France: The Best of the Loire Valley

Chenonceau, the Castle with the bridge, a famous place in France's Loire Valley. Max Hartshorne photos.
Chenonceau, the Castle with the bridge, a famous place in France’s Loire Valley. Max Hartshorne photos.

Highlights of France’s Loire Valley

By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor

View of the vineyards from the Maison de Sancerre, Loire Valley, France.
View of the vineyards from the Maison de Sancerre, Loire Valley, France.

In May 2015, I took a long road trip that traversed the entire width of the middle of France.

My mission was to meet with winemakers who promote wine tourism in the region, and so I spent a fair amount of time in winery cellars tasting the many specialties of this big region–white wines like Vouvray, Muscadet, Sancerre, and Chinon. The wines never disappointed, from the 7 euro bottles of Muscadet to the fine Vouvrays at the Tasting Center of Tours.

View from the Best Western Villa Saint Antoine hotel in Clisson, Loire Valley France.
View from the Best Western Villa Saint Antoine hotel in Clisson, Loire Valley France.

But this region indeed has much, much more than fine wines to attract travelers. This is the home of more than 800 chateaus and a river system that traverses the length of the province.

There are so many ways to enjoy being on the Loire or the Vienne rivers, and exploring the well-preserved castles that seem to pop up after every turn. I had a few moments of wonder during this trip–those absolutely precious moments when you are on the road, it’s a sunny morning, the music is playing and the road around you just inspires you.

Wine tasting at Maison du Vins in Tours, France.
Wine tasting at Maison du Vins in Tours, France.

It says you’re in the right place, right now, and it’s the right time.’ You feel centered and completely at ease. Travel sometimes can do that. I sure felt that way on the first morning on my France road trip through the Loire Valley.

This whole valley is so pretty that it’s hard to steer yourself wrong, but there are some definite highlights, or better to say, places you don’t want to miss if you take a similar road trip. Renting a car in France makes a huge difference if you want to really get close to the countryside.

Clisson

Clisson is in the west of the Loire Valley, A on the map below, and is a good starting point for a Loire road trip. I took the TGV high-speed train from Paris down to Nantes, and picked up my rental car at the train station there. I arrived in Clisson during a rainy Sunday afternoon, and was glad to park my car and dry out.

loirevalleyroadtrip

My room at the Best Western Villa Saint-Antoine had a treat in store for me, talk about a room with a view! Outside as the rain beat down, was a waterfall and a great view of the Clisson Castle. What a Clisson, France. A great way to start blogging and sharing my journey.

Near the former home of F.F. Lemot the sculpture who helped create the Italian-inspired town of Clisson, France.
Near the former home of F.F. Lemot the sculpture who helped create the Italian-inspired town of Clisson, France.

Clisson is like many of the towns in the Loire Valley, surrounded by vineyards, that mostly grow white wine grapes like Muscadet. The town is both Breton and Italian, as it was built by art lovers of the 19th century who wanted to model Clisson after what they saw in Tuscany.

So all over the town, you see architecture and landscapes that might look at home in Italy, it was mostly the inspiration of sculptor F.F. Lemot.

After the brutal Wars of the Vendee that ended in 1790, Clisson was rebuilt to take on its new Italian personality. Lemot envisioned an artist’s colony here on the banks of the Sevre Nantaise River. Today people kayak and canoe this pretty stretch, the Loire River is about 30 kilometers away.

Hellfest in Clisson

Despite its ancient roots, today Clisson is famous for the Hellfest, which is a heavy metal or ‘extreme’ music festival that is held every June within the Val de Moine sports complex, with bands like Def Leppard, Slayer, Motley Crue and Marilyn Manson who play for more than 150,000 metal heads, and not without some local consternation.

Clisson's castle.
Clisson’s castle.

Despite appeals from the local church and Coke quitting as sponsors, Hellfest just celebrated their tenth year in Clisson.

The town has about 7000 residents, many of whom commute to Nantes, which is the nearest big city. In the Middle Ages, there were 40 mills here, the hotel Villa Saint-Antoine was once a spinning factory.

Today walking around the village treats you to verdant pathways, quiet ancient mansions, and the sound of birds all around. Many tourists and bus groups include Clisson on their itineraries, but it’s not overrun by any means.

Chateau du Cleray

Outside of Clisson, in Vallet, we met the first of many winemakers of the Loire. The nicest thing about this part of France is that most wineries are located inside ancient chateaus, so you get both the history lessons of the old building as well as the wine to taste.

At the Chateau du Cleray, the oldest property in Muscadet, they grow grapes on 95 hectares and produce inexpensive varieties meant to be drunk young.

Despite this, I jokingly asked Barbara Beaussant to open a 75-year-old bottle of white Muscadet. The tasting results will not be included in this story!

After the taste, I was soon back on the road, enjoying the sunny views of sweeping vineyards and following along the path of the west-to-east Loire river.

