The Loire valley is ideally situated to be the playground for the rich and powerful in France. Close to Paris, and with stunningly beautiful scenery on the banks of the Loire, Indre and Cher rivers, French kings, queens and aristocrats have been building their luxurious châteaus in this region for centuries. Many of the greatest moments of French history have been played out in the halls of these magnificent palaces.
The château of Amboise is one of the oldest in the region, and reached it's height of glory in the early sixteenth century during the reign of King François I, who grew up there and made it his principal residence. The château of Amboise towers above the Loire river from where it dominates the surrounding countryside.
François I was a fervent admirer of the Italian renaissance, and he invited many of the great artists of the time to his court, including Leonardo da Vinci. The great painter came, carrying the still unfinished painting of the Mona Lisa in his baggage. He spent the last few years of his life at Amboise, and is said to have died while being watched over by the king. He was buried in a small chapel in the castle, that still stands.
The most famous château is perhaps that of Chenoceau. Its main halls are built on a bridge that spans the river Cher, creating an iconic image. The stunning reflection of the building in the river and the gardens that stretch out around it attract more visitors than any other site in the Loire valley.
Chenonceau came into the possession of King Henri II, son of François I, who gifted it to his beloved mistress Diane de Poitiers who lived there and built the graceful span across the river. Unfortunately Henri II died in a jousting accident, and his widow, Catherine de Medici became the Regent of France, ruling in the name of her infant son. Catherine had a somewhat jaundiced view of her late husband's generous presents, and forced Diane to return the château. Catherine made Chenonceau her own favourite residence and expanded it even further.
If there is any château that competes with Chenonceau for the title of the loveliest building in the Loire valley, it is that of Azay-le-Rideau.
Azay-le-Rideau is one of the smaller châteaus in the region, but it is a perfect little gem. Set on an island in the middle of the Indre river, it looks like a fairy-tale castle, complete with pointed rooftops on the corner towers. All it needs are Sleeping Beauty and a handsome prince for the fantasy to be complete!
The Loire valley is famous for its gastronomy. There is amazing food to be found in chic Michelin starred restaurants tucked away in tiny little towns. Opt for the set lunch menu and you will dine like a king at a very affordable price!
Ratatouille, with sweet summer ripened vegetables is a classic from this region and needs only crusty bread to mop up it all up!
4 tbsp oil, divided
2 cups each, 1/2 inch dice: eggplant, assorted coloured zucchini, assorted coloured sweet peppers
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 large sprig of thyme
2 cups pureed tomatoes, fresh or canned
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
Warm 2 tbsp oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add eggplant and cook for about 5-7 min until lightly browned and softened. Transfer to a bowl.
Add remaining 2 tbsp oil to skillet. Add onions, garlic and thyme. Saute until lightly browned and softened, about 5-7 min.
Add zucchini and peppers. Saute for another 5-7 min until vegetables are softened.
Add eggplant back to skillet. Cook 2 min.
Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, mixing in gently. Cover and bring to a gentle simmer. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 15-20 min until vegetables are soft and sauce is thick. Remove thyme sprig.
Transfer ratatouille to a serving bowl and sprinkle fresh parsley over top.