Once upon a time, French kings frolicked in the pretty Upper Loire. Infatuated with the peace and serenity of the pastoral landscape, European royalty turned it into the most beautiful playground there ever was. More recently, the Upper Loire has evolved from private parklands into a quiet hideaway for a small number of luxury barge cruises. Here, the Barge Ladies recount a recent trip cruising the wine region’s waterways on the 5-star, 8-passenger Renaissance. Pour yourself a cold, crisp glass of Sancerre, while Barge Lady Kerri McConnel shares her Upper Loire highlights, and guides you through this charming area’s fruitful farmland, with supreme cycling, via lavish chateaux.
The Upper Loire can be pinpointed directly west of Paris, about a two-hour drive from the French capital, on the eastern tip of the Loiret department. The region came into being during the time of European royalty; a recreational refuge for the French nobility, ‘la noblesse’. Originally comprised of private hunting lodges and rambling country houses, these estates gradually evolved into the grand palaces we now know as “chateaux”. Some of the most esteemed architects of the era devised these ostentatious mansions, demonstrating the overwhelming affluence France withheld as a powerful European kingdom at that period. The dwellings offered the aristocratic upper classes all the contemporary comforts of city life, yet they were set against a breath-taking backdrop, and immersed in diverse natural beauty, magnificent mountains, and verdant forests. And it was surely no coincidence that, within the confines of this lavish royal lifestyle, the nutrient-rich soil and plentiful sunshine along the River Loire offer an abundance of fresh produce and fine wines to tantalise the taste buds of these privileged social classes.
At this time, the River Loire was initially adopted as an aquatic highway, transporting the Upper Loire’s bountiful grains, produce, and products to the Parisian people. (Incidentally, the rich region became known as “Le Gatinais”, or “the Garden of France”.) But the river was rendered an unreliable route of transport, as the Loire’s water levels were consistently affected by uncontrollable flooding in winter and summer-long droughts. And so, in 1604, the construction of the Canal du Briare began, and was completed in 1642. Along a similar vein, the Canal du Loing came into being in 1723, due to the poor navigability of the neighbouring River Loing and the success of the Canal du Briare’s commercial activity. The canals of the Upper Loire were abandoned in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. But today, the waterways have been perfectly preserved, comprised of gentle bends and easy-going locks, ideal for the leisurely pace of luxury barge cruising.
The Upper Loire always has been, and continues to be, exceptionally focused on its foodie produce. As a result, the locally created cuisine provides an indulgent insight into the region’s history, heritage, and modernity. The region is also France’s largest producer of vin blanc and is best known for its Sancerre; the crisp white wine is made from Sauvignon Blanc, the area’s signature grape. These white wines are best enjoyed relatively young, as their fruit-forward finish is bolstered by a refreshing zest and youthful acidity. Encapsulating summer sunshine, and bursting with juicy berries, these approachable white wines accompany many meals and menus, but our favourite pairing is with seafood. A drop of Pinot Noir is also grown in the Upper Loire, from which both red and rosé wines are produced.
It goes without saying that only the best cheese should be served with such delicious wine! And it will come as no surprise that the Upper Loire has many exceptional varieties to offer. The most famous is goat’s cheese Crottin de Chavignol, and with good reason. This little cylindrical variety has been gracing tables since the 16th century, and, under France’s strict production criteria, continues to be crafted using entirely traditional cheesemaking methods. Known and adored for its subtle nutty flavours, this cheese is a rare breed, as unusually it can be bought and eaten at all three stages of its maturity. The youthful cheese, ‘Chavignol jeune’, is solid and compact with a white rind. During the ripening phase, ‘Chavignol bleuté’, the scent becomes stronger and the rind harder. Finally, with full maturity, ‘Chavignol affiné’, the cheese becomes crumbly and the rind turns blue. Crottin de Chavignol is most typically baked and served with a fresh green salad to compliment the cheese’s richness. It can also be found adorning a cheese board as a cold component. And is perfectly paired with Sancerre wines!
At first glance, the Upper Loire’s rural setting, bucolic scenery, and serene atmosphere seems to suggest that the area’s appeal is all rest and relaxation. However, there is plenty to keep more active holidaymakers moving, especially the Loire a Velo, an 800-kilometre network of pristine cycle paths. The intertwining trails offer cyclists of all abilities a way of exploring some of France’s most picturesque scenery, and some routes are a chance to challenge your physical fitness too. From fair-weather riders pedalling the canal’s adorable towpath, to long distance die-hards pushing through France’s deepest forests, cyclists of all levels can experience the exhilaration of exploration on two wheels.
Adding to the allure of the area are the sensational chateaux, first built hundreds of years ago by the upper echelons of French society. The castles can be found sprinkling the Upper Loire’s sprawling landscapes where they were once hedonistic hideouts! Political unrest and frequent change meant that the chateaux were neglected and eventually abandoned by their original owners, but public funds and private ventures have beautifully preserved, and even fully resorted many to their former glory in more recent years. The Upper Loire boasts a collection of iconic castles, including Fountainebleu, Vaux-le-Victomte, and La Bussiere, and incredible unknown chateaux too. Each palace is testament to the extravagant lifestyles of the royals so vehemently rebuffed during the social and political upheavals of the French Revolution.
It is without doubt that that the Upper Loire offers a total sensory experience for those interested in the secrets of European history, sophisticated wines, active exploration, and rest and relaxation. The sweeping French countryside, timeless lure of architecture, and lovely stretches of vineyards throughout the Upper Loire effortlessly encapsulate its many enchanting eras.