The magnificent Chateau d’Amboise reached its golden age in the fifteenth century when the original Gallo-Roman fortress on the Loire was greatly enlarged in flamboyant Gothic style by Louis XI and Charles VIII.
Later, Francois I added classical stonework to this favourite residence of French kings and asked Leonardo da Vinci to become his engineer and architect.
Leonardo also created masked balls for the king in an era of magnificent tournaments and firework festivities.
You can get a taste of court life during this glittering time from the chateau’s summer son-et-lumiere shows.
Chateau Amboise’s huge walls still dominate the town although reduced to a fifth of their previous size. Inside, the tapestry-hung rooms show little hint of the castle’s opulent past. In contrast, the first floor apartments of France’s last king - Louise-Philippe - are decorated with 1830s Empire style furniture and portraits. Open every day except Jan 1 and Dec 25.
This young at heart city with its large student population, is at its liveliest in place Plumereau in the old quarter, with busy outdoor cafes, restaurants and picturesque half-timbered buildings. Find weekly markets and fairs - the huge open market on Thursdays sells fabulous flowers.
In season, buy delicious local plums and melons. A great place for museums and galleries, visit Musee des Vins de Touraine giving the history of this region known for its wine-making, and Musee des Beaux Arts in the ancient Palais des Archeveques with works by Rembrandt and the Impressionists.
Look for a huge cedar tree planted by Napoleon in the Palais gardens and don’t miss the magnificent cathedral Saint-Gatien. Famous historically for the battle of Tours in 732, the turning point for European Christians in their fight against Islamic conquests, today, Tours is famous for another battle - the Paris-Tours cycle race.
Wherever you go in Tours you’ll have no problem understanding directions as its residents are celebrated for their standard pronunciation French. You can even get to Paris in less than an hour from Tours by TGV train.
The high walls and mighty ramparts of its ancient chateau, dating from the fourteenth century, dominate the little town of Chinon on the River Vienne.
The fortress played an important role in medieval Anglo-French conflicts. English kings Henry II and Richard the Lionheart are said to have died here and Joan of Arc is reputed to have tried to persuade Charles VII to expel the English from France at the castle. Find more on Joan of Arc’s history inside and see fourteenth century graffiti carved by Knights Templar awaiting execution in Caudray Tower.
Amongst the cobbled streets and Renaissance half-timbered houses of Chinon’s old town are the painted cellars (Caves Peintes) made famous in stories by sixteenth century writer Francois Rabelais. Local wine growers meet and offer tastings here in summer. Chinon is famous for its quality wine produced in surrounding vineyards between the Rivers Loire and Vienne.
Visit the town’s Animated Wine Museum which has working models showing wine production and an English commentary. There are opportunities to taste and buy here, and also at Chinon’s Maison du Vin.
Hunt for bargains and local produce in the Thursday, Saturday and Sunday markets. Take a guided walk or trip on a traditional river craft from Maison de la Riviere in summer. For cycling and longer walks make tracks for the ancient Chinon forest nearby.
In a region of beautiful gardens, the famous Villandry Chateau Gardens are something special which will delight even seasoned non-gardeners. This living example of sixteenth century Renaissance style planting was re-created by Joachim and Ann Caravallo in the early 1900s after they had restored the chateau.
The Italian-inspired garden layout with its geometric flower patterns, formal hedges and fountains spreads over 3 levels close to the River Cher. At the top, the water garden includes a vast basin feeding the moat and fountains. Lower down, the ornamental garden takes love as its theme with box-edged parterres shaped like hearts, butterflies and flames. Most amazing are the kitchen and herb gardens at the lowest level where vegetables and fruit trees in contrasting squares of colour produce year-round patterns.
The medieval monks who documented the designs are evoked by standard red roses which fill the air with fragrance. There’s a chance to sample produce in late summer and for children there are interactive sites, play areas and a maze. Open all year. See www.chateauvillandry.com for more details.
One look at the creamy stone reflections of Gothic outlines and fragile turrets in the tranquil waters of the River Indre, will tell you that lovely Azay-le-Rideau Chateau was built primarily as a pleasure palace.
Begun in the sixteenth century by wealthy Gilles Briconnet, the unfinished chateau was confiscated by Francis I and not entirely completed until the nineteenth century. Backed by trees and surrounded by water, Azay-le-Rideau is the ideal setting for summer son-et-lumiere which tells its tale nightly from May to September.
