Loire Valley See And Do
Tel: 33 2 41 51 73 52
This important Romanesque abbey, founded in 1101 under the patronage of the Plantagenets, was ruled by a series of royal abbesses. After an interlude as a prison from 1804 to 1963, Fontevraud has emerged rather over-restored and pristine, but it is well worth seeing for the light-filled church, where you'll find effigies of King Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabelle of Angoulême (widow of King John of England). Also be sure to see the extraordinary 12th-century kitchen, with its conical roof and chimneys. The complex originally included four priories, one of which, Le Prieuré St. Lazare, now contains an excellent restaurant (33-2-41-51-73-16 , www.hotelfp-fontevraud.com, open late March through mid-November).
Open daily 10 am to 6 pm.
Amboise is, above all, a spectacular site. The immense château royal looms above the river right in the center of town, with its tiny Gothic chapel containing the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci (33-2-47-57-00-98; www.chateau-amboise.com). Part medieval fortress (witness the two massive round towers) and part Renaissance residence, the interiors run the gamut from the vaulted Gothic guard room to the plush chambers of Citizen-King Louis-Philippe. About a ten-minute walk up the hill is the town's other major sight, the Clos Lucé, a red brick manor where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years (33-2-47-57-00-73, www.vinci-closluce.com). It's since been converted into an exhibit of the artist's incredible inventions (helicopter, armored tank, and more), and full-size models constructed from his designs are scattered around the gardens (open April through October). The rest of the town is also pleasant, with its white stone and half-timbered houses, several fine hotels, and riverside promenade.
The cradle of the Plantagenet kings and former capital of the counts of Anjou is perhaps the most agreeable of the main Loire cities. It is dominated by its powerful castle, with 17 massive round towers, where the dainty white limestone of the Loire Valley alternates with thick black stripes of local schist (angers.monuments-nationaux.fr ). Within the ramparts, a special building houses the town's star sight, the extraordinary 345-foot-long 14th-century Tapestry of the Apocalypse, a virtuoso medieval cartoon strip of the battle between good and evil. East of the castle in the tastefully restored old town, you'll find a Plantagenet cathedral, the Musée des Beaux-Arts (housed in a striking former abbey), and plenty of upscale shopping.
Rue de Pineau
Tel: 33 2 47 45 42 04
The exquisite exteriorpure, turreted Renaissanceis one of the loveliest in the region. Built between 1518 and 1527 by financier Gilles Berthelot and then almost immediately confiscated by King François I, the château seems to rise out of the Indre River, a tributary of the Loire. The interiors are furnished according to different periodslook for the portraits of the assorted Valois kings who stayed here and some impressive French and Flemish tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries. But if you've done enough traipsing around echoing château rooms, then come at night (May through September), when the facades and grounds are spectacularly lit, making the visit particularly magical.
Tel: 33 2 54 50 40 00
François I's 440-room "hunting lodge" is the largest of the Loire châteaux and one of the most extravagant commissions of its age. From the outset of construction in 1519, the original patron's principal objective was to outshine the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the results are impressive. The castle's uncompromising design even involved diverting the Cosson River. A highlight of the building is the double helix staircasethought to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinciwhich can be climbed by one person and descended by another without the two ever meeting each other. Don't miss the rooftop walk, where you can look down on the parkland below amid a forest of ornate chimney pots.
Tel: 33 2 47 23 90 07
Stretching across the Cher River, 21 miles southeast of Tours, the Château de Chenonceaux is indisputably the most beautiful and the most photographed of all the Renaissance châteaux. During World War II, the river marked the boundary between free and occupied France, so the château and its drawbridge became an important escape route. Its history has been dominated by powerful women: The original design was supervised by Catherine Briçonnet, then added to by Diane de Poitiers (mistress of Henri II) and, later, Catherine de' Medici (widow of Henri II), who turned what had been simply a bridge across the Cher into the 197-foot-long Grande Galerie. During the French Revolution, the château was saved from ruin by George Sand's grandmother. Since the early 20th century, it has belonged to the Menier family, manufacturers of the superior cooking chocolate.
Tel: 33 2 47 50 02 09
Even if fancy gardens aren't your thing, the grounds of this 16th-century château in tiny Villandry are well worth a visit. When Spanish-American couple Joachim Carvallo and Ann Coleman designed the gardens a century ago, their masterstroke was to re-create the formal Renaissance gardens they found in old engravings, but to do it with vegetables. Nine squares, bordered by espaliered apple trees, drooping pear bushes, and standard roses (which symbolize the monks who once tended the first medieval kitchen gardens), are a vegetal feast of big purple cabbages, autumn pumpkins, mounds of celery, and colorful bell peppers, all replanted twice a year with a brilliant eye for the colors of the changing seasons. You can also visit the inside of the château, but it's not nearly as remarkable as the grounds.
Tel: 33 2 54 90 33 32
All six kings of the 16th century spent time at Blois. In the early 17th century, the castle was given to Louis XIII's brother to keep him away from Paris. Consisting of four wings dating from four different periods, much of the château can be visited, from its oldest part, the 13th-century assembly hall, to the flamboyant Gothic east wing of Louis XII and the Italianate north wing of François I, where the pseudo-Renaissance interiors have just been painstakingly restored.
Open daily 9 am to 6 pm, late March through September, and 9 am to 12:30 pm and 2 to 5:30 pm, October through March.
Tel: 33 2 54 20 99 22
The Chaumont Garden Festival stands out from other garden festivals, in that it is as much for design buffs as garden ones. Each year, more than 25 international landscape designers, gardeners, artists, and architects are chosen according to a theme (for example, weeds, water, vegetables, and games), and the resulting designs are often wildly experimental. Over the years, participants have included L.A.'s Morphosis; botanist Patrick Blanc, who developed his vertical vegetal walls here; and theater directors Macha Makeïeff and Jérôme Deschamps. The Château de Chaumont, an intimate turreted affair, is also open to the public.
Open end of April through mid-October.
Wines are said to have been cultivated in the Loire since before Roman times, but it was fourth-century Saint Martin of Tours who took time out from evangelizing to teach the locals how to prune their vines. Today the wine region is vast, taking in over 60 appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOC), 49 of them in the heart of the region Anjou-Saumur-Touraine. Touring the vineyards and tasting the wines in situ, often in picturesque old cellars, is a great way to see the region and understand the French notion of terroirthe idea that soil type, geology, climate, and local know-how are as important as grape variety. For example, the dry, sweet, and sparkling whites of Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire, east of Tours, and the superb, more mineral flinty whites of Savennières, just west of Angers, are all produced from the same chenin blanc grape. The area also produces fine reds, including full-bodied Chinon and Saumur-Champigny, lighter Cheverny, and fruity St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. A well-indicated Route des Vignobles du Val de Loire runs through the principal vineyards. Consult the Web site www.vinsvaldeloire.fr for information on wine producers and cooperatives that are open to the public for tastings and sales, as well as wine museums and hiking trails, or visit the Maisons du Vin, such as the Maison du Vin de Saumur (Quai Lucien Gautier, Saumur).