France: Centre Val Loire
The Loire River is the longest of France at 642 miles. It flows from the Massif Central, all the way to Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s watershed basin drains more than ⅕ of the country. It gives its name to 6 “departments” and is part of 2 of the 18 French Provinces. These 2 provinces were added to the World Heritage Sites list of UNESCO in 2000. The Province called Centre Val de Loire is famous for its chateaux and vineyards, and is highlighted here because of its great tourist attractions. It includes the vast plain of “La Beauce”, la Touraine et l’Orleanais in the vicinity of Tour and Orleans, the forests of the Sologne, and the gentle hills and valleys of the Berry. The Centre Val de Loire is bordered to the northwest by Normandy, to the north and east by Paris, Ile de France, and Burgundy, then to the south by the Limousin and Auvergne Regions.
There are six departments in Centre Val de Loire: the Eure & Loir with Chartres as its administrative center, the Loiret with Orleans, the Loir & Cher with Blois, the Cher with Bourges, the Indre & Loire with Tours, and the Indre with Chateauroux. All of these departments are also the names of rivers which are tributaries to the Loire.
La Beauce lies in the north and its nickname is “the breadbasket of France” due to its vast wheat fields stretching out to the horizon. This area was a source of inspiration for painters such as Millet and Van Gogh. Chartres is the capital of this agricultural region, and it has a Saturday farmers market that is worth a visit. The 13th century gothic Cathedral Notre Dame is an architectural jewel with its two towering spires, flying buttresses, extensive stain glass, and a mysterious labyrinth.
Le Berry was an independent country until 1101 when, despite disputes with England, the fief was sold to the crown of France. It joined France in 1360 under Jean de France, Duke of Berry, The population is largely of Celtic origin which is well represented in the local folklore.
Raising cattle, producing cheese, and wine (Sancerre) are the main agricultural products. The capital of Berry is Bourges, a beautiful medieval town which is worth visiting for its timbered houses, its unusual Gothic Cathedral (a Unesco World Heritage site), and the famous Jacques Coeur Palace, which was built by a very rich merchant who travelled to the Middle East and was also the treasurer of King Charles VII. It is part of the show “Les Nuits Lumiere”, a wonderful summer illuminations which takes place in the evenings between June and September.
Berry cuisine is basic and relies on local produce. Dishes are typically cooked over a low fire offering vegetable soups, pickled pork, and bread served with cream. Poulet en barbouille is chicken cooked in brandy and served with a sauce made from blood, cream, yolk, and chopped liver.
Wines come from Quincy, Sancerre and Reuilly; grapes are Sauvignon vines. La Brenne National Park is said to be one of France’s best kept secrets, and is a must see for those interested in botany and ornithology, More than 2,000 lakes and ponds attract migratory birds that stop there to reproduce. A huge variety of animals and plants occupy the many prairies, woods, marshland, reed beds and moors. As you enjoy the trails and roads of the park you will find pond turtles, purple herons, orchids, black-necked grebes, ducks, Eurasian bitterns and dragonflies.
This beautiful town built along the Loire river is the largest city of the Centre Val de Loire, and is famous for its bright white tufa buildings roofed with black blue slates, called “ardoise”. The old town lies on the left bank of the river and stretches between the busy Place Plumereau and the quieter Cathedral district. It is known as the “Garden of France” because of the many parks and gardens flourishing inside the city. Its history goes back to the early Gauls, and it developed as an important trade centre under the Roman occupation and then through to the Middle Ages. The medieval district, called le Vieux Tours, includes many unique half-timbered buildings. One of the most famous historical figures associated with the city is Saint Martin, a bishop who, according to legend, shared his coat with a naked beggar in Amiens. This incident and the ensuing fame of Martin in Medieval times made Tours a major stop for the pilgrims on the route of the Santiago de Compostela.
Tours inhabitants are called “Tourangeaux”, and they are renowned for speaking the “purest” form of French in the whole country. It is said that the French spoken here has the best pronunciation with no real accent, which could be the reason why Tours is an important university town with many study abroad programs.
The chateau offers a combination of styles dating from the 4th to the 19th century, not really typical of the region. In the 11th century it was the residence of the Counts of Anjou. The Guise Tower (Tour de Guise) and the Governor’s Lodging can be also visited and they date from the 15th century.
