A wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of this royal playground of picture-perfect nobility is to drift silently above it in a balloon.
Starting in the southeast of France, at the Mont Gerbier de Jonc, the Loire River runs for 1020km until it reaches the Bay of Biscay. It snakes its way through the Loire Valley, or Valley of the Kings. It was of extreme importance as a trade route for the Celts and Greeks, and acted as a border between the English and French during the 100 Years War. Its most notable period was possibly during the Renaissance, from the late 1400s.
This corner of France has a regal air and has always been the playground of royalty and nobility. Its cities are sophisticated, its landscape picture-perfect and its food and wine beyond comparison.
A wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of the Valley is to drift silently above it in a balloon. The hot-air passenger-balloon was invented in France by the Montgolfièr brothers, and the first one floated over Paris in 1783, carrying a sheep, a duck and a rooster as passengers.
France Montgolfières Balloons take off an hour after sunrise, or with the calm and stable evening winds. The pilots of the colourful balloons are experienced and bilingual. Passengers do not need to wear any special clothing, and age and physical state are of no consequence.
A typical trip is around three-and-a-half hours. Inflation takes 45 minutes and that is a spectacle in itself, with the huge colourful fabric flapping while being filled with cold air before the burner flame shoots up inside the balloon, causing it to rise. Landing is always a surprise it could be in the courtyard of a chateau, someone's yard or in a pretty field. Wherever it is, the end of the journey is toasted with wine, coffee and croissants.
Château de Chenonceau, on the Cher River, is the masterpiece of the Valley. Comparatively small, its superb interior and gardens make up for its lack of size. It was built in 1513 by Catherine Briçonnet whose husband was often away at war. Later, Henri II gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. After his death, his widow, Catherine de Medici, had Diane removed. Mercifully saved from the Revolution by Madame Dupin and then completely restored by Dame Pelouze, Chenonceau is worthy of its alternate name, the Château de Dames.
The Menier family, famous for their chocolate making, bought the chateau in the 1950s and restoration to its former beauty began again. Chenonceau's appearance is one of gracefulness, and its architecture and history are matched by its contents. It is an Aladdin's cave of Renaissance furniture, a vast collection of 16th and 17th century tapestries, and the walls are graced with works by Primatice, Correggio, Rubens, Tintoretto, Rigaud and others.
Another elegant example of 16th century architecture is Château de Noizay in the heart of Touraine. In 1560, Huguenot conspirators who plotted to abduct the young Francis II, took refuge in the Château, but they were found and hanged from the Conspirators' Balcony at the Castle of Amboise.
There is no sign of such a colourful past at the Château today and it is a very desirable place to stay. Its grand central stairway leads to 14 rooms, each with bathroom, and it has elegant dining rooms, lounges and library, all furnished with antiques. The grounds have elegant parterre gardens, centuries-old trees, a pool and tennis court.
The Loire Valley, two hours southwest of Paris.
France Mongolfieres Balloon trips start at around $430 for each adult and $275 for a child aged between 6 and 12. They operate from March to October.
Relais & Chateaux offers accommodation at the Chateau de Noizay starting at around $235 per double per night.
Qantas flies three times a week to Paris, starting at $2400 from Perth, $2443 from Adelaide, $2460 from Sydney, $2461 from Melbourne, $2468 from Brisbane and $2502 from Darwin, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.
Maison de la France
French Government Tourist Office
Ph: (02) 9231 5244
Fax: (02) 9221 8682www.franceguide.com
Loire Valley Tourism
Ph: 0011 33 2 3879 9500
Fax: 0011 33 2 3879 9510www.loirevalleytourism.com
Relaix and Chateaux
Ph: (02) 9299 2280 Fax: (02) 9299 email@example.com
France Montgolfières Balloon Company
Ph: 0011 33 1 4700 6644
Fax: 0011 33 1 4700 firstname.lastname@example.org
Qantas: 13 13 13