La Loire

The Loire valley (famous for its chateaux) stretches deep inland through Pays-de-la-Loire to the centre of the country, appropriately known as Centre. Just to the south, sharing the Atlantic coast with Pays-de-la-Loire is Poitou-Charentes.

Pays-de-la-Loire comprises the Western departments of Loire-Atlantique, Maine-et-Loire, Mayenne, Sarthe and Vendée, and its capital Nantes. UNESCO has awarded it the accolade of a 'World Heritage for Humanity Site', commending the region as a 'cultural landscape of exceptional beauty'. Visitors are attracted to it for its many castles, glorious beaches and watersport opportunities, plus expanses of beautiful landscapes for walking.

Maine-et-Loire features the town of Angers, once capital of the former Anjou region, and contains the 'Apocalypse' tapestry amongst many others to be found at Château d'Angers, and some unusual 15th and 16th century wooden houses. Saumur is also in this department; the town is partly known for the World War II bombing in 1944 which delayed German troops. In its château, the dungeons and the tower can be explored, as well as the Musée des Arts Decoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) and the Musée du Cheval (Horse Museum). The Cadre Nord riding squad's base 'L'Ecole Nationale d'Equitation' can be seen too, and there are numerous galas taking place throughout the year. Château de Brissac, slightly north of this town, has a gilded theatre which plays host to the annual Val de Loire Festival. Other popular castles include Château Plessis-Bourre and Château Montreuil-Bellay.

Each year, thousands and thousands of Brits flock to Sarthe, and more specifically the Circuit de la Sarthe for the Le Mans 24 Hour motor race. Held annually since 1923, this remains one of the world's greatest races, with many classic marques still determined to win this prestige battle. In 2009, Peugeot finally toppled multiple champions Audi. The 13.65km circuit is a delight to watch cars round, and the famous parade which takes place through the nearby Le Mans town a few days prior to the race, is an obvious highlight for aficionados, who get to see the cars up close.

West of Sarthe, Mayenne has one of the best-preserved fortified castles in Château de Fougères, as well as some of the best fishing in France (both coarse and game fishing can be practised in various lakes and rivers).

Loire-Atlantique of course features coastline, and some of France's best at that, with a variety of watersports on offer. There are various sailing schools and good spots for sailing, such as those in Saint-Nazaire, Ile d'Yeu and Ile de Noirmoutier. In addition to water-based activity, there is the city of Nantes, the regional capital and a lively location, home to a few music festivals, and a strong presence of the annual Fête de la Musique held in early summer, where musicians set themselves up all over the city to perform. Nantes is also the home of Muscadet wine. Nearby the Grande-Brière marshes, there is the walled town of Guerande.

The region's south-eastern department, Vendée, may be mostly known for the beaches of Sables d'Olonne and Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, but it also has some abbeys of note, those of Maillezais and Nieul-sur-l'Autise, the marshland of Marais Poitevin, and the many cycle routes especially laid out. Finally, Les Sables d'Olonne is home to the Vendée Globe yacht race, the non-stop single-handed race that circles the globe every four years.

Centre contains the historical regions of Orleans, Berry and Touraine, and now the departments of Eure-et-Loir, Indre-et-Loire, Loir-et-Cher, Loiret, Indre and Cher.

Starting in the north and moving clockwise, Eure-et-Loir is the department south-west of Paris. It has the town Chartres, primarily known for its UNESCO World Heritage-listed cathedral. Standing 37 metres tall, the only remaining part of the original building is the 11th-Century crypt. The intricate stained-glass windows of the cathedral though, are well preserved. In Châteaudun, the castle is the first chateau to be encountered en-route from Paris to the Loire Valley. Its chapel features a 15th century fresco depicting the Final Judgement. The nearby Foulon Caves, occupied by man in prehistoric times, were a refuge for Châteaudun's inhabitants after an 18th century fire, and there is a guided tour covering around a kilometre of the caves. The windmill in Ymonville is an unusual old wooden clapboard structure. In Pierres, the Jardin de Bois-Richeux is a representation of a 14th century mediaeval garden. Nogent-le-Rotrou has a good mediaeval centre to it. Illiers-Crombray, as featured in the works of Marcel Proust, is in this department, and Swann Park was designed by the author's uncle.

The centrepiece city of Loiret is Orléans, east of Le Mans. Joan of Arc helped to put a halt to the Siege of Orléans, and her deeds are commemorated in various ways throughout the department, but particularly here, with the statue of her on her horse in the Place du Martroi. A house where she lived is also open to the public. The Cathédrale Sainte-Croix has some noteworthy stonework ornamentation. The mediaeval crypt of the Saint-Aignan is a collection of middle-ages chapels. Beaugency is another town significant for Joan of Arc's actions, where she helped recapture the area from the English; as well as a statue of her near the donjon, whose tower was important in this defeat because the town controlled the region's only river crossing. Beaugency has a castle keep to see, and the 'Maison des Templiers'.

Cher, together with Indre, made up the old Berry region. Although there are not a lot of châteaux in this department, there is also the UNESCO World Heritage-classified Bourges Cathedral. It has a great tower based on that of the Louvre in Paris, and many also remark on the similarity that some of its external design bears to the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral as it too makes strong use of flying buttresses. The rest of the city is worth looking around too; it has received a 4* Ville Fleurie Award. Sancerre produces fine white wines.

Indre has one of the region's finest chateâux in Château de Valencay. A lot of leisure activities are available around Eguzon Lake. Brenne National Park contains at least one thousand little lakes, as well as marshland, forest, and more open spaces - an excellent site for bird-watching.

There are a myriad castles to see in Loir-et-Cher, such as Château de Chevemy, Château de Blois, Château Chaumont-sur-Loire, and the most popular, Château de Chambord. It is also a popular department for cycling, owing to its exceptional scenery.

Again, there are so many castles to explore in Indre-et-Loire, amongst which, Château d'Amboise, Château de Chenonceau, Château Langeais and Château de Villandry.

Just to the south of the true region of La Loire, Poitou-Charentes faces onto the Bay of Biscay. Charente-Maritime is the most popular department among tourists. Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oleron are some lovely islands. Inland, Talmont-sur-Girande is an attractive village. The town of Cognac, with its cobbled streets and brandy warehouses, offers visitors tasting sessions of the famous drink. In Vienne, near to Poitiers, which is the regional capital, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe has an abbey with an assortment of murals. ‘Futuroscope’ is also something a bit different for a theme park.