“The last wild river in France” is the phrase you hear most often in descriptions of the Loire. Perhaps it isn’t completely wild, but absent are the hydroelectric dams, shipping locks and other water-management infrastructure found on most French rivers. The Loire flows gently in early summer and often shrinks to a mere creek by late summer. In the rainy season, on the other hand, it can rage turbulently up to the brims of its levees and one would be inclined to say it’s wild enough.
“Beautiful” is another term used to describe France’s longest river, and it fits. As the Loire wends its way north from its headwaters in the Monts du Vivarais in the Auvergne region, it flows past ancient towns and castles, set like gemstones in a richly fertile landscape.
The areas on either side of the Loire already had settlements and productive vineyards when Julius Caesar’s legions arrived to conquer Gaul more than 2,000 years ago. These central provinces would later be home to kings and the wealthiest inhabitants of what came to be known collectively as La France. Because of this elite group of denizens, the Renaissance, when it arrived from Italy, first took hold in the Loire Valley. Even after the French moved their capital from there to Paris, French kings and Parisian nobles would return to the region for recreation and a respite from busy life in the city. Their grand country castles remain today, with some available as high-end lodging.
For most travelers, flying to the area means booking an airline seat for Paris or Lyon. That flight is followed by ground transportation to spots such as Chambord and Cheverny. Tourists rarely come to the more spread-out destinations of central France. Lack of easy airline access no doubt helps to explain why.
Business jet travelers, by contrast, can fly directly into the heart of the region with a choice of no fewer than three airfields (four if you can land on the 4,500-ft runway at Orleans-Saint-Denis-de-l’Hôtel and five if you include Dijon). These in turn are served by charter helicopter operators. Since some of the elegant castle hotels have their own helicopter landing pads, you can enjoy a concentrated, high-quality experience with minimal inconvenience and little time spent on ground transportation.
Whether you travel by land, captain your own vessel or take a barge cruise, you’ll find plenty of reasons to stop and take in the sights. Here are the attractions on our own not-to-be-missed list:
We began our tour of the region at the Nevers-Fourchambault airport. If you have a rental car delivered and drive out of the airport, the first thing you’ll see is a McDonald’s restaurant and behind that a shopping center. If it weren’t for the complicated roundabouts and French cars, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the American Midwest. That impression fades quickly, however, as you head toward the center of Nevers.
Many of the ancient stone structures in the central district are well preserved. Speaking of “well preserved,” one of the more unusual attractions in Nevers is the Bernadette Chapel at the St. Gildard convent. Bernadette Soubirous, saint of Nevers and Lourdes, was said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, beginning at age 14. Moreover, her body is reported to have remained miraculously free from decay during decades in the grave. Today, the corpse of this young woman–who died in 1879 and was disinterred in 1909 and again in 1919–is on public view in a glass coffin. In the courtyard outside the chapel you can see a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, where the faithful believe her vision occurred.
Nevers is at the confluence of the Loire and Allier Rivers. Leaving the city for a drive, we meandered along the Allier to Apremont-sur-Allier, a village that looks as if the last two or three centuries haven’t passed, an impression spoiled only slightly by the paved road that runs through it. Apremont is dominated by a château on the hill, with the castle grounds developed into a fine garden.
The line between quaint and ramshackle can be rather faintly drawn in provincial France, but in Apremont, the homes all appear well maintained and have an authentic look of antiquity. All that’s missing are the crowds of American and Japanese tourists you’d expect to see at such a fascinating place. The person we found on duty in the town tourist office spoke only French, perhaps an indication that international marketing isn’t their highest priority.
We drove north along the Loire to the town of Charité-sur-Loire, and, deciding that we preferred it to the larger and more modernized city of Nevers, opted to make it our base for a few days as we explored the region. The hotel dinners included delicious Charolais beef, the breed that’s native to Burgundy and now raised worldwide. Charité is a delightful place to take an evening stroll, have a little wine at an outdoor table or even some stout on draught at the town’s Irish pub. Also worth a hike uphill to explore are the ruins of the Charité itself, the medieval monastery around which the town developed.
