The valley of the Loire River—an important wine-producing area—has splendid chateaus, rolling countryside and charming villages. It's a great area to rent a bicycle and explore small country roads or travel by boat from village to village. Though it's often seen on a day trip from Paris, we recommend at least two nights in the area.
Tours, 147 mi/237 km southwest of Paris in the heart of the most popular section of the Loire Valley, is an excellent base for visiting the region's many chateaus. In the city itself, visit the old quarter, the Gothic Cathedral of St. Gatien, the Touraine Wine Museum, the fine-arts museum (an excellent collection) and Plessis les Tours (King Louis XI died there). Then hit the countryside.
Saumur is memorable for its mighty chateau looming above the river, as well as its carnival-mask factory. Among our other favorite chateaus are: Usse, home of the Sleeping Beauty legend; Blois, with the King's Garden and a dramatic spiral staircase; Amboise, a spectacular castle overlooking the Loire River; and Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci lived in later life, died and is buried.
Also visit Chenonceau, built over the Cher River and often referred to as The Castle of Six Ladies; Langeais, a never-renovated 15th-century chateau; and Chinon, a spectacular ruined chateau where Joan of Arc met Charles VII. Balzac spent time in the area, and you can visit the Musee Balzac at Chateau de Sache, where he wrote some of his finest novels.
You should also try to see Azay-le-Rideau, which has splendid gardens and is probably the most photographed of all the great houses; and Chateau de Chambord, a massive, elegant, 440-room castle built by Francis I and surrounded by the National Swan Park and Reserve. And although the chateau at Villandry isn't all that impressive, its formal gardens are considered among the best in the nation.
Between Tours and Vendome, Troo is a village of cave dwellings built into the hillside. The church atop the hill allows a nice view of the valley.
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