The Loire, the longest river in France, rises in the Cévennes mountains and makes its way north, marking the edge of the Burgundy region, to Orléans, city of Joan of Arc. There it turns west and, for almost three hundred kilometres, between Orléans and Angers, it is surrounded by such a density of beautiful châteaux that the whole valley is a designated World Heritage Site. After Angers, the Loire empties into the Atlantic at the Bay of Biscay. The spine of central France, it connects the rural vineyards of Burgundy to the triumphant buildings of the feudal age to the beaches of the Atlantic Coast.
But even far from the châteaux, Central France has plenty to offer the visitor, with attractive countryside, many interesting towns and villages, and great cultural attractions.
This area is known as the garden of France, for its abundance of vineyards and fruit orchards lining the banks of the river. The wine regions of the Loire Valley include Muscadet, Sancerre, and Pouilly-Fumé, and the vineyards are generally open to visitors.
The French monarchy were the first to construct châteaux here and the nobility quickly followed. When, in the 16th century, King François I moved the seat of the monarchy back to Paris, the Loire Valley remained popular as a summer retreat for the aristocrats. A building boom of châteaux attracted some of the top architects, artists and craftspeople from all over Europe, and the result is hundreds of spectacular buildings, designed not as fortresses but as residences. Many of the smaller ones have been converted to hotels and or are in private hands, but the largest and finest are owned by the French government and are open to visitors all year round.
The cities and towns to visit include Orléans, the town of Joan of Arc, where one can visit the restored house where she lived, maintained in its 15th century condition. The extensive medieval centre of Orléans includes many fine old houses. Tours is a lively town with plenty of medieval and Renaissance architecture. Saint-Benoit-du-Sault, officially one of the most beautiful villages in France, is built around a monastery with narrow picturesque streets of 15th century houses.
An independent region until the late 15th century, Burgundy was historically wealthy and its legacy of prosperity and productivity can be seen in its cities, towns and landmarks. Among the sites to see are Fontenay Abbey, a finely preserved 12th century monastery set amid forests, surrounded by cultivated gardens. The city of Dijon has a rich history from the time when it was one of the major cities of Europe; today, it’s a bustling commercial centre with plenty of buildings and monuments to visit, several museums, and good shopping opportunities.
Beaune, in central Burgundy, is built around its superbly preserved 15th century hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu. Cluny, site of a famous monastery, was second only to Rome as a centre of religious power in the 10th century; today the monastery and its surrounding village is well worth a visit. The Morvan Regional Park preserves thousands of square kilometres of the Burgundy countryside as a place to enjoy hiking or cycling.