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The Loir Valley
You can always rely on the Romans to pick a plum site for a settlement and their urban planners certainly got it right when they chose Aubigné-Racan, an area of flat land on the north bank of the river Loir.
Here in the shelter of wooded hills, they built temples and a forum, public baths and a theatre, and yet no-one today really knows why. With no road space and no living quarters, the site seems to have been a seasonal sanctuary rather than a town.
Today, this important archeological excavation near Le Lude is one of the unexpected treasures – and enigmas - of the Loir Valley, an enchanting area dotted with vineyards and chateaux, glorious gardens and historic small towns.
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Tell someone you’re going to the Loir and most travellers immediately think of the Loire with its Disney-style castles and royal parks. But whilst the two rivers may sound similar in English, in French they are easily distinguishable by gender.
The international tour buses head for the chateaux of La Loire, whilst travellers in search of a quieter, more intimate experience home in on Le Loir, which meanders peacefully through lush countryside some 40km to the north of its big sister.
From humble beginnings near Chartres, the Loir flows south to Vendôme before turning west and eventually blending into the Loire near Angers. In the Middle Ages, the riverside road was popular with pilgrims bound for Saint Jacques de Compostela in Spain, its village churches decorated with colourful murals which vividly evoke the spirituality of another age.
Today, the Loir Valley is a beguiling mix of thriving communities and peaceful countryside where you can be as active or passive as you please. Relax on the river bank with rod and line; walk or cycle the quiet trails; or try sailing or water skiing on one of the many recreational lakes.
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Arrive in the channel ports of Caen, Cherbourg or St Malo, and it’s a short motorway hop to Le Mans, location for the internationally famous motor race and northern gateway to the Loir Valley. But Le Mans is far more than just fast cars and 24-hour testosterone.
Le Mans serves up history on a plate, from the Romans to the Renaissance, the original hilltop settlement surrounded by a ring of Roman walls and observation towers that are strikingly patterned with brickwork of orange, black and white.
Within the ramparts lies the Cité Plantagenet, named after Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, who never went hunting without first ‘planting’ a yellow genet or broom flower in his hat. Thanks to Geoffrey’s strategic marriage with Mathilde, daughter of English king Henry I, the Plantagenet name was to loom large in English history, through their son Henry II and grandsons Richard and John.
Stroll the Medieval town where half-timbered buildings have been beautifully restored in a rainbow of coloured facades. Visit St Julian’s cathedral with its glorious stained glass windows, and admire the Renaissance buildings of Place St-Michel, scene of many a swashbuckling period movie. Leave time too for the Musée Tessé with its fine art collection and unique replicas of two subterranean Egyptian tombs.
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The race track and car museum lie on the south side of the city so when you’ve had your fill of cars, it’s only half an hour’s drive to the seductive landscape of the Loir Valley. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever want to leave, but in the 17th century, 300 local citizens boarded small boats at the tiny harbour at La Flèche, bound first for Nantes and then the New World. Only half survived, but together they founded Montréal, today the second largest Francophone city in the world.
La Flèche is the sort of bustling small town that it's easy to fall in love with. Browse the Wednesday morning produce market beside the river; meet the animals at the local zoo; and relax in, on or beside the pretty lakes of La Monnerie. In school holidays, you can also tour the public rooms and Baroque chapel of the Prytanée national military academy.
But the best way to appreciate the academy’s three vast courtyards and soaring roof line, the mills and meanders of the peaceful Loir, and the country mansions that dot the gentle landscape is from on high. I enjoyed a delightful 15-minute flight with Aeroclub Paul Métaire from the local airfield, looping round La Flèche and out over the surrounding countryside – available all year round but booking essential.
The turreted, gabled chateaux look no less magical from ground level. Although generally more modest than the flamboyant palaces of the Loire, many castles in the Loir Valley are still family-owned, opening to the public from spring to autumn.
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Showpiece chateaux include the Renaissance castles at Durtal and Bazouges-sur-le-Loir, and the 15th century manor house of La Possonnière at Couture, birthplace of the poet Ronsard. Particularly enchanting is the turreted chateau that dominates the small town of Le Lude. Here you can wander through rooms of sumptuous furnishings, enjoy tranquil river views from the rose gardens, and stroll beneath the ancient trees of the riverside park.
There are more delightful gardens – not to mention an orange grove and greenhouses - at the Château du Grand-Lucé, north of the river towards Le Mans, and a great many more trees in the sweeping arc of the nearby Bercé forest. Spreading beech trees shade a network of pleasant walking and cycling trails, punctuated with towering oaks which grow vertically in their efforts to reach the light.
Look out for signs to the Chêne Boppe, an ancient oak stump named after a 19th-century forest worker, and follow the annotated woodland trail to learn the story of these remarkable oaks, much prized for their straight timber. Or do as I did and simply lie back on a wooden chaise longue to gaze up at the woodland canopy.
The green theme continues upstream at Vendôme, a small town of some 20,000 inhabitants which is blessed with beautiful buildings, green spaces and picturesque waterways lined with flowers in the spring and summer months. The Loir splits to enclose the compact town centre and the historic streets are bisected by waterways, some still dotted with Medieval wash-houses.
Stop at the tourist office to collect a map of the town trail, dotted with bilingual information panels detailing points of interest along the way. Stroll through Parc Ronsard, named after the local poet; see where writer Honoré de Balzac went to school; and visit the Chapelle-St-Jacques which sheltered Compostelle pilgrims.
Don’t miss Vêndome Abbey, one of the finest Gothic churches in France with its carved façade, flamboyant flying buttresses, and bright interior. Behind the abbey lies a quiet cloister featuring 11th century frescoes and a garden of medicinal plants, whilst the main entrance leads into Place St Martin, hub of Vendôme’s lively café culture.
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Every French village has its own unique atmosphere and Lavardin, between Vendôme and Montoire-sur-le-Loir, is a winner with its ruined chateau, narrow alleyways and ancient houses.
Classified among the elite group of France’s Most Beautiful Villages, Lavardin is one of several communities along the Loir where people still use caves that have been hollowed out of the soft tufa rock across the centuries.
But most unusual village of all has to be Trôo, which once held a strategic – if somewhat vulnerable – position on the main route between Paris and Tours. Seen from the road, Trôo looks nothing out of the ordinary, but the hillside is laced with layers of troglodyte dwellings like a giant Gruyère cheese.
Some 5000 people lived here in the Middle Ages, most of them burrowed deep inside the hill for shelter and protection, but numbers dwindled as busier routes bypassed the village. Many troglodyte homes in Trôo didn’t even have running water until the 1970s, so don’t miss the chance to tour a troglodyte house and visit the exhibition of life in this unusual community.
Today, the population of Trôo may only number a few hundred, but the village is enjoying a new lease of life. Discerning buyers are turning these ancient cave dwellings into the ultimate in unusual des res, and a well-appointed cliff burrow is now the last word in atmospheric holiday homes.
Heading up the cliff face via a network of narrow staircases, I half expected to see Bilbo Baggins emerging from a painted door in the hillside or to find Gandalf tending the flowers in a tiny front garden. Just one more magical moment along a valley packed with enchantment.
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