Introduction

Centre-Val de Loire is a fascinating land of turbulent history cloaked in a gentle, verdant terrain. As its name suggests, the province lies in the middle of northwest central France, between the Paris Basin and the foothills of the Massif Central mountains. The iconic Loire River flows through the region’s heart, from east to west.

No fewer than six regions share borders with Centre-Val de Loire. These are Normandy and Ile-de-France to the north, Bourgogne-Franche-Comte to the east and Pays de la Loire to the west. On the province’s southern flanks you’ll find Nouvelle Aquitaine, and Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes to the southeast.

Most visitors make a beeline for the fertile Loire Valley, beloved for its vineyards and splendid Chateaux. The region’s terroir (climate and soils) are ideal for viticulture: Centre-Val de Loire is France’s third largest wine region.

How to get to Centre-Val de Loire

By plane

You can fly direct with Ryanair from London Stansted to Tours St Symphorien airport (TUF). Flight time is 1 hour 20 minutes.

By train

TGV services run several times a day from Paris Montparnasse to Tours St Pierre des Corps station. Journey time is 1 hour 4 minutes. You can also travel from Paris Austerlitz to Orleans on TER. The quickest connection takes just over an hour.

By car

If you’re driving from the UK, Le Shuttle will whisk you across the channel from Folkestone to Calais-Frethun in as little as 35 minutes. From Calais it’s a 320 mile (515 km) drive to Tours. Take the A16 from Calais towards Abbeville, then join the A28 signposted for Le Treport/Rouen/Le Havre. Without breaks, it’ll take you approximately 4.5 to 5 hours.

If you’re driving from Paris, take the A10 towards Orleans and Tours. Journey time from Paris to Tours is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, again dependent on traffic and breaks.

NB: Use a GPS, or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps!

Remember, highways/motorways in France are busy and slow-going during holiday periods, particularly throughout August. Take this into account when planning your route.

Getting around Centre-Val de Loire

By train

Regional train lines connect the major cities of Tours and Orleans with popular visitor hubs such as Amboise. The useful Interloire railway line links Orleans, Blois, Amboise and Tours.

By bike

If you’re on two wheels, check out the Loire Velo. This scenic cycle route follows the Loire River, passing Chinon, Tours, Amboise and Orleans. From mid-June to mid-September you can take your bike on Interloire trains without a reservation, for the price of a standard ticket. It’s a handy option if you want to break up the journey, or skip part of the route.

By car

Driving is an excellent way to discover Centre Val-de Loire. Its extensive road network lets you explore the region’s hidden corners and superb chateaux at your own pace. Car hire is available from Tours airport, and Tours and Orleans train stations.

Size

Centre-Val de Loire spans 15,116 square miles (39,151 square km). Away from the cities, much of the region is rural and sparsely populated. Agriculture is a major industry, particularly around Beauce in the north.

Departments

Six departments make up Centre-Val de Loire. These are Cher, Eure-et-Loir, Indre, Indre-et-Loire, Loir-et-Cher and Loiret. Orleans is the regional capital, situated in the north east department of Loiret.  

The region is perfect for nature lovers. The unspoilt acres of Perche Regional Park (Eure et Loir) are ideal for hiking and wildlife spotting. The Brenne wetlands in the region’s south are an ornithologist’s dream, home to abundant bird species. Hiking trails crisscross the forests of La Sologne, near Orleans, which once hosted royal hunting parties.

Cities

Orleans

The regional capital, Orleans is a vibrant university city on the banks of the River Loire. Don’t miss the magnificent Cathedral St Croix. This 13th century gothic structure features beautiful stained glass windows, which depict the life of Orleans’ heroine, Jeanne d’Arc. If you’re visiting in early May, join in the city’s annual festival dedicated to the young soldier. You’ll enjoy music, processions, light shows, and medieval markets.

