France’s Loire Valley captured my imagination early on. When I was a child, I found a book at my local library called Châteaux of the Loire Valley. I was transfixed by the images of stately castles with their turrets and intricate facades. I had seen castles like this in my favorites fairytale books. I couldn’t believe they existed in real life. From that moment, I knew I would visit France one day. I went to Paris at 18, but I didn’t actually make it to the Loire Valley until the age of 33.

The belle of all French châteaux.

Château de Chenonceau was just as lovely as I imagined it would be. I also enjoyed visiting Château de Chambord and Chaumont-Sur-Loire. I’ve visited the Loire Valley three times and I’ve realized there is much more to love than castles. It’s an excellent region for biking with well-marked bike routes crisscrossing the valley’s gently rolling hills. Loire Valley wines are delicious and affordable. The Loire Valley is a vast area, about 310 square miles. I’ve chosen two towns, one in the UNESCO-protected western end of the valley and one in the less-traveled eastern end, to consider making your home base.

Music credit: “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, Movement I (Allegro), BWV 1049” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
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Amboise

This charming town, on the banks of the Loire River, is an excellent choice if you want to visit many of the region’s most famous châteaux. Château d’Amboise and Clos Lucê are located in town. Chenonceau is just ten miles away and Château Chaumont-sur-Loire is a 17-minute drive.

Restaurants

Chez Bruno

This French bistro is located on historic Place Michel Debré just below Chäteau d’Amboise. It offers a small, but reliable menu of French classics such as escargots in butter and garlic, and rumpsteak in pepper sauce with a side of crispy frites. Housemade desserts such as crème brulée and molten chocolate cake are delicious.

40 Place Michel Debré

Amboise 37400

+33 02 47 57 73 49

La Fourchette

This charming restaurant, tucked in an ally off of the main road in Amboise, is beloved by locals and tourists for its French home cooking. The chef makes just two entrées, two mains and two desserts each day, ensuring everything is fresh and in season. It’s a very small restaurant so, book ahead.

9 rue Malebranche

Amboise 37400

+33 06 11 78 16 98

Sights

Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire

With its parapet walkway flanked by two towers, this château seems plucked from a Walt Disney story. Charles II d’Amboise built the Renaissance château in the late 1400s on the site of a former fortress. Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II, acquired it in 1550 and she installed the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, there after essentially kicking her out of Chenonceau (more on this below). Poitiers reportedly never liked it as well as Chenonceau, but she did make many changes to the château including adding the Saint-Nicolas Tower. Many other owners followed and today, the interiors reflect a variety of different styles and time periods including the Ruggieri Room with a 17th century canopy bed and a painted fireplace from the 1500s and a Great Salon decorated in mid 19th style featuring walls covered in yellow silk brocatelle. The stables are a highlight of a visit to Chaumont-sur-Loire. Built in 1877 by Paul-Ernest Sanson, the brick and stone stables were considered the most luxurious in all of Europe in the late 19th century. The saddle room contains beautiful harnesses made by Hermès. Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire is home to an Arts and Nature Center where there are permanent and temporary art installations. The food served at the domaine’s various restaurants is quite good.

Chaumont-sur-Loire 41150

+33 02 54 20 99 22

Château d’Amboise overlooks the Loire River.

Château d’Amboise

Once home to the royal court, many French kings spent time at Château d’Amboise including Charles VII and Henry II. It was rebuilt extensively during the late 1400s. King Francis I was raised at Amboise. The young king, a great lover of the arts, brought Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise in 1515 and the artist is buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert located on the castle grounds. Château d’Amboise sits on a bluff above town and has wonderful views of the valley.

Montée de l’Emir Abd el Kader

Amboise 37400

+33 02 47 57 00 98

Chambord is easily the largest château in the Loire.

Château de Chambord

This imposing Renaissance château, built as a hunting lodge by Francis I, was never completely finished. The king only spent about 72 days there total, but it remains an important symbol of French power and ingenuity. It’s the largest château in the Loire Valley, with more than 280 fireplaces, and it has a double helix staircase that may have been designed by da Vinci himself. Grapevines were planted on the Chambord property in 1518-1519 and the château has been replanting vines since 2015. The first grape harvest will take place in 2019 to coincide with the château’s 500th anniversary.

Chambord 41250

+33 02 54 50 40 00

It’s beautiful everywhere you look at Chenonceau.

Château de Chenonceau

Where Chambord is robust and masculine, Chenonceau, an elegant château spanning the River Cher, is graceful and feminine. A number of famous women have been its most notable stewards. Built in the early 1500s, it was seized by the crown for unpaid debts in 1535. After Francis I died in 1547, King Henry II gave the château to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Henry’s wife Catherine de Medici coveted the château herself and when her husband died, due to an injury sustained during a jousting match, she forced Poitiers to sell it to her.

Floral arrangements at Chenonceau are created by a Meilleur Ouvrier de France.

