Live like a king

With golden-stoned castles, rolling countryside and tranquil towns, the department of Indre-et-Loire in the Loire Valley is worth a royal ransom, says Judy Armstrong

A land of ch�teaux, loved by kings and laced with rivers: welcome to Indre-et-Loire. This historic department is the glitter in the jewel of France, the heartland of the Plantagenet empire, battleground in the Hundred Years’ War and home to the Loire Valley’s most exquisite royal palaces.

Created from the province of Touraine during the French Revolution, Indre-et-Loire is rich in history, redolent with culture and rolling with vineyards. Anchored by its capital Tours, the department takes its name from two major waterways: the rivers Loire and Indre. But the little Cher chugs through here too, and the Vienne tips into the Loire after sauntering west from the town of Chinon.

One of six departments in the Centre region, Indre-et-Loire combines laid-back villages and a slow-paced lifestyle, with a highly developed tourist infrastructure. But it’s not just a playground; there’s also a nod to industry, principally around Tours. A prosperous silk-manufacturing town from the 15th to 17th centuries, Tours became a 20th-century hub for railway workshops. Agriculture dominated the outlying areas, before the region was ravaged in the Second World War.

Unsurprisingly, given the feast of ch�teaux within its borders, tourism is the vital cog in the Indre-et-Loire wheel. But despite the crowds who flock to the fairytale castles, it can be a tranquil place. The Loire-Anjou-Touraine natural regional park extends over its western and southern sectors, quiet roads rumple over wooded hills and villages unnamed in the glossy brochures retain an unruffled way of life.

The peaceful nature of the countryside is reflected in the number of people, both locals and visitors, who travel by bicycle. One of the most popular sections of the Loire � V�lo cycle route, which shadows the River Loire for more than 600 kilometres, passes through Indre-et-Loire, and the back roads have so little traffic that they’re a haven for cyclists too.

Inevitably, the spotlight shines on the Loire, Queen of Rivers. Everyone knows of the great ch�teaux on the banks of the Republic’s longest waterway, and most can name the major towns. But there’s more to Indre-et-Loire than a river – other connections include the residency of Leonardo da Vinci at Manoir du Clos-Luc� in Amboise, the birthplace of writer Rabelais at Seuilly and the 17th-century town created by cat-loving Cardinal Richelieu.

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While the temptation is to dip into sheltered corners, it’s impossible to stay away from the honeypots. More than 15 ch�teaux include some of the most beautiful in France, and range from the forbidding fortress of Chinon to the Renaissance luxury of Azay-le-Rideau. Who could bear to miss the watery magnificence of Chenonceau or the sculpted gardens of Villandry? It’s a stern heart that drives past the wedding-cake spires of Ch�teau Uss�, inspiration for the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, or the flower-decked village of Candes-Saint-Martin.

An exploration of Indre-et-Loire often becomes linear, following the routes of the rivers. The Loire is the northern line, splitting Tours and mirrored by the Cher, a nudge to the south. This gives this cathedral city three footholds, with the ancient heart on a spit of land between the rivers. The cathedral quarter is here, dominated by the vast towers of the 15th-century Saint-Gatien – named after the man who introduced the Roman town to hristianity.

Tours has been an administrative centre for so long that it’s developed a reputation as being rather staid. That’s entirely unfair: Tours has bustling caf�s, funky museums and a vibrant and picturesque old quarter – le Vieux Tours – which includes restaurant-rammed Place Plumereau and a maze of medieval streets. It’s also surprisingly green, and the population of around 140,000 make full use of the many parks in the city.

Part of Tours’ cosmopolitan character comes from its proximity to Paris. Despite a slow start by refusing to welcome the new-fangled railways in the 19th century, Tours is now an important station on the TGV network. The 200 kilometres to Paris is dealt with in less than an hour (or 90 minutes to Charles de Gaulle airport), effectively pushing Tours into the commuter belt. The city has its own airport too, serving the UK and Ireland as well as French centres.

This transport network makes Tours the ideal base for visits to the many and varied ch�teaux. The closest is Villandry, a 13-kilometre bike ride alongside the River Cher from Tours centre, and famed for its recreated Renaissance gardens. They are arranged on terraces, with a formal water garden at the highest point, another dedicated to love and music, a potager kitchen garden, plus a medieval herb garden and maze. The elegant 16th-century ch�teau, with a 12th-century keep, is built around a courtyard and is also open to the public; but the gardens are the real draw.

A nudge south of this shrine to horticultural devotion is another treasure. On a little island in the Indre river, Azay-le-Rideau is a dream-like Renaissance palace: with its turrets, moat and parkland, it lets the romantic imagination run riot. In daylight it is a delight, and on summer nights it transforms again, with a sound and light show that steals the breath. As darkness falls, brightly coloured chimera – trees, beasts and fantasy figures – are projected onto the white walls, while ethereal music wafts from hidden speakers and fountains blow blue mist across the facades.

From Azay-le-Rideau, the Indre continues its flow west past the sparkling spires of Ch�teau Uss� to join the Loire. Near the junction, where the River Vienne also meets the Loire and on the border with Maine-et-Loire, is Candes-Saint-Martin. One of France’s Plus Beaux Villages, this tiny place is home to one of the most magnificent churches on the Loire. Semi-fortified and richly decorated, the church of St Martin is named after the local saint who died here in 400AD while trying to settle a dispute among squabbling monks.

