If you are looking for fairytale castles, picturesque countryside and quality food and wine on your romantic holiday in France, then the Loire Valley is perfect – so long as you can avoid the coach tours. So I set out to discover an unspoilt corner of France’s valley of the kings.
Francois Rabelais reputedly once said that if you removed idleness from the world, the arts of Cupid would soon perish. Wendy Chapman claims that her Chambres d’hote in France’s Loire Valley has a very high success rate for couples trying to conceive. Whatever the connection, I have certainly found the ideal spot for a romantic holiday in the Loire Valley.
Maybe it’s the peculiar light. It’s as if in all of grimy, hazy Europe a small part of the world has had its face freshly washed. The view from the window is of sunlight on the rapeseed field against a bruised sky.
Maybe it’s the peaceful beauty of the lush, undulating countryside. Every garden has a foaming lilac, every wall is loaded with wisteria and every village has its Judas tree.
Maybe it’s the history. Here kings, courtiers and clergy kept mistresses and lived the kind of luxurious and debauched lifestyle that could only be supported by great power and wealth.
For many tourists the Loire Valley means Chenonceau, Amboise and Chambord and the hordes of holidaymakers disgorged from coach tours every day. Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais was born in nearby Indre-et-Loire and I think he would be saying “a bellyful is a bellyful” with regard to the tourists who crawl like ants over these great royal chateaux.
The region is the setting for over 300 chateaux, most of which are not overrun but are nevertheless exquisite and loaded with romance. Heading away from the main Loire Valley attractions we found the imposingly gothic Chateau du Lude – a typical Renaissance chateau of this region. And Plessis-Boure, also off the usual Loire Valley touring routes, quickly became my favourite.
Seemingly fit for just one princess (and her prince), Plessis-Boure was the creation of a treasurer to Louis XI and is little altered to this day. It is utterly romantic in its isolation, and amid its wide moats full of lilies.
At the Wednesday morning market in La Fleche there were sweet galigette strawberries for sale. I know that’s what they are because they were served with my breakfast every morning this week at my Loire Valley bed and breakfast.
This market makes no concession to touristic stereotypes of kitsch French country fare. It’s just loads of beautiful fresh produce, cured meats, honey and cheeses, frequented by jabbering French people.
In France on May Day it is traditional to give a handful of Lily of the Valley flowers to mothers, grandmothers and girlfriends, and many women at the market were already wearing their May Day badge.
Peter Chapman sources food from local markets and known growers to supply the table at Le Bignon, a supremely hospitable chambres d’hotes and self-catering accommodation in the Loire Valley.
The menu is dictated by what is available and for us the all too brief green asparagus season inspired a delicate chicken roulade, stuffed with asparagus and accompanied by a creamy sauce and an un-oaked Loire Valley chardonnay.
This Loire Valley B&B has been created by Wendy and Peter Chapman as a labour of talent and love. It’s a great base for enjoying the unspoilt Loire Valley countryside, cruising down the quiet roads, walking in the woods or sitting by the pool.
The roads are really amazingly quiet and our driving tour along the valley of the Loire began at the iconic chateau of Saumur, brooding over the more lively town, and continued along the river.
Here the houses, cathedrals and chateaux have long been built from the tufa stone dug from the hills. Caves tunnelled under the hills have been used to store casks, apples and people, and to cultivate mushrooms, while vineyards grow above ground.
It seems that every few metres appears another opportunity to stop at a cave for degustation. But, as Rabelais once said, there are more old drunkards than old physicians. Actually the old humanist was full of wit on the subject of alcohol: “When I drink, I think; and when I think, I drink” being one of my favourites.
The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud was once Europe’s largest monastic city and must have been a fascinating community, living under the authority of an abbess who ruled over a priory of nuns and one of priests.
Usse and Azay le Rideau are two famously fairytale castles worth a visit en route to the climax of this Loire Valley driving tour – the mighty Renaissance chateaux of Villandry. The Loire Valley is known the garden of France and at Villandry is the garden of the Loire Valley.
The gardens of Villandry are a 20th-century recreation of a renaissance garden with a twist. Salad greens may not be your usual inspiration for formal decorative garden design but here vegetables take precedence over flowers in the parterres of a giant kitchen garden that perfectly frames the elegant chateaux.
Long cloisters of pollarded trees cast shadow shapes on the grass of the meditative water garden and the labyrinth would probably be equally meditative if it weren’t for the children tearing around having a great time.
The nearby garden of love sets the seal on a romantic Loire Valley holiday with its intricate patterns of box and bright flowers representing the tender, passionate, fickle and tragic moods of love.
Driving back into Angers to catch the TGV our path was blocked by thousands on a May Day march. Unions, socialists, environmentalists – a real French family day out.
So we joined the Angevins in their typically French march through the city until, clutching my wilted and crushed Lily of the Valley we stepped onto the train for home.
By Natasha von Geldern
Where to stay in the Loire Valley
I stayed at Le Bignon, which provides high quality (and romantic) bed and breakfast accommodation, as well as self-catering accommodation for larger groups in Vine House. See French Connections for many other accommodation options if you are planning a holiday in France.