Loire Valley & Chateaux of the Loire Attractions
The beauty of the Loire valley, its mild climate and the former importance of the river as a navigable waterway led many French kings and noble families to build fortified castles and later magnificent Châteaux in this area, particularly in the most beautiful middle section of the valley, and as a result the Loire valley is now one of the most popular tourist regions in France.
The fortified castles of the 13th and 14th centuries, like Sully, Langeais, Loches, Chinon and Angers, were followed by sumptuous Renaissance Châteaux, the finest of which are Chambord, Blois, Chenonceaux and Amboise. Thus in the Loire valley it is possible to follow the development of French architecture over six centuries.
Many of the Châteaux have beautiful gardens and parks in the French style, which in some cases, as at Villandry, are the Château's principal attraction.
An additional attraction is provided in summer by the son et lumière shows at many of the Châteaux.
The Loire valley in the narrower sense is thought of as extending from Giens to somewhere short of Nantes (perhaps around Ancenis), since the river's most westerly stretch is in Brittany. It passes successively through the four départements of Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, Indre-et-Loire and Maine-et-Loire, which have replaced the older territorial designations of the Orléanais, the Blésois (round Blois), Touraine and Anjou.
The Loire is France's longest river, with a course of 1,020km/635mi, and along with its tributaries drains an area of 120,000 sq. km/46,000 sq. mi, or roughly 22% of France's total area.
The Loire rises on the Gerbier de Jonc (1,551m/5,089ft), in the northern Cévennes some 70km/45mi south of St-Etienne. From there it flows north through the hills of the Velay into the Le Puy basin and through the coalfields and industrial areas of St- Etienne and Roanne. It then pursues a winding course between the Bourbonnais and Nivernais districts to its most northerly point, which it reaches at Orléans, on the southern edge of the Paris basin. From there it flows west, flanked by wide river meadows, and through the Armorican massif to reach the Atlantic at the most southerly point of Brittany.
The course of the Loire is interrupted in many places by sandbanks and low tree-clad islands. The level of the river varies considerably over the year, with a period of low water in summer and violent spates in spring and autumn. Efforts have been made since the 13th century, by the construction of dams and canals, to control the very serious flooding which has occurred on many occasions down the centuries (with particularly bad floods in 1846, 1856, 1866 and 1910). After the last great flood in 1980 there was much discussion of a controversial plan - claimed by its sponsors to be necessary not only to control flooding but also to improve the supply of cooling water for nuclear power stations and to meet the increased demand for water - to build a large new dam. This plan has now been abandoned in favor of making more subtle adjustments to the water flow in the upper reaches of the Loire.
Shipping traffic on the Loire, once considerable, finally declined when ships of greater draught came into use and there was increased competition from the railroads. Now only the lowest part of the river, below Nantes, carries any commercial shipping.
The canals (Roanne-Dijon Canal, Loire Lateral Canal and other lateral canals) are increasingly being used by pleasure boats.
The Loire's most important tributaries are the Allier, the Cher, the Indre and the Vienne, all on the left bank. The two principal right-bank tributaries are the Maine and the Erdre.
They are well worth exploring, since they resemble the Loire in scenic beauty, and also in their possession of fine old buildings and places of historical interest.
The fertile alluvial plain formed by deposits from the Loire and its tributaries merges into a plateau ranging in height between 50m/165ft and 200m/655ft. Fruit, vines and vegetables flourish in this prosperous agricultural region, with a climate which shows maritime influences. Woodland is found mainly on the less fertile soil.
The most important towns in the Loire valley - Orléans, Blois, Tours, Angers and Nantes, which is in Brittany - all lie near the river. Thanks to their industry (mainly engineering, motor vehicle construction, textiles, glass and ceramics) they have achieved an independent economic status. Tourism also plays an important part in the economy of the Loire valley.
Caesar conquered this territory, then occupied by Gauls, between 58 and 51 B.C., and the process of cultural and linguistic Romanization began. At the end of the fifth century Gaul was conquered by the Franks. Later the Carolingians extended their domains and divided the territory into counties. The Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth and ninth centuries brought a flowering of the arts and of learning in the spirit of late antiquity.
In subsequent centuries the Huns, the Saracens and the Normans pushed into the Loire valley, fighting and plundering. During the reigns of the weak later Carolingian kings wealthy nobles gained sovereign authority over their territories and fought among themselves. There was particularly bitter rivalry between the Counts of Anjou and Blois, and when the Plantagenet rulers of Anjou succeeded to the English throne in 1154 they controlled a territory extending from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees. From 1216 onwards the Capetian kings of France re-established their authority; but the English returned and the conflicts of the Hundred Years War began. The English advanced steadily until Joan of Arc, appearing before Charles VII in the castle of Chinon, was given supreme command of the French forces on March 9 1429 and freed the English-held town of Orléans on May 8 of the same year. Although Joan of Arc later fell into the hands of the English and was burned at the stake, the Loire valley remained firmly in French hands and was frequently visited by the French kings. Louis XI built the little Château of Plessis-lès-Tours and the more splendid Langeais; Charles VIII built the Château of Amboise; Louis XII added a wing to the Château of Blois; Francis I added another, and also built Chambord. The royal example stimulated the nobility to build their own mansions and Châteaux, and important royal officials built themselves handsome town houses.
This period of splendor lasted little more than 150 years. The last king to reside in the Loire valley was Henry III, who died in 1589. The great days ended in the reign of Henry IV, and thereafter the region suffered from economic difficulties, which became worse in the 18th century, when many businesses in Orléans, Amboise, Tours and Saumur were forced to close down. During the French Revolution there was fighting in the territory of Anjou.