Bourges

A leafy settlement on the Canal du Berry, Bourges was home to Charles VII during the Hundred Years War. Stroll along Rue Bourbonnoux in the old town, past Renaissance timbered houses. Check out the UNESCO listed St-Etienne Cathedral, an ornately gothic masterpiece, complete with 13th century stained glass windows, gargoyles and flying buttresses. Tackle the north tower’s 396 steps, for panoramic views across the town. During summer, nightly light displays illuminate Bourges’ historic buildings.

Chartres

A beautiful cathedral town in the northern Eure et Loire. Visit Chartres’ stained glass museum near the Cathedral, where you can witness modern day artisans at work. The town’s ancient centre is a delight to roam around, linked by wooden bridges that span the River Eure.

Tours

A bustling university city, Tours is the region’s largest settlement. Situated in Indre et Loire, between the Cher and Loire rivers, it’s the gateway to the Loire valley chateaux. Explore old Tours’ cobbled streets, then relax with a drink on elegant Place Plumereau. Between May and September, Tours’ riverside hosts an alfresco entertainment venue. You’ll find laidback bars, eateries, open air cinema, music, and a city beach.

A potted history of Centre-Val de Loire

Between 1500 and 500 BC the Carnuti, a powerful Celtic Gaul tribe, inhabited the Loire.

In 52 BC invading Romans ousted the Gauls. Emperor Augustus built settlements including Orleans, Chartres and Tours, and planted the region’s first vineyards.

Clovis, King of the Franks, saw off the Romans in 486 AD, and took control of the region.

By 1152 Henry Plantagenet (crowned King Henry II of England in 1154) commanded the Loire area.

The Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) saw ongoing conflict across the territory.

English armies already controlled Paris and most of northern France when they attacked Orleans on 12 October 1428. The English besieged Orleans for six months, but failed to capture the city.

In May 1429, 17 year old Joan of Arc rallied Charles VII’ army against the English invaders. She succeeded, and liberated Orleans, which returned to French rule under King Charles.

Joan of Arc was captured and executed by English troops in 1431. She was 19 years old.

During the 16th century Renaissance, French aristocracy settled in the Loire Valley and constructed luxurious Italianate chateaux. In 1516, King Francois I invited Leonardo da Vinci to reside in the Loire. The artist lived in Chateau du Clos Luce until his death in 1519. He is buried at King Francois’ chateau at Amboise.

The 17th century saw French nobility gravitate away from the Loire to Paris and Versailles, leaving their chateaux as summer residences.

In 1789 the French revolution overthrew the monarchy and established France as a republic. The province’s existing departments were established in 1790.

Orleans was a key military stronghold during the 19th century Franco-Prussian war.

In the 1970s the ancient provinces of Berry, Orléanais and Touraine merged to form a new region, Centre.

In 2000 the Loire Valley became France’s largest UNESCO world heritage site.

Centre region became Centre-Val de Loire in 2016.

Culture

Musee de Beaux-Arts, Orleans

Orleans’ excellent art museum showcases European artists from the 15th to the 20th century. Browse works by Bruegel, Gaugin, Velazquez and Correggio.

Jardins de Villandry

Villandry was the last Loire chateau built during the Renaissance. Its ornamental French gardens are spectacular. The magnificent estate comprises over six hectares of impeccably presented, organic trees, flowers and shrubs. Highlights include a highly perfumed, vibrant sun garden, and a hornbeam maze for you to get lost in! Enjoy gorgeous water features and a colour co-ordinated kitchen garden planted with military precision. Visit between April and October to see the grounds at their best.

Chartres Cathedral

Notre Dame de Chartres is a beauty. Renowned for its 12th century blue stained glass windows, the church’s spires dominate the city skyline. A Gothic architectural masterpiece, the UNESCO listed cathedral is one of France’s finest.

Musee de Compagnonnage, Tours

Delve into the history of French guild workers at this superb museum, housed in a 12th century abbey. Since the middle ages, artisan shoemakers, carpenters, stonemasons, bakers, and glassblowers have honed their skills. The collection includes masterpieces of pottery, textiles, ironwork, and furniture. Don’t miss the violin crafted from sugar! Each exhibit reveals the skill, dedication and patience of its creator.

