Welcome to châteaux country! The region of Centre-Val de Loire, located just south of Paris, is known for its wonderful Loire Valley, a leisurely region of great wines and lavish Rennaissance castles that traces the 1000km (620 mile) river Loire through rolling green farmland. The kings, queens and nobility of France built some of the country’s most spectacular castles here, and their names are legendary – Chambord, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Amboise. The cities of the region are rich in history, with Gallic and Roman origins, before becoming some of the Kingdom of France’s most important power centres. The cities of Orléans, Blois, Tours and Chartres are known for their towering Gothic cathedrals, old towns of half-timbered houses, lazy river views and peaceful garden parks.
For visitors, Centre-Val de Loire is all about the winery and chateaux experience, whilst enjoying the scenic beauty of the sunflower fields and river views, and sampling some of the region’s famous goat cheeses. Self-drive tours and epic bicycle paths are the best ways to get around and make the most of Centre-Val de Loire. Common jumping off points are Orléans (~2 hours drive from Paris), or Tours (~3 hours drive from Paris). The region is perhaps best enjoyed by fans of history, architecture, and photography, and those looking for a relaxing and peaceful getaway from busy cities like Paris.
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Cities of Centre-Val de Loire
Centre-Val de Loire is the least populated region of mainland France, with around 2.5 million inhabitants (2018). Many of the major cities follow the Loire river and its tributaries, which made them important centres of transport and trade throughout their history.
Located on a bend along the Loire river some 120km (75 miles) south of Paris, Orléans is the capital of the region and one of the best jumping off points for visiting the Loire Valley. Orléans is a historic city which traces its roots back to antiquity. An important trade centre during the Merovingian period, Orléans is most famous for Joan of Arc lifting the English siege in the Hundred Years War in 1429.
For visitors, Orléans is a charming city filled with grand elegant buildings. Most notable is the Cathédrale Saint-Croix d’Orléans, a Gothic masterpiece which features stained glass windows of Joan of Arc’s exploits. Indeed, Joan of Arc is widely celebrated in Orléans, with the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc Museum, and her large equestrian statue situated at the large central square of Place du Martroi.
Orléans is popular for its Parc Floral de la Source, a large public garden and source of the Loiret river. It is one of the biggest tourist draws in the city for its forest, flower arrangements, and children’s tour train. Make sure to walk through Orléans old town, and admire the beautiful old colombage timber houses. Other notable sights are the Hôtel Groslot, a mansion which hosted some of Europe’s royalty, and the Collegiate Church of Saint-Aignan.
The Loire river city of Blois is built around its magnificent castle, the Château Royal de Blois, which is located in the heart of the city. Composed of several buildings built in a variety of styles, the château has a mind-blowing 564 rooms, and 75 staircases. It was the seat of power for a number of French kings, which included Louis XII (1462-1515), Francis I (1494-1547), Henry III (1551-1589), and Henry IV (1553-1610). It was even the site of the assassination of Henry I, Duke of Guise, carried out in the castle by Henry III’s bodyguards as the king watched!
The city of Blois has a charming old town, with some buildings rebuilt after bomb damage sustained in WW2. Of special note is La Maison de l’Acrobate, a 15th century timber house decorated with wooden sculptures of actors, acrobats and jugglers on its façade. Nearby is the Cathédrale Saint-Louis de Blois, a single tower Gothic cathedral. For a slightly more whimsical experience, visit La Maison de la Magie, a magic museum opened in the former residence of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–71), a French magician that inspired Harry Houdini’s stage name. The large manor has automated dragon heads that pop out of the windows throughout the day, as well as amazing displays of optical illusions inside. La Maison de la BD (bandes-dessinées) is a comic book museum well worth visiting, and a fun little stop is La Maison des Parapluies, a handmade umbrella workshop that can make custom photo-printed umbrellas.
Chartres started as a Celtic town for the Carnute tribe, which gives the city its name. It later became a Roman city, and then French, falling under the Counts of Blois. Today, Chartres is best known for its incredible Gothic cathedral, which was built between 1193 and 1250. Unusual for Gothic cathedrals, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres has its original 13th-century stained glass windows, with little renovation since it was first built. With its ribbed vault ceilings, flying buttresses and decorative spires, it is one of the finest examples of the style, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it even has a mini labyrinth installed in the floor!). It was saved from demolition in WW2 by American Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith Jr, who called off its shelling in the midst of battle. He was killed soon afterwards, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The city of Chartres has a small medieval centre that is perfect for exploring on foot. The river Eure runs through the old town with small arched bridges and buildings built right up against the river, giving the impression of a charming canal that one might see in Amsterdam. Along the river is the remains of the Porte Guillaume, a fortified bridge that was mostly demolished by retreating German soldiers in WW2. Some other interesting sights in Chartres are the Centre International du Vitrail, a stained glass exhibition centre, La Maison Picassiette, a house with every surface decorated entirely with mosaics of broken crockery, and La Maison Du Saumon (the salmon house), a four-storey half-timbered house from the 15th century (and the city’s tourism office)!
