In an age when compassion was seen as a sign of weakness, the man who would become the Bishop of Tours, in the heart of Touraine, took pity on a beggar, half-naked and shivering with cold outside the gates of Amiens. A centurion in the Roman army, the future Saint Martin ripped his cloak in two and gave half of it to the poor wretch. When he took holy orders, Martin did not seek personal advancement, and in 372 A.D. the town of Tours obtained his services only by trickery. Martin believed he was coming to the town to give the last rites to the wife of a friend but when he arrived, the citizens of Tours acclaimed him as their bishop and refused to let him leave. His remains are buried in a crypt under the modest basilica that bears his name.
Close to the basilica and the 12th century Cathédrale Saint Gatien, Place Plumereau marks the heart of old Tours. It has half-timbered houses and bustling cafés, usually good value because for much of the year their main clientele are students from the local university. Nearby is the delightful Parc des Prébendes d’Oé, an oasis of calm, with ancient trees and a lovely lake; at weekends concerts are given at the centre of the park.
There is no time to waste, however, for the dedicated shopper, as Tours can satisfy every fancy. The daily indoor market is the place to buy nougat, a local speciality, rillettes, a kind of pâté made from meat such as pork or rabbit, and géline de Touraine, a delicious local variety of chicken. Tours is known as the town of 30 markets. Outdoor markets are held in the Place des Halles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and in Place Velpeau on Sundays. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, too, you can buy flowers for your villa along the Boulevard Béranger, which is, after Grasse, the second largest flower market in France.
But this is châteaux country. For a taste of the delights to come, begin at the Mini-Château Park just east of Amboise, where 44 of the Loire châteaux have been recreated on a scale 25 to 1, including Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceau, Chinon and Amboise itself. The real thing, the royal Château, stands in the centre of the town. Unlike many of the Loire châteaux, which lie empty, the royal Château has a fine collection of furniture that helps to recapture its time as a royal palace. The ramparts offer a superb view of the old town, while the Chapelle Saint-Hubert houses the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo spent his final years at Amboise, residing until 1519 at Clos-Lucé, a château 500 metres from the royal Château royal. Clos-Lucé contains a number of imaginative tableaux featuring some of Leonardo’s futuristic inventions and theories.
Of all the great châteaux in Touraine, Chenonceau is unsurpassed. Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, is often wrongly credited with building its pièce de résistance, the arched gallery that spans the River Cher: in fact this was added in 1560 by her successor at Chenonceau, Catherine de Medici. They were both keen gardeners and the son et lumière event known as the ‘Enchanted Gardens’, held here every evening during July and August, is truly outstanding.
However, the finest gardens in Touraine are often thought to be at Villandry, whose château has no fewer than five: aromatic, ornamental, vegetable, water and finally the maze. Some however may prefer the gardens at the Château de La Chatonnière, whose nine terraces offer a superb view over the River Indre and the forest of Chinon. They include the Garden of Elegance, with dahlias, labyrinths and statues, the Garden of Senses, planted with 150 different scented perennials, and the Crescent of Wonder, consisting of thousands of gold and orange roses and red poppies.
The much grander château of Azay-le-Rideau lies close by. Built during the reign of François I, its elegant façades are reflected in the gentle waters of the Indre. Just a few kilometres away at Les Goupillières, you can see where much of the stone for the château was quarried and its limestone caves ingeniously turned into homes by peasant farmers.
The Indre meanders towards Loches. A heavily fortified medieval town, with a citadel towering above the western bank, and whose ruined keep is one of the tallest in France, Loches was once owned by Richard the Lionheart. Lost by his unpopular successor, King John, Loches became a royal residence for the French monarchy and was noted in the reign of Charles VII for its wild and debauched parties. The Wednesday market at Loches is probably the best in the département.
The hugely imposing ramparts of the Château de Chinon, 400 metres in length, high on a hill above the River Vienne, contain a fine collection of tapestries but otherwise disappointing ruins. However it was here in April 1429, in the Grande Salle of the château, that the 18-year-old Joan of Arc persuaded the future Charles VII to allow her to take command of the French army on its way to relieve Orléans, besieged by the English. The medieval town below the château has several cellars where you can taste the splendid Chinon wines. Basketware, the best local craftwork, can be bought more cheaply in the nearby village of Villaines-les-Rochers, where osier, shrubs cultivated for their supple branches, have been grown, harvested and prepared for more than 200 years.