First time travelers to France often have Paris as their destination and why not? The “City of Lights” has enough iconic landmarks, museums, and restaurants to keep you busy for weeks. But in addition to spending time in Paris, we recommend getting out of the big city and experiencing the French countryside to really get a feel for French culture. The Loire Valley provides a perfect place to extend your holiday in France. In this idyllic region south of Paris you can visit breathtaking chateaux and charming village markets while enjoying some of the best wine and food the country has to offer.
We wrote about our first trip to the Loire Valley a couple years ago. We used our own Trip Planning Services and shared our Travel Plans as we prepared for that trip. We have since created Custom Itineraries for a couple different clients so they could travel there too, and we’re anxious to visit again soon!
Visit the Iconic Chateaux of the Loire
The Loire River actually stretches from the middle of the country to the Atlantic but we suggest staying in the heart of the Loire Valley in the city of Amboise. It is centrally located and has easy access to many of the regions popular sites. Other nice towns that work well as a base are Blois, Montbazon, and Villandry. There are easy trains from Paris to the city of Tours and from there you can rent a car for the easiest way to get around the area.
The central Loire Valley has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and from Amboise you are surrounded by the chateaux built by the kings and nobility that used this area as a retreat from the hectic city life of Paris. There are literally hundreds of castles and elaborate residences dotted along the valley, as well as spectacular churches and abbeys.
Amboise has a beautiful chateau right in town. Some of our other favorites include Chenonceau, Villandry, and Usse. Perhaps the most famous is the opulent Chambord. If you only have 3 days, plan to go into one or two and simply admire others from the outside.
Taste what the Loire Valley has to offer
Of course, being France, the culinary delights are plentiful. There are Michelin starred restaurants dotted along the countryside as well as nice little bistros in every little village.
We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at a lovely family run country restaurant called Vincent Cuisinier de Campagne. This farm-to-table spot is popular among the local winemakers and grows much of its own food including fruits and vegetables, chickens, and rabbits. The night we went our daughter Chelsea left her scarf in the restaurant and ran back inside to retrieve it. Inside she found a bunny hopping down the hall. She thought it was probably going to be dinner soon. I prefer to think of it as a house bunny!
Take a Bike Ride from Chinon
Chinon is one of the bigger cities in the valley as well as the name-sake for one of the more famous wines in the region. It is a nice place to spend several hours wandering the streets, doing a little shopping, and checking out the fortress there.
For a taste of the local wines we suggest La Cave Voltaire. You can taste some wines along with some light fare and pick up a bottle or two to take with you.
We also like renting bikes from E-Follow Me and following the path by the river. Pick up some bread and cheese in town and bike to the Enfin du Vin wine store in Candes Saint-Martin. Chat with the owner and purchase some wine based on his advice. Ask him to open it and lend you some glasses and enjoy a picnic by the river.
Visit some Loire Wineries
Though not as well known as Burgundy and Bordeaux, the Loire Valley produces some of the best wine in France and there’s something for everyone. From the sparkling Crémant that rivals neighboring Champagne, to the bone dry Sancerre made with Sauvignon blanc, to the red Cabernet franc of Chinon, the region abounds in high quality wine.
We like how unassuming many of the wineries are. We stopped in several places for a tasting and it was often the owner was serving us and showing us his cellar. Many places don’t require a reservation and often the tastings are free, but we usually buy a bottle or two to show our appreciation. Plus these are very good wines and are quite affordable.
One of our favorite visits was with Vincent Gaudry in Sancerre. Although it is a bit of a drive from Amboise, if you’re a fan of the stony minerality of these famous white wines, it is worth the drive. Vincent was one of the first biodynamic growers in this region and he hosted us in his small cellar. His wines are a remarkable expression of the terroir and he is a gracious host. He asked Chelsea what year she was born and pulled a bottle of 1992 to let us taste!
Wander through a Village Market
Many of the villages have market days where local growers sell their produce. We love visiting these throw backs to the past and often pick up picnic supplies for later in the day. On Wednesdays the village of Blois hosts a wonderful market. There is also a local chateau (of course!) so pick up some meats and cheeses, some fruit and a baguette and enjoy a picnic on the grounds of the Chateau de Blois!
Take a Balloon Ride
The natural beauty of this area is what attracted the wealthy here to build their chateaux. What more romantic way to see it than from a hot air balloon? Sip a Crémant while watching the vineyards, chateaux, and rolling countryside from above. We have used France Montgolfières and can highly recommend them.
A Loire Itinerary of about 3 Days
Let’s put it all together. Choose a village to stay and get settled in to your hotel. Check out the area and visit the local chateau. On the next day, visit a winery or take a bike ride along the river and enjoy a picnic lunch with supplies from a local market. Celebrate your visit with a balloon ride and a meal in a fabulous restaurant. Wow, I may have to join you!
Do you want to make this trip without investing all the time and research necessary to arrange it? We can help with that! Remember, we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. You can always send Betsy an email to discuss the possibilities. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!
We do recommend that you consider travel insurance when you are planning your trip. We offer travel insurance through Squaremouth, to help you compare quotes and evaluate your options. We feel this is a good way to make the best decision based on your needs. Just so you know, your coverage may be void if you have been drinking, so you will want to consider this as you look at different policies. You can find an in-depth explanation of the subject through Consumer Advocate.
Greg Ball – Greg is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group tours to Europe. In his previous life he taught Woodwinds and Jazz at the university level for 30 years. As a professor he took his bands to England, Ireland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and England. Since “retiring” he and his wife/ETC co-founder Betsy travel Europe nine months out of the year. Together they have visited over 40 countries and counting! He loves cooking, hiking, listening and playing music, and wine and holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.
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