The valley of the Loire, the longest river in France, has been the retreat of French kings as they repaired from their lives of luxury in Paris. The magnificent châteaux they built along the river and its tributaries, the Indre, Vienne, Cher, and Loir attract visitors from around the world to contemplate their graceful contours and Renaissance interiors. One of the most beautiful of these is Chenonceaux, on the Cher, with its arcaded gallery flung over the peacefully flowing river. Azay-le-Rideau, on the Indre, was described by Balzac as a “facetted diamond”, and turreted Chambord began life as an elegant hunting lodge for François I. At Villandry, just downriver from Tours, the English-style formal gardens are world-famous.
Saumur, in the Maine-et-Loire, is dominated by its 14th century château, and has been home to the French Cavalry Academy since 1763. A fine local vintage, Saumur Champigny, is just one of many excellent wines produced in the Loire region, along with Sancerre, the delicious white Vouvray, and the very fine red wines Chinon and Bourgueil. The dry white wines of Anjou are excellent, especially Savennières, can be laid down for years.
Le Mans is of course famous for its 24-hour motor race, and Orléans is the birthplace of Jeanne d’Arc, France’s patron saint, canonized in 1920 presumably for services against the English. Each spring the town celebrates her memory with days of pageants, culminating in a grand ‘son-et-lumière’ in front of the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix, one of France’s lesser-known Gothic cathedrals, but one of the largest and most beautiful.