Five of the best things to do in the Loire

Anthony Peregrine
Boat Loire - Getty

Cooler, greener, more refined than the heaving south, the Loire in France is an enchanted land of elaborate chateaux, verdant landscapes and world-class vineyards. Steeped in nobility, the Loire is easily France’s valley of the kings. Here are five ways to drink it in...

1. Take a boat trip

As France’s least tamed, least predictable river, the Loire rewards a boat trip – as long as it responds to the river’s moods rather than a tourist timetable. It also requires a flat-bottomed toue, the traditional Loire boat.

Otherwise, you’re not doing it right. From Chaumont, Millière-Raboton has no-fixed-time, no-fixed-itinerary trips run by barefoot fellows on first-name terms with every aspect of the Loire (milliere-raboton.net). If you’re staying further upriver, nearer to Orléans, try the Passeurs de Loire at Sigloy (passeursdeloire.fr).

Loire boat - Getty

2. Get to grips with the region's wines

The Loire valley floats almost as much on wine as water – from the reds of Bourgueil to all the colours of Chinon and on, via the still and sparkling whites of Vouvray. Any number of winemakers will welcome you to visit and taste but, should you want to get to grips with the subject, contact Myriam Fouasse-Robert.

Issue of a Vouvray wine-producing family and fluent in English, she organises first-rate, informal small-group tours under the banner Rendez-vous dans les Vignes (loire-wine-tours.com). Slightly more rumbustious are vineyard visits riding a Segway. Go for the two-hour trip and finish with a wine tasting. There is every chance you will need it (activite-insolite-val-de-loire.com).

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3. Learn about the Plantagenets

Henry II, our first Plantagenet, was born in 1133 in Le Mans. He died at Chinon and was buried at Fontévraud Abbey. His body was decomposing too fast to get him to the Limousin, where he’d wanted to be interred. So he lies alongside his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and son, Richard the Lionheart.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine - Getty

It is extraordinary to be in their presence in the grandest of medieval monastic cities. Contemporary art enlivens the monumental premises and things will get livelier still come December with the opening of a world-class museum of contemporary art (fontevraud.fr).

4. Escape to a châteaux

You’re going to the Loire valley, so of course you’re going to visit châteaux. They’re the whole point of the place. There’s no historical ensemble like them anywhere. But you need to appreciate that these are not just fabulous heaps of stones. They were the renaissance epicentre of France, host to a heavyweight cast thundering through ruling the kingdom, plotting, stabbing, killing, hunting, partying, and setting world records in debauchery and gardening. There are dozens. You need to choose or go mad.

My top five, in this order, are: Chenonceau – a unicorn short of harmonious perfection; Chambord – magnificently massive, built to ram home the superbness of a French monarchy second in splendour only to God; Amboise – from the terrace, you might perceive Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb and, within yourself, a manifest destiny to rule France; Clos Lucé – also in Amboise, a celebration of Leonardo; Valençay – best furnished, finest kitchens and, with grounds full of interest, best for avoiding infant tantrums.

Chenonceau - Getty

5. Visit some splendid gardens

Alongside their enthusiasm for violence and adultery, French monarchs and nobles developed a taste for horticulture. But they liked it neat, their gardens imposing order on ill-disciplined nature.

At the Château de Villandry, the vast gardens are terraced and laid out as if created by compasses and set squares rather than spades. They’re overwhelming. As are those at the Château de Chaumont, where this year’s international garden festival runs to Nov 1 (domaine-chaumont.fr).

Château de Villandry - Getty