Once the playground for many of the French Kings who were besotted with the peaceful beauty of the pastoral landscape, the Upper Loire has evolved from private parklands for European royalty into a quiet hideaway for a small number of luxury barge cruises. Honorary Barge Lady and travel writer Kerri McConnel recently discovered the pleasures and treasures of this lovely region while cruising on the 5-star, 8-passenger Renaissance; pour yourself a glass of Sancerre and immerse into this charming area characterized by fertile farmland, superlative cycling, and sumptuous chateaux.
According to Elisabeth Senecaux, a local guide and university professor in the Upper Loire, “There are many castles of the Renaissance, but also the beautiful abbeys and villages of the Middle Ages, as well as landscapes created by wine and gastronomy.”
Located a two-hour drive directly west of Paris on the eastern tip of the department of the Loiret, the Upper Loire emerged in the time of European royalty as a recreational refuge for France’s aristocracy as private hunting lodges and rambling country homes; these estates then evolved into the grand palaces we now recognize as “chateaux”. Designed by some of the most prestigious architects of the era, these opulent mansions spoke to France’s vast affluence as a powerful European kingdom, offering the upper classes all the modern comforts of city living set against the Upper Loire’s breathtaking backdrop of diverse natural beauty, magnificent mountains, and verdant forests. Within the lavish confines of this extravagant royal lifestyle, the nutrient-rich soil and ample sunshine along the Upper Loire’s natural waterway, the River Loire, offered the aristocracy a tantalizing taste of fresh produce and fine wines.
The River Loire was then in use as an aquatic highway to ship the Upper Loire’s grains, produce, and products to the people of Paris, earning this most fecund of regions its sobriquet of “Le Gatinais”, loosely translated to “the Garden of France”. However, the river’s water levels were affected by uncontrollable winter flooding and long summer droughts, making consistent transport all but impossible. Accordingly, construction on the Canal du Briare started in 1604 and was completed in 1642. The Canal du Loing was further inspired by the poor navigability of the nearby River Loing and the success of the Canal du Briare’s commercial activity, and was completed in 1723. After being abandoned in the wake of the industrial revolution, today the Upper Loire’s canals boast a wonderfully preserved system of gentle bends and man-made locks, perfect for the leisurely pace of luxury barge cruises.
Professor Seneceax furthers, “This wild side of the River Loire is unique to France, with the sweetness of its climate, and particular way of life.”
Typical of the cultural access to France, the Upper Loire’s locally-focused cuisine provides an epicurean entry into the region’s history, patrimony, and modernity. As France’s largest producer of white wine, the area is best recognized for its crisp Sancerres, made from the region’s signature grape, the varietal known as Sauvingnon Blanc. Officially recognized as its own appellation in the 1930s, these white wines are best enjoyed when relatively young, as their fruit-forward finish is bolstered by a refreshing zest and youthful acidity. With a bright palette of juicy berries and summer sunshine, these approachable white wines pair nicely with many types of meals and menus, especially the lighter textures of seafood. A small amount of Pinot Noir is also grown in the region, and is produced as either red wine, or, in keeping with current trends, a rosé.
With wine comes cheese, and the Crottin de Chavignol is the most famous goat cheese of the many varieties found in the Upper Loire. This small cylindrical goat cheese has been made since the 16th century, and, under France’s stringent production criteria, is still crafted today using traditional cheesemaking methods. Known for its subtle and slightly nutty flavors, this cheese is, somewhat unusually, eaten at all three stages of its maturity. In its youth (chavignol jeune), the cheese is solid and compact, and its rind is white. As it ripens (chavignol bleuté), it takes on a stronger scent and develops a harder rind. With full maturity (chavignol affiné), the texture becomes crumbly, and the rind matures into a bluish color. Typically served as a baked cheese, Crottin de Chavignol is frequently presented as a rich compliment to a green salad. Chavignol is also often found cold as a component of a cheese board selection, and of course pairs well with Sancerre wines.
At first blush, the Upper Loire’s agrarian ambiance and bucolic scenery indicate that the region’s attractions are of the sleepier sort. However, for those interested in an active holiday, the area’s 800-kilometer network of manicured cycling paths known as the Loire a Velo offers bike riders of all ability levels the chance to explore some France’s most scenic trails and challenging courses by bicycle. From casual riders tooling along the canal’s adorable towpath to long distance enthusiasts gliding through the deepest of France’s forests, guests of all cycling abilities have the chance to enjoy the exhilaration of discovery on two wheels.
Augmenting the region’s exclusive enticements are the numerous chateaux, once built by the upper echelons of French nobility hundreds of years ago throughout the Upper Loire’s rambling landscapes as exclusive pleasure palaces. After the shifting sands of political change brought about their eventual abandonment and outright neglect, many have been amazingly preserved and even fully restored to their original glory by private endeavors and public funds. The region boasts a roster of castles both iconic and unknown; Fountainebleu, Vaux-le-Victomte, and La Bussiere are just a handful of the chateaux found in the area, each still standing as living testimony to the extravagant royal lifestyles so violently rejected during the social and political upheavals of the French Revolution.
Ultimately, the sophistication and secrets within the Upper Loire offer a total sensory experience for those especially interested in European history, boutique wines, and active lifestyles. The expansive French countryside, the timeless lure of architecture, and lovely expanses of vineyards throughout the Upper Loire effortlessly speak to many exciting eras, enchantingly existing in both the past and the present.