Weather

Centre-Val de Loire enjoys a generally mild climate of warm summers and chilly winters. Rain does fall throughout the year, as the verdant landscapes testify. Western areas such as Tours are drier than the east, and hilly areas receive more rainfall. The region’s east around Bourges sees more extremes in temperature (i.e. hotter summers and colder winters) than the west.

Summer (June to September)

Summer is Centre-Val de Loire’s driest period. Rainfall is low, especially in August. Temperatures vary from 12oC (54oF) to average highs of 25oC (77oF). July is the warmest month overall. Between mid-July and mid-August highs can hit 32oC (90oF) and rising.

Autumn (September to November).

As the weather begins to cool, temperatures average at 8oC (46oF) to 16oC (61oF). A balmy September may see highs of 21oC (70oF). October usually brings rainfall. By November it’s getting nippy; lows of 5oC (41oF) are not unusual.

Winter (December to February)

It’s time to wrap up, as the mercury drops to lows of 2oC (36oF) and highs of 8oC (46oF). Frequent rainfall is the norm. January is usually the region’s coldest month, when temperatures struggle to reach 7oC (45oF).

Spring (March to May)

March brings milder, longer days as Centre-Val de Loire begins to warm up. Expect lows of 4oC (39oF) and highs of 12oC (54oF) along with intermittent showers. By May you might enjoy a pleasant 19oC (66oF).

Best time to visit

If you’re seeking decent weather and minimal rain, then mid-June to mid-September is your best time to visit Centre Val-de Loire. Weather is settled and you’ll enjoy long warm, sunny days – though it’s always a good idea to pack a brolly, just in case.

Do not miss

Chateaux of the Loire Valley

In 2000, the Loire Valley became France’s largest UNESCO world heritage site. The renaissance chateaux which adorn this splendid area demand top billing! Blois, Chenonceaux, Amboise, Chambord, Villandry, and Azay-le-Rideau are just some of the region’s glorious castles.

Treat yourself to a private tour of Chateau de Chambord and Chenonceaux, two of the Loire’s most breath taking sites. Afterwards, enjoy an atmospheric lunch at a private chateau. Sounds parfait, n’est-ce pas?

Tip: Don’t rush to tick the chateaux off your list! Each castle bears its own unique story. Take time to savour the historic and aesthetic delights of these former playgrounds to French aristocracy. I suggest you visit a maximum of three venues in any one day.

Loire vineyard tour

Wine fans, enjoy a guided tour of Vouvray wineries. During a half day excursion you’ll learn about the Loire’s world class wines. Visit a family run vineyard, and observe the wine making process. You’ll visit underground caves used since the 10th century to produce and store wine. Enjoy a variety of tastings with your expert guide.

Le Clos Luce, Amboise

Visit the elegant Loire manor where Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, as guest of King Francois I. Within the house and dotted around its lovely gardens, you’ll find models of some of the artist’s pioneering inventions and designs. Many of the exhibits are immersive, for extra fun! Combine your trip with the royal Chateau Amboise next door.

Vintage bike trip of Tours and the Loire

Explore the Loire valley in style, from the sidecar of a vintage motorcycle! Your driver will whizz you through the historic streets of Tours, past the medieval city’s major sites. Afterwards you’ll ride along the Loire River through the area’s beautiful vineyards. You’ll have plenty of stops for photos en route.

Markets

Tours, Le Marche du Carreau des Halles, Place Gaston Paillhou. Wednesday and Saturday, 7.30 am to 12.30pm. Century old farmer’s market selling fresh local produce.

Amboise, Place du Marche, Sunday, 8am to 2pm. Bustling market on the banks of the Loire. Over 250 stalls sell everything from fresh fruit and veg to clothing to garden equipment. Come early to beat the crowds.

Chinon, Place Jeanne d’Arc. Thursday, 7am to 1.30pm. Fruit, vegetables, charcuterie, cheeses, wine tastings. Great for picnic supplies!

