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Tips on what to see and do in France's lovely Loire Valley
You may want to start your exploration of the Loire Valley by arriving in Tours. It's about 2 hours via train from Paris to Tours. Rental cars are available at the train station. Check out Avis.com for rental options. Driving is the best way to see the Loire Valley, and driving in the area is quite easy. Pack up your car and head out of Tours.
On your way out of Tours, be sure to stop and see St. Gatien. It's a lovely cathedral located right in the center of town. Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, the cathedral is Gothic in style, with elaborate decor covering the structure and magnificent high ceilings within.
You've probably come to the Loire Valley to explore the many famous chateaux in the area. Once you leave Tours, head toward one of the best chateaux in the whole region, Chateau Villandry. The gardens here are simply magnificent, so be sure to allow yourself enough time to enjoy them. The interior of the chateau isn't as memorable, so you can skip that if you like and just wander through the gardens. Don't miss Villandry if you're in the Loire Valley!
Continuing on from Villandry, head towards Chateau d'Usse. This chateau inspired the story of Sleeping Beauty. However, it does not look like the castle in the Disney movie-- that castle is in Germany. This is a pretty chateau to stop and take a photo of, but you don't need to take a tour. You'll want to pick and choose which chateaux to spend time exploring, otherwise you'll be in for a big case of chateaux burnout. Continue on...
Continue on to another very memorable chateau. Azay-Le-Rideau is a gracious residence set on park-like grounds and surrounded by a small moat. It was a private residence, so it's smaller and not military in nature like some other chateaux in the area. The interior of Azay-le-Rideau isn't as interesting as the exterior, but pop inside if you have the time.
End your first day in the Loire Valley in Saumur. This is a great base for exploring the western part of the Loire Valley. The town is large enough that it offers a good variety of dining and shopping destinations. There's also a good Farmers' Market in the center of town on weekends where you can pick up fresh fruit, cheese and other local goods.
Le Gambetta is the place to go for an elegant and special meal in Saumur. The locals will tell you it's the best restaurant in town, and once you taste the food you'll agree. Excellent, friendly service, creative and absolutely delicious cuisine... and not nearly as expensive as dining of that quality should be. Try the prix fixe menu with four courses. For 26 euro I had Tomato & basil toasts topped with fresh fish, a grilled trout entree, Camebert cheese in puff pastry drizzled with honey and a dessert of pineapple sorbet served with creme fraiche and raspberries. It was unbelieveable. Highly recommended!
The chateau in Saumur is definitely a military fortress. Foreboding is a word that comes to mind. It's got a real drawbridge and a long history of defending the town from invasion. The chateau is perched high on the hill above town, where you'll find some of the best views in the area. Even if you don't tour the chateau, drive up here to take photos of the valley.
While staying in Saumur, drive out to the Troglodyte Village at Rochemenier. The Loire Valley has a long history of troglodyte, or underground, dwellings. Into the 1900s, some people in the area still lived in hollowed-out limestone caves. Rochemenier has preserved a whole village, which is rather ingenius in its use of natural resources for simple living materials. It's pretty fascinating.
When you leave Saumur, head east and stop in the village of Langeais to see the chateau there. This is the most cold and foreboding of all the chateaux we saw. A true medieval fortress, itÃ¢s famous mostly for being the place that King Charles VIII secretly married Anne of Burgundy. The self-guided tour does a great job of explaining the history of the chateau, so even though it's not "pretty", it's really interesting. The town itself is a nice place to stop and have a bite to eat.
For the remainder of your trip, base yourself near Amboise. This city is convenient to all the sights of the eastern part of the Loire Valley. It's a fairly large town with plenty of restaurants and shops. The area around the chateau is very touristy, with plenty of postcards and knick knacks available for purchase should you want them.
If you could only stay one place in the Loire Valley, this should be it. Located just outside Amboise, Chateau Des Ormeaux is a special and memorable hotel that will undoubtedly be a highlight of your entire trip. The three men who own the chateau are so warm and welcoming-- you will feel like you are staying at someone's home. The whole hotel is beautifully appointed and no detail has been overlooked. The rooms are large and gorgeous, views from the chateau are inspiring, the surrounding hills offer trails for leisurely hikes, there's a pool for the warmer months... you will LOVE it here. On Saturday night the chateau offers a formal dinner for the guests. If you're there on a weekend, be sure to make reservations for the dinner in advance. It's a wonderful way to meet the other guests and taste some of the wonderful local foods and wines.
Rising above the Loire, this chateau is another fortress. It's at the heart of Amboise and is definitely worth seeing. It's famous for being the birthplace of Charles VIII.
This mini-chateau in Amboise is where Leonardo DaVinci lived the last three years of his life. It's a beautiful building, most of which is still decorated and seems warm and homey. The gardens are very pretty as well. The best part is the extensive museum dedicated to DaVinci's inventions. After you go through the museum you can walk on onto the grounds, where they've created large scale versions of his inventions that you can try out for yourself. If you're traveling with children, you definitely don't want to miss Clos Luce, but adults will love it as well.
The Loire Valley is famous for its exceptional wines. Monmousseau is just one of many places in the area near Amboise where you can sample local wine. Here, you'll taste sparkling wines and tour a huge underground wine cavern.
If you see one chateau in the Loire Valley, this should be it. Chenonceau is a marvel of a place, beautiful, graceful and historical. Set across a river, the chateau was home to several of France's most memorable women, including Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers. Tours here are available on iPods, which is a fun and practical way to explore the building. This is one chateau where you should definitely spend time inside, and the chateau where you should definitely shell out for the audio tour. Also, don't miss the formal gardens located to either side of the chateau.
Chambord is another of those "must see" chateaux. It's BIG. Very big. And it's also empty and cold and utterly lacking in the grace and charm of smaller chateaux. Come here to be impressed by the double helix staircase, the many spires on the rooftop and the sheer size of the place.
This smaller, residential chateau is often overlooked by those touring the area. However, it's a really pretty place that shouldn't be missed. It's simpler than some of the larger chateaux, but still completely furnished and filled with charm. You could actually picture living here (as the owners' did until very recently--- their personal photos are still scattered through the interior). This chateau is famous for the 70+ hunting dogs that live on the property. Come towards the end of the day and you'll get to see the dogs being fed in their kennels, a really fun sight if you're an animal lover.
If you have the time and the funds, consider taking a hot air balloon ride over the Loire Valley. This is an amazing and romantic way to see the region. There are many companies in the area who organize the tours. Check with the tourism office in one of the larger cities, like Tours, for recommendations.
Like Tours, Orleans is a big city. I don't recommend staying here, but you may want to drop off your rental car in Orleans and catch a train back to Paris from here. There are a couple of sights in the city worth seeing before you depart. Orelans has long been associated with Joan of Arc, and her presence is still felt throughout the city.
This gothic cathedral was built in the 17th and 18th centuries on the remnants of a previous cathedral that had been destroyed. It's a large and impressive building that is worth checking out before you leave town.