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Just 2 hours south of Paris, the Loire Valley enchants visitors with a stunning landscape of castles and vineyards straight out of a fairy tale. King François I and his Renaissance court left a spectacular cultural legacy, earning the entire valley a place on the World Heritage Site list. History buffs can trace Joan of Arc from Orléans to ­Chinon; romantics fall in love with the storybook châteaux of Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, and Ussé; garden lovers revel in the verdant paradise of Chaumont and Villandry; gastronomes tantalize their palates at Michelin-starred restaurants and rustic auberges; and outdoor adventurers can see it all by bike.

As its name would imply, the region’s rolling hills and forests hug the winding Loire River, encompassing 800 sq. km (308 sq. miles) of land south of Ile-de-France, from the city of Orléans and extending west to Nantes on the Atlantic coast. Most visitors use Tours or Orléans as their starting point; however, the towns of Blois, Amboise, or Saumur make excellent bases for exploring the region.

Most visitors to the Loire arrive via Paris; there are about six direct trains daily from the TGV station at Charles de Gaulle airport to the Tours TGV station Saint-Pierre (1 hr., 40 min; 39€–70€ one-way). At least one high-speed train (TGV) an hour runs to both Orléans and Tours, convenient starting points for anyone not renting a car directly in Paris.

The Loire Valley has two regional tourist offices that can help you plan your stay in advance: Comité Régional de Tourisme Val de Loire, 37 av. de Paris, Orléans 45000 (www.visaloire.com; [tel] 02-38-79-95-28), and SEM Régionale des Pays de la Loire, 1 place de la Galarne, BP 80221, Nantes 44202 Cedex 2 (www.westernloire.com; [tel] 02-40-48-24-20). Local tourist offices are listed throughout the chapter.

Sightseeing

Start your tour of the châteaux of the Loire Valley at Château d'Ussé, whose magnificence inspired Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty. Or trail Joan of Arc to Chinon, where the martyr begged the Dauphin to fight the English during the 100-Year War. Château Royal d'Amboise intrigues with the 15th-century Tour des Minimes, a medieval structure with a spiral ramp; while Villandry wows with elegant ornamental vegetable patches. The Château de Brézé harbors an entire troglodyte castle in its moat.

Eating and Drinking

Rarely a meal goes by in the Loire without a glass of Bacchus's best. The Loire Valley has some of the world's most prestigious wine appellations, from sparkling Vouvrays to rounded Saumur-Champignys to dozens of others in and around Saumur, Angers and Tours. The dining is world-class as well, from smart Michelin-starred restaurants to rustic auberges, where you can sample scrumptious regional specialties like pikeperch in butter, rillauds (pork belly marinated in red wine) and roast game.

History

The valley of French kings abounds in history. Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is the largest, most intact medieval abbey in France. Its haunting Romanesque church contains the remains of four members of the royal house of Plantagenet including Richard the Lionheart. Angers' striped slate and tufa château houses the Apocalypse tapestry. Jumping forward several hundred years, the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci is buried in Amboise's château; his former home, Clos Lucé, nearby, is a museum containing models of his inventions.

Active Pursuits

The Loire Valley is relatively flat and crisscrossed with cycle paths, so you can easily bike to the châteaux via the 800km Loire à Vélo trail. You'll go through sleepy villages, past fishing boats tethered to riverbanks and tempting wineries. If that sounds like too much work, you can take in the sights of Loire Valley -- the undulating quilts of green, interrupted only by rivers, towns and châteaux rooftops -- on board a Montgolfières d'Anjou hot-air-balloon.

Loire for Kids

The Loire is a wonderful family holiday destination, and the highlights, of course, are the castles (Valençay, Langeais, and Loches being the best to include for children). But the two most frequently visited attractions for families are located at the same address: the Aquarium du Val de Loire and theParc des Mini-Châteaux (www.decouvrez-levaldeloire.com; [tel] 02-47-23-44-44), 9.5km (6 miles) west of Amboise, near the village of Lussault-sur-Loire.

The Parc des Mini-Châteaux holds replicas of France’s most famous castles, built at [bf]1/30 the size of the originals. Chambord, for example, is less than 3.5m (11 ft.) tall. It’s all very patriotic—a sort of learning game that teaches French schoolchildren the glories of their patrimoine (heritage) and collects some of the most celebrated architecture in Europe. Admission is 14€ adults, 10.50€ students and children 4–14, and free children 3 and under; for a full day of fun get a discounted joint ticket with the Aquarium 22€ and 15€ (daily early Apr–May 10:30am–7pm; June–Aug 10am–7pm/8pm; Sept–Nov 14 10:30am–6pm; closed mid-Nov to early Apr). The aquarium is home to some 10,000 freshwater and saltwater fish. Admission is 14€ adults, 10.50€ children 4–14 (daily Jan–Mar and Sept–Dec 10:30am–6pm; Apr–May 10:30am–7pm; June to late July 10am–7pm; and late July to mid-Aug 10am–8pm; closed 2 weeks in Nov and Jan).

There are also plenty of activities for outdoor adventures in the area. Take a break from navigating the castles of the Loire by paddling it. The Canoe Company (www.canoe-company.fr; [tel] 06-37-01-89-92) rents canoes on both the Loire River at Rochecorbon and on the Cher at the foot of the Château de Chenonceau (open daily, starting at 14 € per person for 2 hours).