Formed by the course of the Loire river toward the Atlantic, the Loire valley – and the Centre region surrounding it – was the heart of medieval France. The country's nobles enjoyed hunting in the wooded valleys, making the region the playground of the rich and famous. The city of Orléans was one of the country's richest and most cultured, while kings and nobles built the stunning châteaux that dot the valley to display their power and wealth.
Today, tourists flock to the Loire valley not only to enjoy its beautiful historic architecture but also to bask in the sun and enjoy the peaceful scenery of the “garden of France”.
The climate of the Loire valley is generally warm and mild, with hot summers and gentle, slightly rainy autumns. Spring is humid and warm. Although summers in the Loire valley are hot, the persistent cool Atlantic breezes mean that the heat isn't unbearable. Winters are chilly but not excessive, with temperatures seldom falling below freezing.
The generally mild seasons of the Loire valley contribute to its famous wines; they also mean that there's never really a bad time for a holiday in the Loire valley.
Although the countryside of the Loire valley is beautiful in itself, there are three main types of attractions for a holiday in the Loire valley. The first, of course, is the Loire valley's collection of historic châteaux. There are more than three hundred of these historic residences in the valley. Among the most famous is Chambord, a former royal residence which is now open to tourists. Other famous castles of the Loire include château d'Amboise, château de Villandry, and Chenonceau. These homes vary in age, some dating as far back as the 15th century and others originating during France's 17th-century golden age. Many of them were restored in the 19th century, giving them their characteristic fairy-tale appearance.
The châteaux aren't the only attractions for history lovers in the Loire region, however. Historic towns like Tours, Orléans and Chartres attract tourists with their art, architecture and museums, to say nothing of great food. The most famous of these destinations is probably the town of Chartres. Although it has no more than 40,000 residents, Chartres is also home to Chartres Cathedral, a 13th-century Gothic edifice widely acknowledged to be France – and possibly therefore the world's – most beautiful medieval cathedral.
For other visitors to the Loire valley, the main attraction isn't castles or churches but wine. There 19 different varieties of wine from the region, including the famous Sancerre. Vineyard tours are a major draw for travellers. The wine growing areas are also popular among cyclists and motorists, as much for their scenic appeal as for their products.
If the Loire valley is the heart of traditional French culture, it's no surprise that much of the cuisine of the region matches our view of French cuisine, with a wide variety of excellent wines and cheeses. The river itself, teeming with life, also influences the local diet.
Size: 39,151 square kilometres
Population: 2,538,000 people
Capital city: Orléans
Provinces: Cher, Eure-et-Loir, Indre, Indre-et-Loire, Loir-et-Cher, Loiret
Landscape: Gentle river valleys, vineyards, magnificent châteaux, wide fields of grain