The Cathedral Saint Gatien was rebuilt after a fire in 1235. Its reconstruction lasted more than 250 years and shows the evolution of the early Gothic style to the later flamboyant characteristics of the Renaissance. La Psalette is the name of the cloister attached to the Cathedral. Place Plumereaux is the center of town. There are two museums worth a visit; the “Musee des Beaux Arts” with collections of paintings from the 19th and 20th century, and the Musee du Compagnonnage showing works of master craftsmen such as roofers, laters, blacksmiths, locksmiths, saddlers and carpenters. During WWI Tours was a major base for the American army and this presence is honoured by the name of one of the bridges crossing the Loire: the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Capital of France for a spell, Orleans is now the capital of the Centre Val de Loire Region. It straddles the banks of the river, and has been widely rebuilt after WWII. It is now a large university and tourist center. Joan of Arc became the city heroine after she defeated the English in 1429 and ended a deadly 7 month siege. She is known as the “Maiden of Orleans” and her presence is everywhere in the city. A huge equestrian statue stands in the main square, Place du Martroi. The House of Joan of Arc in Place du General de Gaulle is the house where she lived during the siege, and it is now a museum focusing on the events of the siege and battle.
Also interesting is the Musee des Beaux Arts exhibiting 16th to 20th century painters such as Velasquez, Boucher, Courbet, Boudin, Soutine, Gauguin and Picasso. The cathedral Sainte Croix was built between the 13th and 16th century, then partially destroyed by the Huguenots in 1568. In the crypt you will see older buildings preceding the present construction.
Chateaux of Interest
Over the centuries chateaux in the Loire Valley evolved from feudal buildings to defense fortresses and then residential palaces. The elements used for defense were transformed slowly into decorative features as security concerns gave way to a desire for elegance and comfort. Watch towers were transformed into fairy-tale turrets with the moats being converted into lakes with surrounding gardens. The hundred year war between France and England made the region a battlefield and many fortified castles were built through the 14th and 15th centuries. These were replaced during the Renaissance by pleasure palaces and mansions as the Loire Region, with its mild climate and hunting forests, became fashionable among the rich and royal Parisians. You can now visit more than 300 chateaux in the region, most of which were built or restored during the hay days of French Royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The most grandiose of France’s great Renaissance palaces, Chambord stands in a vast park surrounded by a 20 mile long wall outside of which extends the forested Sologne, a hunting land reserved for Royalty and top French politicians. It has 440 rooms, 365 chimneys, 14 main staircases and 70 smaller ones. The grand staircase is made of two flights of staircases forming a double spiral turning around each other, and is rumored to have been designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. The chateau’s skyline is astonishing. The salamander, emblem of Francis I, appears more than 700 times. It has undergone hard times through the centuries but has been renovated and is now a major tourist attraction.
The Chateau de Blois reflects the taste and influence of Louis XII, Francis I, and Gaston d’Orleans. Sumptuous decorations proliferate, with numerous chambers, opened galleries, balconies, and dark corridors, all reflecting the evolution of French architecture during the various periods of construction from Feudalism to Classicism. On the second floor, the apartments of Henri III witnessed the stabbing and murder of the ambisious Duke Henri de Guise, leader of the Catholic League.
The Chateau of Seven Ladies is built over the River Cher. It is a small architectural jewel, and one of the most favorite chateaux among tourists. These ladies were all remarkable women who loved, managed and protected the property.
Catherine Briçonnet supervised the construction work between 1513 and 1521, making important architectural decisions while her husband was away fighting in the Italian Wars.Diane de Poitier, the beautiful favorite of King Henri II took care of developing the gardens. Catherine de Medici, King Henri II’s widow, banished Diane to the more austere Chateau de Chaumont and then organized sumptuous parties in the galleries over the river. Louise de Lorraine was the last queen to actually live in Chenonceau. She went into mourning and devoted her life to prayers when her husband, King Henri III died. Louise Dupin, held some brilliant philosophical salons at the time of the Enlightenment, inviting the famous Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau to participate. Marguerite Pelouse came from the new wealthy industrial class, and spent almost her entire fortune restoring the Chateau. Simone Menier, a nursing matrone, ran the hospital which had been installed in the two main galleries during WWI, treating more than 2,000 wounded soldiers.
Built during the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII, (1604 – 1634), it represents with its unique symmetry a perfect example of classical architecture. The stone from the nearby quarry of Bourre whitened and hardened with age to give the building its stunning present color. The interior is sumptuously decorated with paintings, sculptures, marbles, woodwork, panelings and furniture. Cheverny is also famous for its kennel which holds more than 120 hunting dogs. The dogs are a cross breed between English Fox hounds and French Poitevins. You can plan your visit to the Chateau in order to be there when the dogs are being fed every day at 11.30am (under reserve).