Once just a bridge that went across the river Cher, Catherine enclosed it and added two additional levels, including a gallery for parties, thus giving the château its most iconic feature. The most visited of all the châteaux in the Loire Valley, Chenonceau is kept in pristine condition. The property’s dueling gardens, including the Garden de Catherine de Medici and the Garden de Diane de Poitiers, located on a floating parterre, are gorgeous and offer great vantage points for photographing the château. Chenonceau’s head florist is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and the floral arrangements that decorate the castle, comprised of blooms grown in the property’s flower garden, are stunning.

Chenonceaux 37 150

+33 820 20 90 90

The park and gardens are a highlight of a visit to Clos Lucé.

 

Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years at the Château de Clos Lucé.

Château du Clos Lucé

Leonardo da Vinci lived in this château, a summerhouse for French kings, from 1515 until his death in 1519. There was reportedly an underground passageway linking the residence with Château d’Amboise. Visitors can see models and machines designed by Leonardo, the Great Room featuring a Mona Lisa copy painted in 1654, and the bedchamber where the brilliant artist/inventor drew his last breath. The park surrounding the château includes Leonardo da Vinci-inspired art installations.

2 rue du Clos Lucé

Amboise 37400

+33 02 47 57 00 73

 

Le Manoir Les Minimes offers a charming and luxurious stay in Amboise.

Hotels

Hôtel Le Manoir Les Minimes

This wisteria-clad manor makes a charming home base in Amboise. It’s located just below the Château d’Amboise, most rooms offer views of it, and is walking distance to the center of town and its restaurants, boutiques and wine shops. Guestrooms all feature a tasteful mix of antiques and more contemporary furnishings and art. Rooms begin at around $111 a night, but prices can be much higher during spring and summer.

34 Quai Charles Guinot

Amboise 377400

+33 02 47 30 40 40

The interiors at Le Manoir les Minims are immaculate.

Airbnb

Amboise offers some wonderful and affordable vacation rentals. A selection on Airbnb can be found here.

Wine

La Grange Tiphaine

This family-owned winery is on the outskirts of Amboise. It makes excellent low intervention Montlouis sur Loires and Touraines. The Bel Air, a fruity and refreshing Touraine Amboise made from Chenin Blanc grapes, is an excellent bottle to take home. The winery offers tastings by appointment.

1407 rue du Clos Chauffour

Amboise 37400

+33 02 47 30 53 80

Sancerre

I would pick this pretty hill top town, or the area that surrounds it, as a home base for exploring the Loire Valley’s less touristy eastern end.

It feels like you’re going back in time when you dine at Le Laurier.

Restaurants

Le Laurier

This lovely restaurant is located in Saint-Satur just down the hill from the town of Sancerre. Although it has had a few different owners, it has been in continuous operation since the early 1900s and its décor, wine stained wallpaper, black and white tile floor, copper pots hanging from the wall, seems unchanged since then. It is all kept in immaculate condition thanks to the current owner Josiane Mazouz-Chaix who works tirelessly in the front and the back of the house. The hearty coq au vin is delicious. Mouzouz-Chaix also operates a small hotel with simple, clean guestrooms upstairs.

29 rue du Commerce

Saint-Satur 18300

+33 02 48 54 17 20

Restaurant La Tour

Located on the main square in Sancerre, this Michelin star kitchen offers elegant French fare with an Asian twist. Think Japanese rice with a red cabbage sauce.

31 Place Nouvelle Place

Sancerre, 18300

+33 02 48 54 00 81

Restaurant Le Chat

A former Le Chateaubriand sous-chef owns this bistro in Cosne-Cours-sur- Loire. It’s laid back with simple décor and an excellent wine list.

42 bis rue des Guérins

Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire 58200

+33 03 86 28 49 03

The terrace at La Chancelière is a wonderful place to watch the sunset.

Hotels

La Chancelière

More of a bed and breakfast then a hotel, the owners still live in this charming château dating back to the 1500s while the eight guestrooms are located on the second floor. Each room is uniquely decorated and most offer nice views of the countryside. Guests are able to enjoy the beautiful outdoor patio and the charming living room where breakfast and happy hour are served daily.

5 rue Hilaire Amagat

Saint-Satur 18300

+33 02 48 54 01 57

Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan

This 12th century monastery is known for its medieval gardens, but it also offers stylish guestrooms. The restaurant serves lunch and afternoon tea.

Prieré Notre-Dame d’Orsan,

Maisonnais, 18170

+33 02 48 56 27 50

The hilltop town of Sancerre has spectacular views of the countryside.

Wine

Henri Bourgeois

This well-known domaine has been producing Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé for ten generations in the charming village of Chavignol. The clean and flinty Sancerres are consistently good and often win awards. The tasting room is open daily and tours can be booked by appointment.

Domaine Henri Bourgeois

Chavignol

+33 02 48 78 53 20

Alphonse Mellot

Alphonse Mellot’s excellent rich and full-flavored Sancerres are served in many of the best restaurants in France. You can pick up a bottle to take home from the small storefront just off of the main square in Sancerre.

3 rue Porte César,

Sancerre 18300

+33 02 48 54 07 41

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