Loiret did you say? It's in the Loire Valley, on the very outskirts of the Ile de France region, between Touraine and Burgundy, with Orléans as its capital. It's 120km of fertile valleys on the Châteaux of the Loire Valley route, a listed UNESCO world heritage site.
And it's even more than that: a hint of Beauce, of Gâtinais, of Puisaye, Berry and Sologne... and Orléans forest in its entirety! An array of diverse landscapes - an escape from monotony!
Let's take a little tour round Loiret, across its seven 'Pays'...
In and around Orléans
Standing over the River Loire, on the spot where it forms a large curve before heading straight ahead towards the Atlantic, Orléans and its conurbation (280,000 inhabitants) stretch from Beauce and Orléans forest to the north, to the edge of Sologne to the south. And it is regularly accessible thanks to two railways stations (Orléans centre and Les Aubrais) and an entire network of trams and buses, to make your travelling easy.
With all due respect to our neighbours from Touraine, Orléans is indeed the capital of the Centre Val de Loire region, even if Orléans and Tours are now more complementary than they are rivals!
This truly dynamic regional centre readily combines creation and tradition in its cultural and festive programmes ('Scène national' theatre, choreographic centre, Loire Festival, Joan of Arc festival, Jazz, etc.).
Within the city walls, Orléans is an approachable town whose fine art of living thrives as much as its gardens do. And it spoils its pedestrians too, over its fine squares, its shopping precincts and streets, the Loire quaysides and its historic quarters. A certified 'Town of Art and History', it can also pride in its fine heritage: Joan of Arc of course, the cathedral, the sumptuous Town Hall (opposite the Hôtel Groslot) – one among a number of fine Renaissance properties, half-timbered houses – revamped in their original colours, a richly adorned Fine Arts Museum and a FRAC (Regional Contemporary Art Collection) focusing on architecture...
The part of Beauce that is closest to Orléans, referred to as 'little Beauce' stretches westwards to the Loire Valley. The wheat, colza and sunflower fields around Artenay and Patay offer splendid views as far as the eye can see, punctuated here and there by a belfry, a mill, a wind turbine... or an aerial telegraph tower. The Baccon tower, one of the last remaining, enabled coded messages, that could be captured across the plain, to be sent as from the early 19th century: a forerunner to our Internet!
The skies of Beauce are a treat for the eyes. Here, the rising sun is as sumptuous as the sunset, offering a brand new landscape each time: paradise for painters and poets! In the valley, the Beauce water table gives way to some rather peculiar resurgences: the bubbling 'Blue Waters' of Tavers or the Mauves rivers that peacefully meander around and across Meung-sur-Loire, the old millers' town. These small rivers, once exploited by medieval monks, are all excellent destinations for a pleasant walk departing from Meung-Sur-Loire and heading for the Mauves park or the Prés des Culands arboretum.
This area of the Loire Valley, between Orléans and Blois, offers some of its finest sites: in Meung-sur-Loire, the Orléans bishops once took up residence in one of the greatest of the Châteaux of the Loire Valley, whereas Beaugency was once home to Dunois, one of Joan of Arc's faithful companions.
Beauce Gâtinais in Pithiverais
Northern Loiret, between the Forest of Fontainebleau and Orléans Forest, is a peaceful land that discreetly unveils all its charm! The Beauce plateau offers an undulating waltz of wheat, beet, barley and even saffron, punctuated with sudden and verdant hollow valleys.The River Juine is home to surprising watercress beds. The River Oeuf flows towards the Essonne, irrigating the moat of the Château de Chamerolles, before idling its way to the foot of the Pithiviers region. The fortress of Yèvre-le-Châtel, in the heart of one of the 'Most Beautiful Villages of France', looms above the River Rimarde which also flows into the Essonne.
From Pithiviers to Malesherbes, the Essonne valley, partly listed as a 'natural protected area', is pure paradise for hiking enthusiasts, who also appreciate its picturesque villages, manor houses and mills. Make sure you don't leave this area without stopping over in Pithiviers, with its sheltered tree-lined streets and deliciously fondant Pithiviers cake, or spicy gingerbread, another of the town's specialities.
