Renowned for its somptuous châteaux, the relics of royal days gone by, the glorious valley of the Loire is rich in both history and architecture. Like the river Loire, this vast region runs through the heart of French life. Its sophisticated cities, luxuriant landscape and magnificent food and wine add up to a bourgeois paradise.
The lush Loire valley is supremely regal.
Orleans was France's intellectual capital in the 13th century, attracting artists, poets and troubadours to the royal court. But the medieval court never stayed in one place for long, which led to the building of magnificent châteaux all along the Loire.
Chambord and Chenonceaux, the two greatest Renaissance châteaux remain prestigious symbols of royal rule, resplendent with their ornamental gardens.
Due to its central location, culture and fine cuisine, Tours is the natural visitor's capital.
Angers is a close second, but more authentic are the historic towns of Amboise, Blois, Saumur and Beaugency, strung out like jewels along the river.
This is the classic Loire valley, a château trail which embraces the Renaissance gardens of Villandry and the fairytale turrets of Azay-le-Rideau.
Venture northwards and the cathedral cities of Le Mans and Chartres reign supreme,their medieval centers bordered by Gallo-Roman walls.
Nantes in the west is a breezy, forward-looking port and gateway to the Atlantic.
Southwards, the windswept Vendée is edged by a wild, sandy coastline that is perfect for windsurfers and nature lovers alike.
Inland, the Loire's more peaceful tributaries and the watery Sologne beg to be explored.
Also ripe for discovery are the troglodyte caves, sleepy hamlets, and small Romanesque churches decorated with frescoes.
Inviting inns offer game, fish and abundant fresh vegetables to be lingered over with light white Vouvray wine, or full-bodied Bourgueil.
Overindulgence is no sin in this rich region.
The river Loire at Montsoreau, southeast of Saumur.
The fairytale château de Saumur towering above the town and the river Loire.