In July I perfected eating cheese and drinking wine. And there are few better places to do such things than the Vallée de la Loire in France.
Vallée de la Loire
The Loire is a beautiful, lush region which winds itself around the eponymous river and the country’s second largest agricultural area. It also houses some wonderful history – Fontevraud Abbey, the original burial site of Plantagenet King Henry II and his fascinating wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine – can be found here, as well as Château de Chinon, where Henry died after being defeated by his sons Richard and John.
The best way to get to the Loire is to drive. It’s just five hours from Calais and French autoroutes are a joy to use. Traffic is light, the roads are sweeping and clear-sighted. Plus if you have a Liber-t tag you can sail through the toll booths without that awkward scramble for change or kerbing your wheels as you try to get close enough for your passenger to hang dangerously out of the window to pay. French lane discipline is about a million times better than in the UK so don’t take it personally if someone tailgates you in the outside lane – in all the times I’ve driven in France I’ve yet to see a local lane-hogger. Plus, if you drive, you also get to see all that lovely green countryside unfolding around you. Trust me, it’s much better than spending hours queuing at an airport, sitting in a soulless departure lounge and wasting many hours more of your precious holiday than you need to.
There are tons of places to stay – we went rural and stayed at Le Logis du Pressoir, a fabulous 18th century former wine-pressing estate. Their gites are sympathetically restored, luxurious and the enormous grounds make for a peaceful retreat. It’s also pretty close to Saumur, Angers and the aforementioned Chinon and Fontevraud. The owners, Lisa and Mark, are friendly and knowledgeable about the local area, and will happily book restaurants on your behalf if your French isn’t up to scratch. It’s worth remembering that being a rural area, a lot of people don’t speak more than a few words of English. It’s not like Paris where the residents will sneer at your halting, badly-accented school French before addressing you haughtily in perfect English, in the countryside people are much more friendly and appreciative if you make an effort. Oh, and to get back to the subject of food – there’s a baker who calls at the Pressoir every morning so you can stock up on gorgeous freshly-baked croissants and bread.
So, from bread to wine tasting. Saumur has absolutely loads of wineries and a castle which has been closed since we first went there in 2007. A quick word on restoration of buildings of historical importance in France – unlike in Britain where we basically allow them to fall into dust rather than allow them to be maintained, the French appear to make a point of pretty much rebuilding their crumbling chateaux. Saumur looks like the typical fairytale castle perched high over the town and it’ll be closed for at least another few years, just in case you were thinking of visiting. There’s a very nice cafe restaurant which overlooks the castle and does a mean omlette. A lot of people who work nearby seem to go there for lunch which indicated to us that it was probably better than your average tourist eatery.
Where to find wine
If you want to go and taste some wine, there are worse places to start than Langlois Chateau. In typical English style, we pitched up during French lunchtime (12noon to 2pm) but the woman in the shop managed to be gracious about our interruption of her lunch hours, letting us taste a variety of robust reds, silky whites and subtle sparkling wines. They do a particularly nice line in the kind of full-bodied, flavourful white wine that makes you wonder what the hell you were doing all those years necking cheap Pinot.
Another favourite is Louis de Grenelle, who specialise in sparkling wines (we’re not allowed to call them champagnes) where each sip of each variety was more delicious and dusky than the last. Definitely visit the caves too – we didn’t bother this time, having done them before, but the tours are genuinely fascinating. The tour guides are charming, knowledgeable and make poking around chilly caverns full of dusty bottles an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so.
Finally, Chateau du Hureau, which we visited late one hot afternoon. Despite the fact that we interrupted him in the middle of bottling their 2011 wines, the owner, Philippe Vatan, came out to welcome us and pour us a glass or four and was charm personified. Hureau specialise in smooth red wines, ranging from lightish to robust. Sorry, I’m not a wine nerd, but even I got it when he handed us a glass each and said ‘this should be drunk in the winter in front of the fire’. And I tasted the deep, smoky red, thought of a British winter and decided he was a great salesman.
As almost an afterthought as we were on our way out, he asked if we wanted to see their newly-restored pigeon loft. After being led through a pitch black cave which smelt of cold, damp stone, we emerged into an astonishing vaulted room chiselled out of the rock which contained dozens of holes in the wall. Vatan told us that the loft had been built in the 16th century to house pigeons for hunting and they’d finally got around to building a new roof on it which had just been finished. It was quite lovely and had I not left the camera in the car or Monsieur Vatan needed to get back to his bottling, I would have happily spent a few more minutes taking pictures.
Tour de France
Normally when we go away, we miss big events in or near the area by just a few days. Driving down to Italy last year, we somehow contrived to miss both the Monaco Grand Prix and the Mille Miglia. This time, we found ourselves just a few miles from where one of the final stages of the Tour de France would pass at Baugé. So of course we had to go and take a look. It would have been rude not to.
Stupidly, we thought that going to a stage in nearly the middle of nowhere (Baugé) which was just 10 minutes drive from Le Pressoir, would be less crowded than going to Tours. It wasn’t. In fact, as we were told afterwards, cycling is tremendously popular amongst French people of a certain age. Having decided not to bother getting there early enough to watch the caravan coming through, we pitched up about an hour before the TdF leaders were due and found a shady spot at the base of a hill on the road out of town. It looked as though people had decided to set up camp and there were even a few tents on the grass verge. The atmosphere was contagiously electric and despite my pretty much non-existent interest in competitive cycling, I found myself peering excitedly down the hill awaiting the first glimpse. They appeared, they cycled up the hill, everyone cheered encouragingly and then it was over.
One of the things I like about the Loire region is that it’s so laid back and friendly. There’s plenty to do – Lisa and Mark’s son Tom regaled us on a near-daily basis about water parks, zoos and tourist attractions – but if all you want to do is taste some wine then lounge by the pool, well, that’s fine too. We’re just trying to work out how soon we can go back.