Map of Pays de Loire
The region's heartland Touraine, long known as "the garden of France", has the best wines, the tastiest goat's cheese, the most regal history and, it's argued, the purest French accent in the land. It also has one of the finest Château in Chenonceau and by far the most developed tourist industry to match. But Touraine also takes in three of the Loire's pleasantest tributaries: the Cher, Indre and Vienne, each of which can be explored at a slower, more intimate pace. If you have just a week to spare for the region, then these are the parts to concentrate on. The attractive towns of Blois and Amboise, each with their own exceptional châteaux, make good bases for visiting the area upstream of Tours. Numerous grand châteaux dot the wooded country immediately south and east of Blois, including Chambord, the grandest of them all, while the wild and watery region of the Sologne stretches away further to the southeast. Downstream of Tours, around handsome Saumur, fascinating troglodyte dwellings have been carved out of the rock-faces.
As well as the many châteaux, the region has a few unexpected sights, most compelling of which are the gardens at Villandry, outside Tours; the abbey at Fontevraud; and the apocalyptic tapestry sequence in Angers, capital of the ancient wine-producing county of Anjou. Of the three main cities, Tours and Angers provide the best urban bases, though Orléans has its own charm. Each city has its distinctive cathedral, though none is as impressive as the hybrid Romanesque-Gothic cathedral of busy, modern Le Mans, located some way north of the Loire valley in the topographically uninspiring département of Sarthe, or the stunningly glazed Gothic fantasy of medieval Bourges, which lies well south of the Loire, in the marshy farmland of the Berry.
The Loire itself is often called the last wild river in France, mostly because unpredictable currents and shallow water brought an end to commercial river traffic as soon as the railways arrived, and the many quays remain largely forgotten, except by the occasional tour boat. The river's wildness also takes shape in dramatic floods, but for most of the year it meanders gently past its shifting sandbanks, shaded by reeds and willows, and punctuated by long, sandy islands beloved by birds. The dangers of collapsing sandbanks and strong currents mean that swimmers should confine themselves to one of the many tributaries, though it's possible to rent a kayak in many places.
In general, this is a prime tourism region, where rental cars and bus Tours are the norm. Yet train lines run along the river towards Nantes and Brittany and up through Tours to Paris, and most sites are accessible by public transport. If you're exploring on your own, however, it's a good idea to rent some means of transport, at least for occasional forays, because buses can be sparse, their schedules rarely geared to outsiders, and trains too limiting. Renting a bike is a good option: this is wonderful and easy cycling country, best of all on the flood banks, or levées, of the river itself.
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