Approaching Gien, the first thing that strikes you is its famous bridge. King Louis XI made Gien his home. He built the château at Gien in the 15th century for his daughter, Anne de Beaujeu, also known as Anne of France. (The château now houses the International Museum of Hunting, which presents the evolution of hunting practices through paintings and sculptures.) It was Anne who commissioned the famous bridge of 12 arches that spans the Loire at Gien. The city is also the source of the famous Gien Faience Dinnerware.
The main attraction at Sully-sur-Loire is the château, surrounded by a moat. It is a superb example of a medieval fortress, built in the 14th century on a site that since Roman times was one of the few crossings of the Loire River. The château’s most famous owner was Maximilien de Bethune, first duke of Sully. For centuries, the castle belonged to his descendants. It now is a publicly owned museum with tapestries, paintings, sculptures and other ancient artifacts. Apart from the château, the town is worth a visit to stroll the streets, stop at an outdoor café and browse the shops.
Julius Caesar described Bourges as “one of the most beautiful cities in all of Gaul,” and age hasn’t diminished this standing. It also is called a city of art and history, and that fits as well. Today, Bourges is the capital of the department of Cher, and in the past it was the capital of the old province of Berry. The geography was restructured after the revolution more than 200 years ago, but you’ll still hear references to places in relation to the old provincial names of Berry, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Champagne and so on. Bourges is in the middle of French wine country, and wine-tasting tours are a great way to enjoy a stop here.
Located on the Yonne River, a tributary of the Seine, is Auxerre. It’s only a little more than two hours by car from Nevers, but since it is also served by its own jet-capable civilian airport, you can cut the time significantly if you travel by air. The heart of the old city is richly photogenic, including buildings on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Some very high-end luxury barge tours originate at Auxerre and cruise the Yonne. In fact, it’s possible to cruise all the way to Paris from Auxerre.
Orléans itself might be called unremarkable, but it’s worth a stop because it has a jet-capable airport (located outside the city, at the town of Saint-Denis-de-l’Hôtel), near some of the more interesting attractions and beautiful scenery along the Loire River. These include Chambord, the spectacularly grand château that is among the largest and most architecturally intricate castles you’re ever likely to see. It was at Chambord that Leonardo da Vinci spent his final days.
When it comes to quietude blended with fascinating history, beautiful countryside and grand classic architecture, few travel experiences can rival a French river or canal cruise on a luxury barge. Although “luxury barge” may sound like an oxymoron, several of these canal cruisers are outfitted like five-star floating hotels. Guests and staff are typically on a ratio of roughly two-to-one, even approaching one-to-one in some cases, so you can feel well looked after to say the least. Your captain will arrange for you to attend events and visit attractions along the way, tailored to your interests. Among these possibilities is a hot-air-balloon ride.
For $50,000 to $60,000, you can charter a barge for a group of up to 18 for a week, with lots of leisurely cruising and plenty of opportunity for visiting the towns and castles along the way. There’s always time to take a stroll or a bike ride as the barge makes its way through the locks.
Numerous canal and river cruising barges are available to the traveler. Some begin at Briare, a small city midway between the Nevers and Orléans airports. Since the Upper Loire River in this area isn’t navigable except by very shallow-draft boats, the barges cruise the Canal Latéral à la Loire. At the start of the journey, they cross the Loire River on a canal bridge designed by the legendary Gustave Eiffel, better known for the tower that bears his name and for creating the steel substructure of the Statue of Liberty. The Meanderer is one of the luxury barges that follows this route. Its 123-foot length accommodates six passengers in three staterooms with private bath facilities and an on-deck Jacuzzi spa. The crew of four includes a French chef.
Another popular cruise takes you along the Canal du Nivernais in western Burgundy, beginning at the historic city of Auxerre. This would be a convenient journey for business jet travelers, as Auxerre has a jet-capable private airport. Aboard the 100-foot barge Liberté, eight passengers are tended to by a crew of five. Cruises that originate near the Bourges airport travel on the river that gave the department its name, le Cher. In every direction there are opportunities to cruise the canals and rivers, so you’d be wise to do a little advance Web research to determine what suits your taste.
Some may prefer renting a self-drive boat to a barge cruise, no matter how luxurious it is, simply because of the opportunity to captain the craft. Plenty of options exist for those who are so inclined.
