Should You Visit the Loire Valley With a Tour Group?
France's Loire Valley was once the playground of kings. Today, the Loire Valley is an ideal vacation destination for anyone wishing to delve into French history and culture.
The Loire Valley is famous for its castles — châteaux, in French — and for its wines. Kings, princes, and noblemen built castles along the Loire River, first as fortresses and later as places where they could get away from Paris and court intrigue. Each château is different, and each has a unique and fascinating story.
The Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site not only because of its many châteaux but also because of the relationship between the river and the nearby châteaux, villages, and towns.
Many of the Loire Valley châteaux are open to the public, and it is easy to visit them on your own. However, if your time is limited or you don't want to drive in France, visiting the Loire Valley with a tour group might be a good choice for you.
Advantages of Visiting the Loire Valley With a Tour Group
Transportation / Logistics
Tour groups take care of transportation and logistics. All you have to do is show up at the appointed time each morning. You don't have to plan driving routes or think about parking. If you need to buy admission tickets or find a place to eat, your tour director can help.
Your tour director and your local guide(s) will explain the significance of the Loire châteaux, tell you about the kings and queens who intrigued in these castles, discuss the outcomes of those intrigues and point out the must-see places at each château and town you visit. Individuals who visit the châteaux are usually offered self-guided tours. For example, Go Ahead Tours' Paris, Normandy & the Loire Valley tour includes a guided visit to Chenonceau.
Your tour director and Loire Valley tour guide(s) will give you local insights that no travel guidebook can replicate. Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about life in the Loire Valley today and find out what it was like to visit a Loire Valley château in the 16th century.
Little or No Language Barrier
You won't have to worry about understanding French during your guided visit to the Loire Valley. If your tour includes a guided château visit, your local guide will speak English (or the language used throughout your entire tour, should you decide to travel with a non-English-speaking tour operator). The Loire Valley attracts visitors from around the world, so you will also be able to overcome the language barrier if you sightsee, dine or shop on your own. (Tip: If you learn a few polite words or phrases in French and try to use them, locals will view you more favorably.)
Disadvantages of Visiting the Loire Valley With a Tour Group
When you travel with a tour group, you agree to accept the tour itinerary, even if you would prefer to linger at a place you enjoy or you want to stay somewhere for an extra day, hoping the rain lets up. Your tour director will help you make the most of a bad weather situation and will be able to tell you which museums, churches, and other local sights will help you truly understand each stop on your tour.
Early Start Times
If you like to sleep in, visiting the Loire Valley with a tour group could rapidly become a painful experience. While your tour director certainly understands your wish to sleep in, he or she also has to make sure you get to all of the places on your itinerary.
Top Loire Valley Destinations: Amboise
The Royal Château of Amboise never fails to impress. The château's imposing silhouette invites you to imagine yourself in centuries past, perhaps listening to King François I talk with Leonardo da Vinci or watching Mary, Queen of Scots, dance with her husband, the future French King François II. Exploring the château and its gardens will take you back in time. Don't miss the Chapel of Saint-Hubert; Leonardo da Vinci is buried there.
In da Vinci's time, a tunnel connected the Royal Château of Amboise and Clos Lucé, the château King François I gave to Leonardo da Vinci. The two friends could meet whenever they wished, and, according to tradition, the tunnel was well-used.
If you don't have time to visit the château, you can still enjoy looking at it from outside the walls, especially if you are hungry. There are several restaurants and wine bars on Place Michel Debré, the street that runs parallel to the wall of the Royal Château of Amboise. The French tradition of eating in sidewalk cafés allows every meal to be not only a gastronomic delight but also a sightseeing and people-watching experience.
Amboise's shops are enticing, too. If you need groceries, you'll find a Carrefours City store on Quai du Générale de Gaulle, just a few doors down from the tourist information office. There are all kinds of shops in the area just behind Quai du Générale de Gaulle, including a kitchen store, a skincare, bath and hair products store, clothing and accessories stores and a bookstore.
