Road trip: explore south of the Loire Valley

Road trip: explore south of the Loire Valley

Jump in the car, escape the tourists in the Loire Valley and discover some less famous châteaux in Deux-Sèvres and Vienne with our short road trip itinerary

Day 1: Montreuil-Belay to Saint-Loup-Lamairé

Starting a road trip at a location as glorious as Montreuil-Bellay, south of Saumur, may easily put paid to any further progress. Charming, winding streets often play host to brocantes and vide-greniers, but if that is not enough to tempt you, then there is the beautiful Château de Montreuil-Bellay. The château has a predominantly 15th-century look, but actually took four centuries to complete, and looms above the River Thouet, itself a perfect picnic spot.

If you can tear yourself away, the road soon takes you from Maine-et-Loire into Deux-S?vres, where the town of Thouars welcomes you with its dramatic river gorge location, the towering castle of the Dukes of La Trémoille and the recently renovated Romanesque church of Saint Médard. Place Médard is a good spot for lunch before heading for the open fields to the south east. Blink and you might miss it, but just outside the village of Taizé are no fewer than nine megalithic sites, with tombs and a burial mound, well worth a quick stop and a leg stretch.

Take the small D145, and Saint-Généroux soon reveals its compact charms, complete with convent ruins and a Roman bridge over the River Thouet. Heading east, drive past the impressive 11th century abbey church at Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes, with seemingly endless skies hanging over the open countryside. Turn off towards Moncontour and make your way through the stunning Vallée de la Dive for a brief dip into Vienne and a visit to this attractive village. The centrepiece is the 11th-century donjon (castle keep) built by Count of Anjou Foulque Nerra, who was well-known for his Loire Valley constructions. Giving excellent views of the surrounding landscapes, the largely ruined tower is a pleasant place for a wander, whatever the weather.

Passing through the commune of Marnes, the rural D144 leads back towards Airvault. The market hall was built in the 19th century on the site of a similar construction from the Middle Ages and bustles with life every Saturday. From Airvault, follow the meandering course of the River Thouet through Louin and on to Saint-Loup-Lamairé. The village stages an annual art weekend and also offers beautiful walks, cycle rides, and canoeing and kayaking on the river. The local goat’s cheese is excellent.

Stop for lunch at… one of the restaurants on Place Médard, such as the Trait d’Union (menus from €12)

Stay the night at… the Château de Saint-Loup (doubles from €125) or the Relais du Chapeau Rouge (rooms from €49), which also serves delicious and good-value food (menus from €23).


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Day 2: Saint-Loup-Lamairé to Chinon

Leaving Saint-Loup, head for Gourgé to cross back over the River Thouet, looking to the left to see the village’s original Roman bridge before passing through the open countryside, keeping an eye out for wild deer, hares and herons.

Make your way through Thénezay, before reaching medieval Mirebeau, back in the Vienne. The town is famed for the shaggy, generously eared Poitou breed of donkey and the Musée du Haut-Poitou, which displays hundreds of objects related to farming and everyday life from the 12th to the 20th centuries.

Heading north-east, stop at the moated Renaissance château of Coussay and enjoy the gentle agricultural and wooded landscapes that you pass through before reaching the village of Monts-sur-Guesnes on the highest point of the Loudunais plain. Pause here for a tour of the 15th-century château with its sculpted frieze of hunting scenes and impressive Gothic-style north facade before continuing northwards, to pass through pretty little villages replete with sunflower fields.

Follow the D7 until it tips over into Indre-et-Loire and becomes the D22, and make your way to Richelieu for a relaxed lunch on the elegant Place du Marché. Spend the early afternoon exploring this architecturally superb town, designed in the 17th century as a coherent whole to reflect the stature of the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu.

Although the cardinal’s grand palace was plundered and damaged during the Revolution, before eventually being torn down, the park and gardens still reflect the grandeur and opulence of the residence that once occupied them. The town is compact enough to wander around and offers chic shopping opportunities.

Once you have passed through the impressive city gates, the countryside soon becomes more heavily wooded, before eventually spilling out into the almost gorge-like valley of the River Vienne.

A short detour across the bridge to Chinon delivers dividends to the visitor, with plenty of cafés and restaurants, as well as the impressive château. The castle was once owned by the English king Henry II and in 1429 played host to the teenage Joan of Arc during her talks with the future Charles VII.

Chinon is justifiably known for its red wines, which definitely deserve some affection from any non-driving passengers, or better still, take advantage of one of the many hotels and experience the town’s delights more thoroughly. A walking tour is an excellent way to do this, while boat trips are available for a different point of view. Vineyard tours are also popular in the area.

The town is a good place to end a short road trip or an excellent gateway to a longer foray along the Loire Valley itself, with gracious Saumur just a short journey away.

Stop for lunch at… Brasserie le Richelieu on the elegant Place du Marché.

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