By Janet Cochrane
When I was asked to go to the Loire Valley to research the route for our Châteaux and Vineyards walk I was very enthusiastic, as I'd visited the area before on a couple of occasions and was keen to spend longer there. I wasn't even daunted by the prospect of going in early March, when there was more than a vague possibility of poor weather!
Arriving at the tiny airport of Tours was a pleasure after the bustle of Stansted, and the drive westwards to the first town on the walk – Azay-le-Rideau – was easy and uneventful. I had been to Azay before and it was just as I remembered it, a charming market town on the banks of the River Indre. The focal point for visitors is the delightful château, built in the Italianate Renaissance style in the 16th century. Its delicate turrets and elegant windows are beautifully reflected in the surrounding lake, and during the summer months a dreamy, poetic son-et-lumière takes place in the grounds.
For me, one of the satisfactions of preparing an Inntravel walk is the challenge of finding routes which reveal the best of the area’s landscapes and architectural history; I love poring over maps, trying to deduce the best routes from contour lines and other symbols. Sometimes the paths are obvious, for instance if there is a GR (Grande Randonnée – the network of well-maintained footpaths which criss-cross France), but at other times there is a frustrating dearth of quiet links between the hotels. Generally, though, it's possible to piece together forest roads, farm tracks, quiet lanes and the thin black lines which, on French maps, denote a narrow path, and eventually we had plotted the whole week’s walking on the map.
Our preparation was fuelled by the tasty food we enjoyed in the restaurant we chose for dinner in Azay-le-Rideau. Having planned our route, we set off on the first day to do a gentle introductory circuit of the hills and villages around Azay, during which we explored several of the cave-dwellings which were to become a feature of the week's walk. At Goupillières, just an hour's walk from Azay, a farm has been set up amongst the caves showing what life was like for farmers in medieval times.
On the second day we began the second longest walk of the holiday by heading across the farmland and flood-plains between the Indre and the Loire to Ussé, making a small detour for our first sight of the truly massive body of inexorably flowing water which is the River Loire.
At Ussé the hotel is small and simple, but the hoteliers were charming and attentive. The village is overlooked by the white walls and cylindrical towers of the Château d'Ussé, which is said to have inspired the 'Sleeping Beauty' fairytale. We toured it and duly admired the interesting displays of furniture and costumes before continuing our walk, this time southwards through the huge Forêt de Chinon. Walking through forest doesn't provide many views, of course, but we made sure that we passed through open countryside too, and the forest itself was attractive. The walk ends with a wonderful stretch into Chinon along an ancient route which travellers must have used since the early days of human settlement, passing a hermit’s cave dating back to the 6th century.
Chinon boasts plenty to see and do, justifying a full day in this charming town. Very different in style from the fanciful architecture of the châteaux at Azay-le-Rideau and Ussé, the town’s castle stands atop an escarpment and exhibits the defensive fortifications which were needed in less peaceful times. The most famous chapter in its long history was the meeting in 1429 between Joan of Arc and her king, Charles VII: he disguised himself as a mere courtier to test her powers of perception, and her instant recognition of his royal status became a feature of the legend surrounding her.
Leaving Chinon the next day, we continued along the banks of the Vienne and across farmland and light woodland to Fontevraud. The route passes alongside a military training zone at one point and we had a rather alarming encounter with an army platoon in full combat gear, including warpaint and weapons but, happily, they ignored the rather incongruous apparition of fleece-clad, map-wielding hikers in their midst.
The hotel at Fontevraud, la Croix Blanche, is a historic inn which has long been associated with the magnificent abbey, just across the road, which is the last resting place of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, among others. Even nowadays, the hotel benefits from the power of the abbey to attract thousands of visitors each year. On our last day we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering round the peaceful cloisters, gardens and living quarters of the former monastery, which is now used as a cultural centre, before setting off on one last walk, a circuit through farmland to idyllic Candes-St-Martin with its cobbled streets and attractive limestone houses.
Looking back on our six days, it's hard to identify the highlights: the wonderful châteaux, the pleasantly varied countryside, or the excellent food and wines? We concluded that, all in all, it was a marvellous all-round holiday – and, I'm pleased to say, we didn’t have a drop of rain all week!