She gazed down at the rapidly moving water as it rushed past, ignoring the reflection of the magnificent trees on the deep green swirling surface.
Lost in love or lost in life, she may have been, but she was not lost. In her time of trouble she had come to the place where passions have been fought over, the centre of all things in this part of the world, the enigmatic River Loire.
If the young French girl noticed the flat-bottomed boat full of tourists, she didn’t acknowledge. We were chugging peacefully against the current heading upriver as we passed her by, watching the elegant royal chateau of Amboise grow smaller on the flawlessly blue skyline as we navigated the full-to-the-brim river waters, passing half drowned trees and spotting signs of beaver dams as birds soared overhead.
An idyll it is and, with the luck of a sunny day, no better place for broken hearts to heal, as the local residents clearly know.
It is hard to believe this peaceful place is just over an hour’s flight from Manchester. We had travelled by Ryanair, on a new route straight to the airport next to the historic and beautiful city of Tours, right in the heart of France’s lovely Loire Valley. Staying at the Alliance hotel right next to Tours huge and historic railway station (from which you can get straight to Paris in an hour) we were placed perfectly to explore all the highlights of a region renowned for beauty, history and chateaux, for shopping, for wine, for food and for a relaxed lifestyle. And all of these things, the people of the Loire are passionate to share.
Our first experience of Tours summed up this feeling. Shortly after arriving at the hotel we met back in the lobby to meet our ‘greeter’ Nicolas. An air steward by profession, Nicolas was an unpaid volunteer yet determined to share his pride as he took us on a walking tour, taking in the sights of sounds of a city full of contrasts. One minute we were in the city centre watching an exuberant gay pride parade pass by. Minutes later were in quiet, leafy, historic streets, hearing the sounds of a violin in a distant music school and wandering into the astonishing, and stunning, Tours Cathedral. And at night we ate like kings, enjoying incredible modern French cuisine and drinking local wines, including our first taste of the local, light and delicious sparkling Vouvre, at La Maison Cote Sud on the Rue de Constantine. (www.lamaisontours.co.uk)
The next day we wandered Tours, drinking in the colours, tastes and smells of the Halles Centrales (food market) before enjoying a sunny lunch ( and glass of wine, obviously) at Vitiloire – the Loire Valley wine festival – with food prepared by Florent Martin, of the restaurant Au Martin Bleu. Then to Amboise where we visit the medieval royal chateau, the castle of Charles VIII and Frances I, and the chapel which houses the tomb of it’s favourite son, Leonardo da Vinci, who spent his final years there. Then to our traditional floating vessel on the Loire. In almost two hours we do not see another boat as we wend our way along the valley’s lifeblood, watching the sky reflected in the water.
That night, to the caves. Former troglodyte domains (cave houses) in Touraine are now the home of Domain Bourillion Dorleans, run by winemaker Frederick Dorleans, who has turned the extensive, winding limestone caverns into a wine store and atmospheric sculpture gallery, with modern art interpersed with paintings carved into the rock itself. Spooky yet enthralling, the experience was made unforgettable by Frederick himself, dramatically opening a wine bottle with a swipe of a sword.
Blessed with another sunny day, we head to the chateau of Villandry, one of the bigger and most popular in Loire, which towers over stunning formal gardens. Under an azure sky, we are shown round by the chateau owner himself Henri Carvello, a tremendous honour which underlies the passion of the people to share their glories. And in Villandry, they are glorious, notably the gardens, rebuilt by Henri’s great grandfather, and – with the help of 10 full time gardeners – a visual treat. Seriously impressive and food for the soul.
Talking of food, we again ate amazingly well at the Villandry ‘Doulce Terrasse’ restaurant before heading to the middle aged royal fortress of Chinon, for another passionate personal tale. Here the daughter of the last woman to be born in the fortress tower told us its remarkable history, plus a few unscheduled and fascinating insights into her uncles’ resistance efforts in the war, where they climbed through the castle tunnels to steal weapons from the Germans. Here they wear their pride of their people and their region like a badge.
Then our final visit takes us underground again, to the Troglodytic Goupillieres Valley, this times loving recreated to enable visitors to experience what life was like for peasants living underground, often in fear of their lives in cramped, damp and unsanitary conditions from the middle ages to the last century. Here a metal cage, used to attach a baby to the wall so it wouldn’t get eaten by rats, leaves our group silent.
A final delicious meal at the atmospheric Le Saint Honore at Place des Petits Boucheries sees us wave goodbye to Tours and Loire Valley. A magical place with food for the belly – and the soul.
Sante to that.