Fisticuffs appear to have been the norm in this area. Just 12 kilometres from Candes-Saint-Martin, along the Vienne, the immense, fortified Ch�teau de Chinon dominates the riverside town. There’s been a fortress here since the Stone Age; in the 12th century it was a favourite residence of Henry Plantagenet who held title to it long before he inherited the English throne. As is well documented, Chinon was also where Jeanne d’Arc met the Dauphin Charles in 1429 and inspired him to rally his army against the English. While statues of Jeanne loom large in the town and ramparts bulge against the skyline, the ch�teau itself is ruined. But the town is a pleasant place, with caf�s under shady trees in the centre and, of course, the slow-flowing River Vienne. The campsite on the opposite riverbank to the ch�teau even has little beaches, and offers a wonderful view of the ch�teau. South of Chinon, and almost on the frontier with the Vienne department, is Richelieu. You won’t find a grand ch�teau here – it was dismantled by an estate agent in the 19th century and the stone sold as building material – but you will find the remnants of the great project by Cardinal Richelieu. His plan in 1630, to build a walled town on a grid arrangement, resulted in the symmetrical Grande Rue, with mansions anchored by a square at either end. The covered market hall is an equal attraction for Francophiles, with a general market held on Friday.

Cardinal Richelieu’s dream may not have stood the test of time, but one that did is an arrow’s flight east. The walled citadel of Loches must be the most impressive of the Loire Valley fortresses, with its intact ramparts, medieval walls and Renaissance houses. Constructed in the 9th century, some 500 metres above the River Indre, the castle, famous for its massive square keep, was designed and occupied by Henry II of England and his son Richard the Lionheart during the 12th century. Surprisingly, considering the lure of the architecture, it’s much quieter than many of the other ‘great sites’ despite being just 40 kilometres from Tours. As an even bigger bonus, the twice-weekly market, in the streets above the ch�teau gate, is probably the best in the area.

North of Loches, closer to Tours and overrun with visitors in summer, is another Indre-et-Loire magnet. Chenonceau, a tiny village on the department’s eastern fringe; is barely worth a blink. But its ch�teau, straddling the River Cher, is a place of astonishing beauty and riveting history. Known as ‘le ch�teau des dames’, Chenonceau was always controlled by women. Since its creation in the 16th century, they have included Diane Poitiers (mistress of Henry II, who gave her Chenonceau) and Catherine de’ Medici (wife of Henry II; she forced Diane to give her the ch�teau in exchange for nearby Ch�teau Chambord). Mary, Queen of Scots and bride of Fran�ois II, spent time here and in the 18th century Madame Dupin invited guests including writers, philosophers and historians Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau to wander the rooms and grounds.

And what rooms! What grounds! The ch�teau is approached along a plane tree-lined avenue, past lavender bushes, water features and flower beds. Inside visitors jostle through high-ceilinged rooms with carved oak doors, Flemish tapestries and Italian paintings. But what really sets Chenonceau apart is the series of graceful stone arches across the River Cher which support a hall for the full width of the water. The hall is covered with rib vaults decorated with roses, cherubs and chimera, carved in 1515 and representing some of the most extraordinary sculpting from the French Renaissance period. While the interior is breathtaking, the grounds are calming. The garden is protected from flooding by the Cher, thanks to elevated terraces which provide views over the river and ch�teau.

If Chenonceau was the ultimate royal palace, it had – in intention, at least – a challenger in the vicinity. A rolling ride north, over wooded ridges and quiet fields, is the town of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire. After Charles VIII married Duchess Anne of Brittany at nearby Ch�teau Langeais in 1491, he decided to turn his childhood home into an extravagant palace. He embellished Ch�teau d’Amboise with a Gothic wing and built the chapel of Saint Hubert, but died after bashing his head on a door lintel. The ch�teau was passed on, through Louis XII to Fran�ois I, who invited the inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci to work in Amboise under his protection.

Da Vinci journeyed across the Alps, carrying paintings including the Mona Lisa, and settled into the Manoir de Clos-Luc�, downhill from the ch�teau, for the final three years of his life. Today the red-brick manoir and its parkland are far more than a museum: based on da Vinci’s sketches and plans, 40 models of his mechanical inventions, from a flying machine to a paddle-steamer, revolving bridge and a parachute, give an insight into a genius centuries ahead of his time.

There’s time to draw breath and absorb the enormity of da Vinci’s visions, on the short journey west along the Loire back to Tours. But there’s no need to hurry: on the north bank, just before the city, is Vouvray, where vineyards are planted above the river in clay and limestone.

And what finer way to end an exploration of Indre-et-Loire than with wines from this diverse, captivating department? A robust Cabernet Franc from Chinon, teamed with goat’s cheese from Sainte-Maure? A floral Grolleau Noir from Azay-le-Rideau’s ros� collection with a side-nibble of Tours’ speciality nougat? A zesty Touraine Sauvignon or sparkling sip of Vouvray’s finest? Sant�!