Strong, powerful, and stocky looking, the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire is a blend of feudal features and the emerging influence of the Renaissance. The buildings dominate the village, which stretches along the Loire River. Since 1992, the local International Garden Festival has been a laboratory for contemporary garden and landscape design. Every summer this festival attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Jean Le Breton, who had been ambassador in Italy, rebuilt this chateau in 1536 on the foundation of an earlier construction. With ditches and canals, esplanades and terraces, and rectangular pavilions in lieu of round towers, he included many new features unusual in Touraine at that time. The French style gardens (a.k.a. “a la Française”) are the most famous attractions of Villandry. 17 acres of fascinating geometrical arrangements offer symbolic meanings. The kitchen garden has more than 85000 plants in clipped-box beds.
Azay le Rideau
The waters of the Indre river reflecting the Chateau of Azay-Le-Rideau give the visitor a romantic and enchanting feeling. It was built in French Gothic style between 1518 and 1529 by the financier Gilles Berthelot. It’s harmonious proportions and decorations are quite seductive, with beautiful machicoulis, cornices, towers and turrets. The interior offers contrasting Florentine decor.
The spur overlooking the Loire River was already fortified in Gallo Roman times and it is on top of this cliff the Chateau of Amboise was built. The golden age of the Amboise was during the 15th century when it was used as a royal residence. In 1492 Charles VIII conducted extensive renovations in gothic flamboyant style, then employed Italian mason-builders who introduced new Renaissance techniques and ideas for the decor. Continued by Louis XII, and even more by Francis I, life at the Chateau was filled with joyous festivals, priceless entertainments and huge hunting parties. But this first French Chateau of the Renaissance ultimately went into decline. It was partly demolished by the troops of Louis XIII, then later on, dismantled on the orders of Napoleon’s Senate.
In 1515, Francis I invited Leonardo da Vinci to the Royal Summer Palace of Amboise. He came from Northern Italy carrying sketchbooks and unfinished artwork which included the Mona Lisa. The young French king had given him the title of “The King’s First Painter, Engineer and Architect”. Leonardo lived close to the royal residence in a manor house of red bricks from 1516 until his death in 1519. The Florentine artist, engineer and philosopher was 64. He didn’t paint during this time, and concentrated mainly on organizing royal festivities. He designed a chateau at Romorantin and planned the drainage of the Sologne, while continuing to work on various mechanical inventions and futuristic projects. Some of them have been constructed in a display that you can see when you visit the mansion. It is called the “Fabulous machines”. The 500 year anniversary of Leonardo’s death, in 2019 was a major event throughout the whole region.
WINES & GASTRONOMY
Visiting Centre Val de Loire will be a real treat for the gourmet traveler. The region is well known for its red, white, and rose wines. Wherever you go, be it Berry, Beauce, Touraine, Sologne, or Orleanais, you will be able to taste the excellent local wines. Vineyards cover more than 136,000 acres of vineyards with 500 miles of wine routes stretching along and nearby the rivers. It is the third largest French region for wine production with 320,000 millions of bottles sold each year all over the world. The high quality stamp of “APPELLATION D’ORIGINE CONTROLEE” (AOC) has been attributed to 24 wine makers producing Bourgeuil, Chinon, Valencay, Reuilly, and Sancerre. Bourgueil is primarily a red wine. Chinon is mostly red wine made from Cabernet and Cabernet Franc grapes. Valençais is either red or while. The vineyards primarily cover the land along the River Cher. Reuilly is produced around the town of Bourges and is mostly white, but you will also find some reds and roses. Sancerre wines are made exclusively with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and are known for their acidity and a flinty note. The expertise for making good wines in these locales goes back to the 5th century and has been passed from generation to generation.
After centuries of Royal retreats to the Val de Loire, many restaurants offer a Royal experience. The best known specialties are the rillettes de Tours, some poached eggs cooked in Chinon wine, the pâté berrichon, a chicken “en barbouille”, the nougats de Tours, prune candies, and dried pears. The famous “Tarte Tatin” has its origins in the village of Lamotte-Beuvron, in the heart of Sologne, where two sisters whose last name was Tatin improvised a new desert after leaving apples in butter and sugar for too long. We will not blame them for their mistake!
We can propose short or long itineraries which would be adapted to your taste and budget.
You can travel by train or by car, in a group or with just a few friends. You may also want to sample hiking, cycling or ballooning in order to best engage in the beauty, history, art, culture, and gastronomy of the region. Celestial Voyagers has the knowhow and all the local contacts to design an exceptional experience to the CENTRE VAL DE LOIRE.