After losing our beloved Golden Retriever, Henry, just before Christmas, I wanted to write about somewhere we travelled with him. He enjoyed the Loire Valley as much as us, because it’s just so dog friendly – yet another reason to love this part of France. You’ve also got the wines, the landscapes, the chateaux, the food. Even the French see this region as a cut above – the French accent here is the purest and it has a long tradition of royal patronage. It’s got something for everyone.
As you may know, I’m a huge Francophile, despite the fact that we Brits are often made to feel just a tad unwelcome. It gives us something to laugh about. I’ve always loved that you can just jump in the car, hop across the Channel, and emerge somewhere so completely different to the UK. It’s always felt like an adventure, even when my sister and I slept in sleeping bags under the ferry stairwells (too skint for a recliner) and drove for hours on the routes nationales (ditto the motorway tolls).
Heading south through France, the Loire is the perfect place to stop, whether for lunch or a few days. There’s loads to see, and it’s where the weather starts to get warmer. The many castles are beautiful and full of history, although that doesn’t cut it for some philistines (including the husband sadly). The food is French, what more do I need to say? And did I mention that Cointreau comes from Angers? No matter how many times you go, there’s always more to discover.
Years ago, when I taught languages to reluctant teenagers, we were studying a book about Joan of Arc. On holiday in the Loire, I thought a photo of me in the castle at Chinon where Joan first met the Dauphin would really bring the story to life. In Chinon, I cantered up the steep approach to the castle, desperate to buy tickets before the husband objected to the price. ‘I can see perfectly well from outside’ was a bit of a catchphrase. Needless to say, my students were underwhelmed – teaching was sometimes a great disappointment to me.
But the Loire really comes into its own for us when we get Henry his pet passport. The Eurotunnel is a breeze and 5 hours sees us in the heart of the valley. In Chenonceaux we stay in a Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant, the Auberge du Bon Laboureur. No slumming it required here for dog lovers, and the owners are quite happy to have pooches in the dining room. Providing they are well behaved like Henry, of course.
Chenonceaux is best known for its chateau, which is considered one of the Loire’s finest. It’s just a five minute stroll from our hotel and I’m keen to see it. Unimpressed, the husband nips off on his bike and leaves me to explore with the dog for company. We can’t go inside the castle, unfortunately. You can take dogs in if they fit in a carry bag, but Golden Retrievers are fairly bulky, so we have to make do with the grounds. Not a problem, as they are extensive and absolutely gorgeous. You can walk here for hours, admiring the river and garden views.
The chateau of Chenonceau (the x was dropped during the French Revolution to show Republican spirit, apparently) was built in the 16th century on the banks of the river Cher, a tributary of the Loire. Its most famous owner was Diane du Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II. Diane commissioned the bridge spanning the river and set out the formal gardens, before being turfed out by the King’s widow after he died. Don’t feel too sorry for her though, she was given another chateau at Chaumont in exchange.
Compared to the enormous expanse of the chateau, the village of Chenonceaux is tiny (400 people live here) but perfectly formed and it’s blessed with three dog friendly restaurants. Of course, we try them all. Henry particularly enjoys chilling out in the bar at the Hostel du Roy. Just don’t try to enter the local shop with your canine friend – I get shouted at, reminding me that I’m a Brit in France after all!
Amboise, just to the northwest, is a bustling little market town right on the Loire itself, boasting not one but two chateaux. There’s been a castle here since medieval times, but the current Chateau d’Amboise dates mostly from the 15th century, when it became a royal residence. In the 16th century it was the home of the French Royal Court. Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood here and Leonardo da Vinci was a regular guest. The King was such a fan of the artist that he gave him the Royal ‘summer house’ – the Chateau de Clos Luce on the outskirts of town. It’s great to have friends in high places!
Again, there’s no need to lower your accommodation standards with furry friends in tow. We stay at Hotel Le Clos D’Amboise, a 17th century mansion in a quiet street. Our luxurious, traditional room overlooks the immaculate gardens and the swimming pool. Henry certainly likes this place.
There are stunning walks on footpaths beside the river, only limited by the amount of time and energy you have. Henry and I pass a happy few hours ambling along the banks while the husband escapes on his bike again. We also head along the quiet streets to the east of town and explore the grounds of Leonardo’s Manor House, where there are fascinating full size models of his inventions. Even standing in the queue for tickets is fun – Henry is the only canine visitor and gets lots of attention.
Now for the food! At La Fourchette, hidden away down a backstreet, there are just a handful of tables and the owner doesn’t speak any English. The menu is limited but the food is local and amazing. If you can’t translate just take pot luck! The restaurant Anne de Bretagne on the main pedestrian street does fantastic savoury crepes. I’m not a fan of pancakes but somehow the French versions are much more appealing! The charming waiter (obviously a dog lover) introduces Henry to our fellow diners, ‘Il s’appelle Henri’. And to top it all off there’s a dog friendly cocktail bar, Le Shaker, on an island in the river overlooking the main chateau. Bliss!
Not to be left out, Lizzie the Labradoodle has also stayed in the Loire. The village of Rochecarbon, near Tours, is famous for its cave residences. Les Troglos de la Tufoliere has cosy dog friendly cave rooms with sunny terraces perfect for a leisurely breakfast. Almost nextdoor, La Table de Joseph offers delicious meals in a romantically lit garden. We have the place almost to ourselves, apart from the dogs of course.
Just across the road, the lazy Loire flows past and more scenic walks beckon, perhaps just a couple of kilometers upstream to the vineyards of Vouvray. The white wines here are considered some of the best in the area – no mean feat. A million cases of wine are produced each year. Dry, sweet, sparkling, there’s something for everyone.
Ever the optimist, I hope to get back to the Loire in 2021 (last year’s trip was cancelled, obviously). I’m already imagining myself outside a bar with river views, enjoying a glass of the local Rose d’Anjou in the summer sunshine. Lizzie will be there, of course, but we’ll miss our old mate Henry. Fingers crossed…