If You Go
FranceTelephone: +33 (0) 2 47 57 00 98
When they met for the first time in Rome, King François I invited Leonardo da Vinci to move to France and offered him a generous pension to do so. Da Vinci packed the Mona Lisa and headed to the Loire Valley. King François I presented Leonardo da Vinci with the Château du Clos Lucé, a comfortable residence near the Royal Château of Amboise. Here da Vinci dabbled in engineering and architecture and enjoyed the friendship of King François, who could visit Clos Lucé via the connecting tunnel. While you cannot enter the tunnel today, you can see the tunnel entrance inside Clos Lucé.
Today, a visit to Clos Lucé reveals the genius of da Vinci's inventions. Video screens and small models in several of the château's rooms can help you understand just how active da Vinci's mind was while he lived at Clos Lucé. Life-size working models of da Vinci's inventions, on display in the gardens, showcase the genius of this true Renaissance man. A garden dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci's plants is also worth visiting. If you get hungry, you can enjoy a crêpe or a snack in the terrace restaurant.
Guided tours are offered in French only, but you can pick up a self-guided tour brochure at the ticket window. Clos Lucé also offers an iPhone app that can help you plan your visit and learn more about Leonardo da Vinci.
2, rue du Clos Lucé
Telephone number +33 (0) 2 47 57 00 73
This château has come to symbolize all that was and is important about the noblewomen and queens of France. Four influential women created Chenonceau and preserved it for the future. The first, Katherine Briçonnet, the wife of the chamberlain of France, helped her husband build the château, assisting with the design and supervising construction while he was at war.
The second, Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henri II of France, created beautiful gardens at Chenonceau and had a bridge built over the Cher River to connect the château with the opposite bank. She loved living at Chenonceau, but her relationship with Henri II made Queen Catherine very jealous.
The third important woman in Chenoceau's history, Catherine de' Médici, was Queen of France and wife of Henri II. She ordered Diane de Poitiers to give up the château when Henri died. Catherine then took over Chenonceau, planted more gardens and built a grand gallery atop Diane's bridge.
The fourth influential woman, Louise Dupin, saved Chenonceau when the Revolutionary Guard arrived. During the French Revolution, many homes and châteaux owned by the nobility were destroyed. The Dupins, owners of Chenonceau since 1733, had entertained Voltaire and Montesquieu there and had also hired Jean-Jacques Rousseau to tutor their son. In spite of her connection to these Enlightenment thinkers, Madame Dupin nearly lost her home. She managed to save Chenonceau by pointing out that the bridge was the only way for the Revolutionary Guard to get across the Cher for many miles in either direction.
Tours are self-guided, but you can also rent an audio/video guide.
If You Go
Telephone: +33 (0) 2 47 23 90 07
Spectacular Chambord has over 200 chimneys and hundreds of rooms. This enormous château, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dwarfs the other Loire Valley châteaux. Built by King François I in 1518, Chambord took 15 years to complete, long enough so that the king began using it before construction ended. François I used Chambord as a hunting lodge, but living in the château for long periods of time was impractical. Chambord was hard to heat, there was very little furniture in the château and there was no place to buy food in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps this is why subsequent kings of France rarely visited Chambord.
King Louis XIV finished building Chambord, added stables and used the château several times during his reign. King Louis XV allowed first the exiled King Stanislas of Poland and then the Maréchal de Saxe to live in the château. During the French Revolution, the building was left standing, but the furniture and even the floors were taken away and sold. The Duke of Bordeaux was given the estate in 1821, but the French government seized Chambord from his heirs, the Bourbon-Parmas, who were Austrian, in 1915. The French state officially took ownership of Chambord in 1930.
Today you can tour 60 rooms inside the château. You can also visit the stables, watch a bird of prey show, rent bicycles, and boats, take a horse-drawn carriage ride and explore the forest and park. (Tip: If you visit Chambord with a guided tour, you will probably have time to do some, but not all, of these activities.)
If You Go
Telephone: +33 (0)2 54 50 50 40
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of reviewing those services. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.