The Loire Valley embraces extensive parts of two central and western French regions:
The Loire Valley is often referred to as "the Garden of France" and the Cradle of the French Language. (The city of Tours is reputed to speak the purest French.) Listed (at least in part) amongst the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in late 2000, the Loire Valley is also noteworthy for the quality of its architectural heritage, in historic towns such as Amboise, Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur and Tours, but in particular for its world-famous chateaux (castles), such as the Châteaux Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Chenonceau.
The rolling riverine landscape of the Loire Valley - and more particularly its many cultural monuments - is redolent of the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment on Western European thought and design. The valley is also known for its wineries, many of which offer tours.
On 2 December 2000, UNESCO named the central part of the Loire River valley, between Maine and Sully-sur-Loire, to its prestigious list of World Heritage Sites. In choosing this area that includes the France Départements of Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, Indre-et-Loire and Maine-et-Loire, the committee said that the Loire Valley is: "an exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities and villages, great architectural monuments - the Châteaux - and lands that have been cultivated and shaped by centuries of interaction between local populations and their physical environment, in particular the Loire itself."
One of the best ways to tour the Loire valley is by bicycle. Shops in many of the towns rent bicycles by the day, and can offer maps and suggest destinations. Some trains allow bicycles, others do not; be sure you check first if you expect to return by train.
The Loire region roduces some of the world's best wine. The still whites of the region from Amboise downriver to Saumur are distinctive, high-quality, fruity and well-rounded - from both small and large producers. The region also produces 'Method Traditionel' (champagne style) sparkling wines, which are a little more fruity and every-bit the equal of their expensive counterparts, but do not carry the premium of the appellation.
Some lighter red wines are produced in the region, notably 'Francois 1re', but the region cannot compete with the south of France. There is a small quantity of red sparkling wines produced in Saumur, which are well worth a try as possible accompaniment to dessert, or as an aperatif.
There are numerous co-operatives which operate within small appeallations, as well as small independent producers, and large companies. Most producers have their own 'cave' (wine cellar, carved out of the local tofu stone) which offers tours and wine-tasting. Tasting is usually free, but etiquette indicates that if you taste, then you should buy something to make it worth the producer's time. Small producers will often show you round their caves personnally.
There are many wine-festivals through the summer months - these are well worth the visit to make contact with producers - some of whom will send wine internationally. Try also the various 'route de vignobles' - designated tours around the vinyards, details are available in tourist information offices, from small villages to large towns.
Travellers wishing to see more of the Loire Valley can continue further south into the adjoining Centre-Val de Loire region, studded with additional historical cities and chateaux at sites such as Bourges and Saint-Benoît-du-Sault.