Tours, Boulevard Berenger, Wednesday and Saturday, 8am to 7pm. Picturesque and fragrant flower market plus craft stalls.

Loches, Rue de la Republique. Wednesday and Saturday mornings, 8am to 1pm. Fresh and cooked food plus crafts, jewellery and household goods. Lovely setting in this medieval town.

Blois, Place Louis XII. Saturday 8.30 am to 1.15 pm. Over 100 stalls offer fresh and cooked food and beverages, accompanied by live musicians.

Orleans, Place du Martroi. Friday evening, 5pm to 9.30 pm. Local food and drinks plus crafts.

What to eat and drink

Flanked by six regions and close to Paris, Centre Val-de Loire is a hotbed of gastronomical joy. In 2021 it hosted the annual Gout de France, an international celebration of French cuisine.

Meat lover? Feast on local Touraine lamb, poultry from Orleans and game/wild boar from the Sologne. Try rillons, scrumptious caramelised cubes of pork belly – perfect with an aperitif. Rillettes de Tours is a delicious terrine of slow cooked pork, typically served with crispy toast and cornichons.

The Loire, Indre and Cher rivers offer diverse freshwater fish. Look for brochet (pike), breme (bream), and anguille (eel) on local menus.

Award winning cheeses include Sainte-Maure de Touraine (spot the straw running through its middle), Selles sur Cher, Pithiviers au foin and Valencay.

Centre Val-de Loire wines are world class. Top draw whites include Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Touraine and Sancerre. For classy reds try Chinon and Bourgeuil.

Room for dessert? Tarte Tatin, the popular upside-down apple tart, hails from Sologne. Bourges is the home of Forestines, a chocolate praline delicacy.

Where to eat

Tours, Le Zinc, 27 Place du Grand Marche, 37000 Tours

This intimate, traditional French bistro in the heart of old Tours serves up good value, locally sourced produce. Choose from classic robust steaks and duck confit, to seafood and vegetarian dishes.

Amboise, L’Ecluse, Rue Racine, 37400 Amboise

Michelin listed riverside restaurant, a stone’s throw from Chateau Amboise. Book in advance to enjoy imaginative, contemporary French cuisine, like saddle of rabbit, and Limousin sirloin gravlax. The seasonal menu is short and sweet, and the food top notch. Closed on Sundays.

Orleans, Ver di Vin, 2 Rue des Trois Maries, 45000 Orleans

Tucked away in a 13th century vaulted cellar in central Orleans, this atmospheric eatery dishes up gourmet European dishes with panache. A thoughtfully curated menu lists beef terrine in a rich white sauce, salmon with Loiret shallots, and fillet of pigeon with pea and Matcha jus. The wine list is comprehensive, with 24 labels available by the glass.

Where to stay

Seeking a tranquil base to explore vibrant Orleans? This stylish two bedroom house on the banks of the Loire comes with a peaceful balcony overlooking the river. You’re only ten minutes from Orleans’ medieval heart. Sleeps four.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1646204a?noDates=true&uni_id=1820384

Relax in Vouvray wine country. This historic vineyard house lies in a village with shops and eateries, five miles from Amboise. It’s ideally located for the Loire chateaux and vineyards. The characterful property sleeps six in three bedrooms. A private garden comes with barbeque and lovely Loire Valley views.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1612418a?noDates=true&uni_id=1786361

Stay in a chic apartment in the centre of historic Tours. This light-filled, one bedroom property sleeps three. Located in an elegant 15th century building, steps from Place Plumereau’s shops and eateries. You’ve the city’s sights on your doorstep.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1729657a?noDates=true&uni_id=1905084

Conclusion

I hope my petit tour of Centre-Val de Loire has whetted your appetite for this exciting region. Happy travels!

Maria Bricheno
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Author

Maria Bricheno is a freelance writer, with a focus on independent travel. When not writing or plotting her next trip, she enjoys trail/road running, contemporary fiction, and country walks with her enthusiastic golden retriever. An ardent fan of all things Gallic, Maria spends too much of her leisure time lurking on French property websites.

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