Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tourist attractions in the Centre region, including Loire châteaux

Lying to the southwest of Paris, the Centre region includes a large part of the Loire valley, and areas to the north and to the south. While it does - just -  include the point which is the geometric "centre" of continental France, the region of France known as "le Centre" does not generally coincide with the middle of the country. It could more aptly be described as being the centre section of northern France. It is an area stretching from a latitude slightly north of Paris, down to the north of the Limousin and Auvergne regions, and is bordered to the west by Normandy, thePays de la Loire region and Poitou, and to the east by the Paris region (Ile de France) andBurgundy. Its regional capital is the city of Orléans.
Map of the Centre region of France    Unlike many other regions, the Centre region is not a historic province; it is, as its name perhaps implies, the heart of historic France, the area between the Paris region and the Loire valley that was for many centuries the centre of the kingdom of France – at times when the territory which is today known as France was divided among the kingdoms or duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, Aquitaine, Anjou and others less important. In this respect, the regions of the Centre and the Ile de France are France.
     The region is composed of six departments, the Eure et Loir * (28), theLoiret (45), the Loir  et Cher (41), theCher (18), the Indre et Loire (37) and theIndre (36). 
    In the north of the region lies the area known as la Beauce, one of the two historic breadbaskets of France. This is a gently undulating plateau where vast wheat fields stretch as far as they eye can see. The area's main city, Chartres, is famous for its magnificent cathedral, one of the earliest and finest gothic cathedrals in France.   The middle of this region is characterised by the low-lying valleys of the river Loire and its tributaries. This area was very popular with the kings of France and their dukes in the Middle Ages andRenaissance, and is rich with magnificent châteaux - notably the most famous of the "Chateaux de la Loire"  such as Chambord, Azay-le-Rideau, Blois or Chenonceaux. Between Orleans, Blois and Vierzon lies a vast area of forest and heathland known as LaSologne, once the favoured hunting grounds of the nobility, and today popular with hunters, nature-lovers and hikers. The Loire valley is also characterised by a number of vineyards, producing mainly white wines, including the sparkling whites of Touraine and Vouvray. Among other famous vineyard areas are Pouilly-Fumé,  Sancerre and Valençay.
    In the south and south-east, covering the departments of the Cher and the Indre, the Centre region rises gently towards the hills of the Limousin and the Auvergne; this area, known as le Berry, is a deeply agricultural area, with mixed farming. Its capital is the city ofBourges, with a fine historic centre. Finally, to the south-west of the town ofChateauroux lies an area known as La Brenne, the "area of a thousand lakes", and one of the most important wetlands in France. 
    The northern half of the Centre region benefits, economically, from its proximity to Paris, and by excellent transport links to the capital. Tours is served by TGV, and Orleans by fast express trains; all the major cities in the region also have direct motorway access to Paris. The The cities of the Loire valley have become important centres for the pharmaceutical and high-tech industries, and the north of the region is also a centre for the French cosmetics industry.
    As for the exact location of the "centre" of France, several communes in the south of the Centre region - and a some in the north of the Auvergne - are rivals for this title - depending on the criteria used. But according to various criteria, the centre of France lies at some spot in the commune of Saint-Armand-Montrond, in the very south of the Cher department.

Access: by train (TGV) from Paris Gare Montparnasse, Gare d'Austerlitz, or gare de Bercy. Access by road from the UK, via any of the Channel ports, then via Paris or Rouen. The Centre region is crossed by the main motorways between Paris and western / southwestern France, the A10 (Paris-Tours-Bordeaux), the A11 (Paris-Chartres-Rennes), the A71( [Paris] - Orleans -Clermont-Ferrand) , the A77 (Paris-Nevers) and the A20 ( [Paris] -Vierzon-Toulouse).  Air access is easiest via Paris Orly airport, or Tours.

Main tourist attractions in the Centre of France

Amboise, on the Loire
Amboise, on the River Loire  Photo Schlabotnik

Chartres cathedral mediaeval statues
Chartres cathedral - statues on west portal - Photo Turloughmor

Chateau de Chambord, near Blois - Photo Steiner
  • Orleans (45), Regional capital, a historic city on the banks of the Loire.
  • Blois (41) . Historic town on the northern bank of the Loire, with a magnificent Renaissance castle.
  • Tours (37): largest city in the region, Tours boasts an attractive historic centre with old half-timbered houses, St Gatien's cathedral, and  also a castle.
  • Bourges (18): Attractive historic centre, with great gothic cathedral, later than that of Chartres; fine mediaeval sculptures and stained glass; also the famous Renaissance town residence of Jacques Coeur.
  • Chartres (28) - One of the most famous gothic cathedrals in France, famous in particular for its magnificent mediaeval stained-glass windows.
  • The river Loire (37 / 41 / 45 ) The wide slow-moving Loire is one of Europe's great rivers. The river, excellent for fishing, is bordered by many attractive small towns, and the flat land is good for cycling. There are also many vineyards in the area of Tours.
  • Les Châteaux de la Loire (37, 41, 45, 18)  - the castles of the Loire. Many of these are actually on tributaries of the Loire. The most famous are Chambord, Chenonceaux, Villandry (with its famous gardens) and Azay le Rideau. But there are many others, including Langeais, Rigny-Ussé, Amboise etc
  • La Brenne (36). Area of 1000 lakes, major wetland renowned for its birds. 
  • La Sologne: great wooded area, south and southwest of Orleans; formerly favoured as hunting grounds by kings and nobles. 
  • Briare (41) : site of the Briare aqueduct over the Loire, until 2003 the longest canal bridge in the world. Built 1896.
  • Les Bordes (41) : in the Sologne, reputed to be the finest golf course in France.
  • Zoo Parc de Beauval, (41) in the Loire valley area. Over 4000 animals, including koalas & orang-utangs. the largest wildlife collection in France.
  • Gargilesse (18) Picturesque village, with the home of 19th century novelist George Sand.