the main reason that UNESCO gave the Loire Valley World Heritage status in 2000. They range from true medieval defensive structures like the wonderful castles at Angers and Chinon to the more flamboyant 17th Century confections, such as Château de Cheverny that was Hergés inspiration for Marlinspike Hall in his Tintin books.
Make sure you see Château de Chenonceau, it is simply breathtaking. This exquisite building acts as a bridge that spans the River Cher not far from Vouvray. The gardens, complete with a maze, are equally lovely and they have a couple of restaurants and a wine cellar if you need some refreshment. Equally sublime is the early renaissance Château Azay-le-Rideau near Chinon.
Strolling through the narrow lanes and bustling squares of Anger’s old town is time well spent, and make sure you take a tour round the castle that dominates this attractive city. Once home to Catherine de Medici and where the future Duke of Wellington received his military education, the harsh defensive exterior does not prepare you for the haven of peace inside. It is a delightful place complete with rampart walk, gardens, orchards and even a small vineyard. Most famously though, it houses the incredible Apocalypse Tapestry which really is one of the jewels of early French culture. As you might imagine, Angers is heaving with eateries, but Mets & Vins is both a stylish restaurant and excellent wine shop. It has no wine list, instead you browse the shelves and see what takes your fancy.
Leaving Angers, head south to where the Maine and Loire rivers meet. The river is wide here and there are lots of islands which add to that sense of tranquillity. Savennières is a good place to explore before finding lunch in a traditional Guinguette, which is a casual riverside restaurant, often looking like a riverside beach bar. My favourite is La Croisette which is on the river bank on an island in the Loire, make sure you try the local speciality of sandre, a fish known as Pike-Perch in English.
From here it’s fun to follow the Layon River as it winds through the beautiful villages of Anjou and the Coteaux du Layon. The village of Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay houses the Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur which is well worth a visit. If hunger strikes then head for La Table de la Bergerie. This delightful modern restaurant is set amongst vines in the middle of the countryside, making it a magical place to sit outside and enjoy your aperitif.
Nearby is the village of Louresse-Rochemenier, which is fascinating with its troglodyte dwellings cut into the tuffeau cliff face. In the past this stone was excavated and used to build the châteaux and wealthy towns of the region. In turn, the local poor moved in to the holes left behind and they were lived in until the 1930s. Many such caves are also used as cellars as they provide perfect conditions to age wines.
Next, head up to Brissac-Quincé on the banks of the Aubance, this attractive town has the remarkable Château de Brissac at its heart and it’s a delight in every way. The gardens are beautiful, while the building is now a fascinating museum and boasts that it is the ‘tallest castle’ in France as it is has sections from the 17th century built on top of a medieval castle.
Returning to the River Loire itself, Saumur is a must see town on the south bank of the river. Everything is built out of the local honey coloured tuffeau stone and many of the buildings are magnificent, especially the City Hall and the imposing Château de Saumur. Saumur is a great food town too, with an amazing array of places to eat, try Le Gambetta or Le Carrousel for a treat, or one of the many bistrots by the river. In addition, try not to leave town before you have experienced Gerard Girardeau’s superb charcuterie and wine shop, it really is one of the very best.
A little way south east is the village of Souzay-Champigny. Champigny itself is a few kilometres south and lends its name to the Saumur-Champigny appellation which produces some of the best red wines of Saumur. It’s a sleepy little place, but worth a visit for more of those troglodyte houses.
Carry on east and you come to the Touraine area, whose vineyards include Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil and Chinon. Bourgueil is pretty and a joy to explore, with a 10th century abbey that is now a museum, a busy street market on Tuesday and a gastronomic market held in the medieval market hall every Saturday. If you have worked up appetite, La Rose de Pindare is a delightful restaurant serving local food and wine in the centre of the village.
Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is a very small place that is mainly worth visiting for the wine, but it does boast a giant wine bottle outside the church and the excellent Saint Nicolas Gourmand restaurant just across the road.
Not far away Chinon is one of the major towns of the Loire and a terrific place to visit. In fact the castle alone makes it worthwhile. This sits above the town and although it was the home of Richard 1 of England – he is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey – it was also where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once the mayor and Chinon still feels medieval with its narrow streets, gothic buildings and timber frame houses. The markets are on Thursdays and Sundays and there are restaurants galore, but I always choose Les Annees 30 and have never been disappointed. La Cave Voltaire is a superb wine shop that doubles up as a bar offering cheese and charcuterie, the focus is on organic and natural wines from small producers.
The Loire Valley is a hedonists’ paradise, with superb food and produce. There are six appellation controlée cheeses in the Loire and they are all made from goat’s milk, Valençay, Crottin de Chevignol, Chabichou du Poutou, Pouligny St. Pierre, Selles-sur-Cher and Sainte-Maure de Touraine. Legend has it that when the invading Arabs were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732 they left their goats behind. Whether that is true or not the cheeses are perfect with the local wines.
Charcuterie is important here too, especially rillettes, a soft, fatty pâté that tastes delicious. It is usually made from pork, but goose, duck, rabbit and even fish versions are available and while it is normally eaten with bread, rillettes are sometimes used to stuff unleavened bread to make a speciality called fouaces.
If all this makes you feel spoilt for choice, then don’t worry. There is beauty and there are delights wherever you look in the Loire Valley, the important thing is just to get there.
Dine in the magnificent caves at La Jarnoterie and a troglodye cave near Saumur. Enjoy superb wine tastings with 3D vingerons from Saumur, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil and Anjou. Take in the views of spectacular scenery and striking châteaux.