The Loire Valley drive from Tours to Saumur is a very short distance but it’s packed full of places to visit. There are some lovely gardens on this stretch of the Loire Valley drive, a perfect medieval fortress and one of the most beautiful châteaux in France. And don’t forget the Touraine wines.
Loire Valley Drive Routes
Fast Route: Tours to Saumur direct is 79 kms/50 miles taking just under an hour including tolls on the A85.
Scenic Route: 116 kms/72 miles taking around 2 hours.
Start with romantic Le Prieuré de St-Cosme
Drive: 3.5 kms/2 miles west taking around 12 minutes.
The first attraction on the Loire Valley drive from Tours to Saumur is in Tours itself. The Prieuré de St-Cosme is a real find in an unprepossessing area of suburbia. Once on an island, this is the priory where France’s greatest Renaissance poet, Pierre de Ronsard, lived as prior from 1565 until his death in 1585. Go in May or June if you can when the 2,000 or so rose bushes bloom in the garden of the ruined monastery and the air is heavy with their scent.
From Le Prieuré de St-Cosme to 3 Gorgeous Attractions
Château de Villandry
Drive: From Le Prieuré de St-Cosme take the D7 for 18kms/11 miles and 25 mins.
Villandry was the last great Renaissance château built on the Loire. It was the work of Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for King François l in the 1530s. 18th-century improvements ushered in a more classic style, obliterating much of the original Renaissance building. The French Revolution’s aftermath brought different owners, including Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s younger brother.
In 1906, Dr Joachim Carvallo (1869-1936) and his wife Ann Coleman (1875-1940), heir to an American iron and steel empire in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, bought Villandry. They began the long restoration of the Renaissance façades.
The buildings are impressive, but it’s the gardens which are the great glory of Villandry. The original owner had laid them out in sections that descended gently to the Loire. The new owners’ second, and greatest achievement was to restore the garden to their original Renaissance inspiration.
The six different gardens are magnificent, dropping down from the top classical water garden. Then you come to an ornamental garden, the beds separated by boxwood hedges, then the sun garden full of roses, shrubs and coloured grasses.
But it’s the potager (vegetable garden) which is the star of the show. It’s spread over 12,500 square metres and is planted with carrots, aubergines, cabbages and much more in symmetrical order. Beyond that runs the 1970s monastic-inspired herb garden, and finally you come to the maze.
Château de Villandry to Langeais
Drive: Take the D7 and D952 10 kms/6 miles for 12 mins taking you over the Loire to Langeais.
Dominating the town is the formidable fortress; its battlements, towers and drawbridge designed to stop any attack from the river.
Langeais Castle has a special place in French history. In 1491 Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany were married in the main chamber, bringing the hitherto determinedly independent Bretons into the kingdom of France. As part of the marriage contract, Anne promised to marry the new sovereign if Charles died and there was no heir. And that’s what happened. None of the couple’s children survived; Charles VIII died at Amboise in 1498 and Anne married his cousin, Louis d’Orléans who became Louis XII.
Langeais is different from the other châteaux along the Loire. Its last owner, Jacques Siegfried bought the building in 1886 and spent the rest of his life restoring it back to a castle rooted in the Middle Ages. Medieval tiles cover the floors; priceless tapestries hang on the walls, keeping the cold at bay.
Outside scaffolding shows how medieval castles were built.
But if medieval castles are your thing, make sure you see Guédelon, a castle being built from scratch in Burgundy.
Langeais to the Château of Azay-le-Rideau
Drive: Cross back over the river on the D57 for 10 kms/6 miles on a 12-minute drive to Azay-le-Rideau.
The small town is a gem of a place; the gracious château in complete contrast to the powerful, defensive Langeais.
Azay-le-Rideau Château is beautiful and serene, set in a little island in the Indre. Built between 1519 and 1527, its pale stone walls and perfect Renaissance turrets are reflected in the water. The writer Balzac, a frequent visitor, described it as ‘a faceted diamond, set in the Indre‘. It sounds a bit over the top…until you see the château.
Inside you walk through a series of richly decorated rooms, with tapestries and royal portraits on the walls, fireplaces decorated with the salamander of François I. The most prominent feature is the grand central staircase which rises in straight flights, not in a spiral.
There are some real treats in some of the rooms. Set with tables full of goodies, larger-than-life figures pirouette and dance slowly in front of you. For children it’s mesmerizing. The gardens are for quietly strolling through. And there’s a great gift shop.
One for the family: Château de Rivau
Drive: Take the D757 south for 28 kms/17 miles around 26 minutes to the Château de Rivau.
