Things to see and do - Châteaux of the Loire
The Loire region is enclosed by the ancient crystalline masses of the Morvan, Armorican Massif and Massif Central and forms part of the Paris Basin.
In the Secondary Era the area invaded by the sea was covered by a soft, chalky deposit known as tufa , which is now exposed along the valley sides of the Loir, Cher, Indre and Vienne. A later deposit is the limestone of the sterile marshlands ( gâtines ) interspersed with tracts of sands and clays supporting forests and heathlands. Once the sea had retreated, great freshwater lakes deposited more limestone, the surface of which is often broken down into loess or silt. These areas are known as champagnes or champeignes .
During the Tertiary Era, the folding of the Alpine mountain zone created the Massif Central, and rivers running down from this new watershed were often laden with sandy clays, which, when they were deposited, gave rise to areas such as the Sologne and Orléans Forest. Later subsidence in the west permitted the ingress of the Faluns Sea as far as Blois, Thouars and Preuilly-sur-Claise, creating a series of shell marl beds (falunières) on the borders of Ste-Maure plateau and the hills to the north of the Loire. Rivers originally flowing northwards were attracted in a westerly direction by the sea, thus explaining the great change in the direction of the Loire at Orléans. The sea finally retreated for good, leaving an undulating countryside with the river network the most important geographical feature. The alluvial silts (varennes) deposited by the Loire and its tributaries were to add an extremely fertile light soil composed of coarse sand.
The limestone terraces, which provided shelter, and the naturally fertile soil here attracted early human habitation, of which there are traces from the prehistoric era through the Gallo-Roman period (site of Cherré) to the Middle Ages (Brain-sur-Allonnes). This substratum is immediately reflected in the landscape: troglodyte dwellings in the limestone layers, vineyards on the slopes, cereals on the silt plateaux, vegetables in the alluvial silt. The marshy tracts of the Sologne were for many centuries untilled since they were unhealthy and unsuitable for any sort of culture.
The River Loire
The longest French river (1 013km/629mi) springs up beneath the Mont Gerbier de Jonc, in the Vivarais region, on the southern edge of the Massif Central mountain range. The flow of the Loire is somewhat erratic: in summer it is reduced to a few meagre streams meandering along the wide, sandy river bed, but in autumn, during the rainy season, or in spring, when the thaw comes, the river is in spate, sometimes causing memorable floods (the worst recorded floods took place in 1846, 1856, 1866, 1910 and 1980).
Until the end of the 19C, the Loire was a busy waterway in spite of its unpredictable behaviour: flat-bottomed boats rigged with square sails used to sail up and down the river and its tributaries, in particular the Cher, carrying cargo and passengers between Orléans and Nantes (even horse-drawn carriages were placed on rafts).
In 1832, the first steam-powered regular service between Orléans and Nantes was inaugurated, but the development of railways soon struck a decisive blow to boat transport.
The Garden of France
From whatever direction you approach the Loire region – across the immense plains of the Beauce, through the mysterious Berry countryside or the green wooded farmland (bocage) of the Gâtine Mancelle – you are always welcomed by the sight of vineyards, white houses and flowers. For many foreigners this peaceful, fertile countryside is a typically French landscape. But make no mistake, the Garden of France is not simply a sort of Eden laden with fruit and flowers.
The historian Michelet once described it as a “homespun cloak with golden fringes”, meaning that the valleys – the golden fringes – in all their wonderful fertility, bordered plateaux whose harshness was tempered only by occasional fine forests.
This region, lying between the Massif Central and the Loire country, includes the Pays Fort , an area of clay soil sloping down towards the Sologne. The melancholy atmosphere of the landscape is described by Alain-Fournier in his novel Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain) . Between the Cher and the Indre is the Champeigne, an area of limestone silt pock-marked with holes (mardelles) .
Orléanais and Blésois
Below Gien the valley opens out, the hills are lower and a refreshing breeze makes the leaves tremble on the long lines of poplars and willows. This is the gateway to the Orléanais, which covers the Beauce, the Loire Valley (i.e. the Dunois and Vendômois), the Sologne and Blésois (Blois region). In the vicinity of St-Benoît, the valley, commonly known as the Val , is a series of meadows; beyond, horticulture predominates with the growing of seedlings and rosebushes on the alluvial deposits known locally as layes . There is a proliferation of greenhouses, some with artificial heating. Orchards and vineyards flourish on the south-facing slopes.
From Orléans to Chaumont along its northern bank, the Loire eats into the Beauce limestone and then into the flinty chalkland and tufa. On the south the river laps the alluvial sands brought along by its own waters. This area, where asparagus and early vegetables are grown, features large expanses of dense brushwood full of game where the kings of France once used to hunt. The great châteaux then begin: Blois, Chambord, Cheverny, Chaumont, and so on.
The Beauce , the granary of France, a treeless plain covered with a thin layer (2m/6ft maximum) of fertile silt or loess, extends into the area between the Loire and Loir known as the Petite Beauce, where silt gives way to clay in Marchenoir Forest. In the Sologne and the Forest of Orléans meagre crops alternate with lakes and woodland.
