It actually is possible to plan a French vacation where Paris is not the main attraction. Yes, it is a beautiful city, but your trip to France should not be limited to one place. Consider visiting the Loire Valley for some great photo ops and a vacation that will have everyone talking. This region of the country is home to castles, churches, scenery, and a medieval abbey where you will find the remains of legendary royalty. The Loire Valley is storybook France, with its medieval villages and stunning architecture.
For an idea of how many castles and chateaux you will see in the Loire Valley, here is the tally: Chateau d’Amboise, Chateau d’Angers, Chateau de Saumur, Chateau de Ducs de Bretagne, Chateau du Plessis-Bourre, Chateau de Blois, Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, Chamont-sur-Loire, Chateau de Chinon (the medieval castle made famous by its role in the movie ‘The Lion in Winter’), Chateau de Brissac, and Chateau de Serrant. How in the world can you decide which places to visit? Decide what you are most interested in. If you want only to visit the castles or forts that are most famous, check out Chateau d’Amboise, a beautiful Renaissance castle with striking architecture and a beautiful view of the town of Amboise.
Chateau de Chinon, though much of it is ruined now, is a great vacation stop. It was in royal hands for years and was a favorite of King Henry II of England (father of the infamous King John) who had made a grasp for French lands and finally succeeded. Walking among the ruins will send a shiver up the spine of anyone daring enough to visit. Chaumont-sur-Loire is an ancient castle that had its beginnings in the 900s but was rebuilt and beautifully furnished throughout the ages. The castle that stands today has more of a 15th or 16th century look, with its high round towers and pointed roof. In the mid-16th century, the castle was home to Catherine de Medici, Queen of France. Another woman with royal connections, Diane de Poitiers, was given dominion over the chateau in the years to come.
What about the churches that dominate the Loire Valley? Stop by the romantically-named Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul (which translates to the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, though it doesn’t sound nearly as exotic). It is located in the city of Nantes (pronounced “nahnt”). You will find some important burial sites inside the church. The cathedral’s construction began in the 15th century and was not finished for hundreds of years. You will be amazed at the spires and its sheer height; the plain exterior, devoid of much color and variation, is severe and yet elegant.
The Cathedrale St-Maurice is another old church that is well worth the visit; it can be found in Angers. Don’t forget to look for the stained glass, one of the most interesting facets of its architecture. In another part of the valley stands Sainte-Croix Cathedral, only one of many churches built here. Local history says that as far back as the 4th century, a church of some kind stood at the same place.
For a different kind of religious experience, visit Abbaye de Fontevraud (Fontevraud Abbey). Built in the 1100s and patronized by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (mother to King John Lackland and King Richard the Lionhearted), Fontevraud is also this royal family’s burial place. This beautiful abbey has the imagery of a peaceful spiritual retreat, but it wasn’t always so. For over a hundred years it even served as a jail.
You will also find museums and other historic sites in the Loire Valley, such as an ancient town where the inhabitants cut their homes directly from stone. This area is known as Rochmenier and it is actually classified as a troglodyte village. Check out the Dungeon of Eagles to see amazing animals. And for more prehistoric fascination, visit Le Grottes Petrifiantes where you can “walk beneath the earth” to see natural beauty in fantastic caves.
What is the best way to see the Loire Valley? Well, I wouldn’t suggest walking unless you have very sturdy feet. Take a boat down the river and make sure to have your camera handy for all those beautiful shots of castles, villages, and scenery. You can do some walking in the villages you will find along the way, such as Amboise, Angers, and Montresor. Montresor, not often mentioned, is a wonderful architectural gem. Here you can find many old homes that have stood for over four hundred years (and some cases, probably much longer than that). Montresor has its own chateau, and everywhere you look you will find medieval flavor.
By Lacie R. Schaeffer