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Loire Valley France

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It is easy to see why the Loire Valley has always been popular with French kings and tourists alike. The Loire river is a proud fleuve, a magnificent entity that is so wide whole islands get lost in it; it is the longest river in France at 628 miles, and it has some very illustrious neighbours.

Castles, mansions, palaces and fortresses bear witness to its course as it flows from its source in the Vivarais mountains towards its outlet into the Atlantic at St Nazaire. There are so many places of historical interest along the river that the whole Loire Valley has been named a World Heritage Site. It is easy for your trip to the Loire to descend into an inventory of famous names and places but if you accept that trying to see everything on the list limits your ability to enjoy any of it, you will start to appreciate things more.

The Pays de la Loire region is made up of five départements : Loire Atlantique (44); Maine et Loire (49); Mayenne (53); Sarthe (72); and Vendée (85).

Le Mans has gained international acclaim for its 24 hour motor races but it also has a splendid cathedral. The area around Le Mans is popular with Parisians because it is only a short train ride or car journey away from the capital and so handy for weekend breaks or second homes. Other towns worth a visit are the university town of Tours, picturesque Amboise, and historical Orléans, the gateway to the Loire Valley from Paris.

The tradition of popping to the Loire for the weekend or a short break began in the 15th century when kings, princes and nobles spent their family wealth building remarkable (and not so remarkable) châteaux. Before that, grand defences were built at strategic points along the Loire to protect France from invaders and warring civil factions. They have left us with an architectural legacy that ranges from medieval fortress, through decorative Renaissance pleasure home, to neoclassical country house with fantastical gardens. If you want to visit several châteaux from different periods and styles, you could begin with either the ruined medieval fortress at Chinon, or Ussé, the fairytale palace that began life as a military defence and is said to have inspired Charles Perrault's version of Sleeping Beauty. Then move on to either Azay le Rideau or Chenonceau, both of which exude Renaissance grandeur and are set in beautiful grounds, on a moat and a river respectively. Arrive early or late, or at lunchtime in order to avoid the crowds at these two popular châteaux. The most incredible Renaissance gardens are to be found at Villandry, 13km west of Tours, where aubergines and cabbages are planted near rose arbours to create an intriguing and ornamental tapestry of colour.