Castles and hotels
Château du Breuil:
Elegant small château on 75 wooded acres,
near the famous châteaux of Chambord and Cheverny.
23 route de Fougères, 41700 Cheverny, France.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 54 44 20 20.
Château de Chissay:
Magnificent 14th-century residence south of
Blois, with kings and presidents counted
among its guests over the centuries.
41400 Chissay en Touraine, France.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 54 32 32 01.
Domaine de Vaugouard:
Four-star hotel with 18-hole golf course,
east of Orléans. Chemin des Bois, 45210 Fontenay-sur-Loing, France.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 38 89 79 00.
Hôtel de Bourbon:
Charming facility set in 17th-century
former abbey, listed as historic monument.
Boulevard de la République, 18000 Bourges, France.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 48 70 70 00.
Château de la Beuvriere:
Centuries-old castle residence, once
property of a counsellor to Louis XV,
on an estate that includes woods, a lake,
a swimming pool and tennis courts.
Located near Bourges.
18100 St.-Hilaire-de-Court, France.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 48 75 14 63.
Cruises & self-drive boats
Crown Blue Line GmbH:
Self-drive boats, about 28 to 48 feet long with one to five cabins.
Boats are available in the areas mentioned in the accompanying
article, plus many more in Europe.
Marktplatz 4, D-61118 Bad Vilbel, Germany.
Phone: +49 (0) 6101 55 791 13.
The Barge Cruise Company Ltd.:
Luxury cruising barges in Burgundy, Upper Loire, Central Loire,
Franche-Comté, Alsace-Lorraine, Normandy, Bordeaux, Rhone River,
Provence and Canal du Midi.
501 Chemin Lacoste, 82170 Grisolles, France.
Phone: +33 (0) 5 63 02 87 04,
(800) 688-0245 from U.S. and Canada.
French Country Waterways, Ltd.:
Luxury cruising barges in Champagne, Burgundy-Nivernais,
Burgundy-Côte-d’Or, Alsace-Lorraine and Upper Loire Valley.
P.O. Box 2195, Duxbury, Mass. 02331 USA.
Phone: (800) 222-1236, (781) 934-2545.
Longest runway, 5,363 ft.
Phone: +33 (0) 3 86 48 31 89.
(2 mi southwest of Bourges)
Longest runway, 5,038 ft.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 48 20 55 64.
Longest runway, 7,874 ft.
Phone: +33 (0) 3 67 67 67.
(2 mi west of Nevers)
Longest runway, 5,298 ft.
Phone: +33 (0) 3 86 57 03 92
Longest runway, 4,524 ft.
Phone: +33 (0) 2 38 46 33 32.
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (A): From traditional small luxury hotels to grand castles in storybook settings, the Loire Valley offers much to the traveler, at least up to the level of four Michelin stars. A fifth star would put a plus on the A, but in the end it’s like movie critiques: your own opinions trump those of the reviewers.
Food (A+): The French have certainly earned their reputation for cooking, and the ingredients don’t have far to travel in this agriculturally rich region. Some restaurant wine lists are as thick as phone books.
Activities (B): Activities include paddle sports on the river and there is always golf. Touring by car offers a lot in the way of interesting destinations, including wine tasting. Canal cruising is a favorite way to tour the region, whether as passengers on a luxury barge or as skipper and crew of a rented boat.
Quietude (A): It’s hard to beat a castle in a secluded and wooded setting for quietude. (But if you’d prefer a little noise and excitement, check out the Magny Cours Formula One racetrack, a short drive or helicopter ride from Nevers.)
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: The home of the Renaissance in France, with spectacular castles surrounded by vineyards–the historic playground of the kings of France when they wanted to get away from Paris.
Where it is: The provinces of Bourgogne (Burgundy) and Berry, now known as Centre/Val de Loire, in the heart of France on either side of the Loire River.
Ambiance: Fertile rolling hills and valleys, vineyards and grazing Charolais cattle, grand châteaux and charming cottages, a feeling that the Renaissance never ended.
History: When the Romans invaded, the central regions of Burgundy and Berry were already producing wines and developing a very civilized culture. When the English controlled northern France, the French kings lived in the central region. When the Renaissance brought new heights to French culture, it started here.