The Loire Valley, in central France, has a good deal to offer families. Here are a few ideas for things to do and places to visit in the Loire Valley with children.
Where is the Loire Valley?
The Loire Valley is a picturesque, tranquil part of France, which was given UNESCO world heritage status in 2000. It’s easily accessible from Paris (a 2-3 hour drive), and is often called the ‘Garden of France’, because it’s packed to the gills with different crops. It seems that you can’t go further than a mile without passing a vineyard, orchard or asparagus field. And then, of course, there’s the delicious wine and cheese. Luckily for visitors, a lot of the best produce seems to only be available in France itself.
Who is this feature for?
Our children were five and three when we spent our holiday in the Loire Valley, so this post is aimed at families travelling to the Loire with kids of that age. Although our two weren’t old enough to join in with some activites that older children might enjoy (like watersports – canoing and kayaking are available on the calmer tributaries of the Loire river), they managed to enjoy some experiences typical of the Loire.
Loire Valley Chateaux (Loire Valley Castles)
There are more than 300 chateaux dotted along the Loire. Up until the 17th Century, the French royalty preferred to spend its time in the region. Even after the Palace of Versailles was built in Paris, wealthy noblemen carried on building and restoring castles along the Loire. To this day, many consider the Loire Chateaux to be the best castles in France.
The choice of which of the many Loire castles to visit can be overwhelming, given how many are clustered into a relatively small area. Our campsite was near Chambord, which is surrounded by forest and a 5440 hectare park, so we decided to spend an afternoon there.
Chambord is free to enter, and is known as ‘the greatest château in Loire valley’, with 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces and a stunning double helix staircase. Although the trip was more to mine and D’s taste than the children, who have a short attention span for history, they did enjoy exploring the battlements, and hearing about the lords and ladies who used to live in the castle.
To make Chambord’s history more accessible for families, there is a HistoPad, a tablet which shows historical reconstructions of the castle as you walk around. An equestrian show over the summer months also tells the story of Chambord’s history and conquest. We didn’t take advantage of either of these – it was a rainy day, so it would have been tricky to watch the horses with the children – but in a year or two they’d be a good age to appreciate both the show and the HistoPad.
To help plan your trip, there’s a Loire Chateaux map here.
Cycling in the Loire Valley France
The Loire Valley’s flat terrain and cycle paths make it perfect for cyclists. Cycling in France is a serious business: this region has its own 800 km long bike route, the Loire a Velo, a cycle tour which was beyond our children’s ability (and ours). Even so, the region is a good place for little legs to cycle. We hired a touring bike each from our campsite, and cycled past vineyards to have a picnic in one of the little villages near Mesland.
At five years old, Austin was old enough to use a ‘tag’, on the back of D’s bike (although D said he turned into a sack of potatoes on the inclines). Gwen sat in a carriage behind my bike, which meant she didn’t have to pedal. It was a blazing hot day (30 degrees), though, and she did become uncomfortably hot inside the carriage’s canvas walls.
Loire Valley wine tours
A trip to the Loire Valley just wouldn’t be the same without sampling a little of the local vin. As well as reds and whites, the Loire Valley produces the second largest amount of sparkling wine in France, second only to Champagne. On our trip my Mum, her partner and my aunt were all staying on our campsite, and they offered to look after the children while D and I drove out to visit four or five different vineyards.
We would probably have been less ambitious about the number of vineyards to visit, if we’d had our five and three year old in tow. We did notice, though, that a couple of the larger vineyards catered for younger visitors: Domaine Cocteaux, for instance, had a small play area. If you’re near the Cangey area, I’d recommend a visit: their Cremant was exceedingly good quality, and there was no difference in price even if you only bought a handful of bottles.
How to get to the Loire Valley
Major airlines fly direct to Tours in the Loire Valley, from London and Paris. An Interloire train line runs from Orléans to Nantes, stopping at Beaugency, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Saumur, Angers and Ancenis. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the Loire Valley is a rural area, and public transport is often infrequent or non-existent outside of the larger cities and towns. A self-organised wine-tasting tour, for instance, would be difficult without a car (you could always choose to wobble your way around the vineyards on a trusty velo, of course). We took a ferry and drove down from Calais, which took around five hours. Car hire is also available in the major towns of the Loire.
You can find a Loire Valley map here.
Eating out in the Loire Valley France with kids
In general, the French have a different attitude towards children than British people and Americans. Eating out with very young children, for instance, can be a little trickier in rural areas than in urban centres like London, where there are child-friendly gastropubs round every corner, and chain restaurants provide colouring crayons with meals. We encountered a few disapproving glances when eating lunch in a traditional restaurant with our three and five year old, despite the fact that (miraculously, for them) they both behaved impeccably. They were the only children in the place, so maybe there’s an unwritten rule about which sorts of restaurants it’s ok to take children to in rural France. If anyone can enlighten me on this, please let me know!
Loire Valley weather
For holidays in the Loire Valley France, expect weather that is comfortable and warm, but not as hot as in the south of France. Average daily temperatures in spring and summer are around 24°C. July temperatures peak as high as 28°C or more, and they drop to 22°C as September approaches.
Camping Loire Valley: where to stay in the Loire Valley
We stayed at the Yelloh Village Parc du Val de Loire, in Mesland, which I’ve posted about here. There are several other campsites based in the region, some of which are well-equipped with pools, water slides and kids’ entertainment. Our children had a ball on the campsite; it would have been much harder to entertain our five and three year old on this break, without the campsite facilities.
Loire Valley accommodation
If sleeping in a tent or cabin isn’t your thing, there are also many gites (self-catering properties), Loire Valley hotels and bed and breakfasts in the area. The Loire Valley Tourism website is a good place to start for more information.
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