Here you’ll find a particularly fun château that children love. The Château de Rivau was built by the Beauvau family who were related to the Counts of Anjou and faithful servants of the King. The estate became known for its war horses, used by Joan of Arc in 1429. In 1510, François de Beauvau, one of François I’s captains, built impressive stables and was given the privilege of housing the King’s stallions as his reward.
You walk through the medieval château with the sounds of the past: horses clip-clopping into the courtyard; the words of poets, and the songs of troubadours ringing in your ears.
Along with the history comes a contemporary art show each year with art works added to the permanent collection.
But it’s the gardens that once again take central stage. 12 separate areas are inspired by legends and fairytales, with art works and decorations to match. There’s a truffle plantation, the Fairies’ Way. Rapunzel’s Garden, the Secret Garden, the Gargantua garden full of giant vegetables (in Rabelais’ novel, Gargantua offers Rivau to Tolmere). And there’s a famous rose garden with over 300 flowers from breeders like David Austin and André Eve.
Along with many people, my favorite sculptures are the giant Wellington boots, but it’s all a matter of taste.
Look out for the special walks gathering edible plants, or book one of their truffle hunting expeditions. Rivau is the closest truffle producer to Paris, so it’s a popular excursion. You search for the black gold, taste it then cook with the chef and finish with a truffle-based lunch. There’s a restaurant and a very good shop.
You can stay here in one of the 12 rooms on a bed and breakfast basis.
Château de Rivau to Chinon
Drive: Take the D749 for 11 kms/6 miles and 14 mins to the fortress of Chinon.
Chinon lies on the north bank of the Vienne just 12 kms/7.5 miles before it merges with the Loire. It’s a pretty town with medieval cobbled streets and promenade.
Dominating it all is the formidable fortress…another building with strong English connections. Always a fort, it was mainly the work of Henry Plantaganet, Count of Anjou who was crowned King of England in 1154.
In 1189, it passed to his son Richard the Lionheart, then to King John, whose reputation as King is pretty dire. He was Robin Hood’s enemy, he lost royal rights with Magna Carta (but a good thing for democracy), and in 1204 lost Chinon and with it Touraine and Anjou, part of a vast kingdom that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
Step inside the fortress for a glimpse of the life of the Middle Ages. Restored with the emphasis on authenticity, I hope you’ll be as impressed as I was with the Logis Royal, or royal apartments.
There are plenty of activities and it’s a good place for children so don’t be surprised to see very small knights and ladies rushing around with swords…luckily small wooden ones. If you can book a tour in English.
Touraine Wine Country
Sample good wines on this Loire Valley drive from Tours to Saumur; here you’re in the heart of Touraine wine country. Chinon is one of the stars of the local wines. To taste some of the best, visit the Caves Painctes, a network of subterranean tunnels underneath the château that became wine cellars in the 15th century.
Chinon to the Abbaye de Fontevraud
Drive: Take the D751 for 20 kms/12.5 miles and 22 minutes to the Abbaye de Fontevraud.
The wonderful Romanesque complex of the Abbaye de Fontevraud is not just an architectural gem; it is also intimately bound up with English history. Here are the tombs of the Plantagenet royal family: Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine who died here in 1204, their son Richard the Lionheart and the wife of his brother, King John. Another 11 Plantagenets also lie in ornate tombs here.
The Abbey , the largest in Europe, was founded in 1101 by the hermit Robert d’Arbrissel for both monks and nuns and was run for 700 years by a series of formidable women. Mostly royal born they governed the monks’ priory as well as the communities of nuns and lay sisters.
The buildings are immense, built to house the monks and nuns and also the sick and prostitutes and a leper colony. The Abbey became a prison in 1804 and it continued as such until 1963. If you want to discover life as a prisoner here, read Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose.
You see the church, the cloisters, chapterhouse with its 16th-century murals and the vast refectory with the restored Romanesque kitchen with 21 chimneys.
The Abbey is now the Centre Culturel de l’Ouest, western France’s cultural center and a hugely important center of medieval archeology. It has a wide range of activities; details from the Abbey or Tourist Office.
The opening of the Modern Art Museum is a major event. A donation of 600 works from Martine and Leon Cligman and 300 from the state make up a truly great new collection with works by the likes of Degas, Delaunay, Juan Gris and Toulouse-Lautrec. It was scheduled to open in 2019 but building works and Covid-19 have contributed to the delay.
Fontevraud also has an excellent contemporary hotel and restaurant, so consider staying here.
Fontevraud Abbey to Saumur
Drive: 16 kms/10 miles taking around 20 minutes from here into Saumur, a delightful town. Discover more about it and where to stay in Loire Valley Towns and Cities (see link below).
You’re at the end of the Loire Valley drive from Tours to Saumur. All that remains it the part from Saumur to the Atlantic Ocean and Saint-Nazaire.
Loire Valley Towns – Information on the major Loire Towns including where 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