The Loire Valley seems to us a very good place to be this time of year,
for here we find a tranquil, lazy riverscape that slows the world down
to an easy, manageable pace. It is a region of legendary beauty, of
fairy-tale castles and walled towns, of refined living, and pleasure in
the best things in life.
The Loire is France's longest river, rising
in the mountains 100 miles or so north of the Mediterranean and flowing
630 miles, first north, then in a westward sweep to the sea. It
traverses 12 départements (states), 60+ different wine appellations,
and some of the lushest agricultural country in France, with great
variations in soil and climate.
An important thoroughfare for
centuries, the Loire was the main highway of France in the Middle Ages
when the bulk of heavy transport was moved by barge. Today the river is
gentle and beautiful, no longer of any commercial importance, silted up
in critical spots and so navigable only in limited stretches.
history, however, is dramatic, to say the least. Often called "the
French Nile" (and the region as a whole "the Valley of the Kings"), the
river is lined with monumental reminders of a glorious past. The
Vikings found it in the 9th century and used it as a way into the
interior, and the area was a frequent battlefield during the Middle
Ages in the on-again off-again war between England and France (think
Joan of Arc and Orléans). With the English vanquished, the Loire became
a cultural center in the Renaissance, with the construction of the
great châteaux and the artistic contributions of such luminaries as da
Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini. The religious wars of the 16th-17th
centuries took a major toll here; both Saumur and Sancerre were
Huguenot (Protestant) centers, and with the revocation of the Edict of
Nantes, which had granted religious freedom to all, thousands fled . .
. and with that began the region's decline into pastoral gentility.
is made all along the length of the Loire and its tributaries, and
legend has it that the first vines arrived with the man we now know as
St. Martin of Tours, a missionary from eastern Europe. Martin arrived
in Tours (so the story goes) bearing three vines, one enclosed in a
bird's bone, one sheathed in a lion's bone, and the third in a donkey's
bone. He planted all three at Tours, they thrived, and the next year
each vine produced a bottle of wine. Martin's donkey, by the way, is
credited with inventing pruning: visiting a grower one day, Martin
tethered his donkey to a sturdy vine; when he returned he discovered
that the donkey had done the predictable and chowed down everything
within reach. Also predictably, the grower was furious . . . but when
his crop doubled the next year, he repented of his anger. Oh yes, those
bones: they are the basis for the French saying that translates as
"drink one glass of wine and you sing like a bird, a second and you
roar like a lion, a third and you behave like an ass." So remember St.
Martin of Tours when you pour that third glass!
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