Located in central-west France and part of the Centre region, Indre-et-Loire is unquestionably one of the most beautiful areas of France. Dominated by the myriad chateaux of the Loire Valley within its borders, the entire department is a paragon of rural charm, with outstanding wines and delightful gastronomy all against a breathtaking landscape.
Despite a substantial land area of 6,127 km², Indre-et-Loire's population was recorded at just 554,003 according to a 1999 census. The largest city is naturally the prefecture of Tours, but there are a number of other significant communes:
One of the original 83 departments established in March 1790 during the French Revolution, the territory of Indre-et-Loire was formerly part of the Touraine province. Prior to the Revolution, the area's history had become synonymous with that of Tours, being a major site of Humanist learning during the Middle Ages (being the birthplace of the 16th century writer François Rabelais) and the site of the Battle of Tours in 732AD between the Franks and the Muslim Austrasians (which ended in victory for the Franks).
From the 18th century onwards though, the department has been relatively secluded, garnering a reputation as a nostalgic reminder of 'old' France. Indeed, it is this mixture of natural beauty, historical points of interest and a general sense of nostalgia that has made Indre-et-Loire one of the most popular areas to visit in the country, with so many tourists flocking to the department annually.
Indre-et-Loire's climate is perfect for holiday visits, with very pleasant summer temperatures and mild winter conditions. Tours is representative of the department's average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Tours
Tours is a natural starting point for visitors, and an immediate reminder of the city's long history can be found in the Cathedral of St. Gatien. Built in the 12th century in Gothic-style, this Catholic church was destroyed in the late 18th century, but the Clock Tower and Charlemagne Tower are both reminders of its former status as one of France's finest buildings. Outside of Tours, the thoroughly picturesque town of Loches is also packed with great sights such as the 10th century Church of St. Ours, the St. Antoine Tower and the Royal Lodge of Charles VII.
However, any brief summary cannot but focus on the chateaux of the Loire Valley within Indre-et-Loire, unquestionably one of France's great tourist attractions. The Château de Chenonceau in the village of Chenonceaux is arguably the finest of these. Rebuilt in the 15th century after the 11th century original was torched, this outstanding example of both Gothic and Renaissance architecture is the result of centuries of work by its many owners. Among the many remarkable sights are the Diane de Poitiers' gardens, the Marques tower and the 'Green Study', with paintings by Tintoretto, Van Dyck and Poussin.
A favourite residence of French kings after Charles VII seized it in 1434, the 11th century Château d'Amboise is exceptional both for its heritage, containing the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci and the Chapel of Saint-Hubert. Hosting many kings and queens during the Middle Ages, including Mary, Queen of Scots, the Château was also the site of the Amboise conspiracy against King Francis II in 1560. Falling out of favour with French royalty quickly thereafter, the Château's appeal to tourists today is without doubt.
The historical importance of the châteaux is further emphasised by the Château de Chinon. This former 4th century monastery was taken by Henry II, the Angevin and English King, in the 12th century and massively redeveloped. Home to Henry, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, its repute spread further in 1429 as the site where Joan of Arc implored the dauphin Charles VII to raise an army against England, ironically making the Chinon the site where English power in France was both asserted and challenged.
Just outside Tours, the Château de Longeais also has a strong historical pedigree. Expanded beyond its 10th century foundations by Richard the Lionheart, it was actually destroyed during the Hundred Years War and only rebuilt in 1465. Now standing in its former glory, it holds an outstanding collection of tapestries.
Also deserving of mention is the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau. Built between 1518 and 1527 in Renaissance-style, it is remarkable for its foreign touches, such as the English Garden and the Italian finishes across the edifice. However, it is impossible to overestimate the attractiveness of these châteaux, both the aforementioned and the Château de Villandry, the Château du Rivau and the Château de la Bourdasière show you the very best of Indre-et-Loire and deserve to be thoroughly explored.