The chateau is known for its luxurious interior, grand staircase, tapestries and great selection of antique cooking equipment in the huge kitchen. Open all year apart from Jan 1, May 1 and Dec 25. Tel: (00 33) 2 47 45 42 04 for more details.
Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, the fifteenth century manor house in Amboise where he was installed by Francois I as his painter, engineer and architect, is now a museum and makes for a fascinating visit. See models of his inventions including a flying machine.
Stroll around Clos Luce’s delightful gardens, and walk the grounds where there are life-size, interactive models. And take in the pretty town of Amboise which has good food shops and a riverside weekend market alongside a surprising teddy bear-topped turtle fountain by Max Ernst.
Exquisite Chateau de Chenonceau should be on every ‘must visit’ list, so it’s no surprise it is busy in high season. The castle seems to float serenely, reflected in the surrounding River Cher. The gently flowing waters pass beneath beautiful arched bridges anchoring the elegant architecture to the river banks.
It’s perhaps no accident that the history of this lovely sixteenth century castle has been influenced by women. Catherine Briconnet, wife of the buyer of the original watermill which stood mid-stream, was the inspiration behind the first building completed in 1521.
Later, Henry II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, fashioned beautiful riverside gardens and added a bridge across to the north bank of the Cher. Henry’s widow, Catherine de Medici, claimed the chateau from his mistress, added galleries to the original bridge, outbuildings and created the surrounding parkland.
Chenonceau passed to female members of the family into the eighteenth century. In 1864, the chateau was bought by Madame Pelouze who made it her mission to return Chenonceau to its original glory. Inside the fine interior are beautiful tiled floors and splendid ceilings, furniture and portrait galleries. Open every day. See www.chenonceau.com for more information.
You can take a boat on the Cher on summer days and enjoy a feast of light and music - Nocturne a Chenonceau - in the evening in July and August.
Ruins of the original tenth century castle at Langeais stand in the gardens of the present chateau and are said to be amongst the oldest examples of a stone keep in Europe.
Above the little town, the high walls, moat with functioning drawbridge and huge towers of the present chateau are little changed from the mid fifteenth century when it was rebuilt by Louis XI to defend the Loire Valley against invasion by Bretons.
Ironically, the marriage of Charles VIII to Anne of Brittany in 1491 meant defences were no longer necessary. In fact their wedding was celebrated at the chateau, their waxworks are in the chapel and you can see a diptych of the couple and their marriage chamber.
Interior restoration by owner Jacques Siegfried in the late nineteenth century was so successful the chateau is today acknowledged as giving a true picture of fifteenth century aristocratic castle life. The Renaissance apartments are well furnished with contemporary pieces including decorative fireplaces, fine tapestries, paintings, beds and chairs. Open each day all year. Tel: (00 33) 2 47 96 72 60.
Tradition says the fairytale roofs and towers of fifteenth century Chateau d’Usse were the inspirational setting for seventeenth century Charles Perrault’s tale of Sleeping Beauty. Certainly, this white stone fortress on the edge of the Chinon forest in the Indre Valley is picture perfect as a backdrop for the story. Twentieth century film-maker Walt Disney may also have used Usse as a model for his cartoon castles.
Children will love to climb to the attic rooms of the round tower to see waxworks of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. Closed mid Nov - mid Feb. Tel: (00 33) 2 47 95 54 05
The fascinating troglodyte dwellings of Goupillieres were discovered by chance in 1962 by a boy playing in an abandoned bramble-filled valley. Farms and shelters carved hundreds of years ago from the soft tufa stone by medieval peasants would have originally been created to protect their families and livestock from bandits.
The village has been restored by its present owner so visitors can see the way these troglodyte farmers lived up until 100 years ago. Live horses, pigs, hens, rabbits and other animals inhabit the cattle sheds, barns, henhouse and rabbit hutch.
There’s a bakers oven, grain silo and deep tunnel where villagers could hide in times of danger. Children can let their imagination run riot in the woodland cabin fortress and witches’ hut. Open afternoons daily 12 Feb to 13 March; weekend afternoons 19 March to 4 April and daily 9 April to 14 Nov. For more information see www.troglodytedesgoupillieres.fr