The comfortable opulence of the Loire Valley will delight the visitor already charmed by the dazzling quality of the light. The blue waters of the Loire, which flow slowly between golden sandbanks, have worn a course through the soft tufa chalk. Channels abandoned by the main river are divided into backwaters (boires) or occupied by tributary streams such as the Cher, Indre, Vienne and Cisse.
From Amboise to Tours the flinty chalk soil of the valley slopes is clad with vineyards producing the well-known Vouvray and Montlouis wines. Troglodyte houses have been carved out of the white tufa. The Véron , lying between the Loire and the Vienne, is a patchwork of small fields and gardens bordered by rows of poplars.
The Gâtine of Touraine, between the Loir and Loire, was once a great forest; the area is now under cultivation, although large tracts of heath and woodland have survived (Chandelais and Bercé forests). The main features of the Touraine Champeigne, where the fields are studded with walnut trees, are the forests of Brouard and Loches and the Montrésor Gâtine. The plateaux of Montrichard and Ste-Maure are similar in many ways to the Champeigne .
The north bank of the Loire consists of a fertile alluvial plain (varenne de Bourgueil) where spring vegetables thrive, surrounded by the famous vineyards planted on warm, dry gravels lying at the foot of the pine-covered hills. Between the Loire and the Authion, lined with willows, green pastures alternate with rich market gardens growing vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. The land below Angers is covered with vineyards, especially the famous Coulée de Serrant vineyard.
The pleasant Saumurois , which lies south of the Loire and extends from Fontevraud and Montsoreau to Doué-la-Fontaine and the Layon Valley, has three differing aspects: woods, plains and hillsides – the slopes of which are often clad with vineyards, producing excellent wine including the white wine to which the town of Saumur has given its name. The many caves in the steep, tufa valley sides of the Loire around Chênehutte-les-Tuffeaux are now used for mushroom growing. North of the river lies the sandy Baugeois , an area of woods (oak, pine and chestnut) and arable land.
Angers marks the border between the schist countryside of Black Anjou and the sharply contrasting limestone of White Anjou.
The countryside is greener, heralding an area of wooded farmland – the Bocage Segréen and Les Mauges – which is characterised by a patchwork of small fields surrounded by hedge-topped banks crisscrossed by deep lanes leading to small farmsteads. Around Angers, nursery and market gardens specialise in flowers and seedlings.
The Lower Maine (Bas-Maine) otherwise known as Black Maine, is a region of sandstones, granites and schists and wooded farmland. Geographically this area is part of the Breton Armorican Massif. The Upper Maine (Haut-Maine) , covering the Sarthe and Huisne basins, is known as the White Maine because of its limestone soils.
A well-disposed lie of the land, fertile soil and temperate climate make the Loire Valley ideal for the cultivation of trees and market gardens. Fruit and vegetables make a significant contribution to the economy of the Centre-Val de Loire and Pays de la Loire regions, accounting for around 20% of domestic production. The cultivation of many of the varieties to be found in the Loire Valley dates from as early as Roman rule, whereas others introduced to the region during the Renaissance continue to thrive.
Ripening well in the local climate, the succulent fruits of the region are renowned throughout France. The most common are apples, pears and, more recently, blackcurrants. Many have a noble pedigree: Reine-Claude’greengages are named after Claude de France, the wife of François I, Bon-chrétien pears originated from a cutting planted by St Francis of Paola in Louis XI’s orchard at Plessis-lès-Tours. They were introduced into Anjou by Jean Bourré, Louis XI’s Finance Minister. Rivalling the latter are the following varieties: Monsieur, Williams, a specialty of Anjou, ‘Passe-crassane’ and autumn varieties such as Conférence’, Doyenné du comice and Beurré Hardy.
Melons were introduced to the region by Charles VIII’s Neapolitan gardener. Already in the 16C the variety and quality of the local fruit and vegetables were much praised, namely by Ronsard. The walnut and chestnut trees of the plateaux yield oil and much-prized wood (in the former case) and edible chestnuts (in the latter), often roasted during evening gatherings.
Alongside traditional varieties like the Reinette apple from Le Mans are more prolific varieties better adapted to market demands such as the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious.
A wide variety of vegetables is grown in the Loire Valley. There are two main areas of production: the stretch of valley between Angers and Saumur and the Orléans region. Vegetables cultivated under glass or plastic include tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces, especially around Orléans. Early vegetables are a speciality in the Loire Valley since, in general, they are ready two weeks before those of the Paris region. Asparagus from Vineuil and Contres, potatoes from Saumur, French beans from Touraine, onions and shallots from Anjou and Loiret and artichokes from Angers are dispatched to Rungis, the main Paris market.
One of the region’s more unusual crops is mushrooms; over 60% of button mushrooms come from the Loire Valley. They are grown in the former tufa quarries near Montrichard, Montoire, Montsoreau, Tours and particularly in the Saumur area.
