One of my favourite adventures from last year was Mike’s 30th Birthday trip to the Loire Valley over Easter. Beautiful castles, amazing French food and lots of wine – what more could you ask for in a 30th Birthday celebration?
The Loire Valley is located in central France and we visited the middle stretch of the valley , roughly between Blois and Saumur . The area is often referred to as the Garden of France due to the abundance of vineyards and farms which flourish on the banks of the Loire river. This area is also known for its historic towns and architecture, and as the playground of French royalty going back over the centuries.
Where to stay:
When planning our trip, we knew we only had four short days to explore the region, so we needed a base that had easy access to other towns and château that we wanted to see.
We debated between staying in Tours and Amboise given their central location. Tours is a lively university city, while Amboise is a charming town with a much smaller centre and a famous castle.
In the end, we ended up choosing Amboise as our base, and I was so glad we did! The town was so beautiful with plenty going on to keep us occupied and in the centre of an area that is filled with castles and other landmarks.
We also flew in and out of Tours and spent an afternoon in the city centre, and after seeing it first hand I knew we made the right choice. It felt much more industrial and cold vs. the charming and quiet and beautiful Amboise.
There are a few different hotel and apartments to rent in Amboise, but it is a small town, so best to book in advance to avoid being disappointed.We opted to stay in a charming 15th century cottage that had been home to the town’s swordsmith during the Renaissance period that we found on Airbnb, which was right in the centre of the town and steps away from the Amboise Castle.
Amboise was a treat to explore! Great restaurants for dinner in the evening (our favourite being Le Patio), with cute cafes and boutiques lining this chocolate box town.
Speaking of chocolate, don’t forget to check out the town’s historic and (in)famous chocolate shop, Bigot, if you ever visit. We were lucky to be visiting over Easter weekend, so there were lots of seasonal treats as well as the usual offerings!
Beautiful French pastries and chocolate line the entire shop floor, it was impossible to leave empty handed!
Châteaux to visit:
So much of the Loire Valley reflects the lavish royal past of France. There are hundreds of châteaux and palaces to explore along the Loire and Cher rivers.
Château at Amboise:
Château at Amboise is hard to miss as you drive into the town of Amboise. The Château has a position high above the Loire river, so its presence is obvious to you from quite a distance.
Once you make your way to the top of the town where the Château sits, there is lots to explore both inside and out.
The Château’s position also means there are great views of the town and Loire Valley below.
Château de Villandry:
Château de Villandry is a Renaissance château that is located at the heart of three levels of terraced gardens. It is also one of the last of the great Renaissance châteaux to have been built along the Loire River.
Although the Château is renowned its architecture, it is especially famous for its gardens. The gardens mix both flowers and vegetables in a harmonious checker-board design. The plants change season to season.
As we were vistiing Château de Villandry at the end of March, the gardens were not quite as impressive as they would have been in the summer months, but they still made for an excellent morning wander.
There is also a great cafe for lunch, La Doulce Terrasse, located just outside the Château grounds.
Château de Chenonceau:
Château de Chenonceau setting is breath taking, spanning across the Cher River. It is also surrounded by gardens on the adjacent terraces and river banks.
The Château has a great history, which only added to its impressive architecture and gardens.
For instance, the castle saw action during the First World War when it was used as a hospital, and in the Second World War when Chenonceau was a link (and escape route) between the Nazi occupied territory north of the Cher and the vichy zone to the south.
Château de Chaumont:
This squat Château was the favourite of our trip!
The Château de Chaumont is set among a landscaped park designed by Henri Duchêne. When we visited we took a picnic into the estate and essentially had the place to ourselves.
Chaumont is also currently hosting installations by contemporary artists and exhibitions by famous photographers.
Things to do:
Now, you might think Château touring is the only thing to do in the Loire Valley, but there is so much more!
Amboise Food Market:
One of the most popular markets in the Loire Valley. On a Sunday you will find the banks of the river Loire at Amboise fill up with stalls selling local fish, meat, bread, fruit & veg, cheese and flowers.
Mingle with the locals while picking up your groceries.
On Sunday the market is open 8 am to 2pm. There is also a smaller market every Friday 8am to 1pm.
This welcoming part of France has many different things going on no matter what time of year you decide to visit.
During our stay in Amboise, it happened to be at the same time as the Foire aux Vines Festival. A festival of wine held in the caves under the castle where local wine vendors brought their finest wine for sampling. At just 3 Euro for entry and a free glass, we could taste as much wine as we liked, but sadly not able to bring home our favourites in hand luggage!
This handy website lists out quite a few things that are going on. So make sure to have a look before you book your trip!
The Loire Valley is served by two international airports: Nantes and Tours. Nantes has more frequent flights from London, but Tours is better located for seeing the part of the Loire we wanted to see.
You have a few options for getting around to see all the Château you want to see. There is a railway that serves much of the region and many of the more popular Château. However, we found it much easier to drive and not be slave to any timetable.Parking was never an issue and it is easy to get around on the quiet roads.
Cycling is also a popular option, the Loire à Vélo, a 800km cycling trail, has signposted routes and easy terrain. Rental bike shops can be found in most every small town and at railway stations. Given Mike cannot ride a bike, however, this was not an option of for us!