This Loire Valley drive from Le Puy-en-Velay to Nevers is the first part of the Loire Valley adventure along the river’s meandering route to the Atlantic. The Loire rises near my house in the Auvergne. But here it’s a modest river, slowly gathering its strength as it wiggles its way north west. At first it passes through small villages where all it does is keep the local communal washing places busy and water the pastures of cows and sheep.
It’s not until Nevers that the Loire becomes a major commercial river.
The main towns and cities in the Loire Valley running east to west start with Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne where the river is a modest burble. Then it goes through Nevers, Orléans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Angers, Nantes and St-Nazaire where the Loire finishes its epic journey to the sea.
Loire Valley Routes from Le Puy-en-Velay to Nevers
Fast Route: 280 kms/174 miles taking 3hr 40 minutes. It’s on the Autoroute N102 which has tolls of €6.40. Or take the A71 (no tolls) which is a journey of 307 kms/191 miles taking 3 hrs 50 mins.
Scenic Route: 367 kms/229 miles taking around 6 hours. It is possible to do all the attractions in one day though you might find you have to cut some a little short or bypass others.
Start the Loire Valley Drive at Le Puy-en-Velay
Le Puy-en-Velay is my nearest big town in France. You can’t miss its two main features as you approach. The religious statues and buildings rising out of the town on volcanic pinnacles give the town a theatricality out of all proportion to its fame. It’s the start of one of the most popular and best organized pilgrim routes to St James of Compostela in Spain.
Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Étienne
Drive: 118 kms/73 miles taking 1 hr 40 mins
From Le Puy take the D103 that runs mainly beside the still small Loire river. It’s a pretty drive so if time is not important, take the even smaller D42 up to D46 at La Roche/Bas en Bessat. You continue up the ever growing Loire, turning right onto the D25 to Unieux which becomes the D3 into Saint-Étienne.
The road takes you beside the Loire. It’s a delightful journey and much nicer than the main fast autoroute. There are no spectacular sights to stop at, just a drive through the Auvergne with its wide open spaces and rolling hills.
Saint-Étienne was an industrial city and the centre of the French arms making business from 1665 to 2001. La Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne occupied a huge area with numerous industrial buildings.
Today the buildings have been renovated and transformed in this design city. So visit the Musée d’Art et Industrie which displays the city’s three main industries: weapons, bicycles and textiles. The Cité de Design is a prestigious design university with good temporary exhibitions. The Musée de la Mine takes you down into a different and rather grim world.
The Musée d’Art Moderne is a real eye opener. It was the first regional museum of modern art and has a huge collection.
If you’re there for a meal make sure you eat at the up-to-the-minute La FABuleuse cantine.
A city of art and design, Saint-Étienne has an important bi-annual Design Festival starting in August. A surprising find and well worth the detour!
From Saint-Étienne to St Pierre de la Roche
Drive: 67 kms/42 miles taking 1 hr 20mins. Drive north into the glorious Gorges de la Loire on the D1082 with the river on your left.
It’s a lovely drive to a château you probably don’t know about. I didn’t until fairly recently and it’s a real find.
The Château de la Roche stands on an island, its stone defences mirrored in the surrounding waters. Stop to look at it; its strategic position gave it huge importance from the 13th century onwards. If you have enough time (and good French) the guided tour is dramatic and fun, led by the proprietors of the château.
St Pierre de la Roche to Roanne and another city stop on the Loire Valley from Le Puy-en-Velay to Nevers drive
Drive: 24 kms/15 miles taklng 30 mins
Keeping to the scenic route, go back to the junction with the little D56 road which winds its way along the Loire. You’ll pass by Roanne, another city that is largely ignored by visitors unless you’re from Nuneaton and Bedworth (which Roanne is twinned with).
But worth a stop for its port, the old quarter, its superb Fine Arts Museum which houses one of the best Egyptology collections in France. (If you’re a fan of Egyptology, get to the new Champollion museum in Isère. It’s one of the many new museums and attractions opening this year.) And if you’re a gourmet, book at the 3-Michelin star Troisgros restaurant in Roanne.
Roanne to Digoin
Drive: 56 kms/35 miles taking 56 mins. From Roanne take the D482 with the Loire still on your left. The road becomes the D982 after Iguerande.
You’ll lose sight of the river a few kilometres on at St Martin du Lac. The road takes you to Digoin where the Canal du Centre joins the Canal Latéral à la Loire.
Digoin to Decize
Drive: 67 kms/42 miles taking 1hr 2 mins. The D979 runs beside the river, past St-Aubin-sur-Loire with its Trappist Abbey de Sept-Fons which has been inhabited by Cistercian monks since 1132.
Then Bourbon-Lancy appears just off the D979 on the D973. The town is worth a stop for its walled medieval area dating back to 1495. Standing on a hill, its wooden frame-houses crowd the small streets.
Bourbon-Lancy is a spa town and its thermal springs have treated visitors for centuries, starting with the likes of Cardinal Richelieu, James II of England and Catherine de Medici. and continuing on to today’s health-conscious visitors.
Decize, standing on a rocky island in the Loire, is a major destination in the central France canal system. Here the Canal du Nivernais joins the Canal Latéral à la Loire. Decize is a boarding place for barge and small boat trips on the river from the Vieille Loire quay. Hire a boat from the excellent small company, le boat. From here you can go north up the Nivernais Valley, west to Nevers or south to Roanne.
Once fortified to defend its strategic position, the ramparts, walls and towers of the city offer a good walk. They once enclosed the old castle of the Counts of Nevers. A clock tower and the Saint-Aré church dating back to the 7th-century complete the tour.
The final part of the Loire Valley Le Puy-en-Velay to Nevers drive
From Decize it’s just a delightful 35 kms/22 miles drive on the D981 beside the Loire as it makes it way up to Nevers. It will take you around 40 minutes.
Nevers is one of the Loire Valley’s great towns. Here’s more on Nevers including what to see and where to stay.
So it’s the end of the first part taking you along the Loire Valley from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Nevers. The next Loire Valley drive takes you from Nevers up to the lovely city of Orléans.
Loire Valley Towns and Cities including attractions, places to stay and how to get to each one
Loire Valley Drive in Sections
Loire à Velo Route – Where to stay, how to book and attractions to see on this great cycle route
Budget Hotel Chains give you some good options on cheap (and good) accommodation in all parts of France