Tours in the Loire Valley

Our short break in the Loire Valley began in the unlikeliest of places - Ashford International Station in Kent. On a Saturday morning we boarded a Brussels-bound Eurostar for the one-hour journey under the English Channel to Lille in northern France. This technological marvel links the United Kingdom with Belgium and France, providing swift, smooth and comfortable inter-capital services.

In doing so, it takes three electrical supply standards in its stride, including the 600 volt DC system laid down by the old Southern Railway between the two world wars. Until the UK completes the high-speed link from London to the Eurotunnel terminal at Cheriton, Eurostar has to fit into the local train schedules and proceed at a leisurely pace. The up-side is that visitors arriving from Europe get splendid views of some of England's finest countryside.

Eurostar at Ashford

After a short wait at Lille we boarded the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) for the 2½ hour journey south to Tours. The TGV provides almost-identical levels of comfort and service to Eurostar and links many major towns and cities of France on an increasing number of routes. It may sound churlish to find fault with these advanced trains but the baggage space is very restricted and couldn't cope with a full car of passengers each with a suitcase. The services run to tight schedules and it was obvious that these are adversely affected by delays loading and unloading baggage.

Hotel Turone

Our base for the holiday was the Hotel Turone, a member of the Quality Hotels group, situated about 10 minutes' walk from the centre of Tours. We ate in its Les Muses restaurant on our first night and were very impressed, something not always the case in chain hotel restaurants. Breakfasts were strictly French café complêt - coffee with roll, croissant, butter and preserves. There are many eating places within walking distance of the Turone, including ethnic restaurants and fast food of all kinds. We particularly recommend La Boucherie, a new restaurant chain which puts the UK's Angus Steak Houses to shame.


We spent the following morning in a walking tour of the city. The weather was very good and the light was ideal for photography. Here are some of Tours' most interesting locations.

Cathedral Museum of Wine Museum 3
From the left: Cathedral; Museum of Wine; a delightful old building, also a museum.

Town Hall Museum 1
Above, from the left: Town Hall; a museum.
Below, from the left: The site of the mediæval bridge; the United States' WW1 Memorial.
Bridge
Old Tours 1

Above and right: some ancient buildings in a square of the old part of the city.


Old Tours 2

In the afternoon we journeyed to Chenonceau, known as "le Château des Dames" because of its associations with five queens. This 16th Century manor house sits astride the river Cher and was built on the site of a castle keep and a fortified mill.

Chenonceau was a favourite of French royalty and, in the 1540s, entertained Queen Mary Stuart, whose guards left moral inscriptions on the chapel walls. The gardens are a "must see" for anyone interested in the French formal style.

Château de Chenonceau

Azay-le-Rideau

The following morning we travelled to Azay-le-Rideau and toured the Château, built in the early 16th Century and a contemporary of Chenonceau. Viewed across the lake it gives the impression of a giant ship at its mooring. The château is surrounded by a park, laid out in the English style by the then owner, the Marquis de Biencourt, in the 1810s. After a walk around the village we took a simple omelette frites lunch at a small restaurant near the village centre before moving on to Villandry.


Villandry 1

The last of the great Rennaissance châteaux to be built on the banks of the Loire, Villandry is surrounded by splendid terraced gardens, including a decorative vegetable garden. This was at its best at the time of our visit as the photographs show, with ornamental cabbages, pumpkins and red peppers basking in the afternoon sunshine.

Villandry 2

Before returning to Tours we paid a visit to Gratien & Meyer, producers of sparkling Saumur since 1864. Perched high above the Loire and set into chalk cliffs, this family-owned establishment makes a wide range of sparkling wines to suit all tastes. The grape varieties used and the method of production are the same as in that well-known region in northern France that they can't mention. We were given a guided tour of the winery and the labyrinth of cool passages and cellars where the wine is stored and matured, then we enjoyed tutored tastings of their excellent produce.

Gratien & Meyer

Next day we travelled to Angers, an ancient city near the confluence of the rivers Loire and Maine. The journey took longer than expected so there was less time for sightseeing than we had hoped for. However, we did manage to visit the Château and take a walk along the ramparts. There was just enough time to see the famous Apocalypse tapestry, commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou, in the 1370s. This illustrates the Book of Revelations and provides a marvellous insight into the social and political situation of the late 14th Century. At 103m. long, 4½m. high and consisting of 70 individual canvases, it is the oldest tapestry of its size in the world. Angers is also home to Cointreau, the world-famous dry orange liqueur.

Angers - Château gardens
Above, from the left: Château; Château gardens.
Below, from the left: The roof garden over the Château; part of the Apocalypse tapestry.
Angers - roof garden Angers - Apocalypse tapestry

Next morning there was drizzling rain under leaden skies; very much "going home" weather. We took our leave of Tours and boarded a slightly late TGV for the journey north back to Lille. Here we changed to a Eurostar for the last leg of our holiday, under the Channel to emerge into bright sunshine on the Kent side. Within 20 minutes we were loading our suitcases into the car and our holiday was over. There's no doubt that we'll use these services again for our travels to France, probably to Belgium too. For ease of access, comfort and speed these trains beat short-hop air travel every time.

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