The Loire is the longest waterway in France, at 1,020 km (632 miles). Its regal valley is at the heart of French life a vast, UNESCO-protected region that stretches from the outskirts of Greater Paris through luscious, green countryside, known as the "Garden of France," to the Atlantic coast, between La Rochelle and Brittany.
The quantity and beauty of the Loire châteaux make them the obvious draw, but there are other attractions. Head west and you'll hit Nantes, an arty, forward-thinking river port that opens the region to the Atlantic coast. Troglodyte dwellings around Saumur including the astounding Château de Brézé with an entire subterranean village hidden in its moat provide some whacky sightseeing. And then there's the wine: Old Bacchus has his grips on yet another part of France, producing some of the country's crispest whites, reds, and rosés.
Industrial Orléans is the Loire region's capital, with an attractive historic core. But unless you have a blazing interest in Joan of Arc, who spent much of her short life there before burning at the stake at age 19, you won't find it as compelling as other places.
Thanks to its central location, Tours is a handy base, but so too are the château towns of Angers, Saumur, Amboise, and Blois. Tours is without châteaux but its location at the junction of the Loire and Cher rivers, makes it the traditional center for exploring the valley.
A good place to start is the local tourist office (78 rue Bernard Palissy. Tel. +33-02-47-70-37-37). A useful basic guide is available in English. Another reason to visit is for the food and wine. The Touraine table is one of the best in France, serving specialties from all over the country plus a few delights of its own: coq-au-vin made with Chinon wine, delicious St-Maure goat's cheese, and macaroons made by the monks of Cormery.
Getting to Tours: Most trains bound for Tours, including all TGVs (as many as 10 per day), depart from Paris' Gare Montparnasse for the 55-minute trip to Tours. A limited number depart from Gare d'Austerlitz. Many, but not all, of the non-TGV trains pull into the center of Tours, at the Gare Tours Centre Ville. Virtually all TGV trains arrive at the isolated station of Tours/St-Pierre-des-Corps, about six km (4 miles) east of the center of Tours. If you end up here, wait for the next one into Tours center, grab a taxi, or await a free navette (bus) for ongoing transport to the center of Tours.
Car deprived travelers who want to visit the châteaux of the Loire Valley no longer need to take local buses. The tourist office sponsors an armada of eight-passenger minibuses that depart from the office between 9am and 9:30am and between 1pm and 1:30pm daily, year-round. Tours visit 2 to 4 châteaux, depending on the schedule; destinations change frequently. Costs range from 20 to 50; depending on the stops and their distance from Tours. The price does not include admission to the châteaux, but participation in the tour qualifies you for reduced group rates.
MTV France gives comprehensive details for the top 20 châteaux in the area, but here are a few getting started extracts:
Details: Château d'Amboise.
Details: Château de Chenonceau.
Details: Château de Loches.
Details: Château de Villandry.
Details: Château de Brézé.