There are many options available to families in the department. Theme parks like Espace Aquatique in Loches, or zoos like the Zoo Parc de Beauval, or quadbiking at 'Natur'Ailes' in Loches are just a few of the activities. Watersports are especially popular, with fishing opportunities in Loché-sur-Indrois and windsurfing or canoeing around the 35 hectare lake at Chemillé-sur-Indrois. You can even take to the skies with gliding at the Touraine Planeur in Le Louroux.
Museums, galleries and culture
Tours is the best spot to visit for museums and galleries. The Musée des Beaux-Arts at the Palais des Archevêques is home to works by Monet, Rembrandt and Degas among many others, and the adjoining garden holds a tree planted by Napoleon himself. The city also contains Le Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle and the Musée des Vins de Touraine, the latter being a fascinating survey of winemaking in the region.
However, the many châteaux are the greatest source of culture in Indre-et-Loire. Each one is filled with galleries and antiques. The Château of Chernonceau, for example, houses the living room of Louis XIV (replete with works by 18th century French masters), François I's bedroom (including pieces by Van Dyck), Catherine de Medici's bedroom (holding a painting by Correggio) and the Five Queen's Bedroom (containing a Rubens). A similar situation reigns at the Château de Rivau and, indeed, all the other châteaux of the department.
Indre-et-Loire isn't exactly the best place for high street shopping due to its size, but you can find decent outlets all across Tours.
Markets are held throughout the week across the region. In Tours, the Boulevard Beranger, the Place Velpeau and the Place des Halles are the chief locations. Ligueil is also an option, holding a specialist antiques market each week.
Tours is regarded as 'the garden of France' due to its many public parks and this could equally be said for the region as a whole. The gardens of the châteaux are generally stunning, from the Catherine de Medici Gardens at Chenonceau to the 12 design gardens of the Château du Rivau. However, you cannot miss the gardens of the Château de Villandry, considered some of the most beautiful in France.
There are established routes across the region for hikers, such as the Touraine-Loire Valley Vineyards route down the River Loire and the Valley of the Kings Historical Trail across the Loire Valley.
Indre-et-Loire is one of the most fruitful areas for wine lovers in Europe. The department's reputation derives from the 4th century, when St. Martin of Tours spread both Christianity and vineyards throughout France. His good work can be felt today in Vouvray, with its many vineyards producing outstanding white wines and hosting events and fairs in August, March and November.
Elsewhere, the wines of Chinon are some of the best in France, particularly the range of Cabarnet-Franc red wines. The plethora of wine cellars, or 'caves' provides ample opportunities for enthusiasts, known as such because they are actually carved into the banks of the River Vienne. Loches and Boussay-sur-Claise are also good spots for enthusiasts, but you're generally assured of outstanding wines wherever you visit.
The department has some five courses, such as the 9-hole Golf de Loches-Verneuil in Verneuil-sur-Indre, Golf de Touraine (15 kilometres south of Tours) and Golf du Château des Sept Tours in Courcelles-de-Touraine.
Food and drink
Locally grown produce dominates menus in Indre-et-Loire. Speciality dishes abound like andouillette (tripe sausage), as well as desserts like fouaces (hearth-cakes). Tours is home the best choice of restaurants, La Vieux Tours (the old city) being an excellent location. Alternatively, try Loches for traditional bistrots establishments.
Ease of access
If travelling from abroad, you can reach Indre-et-Loire by travelling to Tours Loire Valley Airport, which is connected to London-Stansted via Ryanair. Alternatively, you can arrive at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris and take a one-hour train ride to Tours.
The TGV high-speed rail service is available from the prefecture and connected to other major cities like Bordeaux. Autoroute links allow easy travel across the entire department if you're renting a car.
Value for money
There are many different types of accommodation available, from gites to apartments and campsites. Accommodation is relatively expensive due to the strong tourist trade, with a 3-star hotel ranging from 70 to 150 Euros per night, and holidays will generally be a little pricey.
Indre-et-Loire is, quite simply, one of the best places to visit in France. Characterised by the archetypal French attributes of wine, good food and great scenery, there are really very few drawbacks. Get yourself over there whenever you can.