Flowers and nursery gardens
Pots of geraniums or begonias, borders of nasturtiums and climbing wisteria with its pale mauve clusters adorn the houses. The region of Orléans-la-Source, Olivet and Doué-la-Fontaine is famous for its cultivated flowers – roses, hydrangeas, geraniums and chrysanthemums – which are grown under glass. Tulips, gladioli and lilies are grown (for bulbs) near Soings.
Nursery gardens proliferate on the alluvial soils of the Loire. The lighter soils of Véron, Bourgeuil and the Angers district are suitable for the growing of artichokes, onions and garlic for seed stock. The medicinal plants that were cultivated in the Chemillé region during the phylloxera crisis are attracting renewed interest.
Dairy stock are generally reared outdoors in the fields, except in winter, when they are kept inside and given corn silage. However, in the case of beef cattle, the animals spend most of the year feeding on pastures in the Maine, Anjou and Touraine valleys. The main dairy cattle breeds are Prim’Holstein, Normandy and Pie-Noire, whereas the best-known beef breeds are Normandy, Maine-Anjou and especially Charolais. Dairy production is concentrated in Maine, Anjou, the Mayenne Valley, Les Mauges and in the west of the Sarthe Valley. Sheep rearing is confined to the limestone plateaux of the Upper Maine where the black-faced Bleu du Maine and Rouge de l’Ouest prosper.
Pigs can be found everywhere but particularly in Touraine, Maine and Anjou; the production of potted pork specialities – rillettes and rillons – is centred in Vouvray, Angers, Tours and Le Mans. Recently, in the Sarthe département a label rouge (red label), guaranteeing the highest quality, was awarded to free-range pigs raised on farms.
The ever-growing demand for the well-known goats’ cheeses, in particular the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) brands, Selles-sur-Cher and, more recently, Sainte-Maure, have led to an increase in goat keeping. Market days in the west country are colourful occasions: the liveliest are the calf sales in Château-Gontier and the cattle and goat sales in Cholet and Chemillé.
Poultry – Poultry rearing, firmly established in the Loire region, has developed quite considerably; its expansion is linked to the food industry and local co-operatives. This sector has two main characteristics: the high quality of its produce, thanks to many labels, in particular the most prestigious ones recommending the free-range poultry of Loué, and variety – chickens, capons, ducks, guinea fowl, turkeys, geese, quails, pigeons and, generally speaking, all game birds.
The Loire is frequently referred to as the “last untamed river in Europe”. During the summer months, along some of its banks, the local climate can tend to resemble more that of African climes. This phenomenon, known as a topoclimate, favours the growth of many tropical plants. The Loire is also inclined to overflow, flooding the surrounding meadows and filling the ditches with water. When it eventually withdraws, leaving the gravel pits and sandbanks to dry out, it creates many natural niches and shelters, the perfect environment for myriad animal and plant species. Consequently, the banks of the Loire are home to many forms of wildlife and especially bird life attracted by the relative peace and calm of the river’s waters, which are well stocked with food (water insects, larvae, tiny shellfish and amphibians).
More than 220 species of bird live in, nest in or migrate to the Loire valley every year. To get the most out of birdwatching, without disturbing the birds while respecting their nesting places, you need to identify the particular habitat associated with each species. Along the banks of the Loire, suitable habitats include islets, gravel banks, tributary channels or boires, alluvial plains and marshes.
In addition to its healthy bird population, the Loire region is home to developing populations of otter , European beaver , wild boar , polecat , pine martin , snakes , badger , European pond tortoise , and red deer .
Islets and gravel banks
The islets, long sandbanks and high grasses found in midstream, provide safe refuges for the common heron , the kingfisher , the great crested grebe and the cormorant , who can rest peacefully, protected from intruders by a stretch of water. The irregular flow of the Loire appears to suit their reproductive pattern, as it offers many open shores suitable for building nests. Downstream from Montsoreau, the Île de Parnay (a protected site closed to the public from 1 April to 15 August) alone is home to more than 750 pairs of birds between March and late June, including black-headed gulls , common gulls , Icelandic gulls , common terns and little ringed plovers . The Île de Sandillon , 15km/10mi upstream of Orléans, is home to 2 500 such pairs.
This is the name given to the networks of channels filled with stagnant water which line either side of the Loire, and which flow into the river when it is in spate. These channels, teeming with roach, tench and perch, provide shelter to the bittern, the moorhen, the coot, the garganey, and small perchers like the great reed warbler, which builds its nest 50cm/20in above the water, solidly attached to three or four reeds.
Meadows and pastures which can sometimes be flooded after heavy rains offer hospitality either to migratory birds like the whinchat and the gregarious black-tailed godwit, or to more sedentary species such as the corncrake (March to October).
Marshes and pools
Among the many migratory birds, the osprey , which feeds on fish, had practically disappeared from French skies in the 1940s; fortunately, its population is now on the increase. It is an impressive sight to see it skimming over the water while it looks for its prey, then darts forward, claws open, to pounce on a 30-40cm/12-15in long fish. The water rail is another breed which finds comfort in the long reeds and bulrushes surrounding the marshes.