Chateaux Magnifique

Loire Valley is the definite destination for absorbing the culture and the grandeur of France

By: David O. Bailey

The Loire Valley is hardly an off-the-beaten-path destination. Most American visitors, however, stop well upstream from Saumur and the Priory at Chenehutte-les-Tuffeaux.

Oh, what they’re missing! The grand chateaus Chenonceau, Chambord, Villandry and the rest are to the west; Bordeaux and its wines to the south, and the seacoasts of Brittany and Normandy to the east and north. The stretch of river around Saumur offers a somewhat lower-key and more comfortable destination. It’s a place ideal for lingering and a slow immersion into French history and culture.

The roots of history run very deep here. The chateau that towers over Saumur was once a military structure. It has more in common with the castles of the Welsh Marches and the Scottish Borders than the ornate palaces a few miles up the Loire. That is no accident it dates from the same period as the Welsh castles, when the histories of England and France were a single narrative in one language.

Part of the Priory itself dates to the 12th century, though the manor house, with its large rooms and fireplaces, was built in the relatively more luxurious 16th century. A crumbling sculpture built into the corner of one wall overlooking a garden is a reminder of its centuries of use as a Benedictine lodge.

The Priory stands atop a bluff overlooking the Loire’s south bank. As a result, the rooms in the main lodge have broad views up and down the river and across to the flood plain and higher land on the north side.

The big dining rooms also overlook the river and, best of all, so does the terrace.

There are few better ways to spend an hour before dinner than to sit out in fine weather with a glass of one of the local sparkling wines and watch the sandbars below fade in the twilight.

The Priory is one of Les Grandes Etapes Francaises, a group of 10 hotels scattered along the Loire and through the French Alps, all of which pay a standard 10 percent commission to agents. Within the group, the Priory may not have the most ambitious table or the most sophisticated wine list, though it would take a picky traveler indeed to be greatly dissatisfied with them. The seasonal local menus tend to be particularly good and travelers should not be shy about asking for advice when the cheese cart comes around.

The grounds of the Priory extend for 60 acres and there are walks along the bluff and back into the fields behind.

A few miles upriver, Saumur is a pleasant town to explore, neither overrun with tourists nor lacking in sufficient variety of shops and restaurants to keep them interested. Large parts of Saumur’s chateau, located on the bluff above the town, need restoration, but there are enough open rooms and exhibits to merit a visit.

Boat rides on the Loire are also available from town, including one concentrating on the wildlife along the marshy banks.

The river is lined, especially to the east of Saumur, with troglodyte dwellings residences carved over the centuries, deep into the limestone bluffs. Many of these are now used as wine cellars or mushroom farms, and there is a troglodyte village museum at the nearby town of Rochemenier.

The region is not high on most lists for quality wine production, but the variety in the cellars along the base of the bluffs is unusually wide. Gratien & Meyer’s Cuvee Flamme is a particularly fine local cousin to champagne and for red wine, the Saumur-Champigny appellation deserves to be better known.

For those interested in the long tradition of European military horsemanship, the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation (National Riding Academy), on the high plateau back of the bluffs, offers highly polished shows.

Farther afield, Chinon, with its extensive medieval quarter and the ruins of the castle more commonly associated with the Plantagenets, is an easy day trip upriver. Chenonceau and the rest of the grand chateaus are a little farther, but not out of reach. Also in easy range are Tours and Poitiers.

Rooms: 19 in the chateau, 15 in the detached villas.

Recreation at the Hotel: Swimming, tennis.

Reservations: Either directly through the hotel at or through les Grande Etapes at

Access: The drive from Paris will kill most of a day. Trains may be easier. The high-speed TGV runs from Paris to Tours or from Paris to Le Mans and Anger, destinations where it would be easy to rent a car.