Bursting with vineyards, fruit orchards and a wealth of history is ‘the Garden of France,’ also known as the bountiful and beautiful Loire Valley. Often eclipsed by its glittering neighbor, Paris, the Loire Valley is home to sprawling castles, Medieval-style towns and unparalleled cuisine. Like most people who think of France, my mind often turns to the romantic, cobble stone streets of Montmartre and how I swoon whenever I see the Eiffel Tower. Paris is breathtaking but the rest of France is equally stunning, offering up charming towns that transport visitors to another time and place in history; and a food scene sure to satisfy even the most insatiable of appetites.
The Loire Valley rests in the central region of France and runs along the Loire River for which it is named. Home to storybook-like towns and a dizzying array of châteaux and castles, the Loire Valley is a treasure trove of history. A drive through the Loire Valley reveals romantic sights like the Château de Chenonceau that was once the retreat for Catherine de’ Medici and Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the Château de Blois where French kings once resided and where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims in 1429. History has weaved itself into the fabric of the Loire Valley with Medieval-style buildings, severe looking cathedrals and scars from World War II making the past very much part of the present.
Don’t be fooled though! Although the Loire Valley offers a portal to the past it has the uncanny skill of marrying modern with antique. Whether it’s a fashionable department store nestled in a Medieval building or a bustling market across from a centuries old cathedral, the Loire Valley is a surreal combination of the old and new. Of the many cities and towns that dot the Loire Valley, Tours is the largest city in the central region of France and only 3 hours away from Paris by train.
Last week I had the pleasure of touring Tours on my recent visit to France over the holiday break. When I travel I often lose myself in the destination I am visiting, letting myself stroll aimlessly along charming sidewalks as I find this is the best way to discover a new place. This act of wandering has been coined “Flânerie” or to stroll, a French term made popular by the 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire believed all artists and writers needed to immerse themselves in the places they travel and become “botanists of the sidewalk” in order to best observe and discover a new place. Taking Baudelaire’s advice, I let myself wander through Tours with good company in tow and a healthy appetite.
What I discovered (and savored) along the way were tasty crepes, fromage, vin chaud and saucisson. Whatever you fancy, the Loire Valley serves up some of the best cheese, meats and wines in the world. Perhaps it should be named ‘The Belly of France’ rather than ‘The Garden of France,’ because every street and every plaza unveils markets and smells of warm wine with cinnamon. While in Tours, I visited Les Halles Marche, a thriving marketplace for the epicurean enthusiast. Les Halles is a treat to the senses displaying brightly colored spices, deliciously smelly cheeses, rows of pastries and fresh baguettes that offer a symphony of crunches when squeezed.
Likely named after the historic Les Halles Market in Paris, the marche in Tours is just one ‘foodie’ stop of many in the thriving Loire Valley. Next time France is on your itinerary, consider looking beyond Paris to visit some of the breathtaking sights that surround the City of Light.
Of course, my heart will always skip a beat when the Eiffel Tower glitters over the Seine but much like how NYC can often eclipse the natural beauty of New York State, it’s good to remember the Loire Valley is only a hop, skip and a train ride away from Paris.