I was headed for a rendezvous with a traditional toue boat named Milady, where the owners run the Domaine de la Paleine, in Le Puy Notre-Dame.

These flat-bottomed boats called Toue are built nearby in a local village, and are the perfect vessels for navigating a shallow river like the Loire, which here meets the Vienne and splits into two.

A toue boat on the Vienne river.
A toue boat on the Vienne river.

Owners Laurence Vincent and Alain Bonnot also own a wine shop in the village of Montsoreau, which is also the name of the chateau that dominates the riverbank.

Locally Built Boats

With provisions including some of their wines, as well as cheese, pate, and local bread, we began a leisurely chug downriver, as Alain talked about the toue boat tradition here in the Loire.

“The boats are built right in the next village,” he said. “many have barbecues and heaters, but ours is pretty basic.” It was plenty comfy and peaceful for me, as we cruised past chateaus and watched birds swoop into the Loire.

There are 472 lucky souls who call Montsoreau home, and if they cast a line into the river here they might bring up two meter long catfish, sea bream pike or perch. Perch is the fish people prize the most, Alain said.

The chateaus here get their attractive light yellow color from the limestone mined when the area’s many wine caves were dug out, Alain explained.

 Glorious Chinon

This part of the Loire Valley is very protected. Nobody can build new structures on the river nor deviate from the traditional look of the buildings and houses.

Chinon fortress, from the Middle Ages, looking down at the Vienne river.
Chinon fortress, from the Middle Ages, looking down at the Vienne river.

Even the roads remain beautiful–no billboards or garish signs allowed. In classified villages in the region, there are underground power and telephone lines, which is part of what gives Clisson its uniquely preserved character.

Chinon (D on map) is, indeed, a stand-out village among many strong candidates in this part of France and since 2000, it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The village was selected to represent the Loire Valley in a wine-travel marketing promotion, and it did not take long to see why it was chosen.

First, as you approach the town, you drive up to a perfectly preserved fortress, the famed Chinon Castle, which unlike most of the castles in the Loire, dates to the Middle Ages not later.

For such an old fortress, one of just two in the Loire dating back to the Middle Ages, the building is in pretty good shape, and inside, video screens are set up to provide a glimpse of life in the days of Kings and serfs.

Chateau de Chenonceau, atop the Cher river.
Chateau de Chenonceau, atop the Cher river.

With flocks of schoolchildren, we toured room after room and then walked out into a large courtyard to take in the sweeping view of the Vienne River and the limestone-accented town of Chinon just below.

A lift took us down the forty or so meters from the high fortress to street-level Chinon to enjoy the leafy town center and a stroll by the Vienne River. This truly is one of the most beautiful villages of the Loire Valley!

Read more about Chinon on Max’s blog.

The Castle of the Lady

How do decide which chateau to see, since you can’t see all 800 of them? One great pick would be Chateau de Chenonceau, (G on the map) known as The Castle of the Lady, and an architectural masterwork right atop the river Cher.

Not only does this impressive chateau have a storied history, it has ornate gardens all around the grounds and a very good restaurant adjacent to the chateau called L’Orangerie.

Chenonceau is certainly in the big leagues along with Amboise and Chambord when it comes to visitors–more than 900,000 people come to see the chateau every year. Popular are the flower garden workshops that interested home gardeners can participate in, and every year, there are new exhibits to show off.

The aspect of Chenonceaux that makes it so unique is the span of the 60-meter long gallery that goes across the river. This came from Katherine de Medici, who got the inspiration A barrel maker in Menetou-Salon, Loire Valley France.

from Florence’s Ponte Vecchio to build the span that today symbolizes the chateau. In fact, locals refer to the chateau by simply aping the shape of the span with their fingers.


Roadside Treats and Eats

Inside the busy C'heu l"Zib restaurant in Menetou-Salon.
Inside the busy C’heu l”Zib restaurant in Menetou-Salon.

One of my favorite things about driving through France are the serendipitous discoveries that lie around every corner.

When we were visiting a winery in Menetou-Salon, I asked about where the wine barrels come from. Soon we were greeting a burly friendly man standing inside a local barrel factory, known as a tonnelerie.

We learned about how long it takes to make each one (weeks!) and that they send barrels around France and around the world. My other favorite thing is a country restaurant where the locals enjoy their traditional big lunches. For this, we turned to a very old restaurant called C’heu l’Zib, in Menetou-Salon.

We entered a nearly empty room, but soon it was full to the brim with older French men and women, and they began bringing out the courses. It was exquisite, not in the way the meal at Hotel Georges V was, but more because of its rustic authenticness and true Gaulic charm.

The Loire Valley didn’t disappoint, as usual, the food, the people, and the wines outdid themselves. I always expect that in France and after 12 trips there, have yet to be disappointed.

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