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Europe: France - Loire Valley | Medieval Chateaux & Vintage Wines

About an hour outside the buzz of Paris is the chateau-rich and rolling Loire Valley, the picturesque meadowland surrounding the mighty Loire River in central France. Loved by former resident Leonardo da Vinci and liberated from English occupation during the Middle Ages by Joan of Arc, this verdant valley is cherished for its fairy-tale castles, historic villages, charming people, wines, and food.

In a Word: Chateaux

This is chateau country, where elegant and imposing Renaissance castles and sculpted gardens will beguile your imagination. The largest and most famous of these playgrounds for the rich and royal is the grandiose Chateau de Chambord. Surrounded by forest and topped with 365 chimneys and turrets, this 440-room hunting lodge has an intriguing double-spiral staircase, presumably designed by Leonardo da Vinci, that keeps the person descending hidden from the person ascending.

Three of the most romantic estates are the Chateau d'Usee, said to be the setting of the French fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty", in the village of Rigny-Usse; the Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau in charming Azay-le-Rideau; and the 16th-century Chateau de Chenonceau in Chenonceaux, a small village on the Cher River, one of the tributaries off the Loire. Straddling the Cher like a bridge, its intricate brocade-styled gardens, grand fireplaces, art collection, and ornate ceilings will have you swooning.

Why We'd Go: Seven Features You'll Never Forget

  • Medieval towns: Once the heart of France's cultural rebirth, Blois, a city of romantic tower roofscapes and twisting alleyways, is a must-see, not least because of the Chateau de Blois. This castle blends architectural styles spanning more than 200 years: Feudal, Gothic, Renaissance, and Classical.

  • Gory stories: Amboise is home to the Chateau d'Amboise, a castle with beautiful grounds and a dark past. In 1560, 1,000 Protestant "conspirators" were hanged here during the Wars of Religion. (The tiny chateau chapel houses Leonardo da Vinci's tomb.) For a serious spook, head west to Angers and the feudal Chateau d'Angers, built by St-Louis in 1238. Here you'll see the real deal: a dry moat, drawbridge, and 17 round towers along a 1-km-long exterior wall. Inside, a gallery displays an excellent tapestry collection, including the Apocalypse Tapestry, depicting gory scenes from the Book of Revelation.

  • Famous ex-residents: Amboise is also home to Clos-Luce, a 15th-century manor house where Leonardo da Vinci last lived and died, and the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, with scale models of his inventions. You'll find the Joan of Arc Museum in the clock tower of the 12th-century Chateau de Chinon, whose bell has chimed the hour since 1399, in the pretty town of Chinon near the Vienne River.

  • Goblets & galloping: Speaking of wines, the town of Saumur is famous for its wines and riding school. The resident castle, 14th-century Chateau de Saumur, houses a Decorative Arts Museum and Horse Museum.

  • Fresh air: The cool forests and meandering streams of the "Garden of France" invite sporty types to hike, bike, sail, canoe, gallop, and golf throughout the region. Sail over sprawling chateau estates and rambling gardens in a hot air balloon, or amble the long, lime tree-lined grass avenues and extraordinary 16th-century gardens at the Chateau de Villandry along the Cher River. Visit France On-Call for tour operators.

  • Chateau shows: Experience royal chateau history and tradition at son et lumiere (sound and light) shows at chateaux in Amboise, Chenonceau, Blois, Valencay, and Azay-le-Rideau.

  • Local flavor: No dieting allowed in the Loire Valley! A tapestry of vineyards cover the region, including Sancerre, Reuilly, Vouvray, Touraine, Bourgueil, and Montlouis. As for food, the beloved tarte tatin (upside-down apple pie) was invented here. Other specialties include freshwater fish, game, mushrooms from local caves, and glorious goat cheese.

When to Go: The Loire Valley at its Best

  • Best Weather: May, June, September, October
  • Best Prices: September to June
  • Festival Highlights: Bastille Day is celebrated countrywide on July 14; the International Gardens Festival runs in the summer and early fall in Chaumont-sur-Loire
  • French holidays: May 1, May 8, June 1, June 12, July 14, Aug. 15, Nov. 1, Nov. 11

Before You Go: Need-to-Know Info

  • Entry requirements: Passport
  • Language: French
  • Currency: Euro
  • Flight time: 7 hrs from NYC, 13 hrs from LA, 12 hrs from Dallas
  • Hotel tax and service charge: 20.6% (tax), service charge varies (both are usually included in rates)
  • Tipping: Included in restaurant bills (but leave a little extra), 10% to taxi drivers, 10 francs per day for maids
  • Getting around: Metro (subway), bus, taxi, taxi-bike (rickshaws)
  • Inspiration: Read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • More info: Visit France On-Call or call (514) 288-1904

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-- Lori Seto

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