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FRANCE WEST LOIRE VALLEY vignoble de Loire
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ituated in the western part of France, the Loire Valley’s claim to fame is its inscription on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2000, for the region’s undeniable natural, historical, and cultural value. The quintessential homeland of the French Château, the Loire Valley boasts more than 300 of these impressive symbols of noble pleasure. Commonly translated into English as “castle,” the French word “château,” however, actually refers to a manor or country residence belonging to the nobility, rather than a castle in the defensive sense that usually applies in English.

The Loire Valley epitomised the height of the French nobility’s taste for pleasure residences in the country in the sixteenth century. It was here amongst the scenic, fertile natural surroundings that successive kings of France chose to locate their opulent pleasure abodes, emulated by other nobles of the court and also wealthy landowners, who added their fair share of exquisite châteaux to the landscape. Apart from being obvious tourist attractions in their own right, some of these châteaux today house restaurants and serve as tourist accommodation, while others remain private homes.

Besides its association with the French nobility, the Loire Valley also proudly embraces France’s national heroine, St. Joan of Arc, who legendarily defeated the English troops at Orléans in May 1429 during the Hundred Years’ War. In early May every year, the city still hosts a Joan of Arc Festival in honour of its liberator, where medieval markets, jousting reenactments and pageants are all part of the festivities.

The region takes its name from the Loire River, the longest in France. The river flows into the Atlantic Ocean at the region’s west coast, after travelling a good 1,020km from its source in the Massif Central region further south. The Loire Valley enjoys a relatively mild climate, with warmer winters than many other regions in France thanks to the influence of winds blowing in from the Atlantic.

The fifth most populated region in France, the Loire Valley engages significantly in agricultural activity. Historically fertile, the Valley is known for – believe it or not – asparagus. The natural landscape yields game and meat, which play an important part in the cuisine of the region. Goat’s cheese is another signature product. For wine-lovers, the region’s vineyards produce a majority of dry white wines, including the renowned Vouvray. Other important economic activities in the region include wood processing and fashion, as well as tourism, especially in the summer months.

The many medieval towns dotting the banks of the Loire River lend the region its unhurried, romantic atmosphere. The town of Tours, centrally located within the region and with good transport links to Paris, serves as a prominent tourist base. However, many smaller towns along the river, such as Angers, Saumur, Amboise and Blois, exude historical charm and are well worthy of exploration. Among the Châteaux, the most extensive in the Loire Valley is the Château de Chambord, at Chambord – originally a hunting lodge, King François I grandly redesigned it in 1519, following which the building continually underwent refurbishment and saw extensions to its structure under subsequent owners for the next 166 years. Another château, the Château de Chaumont, is notable for its impressive views over the Loire River. Chaumont-sur-Loire, the town in which the château is situated, hosts an International Garden Festival from May to October each year, as well as a light festival taking place on Friday evenings throughout July and August.

Châteaux aside, a perhaps lesser-known and much humbler, but nevertheless historically intriguing, type of residence can be found in the Loire Valley. Cave dwellings chiselled from the region’s soft rock have existed for hundreds of years – these interesting structures are used today to store wine, grow mushrooms, and also as restaurants, hotels, museums and other visitor attractions. The richness of its historical, natural and cultural heritage promises an unforgettable experience to anyone choosing to visit the Loire Valley.