The largest city of Centre-Val de Loire is Tours. Located on the Loire river between Orléans and the Atlantic, Tours is nicknamed le Jardin de la France (The Garden of France) for its many green parks and surrounding countryside. The city is notable for its characteristic colour scheme of blue ardoise slate roofs and white painted buildings.
Tours has a beautiful old town, centred around Place Plumereau and its gorgeous half-timbered houses that lean over the bars and cafes below. Like many cities in the region, tours has a central cathedral, the elegant Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours. The city’s most renowned museum is the wonderful, one-of-a-kind Musée di Compagnonnage. It is filled with crafts and inventions, wooden architectural models, locks, oversized shoes, castles made of pasta – anything that would qualify a craftsman to enter the Compagnonnage, a medieval guild of skilled craftsmen.
Bourges is a small, charming medieval city on the Yèvre river, known for its spectacular Gothic cathedral, la Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges (built 1195-1230). Like Chartres, it was declared a UNESCO World heritage site for its pristine state of conservation, 13th century stained glass windows, immense size, and unique shape without transept. Just adjacent to the cathedral is the beautiful Jardin de l’Archêveché, a large manicured garden with lawns and areas of trees.
Another exceptional building is Palais Jacques-Coeur, a palatial private house built by the merchant and royal advisor Jacques Coeur. One of the wealthiest men in the city, he was eventually accused of murder and imprisoned, never to live in his house. Bourges even has its own wetland to visit, le Marais de Bourges. Fed by the Yèvre, the wetlands are a collection of plots of lands with private gardens and serene walking paths. And of course, no visit to Bourges is complete without seeing the old town, in particular Rue Bourbonnoux, with its medieval houses.
Visiting Castles In The Loire Valley
There are 42 major castles spread out across the Loire Valley region, and they make up one of France’s most popular tourist attractions. There are many castles to choose from, each with different attributes. Many of them are open to tourists, and are perfect for a day trip or a multi-day excursion through the region.
Château de Chambord
The Loire Valley’s largest château is Chambord, a spectacular French Renaissance-style castle completed in 1547. Chambord was built with a central keep, surrounded by walls and four huge bastion towers. While formidable in appearance, this style of castle was never designed to provide defence, and was largely decorative. It was constructed for King Francis I as a hunting lodge, and as a display of wealth and prestige. But after spending just seven weeks at Chambord, Francis I died, and the chateau was left abandoned for a century because of its heating and supply challenges, and remote location. It changed hands and was abandoned several times over its history, and was even used to store artworks from the Louvre during WW2. Today, it is one of the Loire’s biggest attractions.
Château de Chenonceau
Le Château de Chenonceau is the most visited castle in the Loire Valley, and the second most visited in France (after the Château de Versailles). It’s easy to see why this castle is so beloved; the main castle is attached to an extended bridge and raised gallery that spans the width of the river Cher. Views of its elegant arches mirrored in the water are one of the iconic sights of the Loire Valley. The main part of the castle was built between 1514-22, with the bridge (1556-59) and gallery (1570-76) added later.
Château de Cheverny
The front view of Château de Cheverny shows this beautiful chateau in all its symmetrical grandeur. Built between 1604 and 1635, the castle is still owned and lived in by the descendants of the original owning family, the Huraults. It is has one of the most stunning interiors of the Loire Valley chateaux, with every room full of paintings, carvings, weapons, tapestries and more. The design of the Château de Cheverny even inspired Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin comics (and the Château even has a Tintin exhibition!).
The dominating Château d’Amboise sits on a strategic rock feature, overlooking the Loire below and the surrounding town. The castle dates back to the 11th century, but was extensively rebuilt in the French flamboyant Gothic style and Renaissance style in the late 15th century. The castle was the scene of a bizarre royal death, when in 1498, King Charles VIII died after hitting his head on a door lintel.
Château de Chaumont-Sur-Loire
With its pointed blue slate rooftops, massive round towers, and location overlooking the Loire river, Chaumont-Sur-Loire is one of the most beautiful castles in the region. A 10th century castle was originally on the site, but was burned down by King Louis XI in response to an unsuccessful rebellion by Pierre d’Amboise. The current castle was built between 1465 and 1510.
Château de Villandry
The Château de Villandry, the last Loire Valley château built during the Rennaissance, is perhaps best known for its incredible French gardens. The gardens includes geometric hedge shapes, water gardens, flower arrangements, and vegetable plots.
Other Things To Do In Centre-Val de Loire
Besides the many castles of the region, Centre-Val de Loire has lots more to discover for visitors.
