The Loire valley is a country of rivers and medieval castles. Scores of fortified buildings and famous châteaux punctuate the watery landscape from Angers in the west to Orléans in the east – a distance of only 150 miles. The river cuts its way through the soft pale limestone that history’s château builders have quarried here for centuries. Limestone also forms the bedrock of the Loire’s vineyards; today the old caverns harbour oak barrels and countless bottles of the region’s other famous attraction: wine.
If you’re here in search of fine wine as well as history then why not stay at a vineyard? The owners of Le Manoir de la Noue near Angers, like many winemakers hereabouts, have created three charming chambres d’hôtes rooms in their historic manor house. Spend an afternoon visiting the early medieval fortress at Angers then arrive at Le Manoir at apéritif time. Olivier and Catherine de Cenival will treat you to a glass of their deliciously sweet Coteaux-du-Layon wine or even a full tasting of the estate’s excellent reds, whites and rosés. The bedrooms are in the annex next to the 16th-century house in a converted stone barn. Inside has a rustic feel with oak beams and colour washed walls; outside you’ll discover original statuary, a moated folly and a little grotto within a shady wooded garden full of the colours and scents of the season. Young vines and fruit bushes line up in a mixed nursery that provides sweet grape juice for breakfast and fruit for Catherine’s homemade confitures.
Restaurants abound in Angers; one of the best destinations for a taste of local cuisine and wine is Le Relais run by sommelier Gérard Pelletier and chef Christophe Noël. Choose from over a hundred of the region’s wines to accompany Christophe’s fragrant classic and modern French cuisine. If you’re torn between cheese and dessert, try a dish that is almost both: the fruity, light Crémet d’Angers aux fruits rouges. A semi-sweet Cabernet d’Anjou rosé is the ideal accompaniment to this duo of crème fraîche mousse and red berries.
An hour’s pleasant drive along the left bank of the Loire brings you to Saumur and its château, dominating the skyline from a rocky promontory overlooking the river. Two of the town’s museums are here – don’t miss the view from the ramparts over grey slate roofs to the river valley and the vineyards below. At twelve o’clock everyone hurries to their favourite restaurant and this is the best moment to taste the area’s most celebrated export – Saumur Champigny. This versatile red wine goes well with all kinds of food – try a half bottle at Au Rond de Serviette on Rue Saint Nicolas where they serve up some of the delicious charcuteries from Gerard Girardeau’s award-winning deli next-door.
About twenty miles upriver from Saumur on the banks of the Vienne is Chinon – the birthplace of François Rabelais. On the Quai Jeanne d’Arc a bronze statue of France’s famous satirist gazes down at passers-by and seems unaware of his beloved château whose ancient walls, surrounded by vines, rise up above the town. To sample the best red wines of Chinon head for one of the many independent wineries along the Vienne valley like Domaine Baudry-Dutour in the sleepy wine village of Cravant-les-Coteaux just outside the town. Not far from Chinon is Azay-le-Rideau and its Italian renaissance-inspired château. This beautiful mansion appears to float upon a limpid lake whose serene waters reflect towers and turrets built five centuries ago.
Driving Northeast from Azay you skirt the environs of the city of Tours and, continuing eastwards, rejoin the great river. Tours has no château of its own but Amboise, a short drive upriver, is home to the magnificent royal castle of Charles VIII. Just across the river at Lussault-sur-Loire is the petit Château de Pintray in the Montlouis appellation where you can spend the night. Maryvonne Rault runs a busy chambres d’hôtes business in the main house and her husband Marius has transformed the vineyards which now produce some of the regions best dry and sweet white wines. The rooms here are stuffed full of character: big comfy beds, real family portraits, antique wallpaper, huge roll-top baths. Eat in Amboise in the evening and, in the morning, be prepared for a feast at the breakfast table.
Travelling south from Lussault you reach yet another of the Loire’s many tributaries, the Cher, and the quintessential Loire Château – Chenonceau. Straddling the rippling river, its fairytale turrets and graceful arches create (as Gustave Flaubert reflected) a feeling of ‘gentle peace, elegance and strength’. Garden lovers will be enthralled by the labyrinth and formal gardens. A few minutes drive upstream takes you to the small town of Montrichard. There you’ll find the family winery of the Germain family and their beautiful 18th-century maison d’hôtes, Les Tabourelles. As well as Anne’s charming smile and genuinely warm welcome, you encounter cellars and stairways hewn from the pale rock, a sunny south-facing terrace overlooking the valley and three grand bedrooms with great views. No, it’s not a château, but it feels like a little castle clinging to the rock – a delightful place to stay during your tour. On balmy evenings you can walk into the village to dine at one of several good eateries or stay home and prepare an alfresco meal on the balcony. Try a bottle of the Germain’s fruity rosé – the perfect wine for a summer barbecue.
The journey back via the autoroute is surprisingly short and you arrive in Angers in less than two hours. Return home with memories of renaissance châteaux and the verdant landscape of the Loire valley; and the next time you’re handed a restaurant wine-list look out for the Chinons and Saumurs, Coteaux-du-Layons and Montlouis – names that are synonymous with this river of wine and its fairytale castles.