The River Loire and its heritage
The River Loire is France's longest river (629 miles/1,012 km), with the ship-building city of St Nazaire at the mouth. The valley is wide and fertile, with an array of chateaux and castles, built with the creamy, local limestone. Unlike other parts of the Loire Valley, many chateaux in the Pays de la Loire are still family homes, as well as being open to the public.
Loire Valley: France's royal river crowned by UNESCO
It's now more than a decade since the Loire Valley was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In 2000, the 175-mile/280 km stretch of the River Loire - from Sully-sur-Loire (Loiret) to Chalonnes-sur-Loire (Maine-et-Loire) - was highlighted for its vibrant cultural landscapes. The area includes historic towns and villages, the chateaux in Montsoreau and Saumur, the Royal Abbey at Fontevraud, the abbey at St-Maur, the troglodyte (underground) villages of Turquant and Parnay, the priory at Cunault and the Romanesque churches in Chênehutte-les-Tuffeaux and St-Rémy-la-Varenne. Also included are vineyards and waterways, as well as a large part of the Loire-Anjou-Touraine Regional Nature Park.
Saumur's Troglodyte heritage:
All around Saumur are limestone cliffs that have been quarried for centuries to provide the white stone for the world-famous chateaux and manor houses. The resulting tunnels and caves have been put to practical use, from plain houses to artistically-sculpted caves and even restaurants and B&Bs! And miles and miles of tunnels are used to store and mature wine, as well as to produce tons of mushrooms. Drive along the Loire between Saumur and Montsoreau or along the River Thouet and you see troglodyte houses that built against the cliffs and even into the cliffs, with windows, doors and stairs. Away from the river, the quarries were transformed into troglodyte villages. The most complete and most interesting are near Doué-la-Fontaine and Louresse-Rochemenier.
Saumur produces 54% of France's mushrooms.
Troglodyte restaurants usually serve fouée, a medieval-style bread.
Saumur is known for its best-selling sparkling wines, matured in the limestone caves. The winemakers offer tours and winetasting
Montsoreau's fascinating flea markets: Great bargains
On the second Sunday of the month, stalls are set up on the banks of the Loire. Some 75 specialists sell everything from antiques and bric-a-brac to old lace and furniture. Sometimes there are themed markets, such as nature and gardens in May, wine in October. 22nd season in 2012
Saint-Nazaire: The gateway to the Atlantic
At the mouth of the Loire, Saint-Nazaire has long been renowned for its shipyards and ships: cruise ships, tankers, ferries, research vessels and naval vessels. In recent years, "industrial tourism" has flourished, allowing visitors to watch these giants of the sea under construction. Then there is Escal'Atlantic, a museum with a difference, recreating the romantic days of the transatlantic liner.
The Chateaux of the Loire: The Pays de la Loire's magical heritage
The variety of chateaux and castles in the Pays de la Loire always takes first-time visitors by surprise. High on a craggy rock, for example, Saumur's dramatic castle stands silhouetted against the sky, its tall octagonal towers and battlements adorned with the French fleur de lys. Its terrace has marvellous views over the Loire and the medieval town. By contrast, the castle in Angers is forbidding and vast. Across the drawbridge, inside the fortress, is the residence of the Dukes of Anjou. The buildings are late Gothic in style, with gardens and orchards.
The last fortress on the Loire, before the river reaches the Atlantic, is in Nantes. The impressive granite and limestone castle of the Dukes of Brittany has played a major role in the history of the city and Brittany. Visit the courtyard; walk the walls; and look down into the moat and gardens.
Chateaux, such as Montsoreau, Brézé, Ancenis and Oudon have marvellous views over the Loire valley, its islands and vineyard. Then there is the Abbey of Fontevraud, once Europe's biggest monastic complex. Stroll in the shade of the cloisters and in the medieval gardens; enjoy the spirituality.
For more information, visit loire-chateaux.org.