La Loire à Vélo
The wide open, flat landscapes of the Loire make it ideal for cycling. Starting at Cuffy (near the city of Nevers), La Loire à Vélo is a 800km (500 mile) route of fully connected bike paths that loosely follow the Loire river, ending at the river’s Atlantic estuary at Saint-Brevin-Les-Pins.
The route has signposts all along the way, as well as over 400 accommodation options. And of course, there are many châteaux, cities, and wineries to visit along the way! The route is fun for kids of all ages, (although for longer distances ages 7-8 upwards is recommended), and trains in the Loire have free bike carriage, so you can return to your origin when you’re done.
Forêt d’Orléans (Orléans Forest)
The Orléans Forest is a the country’s largest national forest, at 35,000 hectares (with another 15,000 hectares privately owned). With over 730 plant species, it is mainly made up of common oak and Scots pine, with other tree varieties such as European beech, birch, hazel and hornbeam. It is home to many species of animals, such as deer, wild boars, hares, tree squirrels, as well as 180 species of birds that include eagles, woodpeckers, woodlarks, hen harriers, and many more.
The forest is ideal for hikers, as well as fishing and swimming in the Vallée Lake. Highlights include the Belvédère des Caillettes, a lookout tower above the trees, and the Ravoir observatory, for bird watching. Cutting through the park is the Canal d’Orléans, as well as 1,200km (745 miles) of trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding. The Etang de la Vallée (pond of the valley) leisure park in Combreux has camping facilities, as well as a small beach and family activities. And for something different, check out the Belle de Grignon in Vieilles-Maisons-sur-Joudry. It is a 27-metre (88-foot), 20 tonne reconstruction of an old wooden flûte berrichonne barge from the 19th century, which used the canals for trade.
Loire Valley Sunflower Fields
Much of Centre-Val de Loire is made up of farmland, and it’s a welcome surprise to come across some of the region’s most endearing crop – fields of sunflowers. Tournesols, as they’re known in French, were imported from the Americas to Europe around 1500. The huge dinner plate-sized flowers are grown for their seeds and oil, and are the subject of some of Vincent Van Gogh‘s most beautiful paintings. Driving past the sunny fields of yellow is a small pleasure whilst travelling through the Loire.
The Exact Centre Of France – Bruère-Allichamps
Centre-Val de Loire is home to a small commune with an unusual claim to fame – Bruère-Allichamps is said to be the exact geographic centre of France. However, the claim is disputed by 7 different communes, depending on the way it’s calculated (whether or not to include Corsica, considering the curvature of the earth, etc). Whether it’s exact or not, Bruère-Allichamps claimed the title first.
Eating and Drinking in Centre-Val de Loire
French food is known for its amazing flavour and finesse, and the food in Centre-Val de Loire is no exception. And when in France, cheese and wine are a way of life as well. Centre-Val de Loire has its own specialities that every visitor should check out.
Loire Valley Wines
The Loire Valley is just as celebrated for its wine production as it is for its castles. Loosely following the Loire river, the wine region stretches from Nantes all the way up to Orléans. The region is divided into three parts. The Upper Loire includes Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and is most famous for its Sauvignon blanc. The Middle Loire includes Touraine, Saumur, Vouvray and Chinon, and produces two main varieties, Chenin blanc and Cabernet Franc. The Lower Loire near Nantes and the Atlantic includes the Muscadet region, and uses the white grape Melon de Bourgogne.
A visit to the Loire Valley wine regions is a trip through France’s longest wine route, and with over 1000 wineries to choose from, there’s a plethora of choice. Visiting the vineyards and cellars of the region is intertwined with visiting the opulent châteaux, admiring the medieval Gothic cathedrals and admiring green landscape views.
Dishes of Centre-Val de Loire
Food in Centre-Val de Loire is influenced by its great variety of fresh produce grown in the Jardin de France. One of the specialties is Rillettes, a shredded pork spread similar to pâté, eaten on bread. Fish is widely eaten due to its availability in the Loire river, with perch, pike and bream popular species. The Loire is the place to find wild game too, such as deer and wild boar.
Desserts of Centre-Val de Loire
The region is a big grower of apples, so it’s not surprising that the Loire is home to one of France’s most beloved desserts, the tarte Tatin upside-down apple tart. Another fruit speciality is poires tapées, a dried and flattened pear which can can accompany savoury dishes, or be eaten as a dessert.
Centre-Val de Loire is best known for its goat cheese, of which 6 varieties have protected AOC status. The most famous cheese of the region is probably Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, an unpasteurized soft goat’s cheese. It is shaped as a log, with a rind of grey mould, rolled in ash, and has a length of straw running through its centre. Another popular unpasteurized goats cheese is Selles-sur-Cher, a soft cheese sold as a small wheel, with a blue-grey mould rind and a strong aftertaste. Other examples include Valençay, which is formed in distinct pyramid shapes. Local cows’ milk cheese include Olivet cendré, a soft cheese with a natural rind the colour of grey ash. It has a slightly salty, delicate taste.