Montargis, the 'Venice of Gâtinais', a well-deserved epithet: no less than 131 bridges and walkways, all excellent excuses for a pleasant stroll over which you will also discover the fishermen's quarter, the tanner's too, the Hôtel Durzy gardens, Rue Dorée... not forgetting, the town's famous pralines! The Montargois area is just like Gâtinais - water is never far away. The three canals – Loing, Briare and Orléans – all converge towards Montargis. The lakes of Cepoy and Châlette, the Cercanceaux ponds, the valleys of the Cléry and the Ouanne are all perfect destinations for a getaway, whether you love sailing, bathing, fishing or hiking!
The Maison de la Nature et de l'Eau (Nature and Water visitor centre) in Châlette-sur-Loing and the Maison de la Forêt (Forestry Visitor Centre) in Paucourt offer quality explanations for curious visitors. Amidst this verdant countryside to the east of Loiret, lie cities with eventful histories, such as Ferrières, Châtillon-Coligny, Lorris... all well worth a stopover. Visitors particularly appreciate the fine craftworkers of Ferrières, the contemporary art of Amilly, the roses of Bellegarde, the rare trees of Nogent... not forgetting the honey, saffron and cider that have earned the Gâtinais region its fame!
Giennois rimes with hillside. And hillsides are indeed one of the characteristics of the area to the southeast of Loiret, on the border with Burgundy and Berry. On the hills and terraces of Gien, but also of Briare in Beaulieu-sur-Loire, impassioned wine-growers offer you a taste of their fruity wines, awarded their own AOC since 1998. They are the perfect match for a Crottin de Chavignol goat's cheese, made in the protected AOC region that borders with the south of Giennois, on the Berry side. But Chavignol is not the only local delicacy and a tour of one of the markets will offer you proof in the form of a wide range of local country fare.
This 'pays' also boasts a wealth of natural and architectural heritage, of stunning diversity. Certain châteaux (Gien, Saint-Brisson) stand on either bank of the Loire, paving the way towards the Châteaux of the Loire Valley route. Others (La Bussière, Pont-Chevron) rub shoulders with the large ponds of Puisaye.
But the most surprising sites of all in Giennois are 19th century jewels, associated with the omnipresence of canals here: the spectacular Briare Aqueduct stretches across the Loire over a distance of 600 metres, whilst the Briare enamels and the Gien earthenware factories still open their doors to present their finest collections.And why not hire a boat at one of the riverside stopovers? It remains the best way to discover the Giennois area, over a day or a weekend!
Orléans Forest – Loire Valley
This is the very heart of Loiret: the Loire Valley from the Orléanais to the Giennois areas, along with Orléans Forest, the only natural region entirely enclosed within Loiret. Although the Loire is a relatively rectilinear river, here, it meanders and undulates in huge curves, offering you some of the most splendid landscapes around the village of Guilly and the Abbey of Benoît-sur-Loire. On foot, by bike, aboard a canoe or a traditional Loire boat... it's up to you to decide on YOUR best way to discover them! Now let's take a step back in time, to Charlemagne's era, at the oratory in Germigny, or to the Viking era, at the Musée de la Marine de Loire (Loire Marine Museum) in Châteauneuf, not forgetting some fun time at the Musée du Cirque et de l'Illusion in Dampierre.
Orléans Forest is unquestionably one of France's vastest forests, forming a large crescent shape to the north and to the east of the Loire. It is the largest national forest estate in France (35,000 hectares), divided into three forest areas (Orléans, Ingrannes and Lorris) criss-crossed by riding routes.
Orléans Canal, which is partly fit for navigation, runs through the forest. The ponds that irrigate it have been transformed into refreshing leisure bases in the heart of the forest. Once a refuge for the local inhabitants and members of the Resistance (the museums in Loury and Lorris tell the story of the forest, and its legends), Orléans forest has become a genuine paradise for nature lovers and outdoor activity enthusiasts.
Sologne Val Sud
On the south bank, from the royal Basilica Notre-Dame in Cléry-Saint-André to the Château de Sully-sur-Loire, the vineyards, the market gardeners and vegetable growers are the pride of Sologne. Pines, heather moorlands, sandy pathways and strings of small ponds, Sologne's beauty is captivating and synonymous to mystery.
And to think, no-one really wanted it! When French départements were created in the 18th century, Sologne was a marshy region that had been divided into three of these geographical zones. Then Napoleon III spurred a vogue of hunting estates, favoured by the advent of rail travel and the creation of rectilinear transport links.
But don't go thinking that Sologne is reserved for the elite: it is also home to walking routes, including the GR3C linking Gien and Chambord, along the banks of the River Cosson.
A great idea for a family day out: the Domaine du Ciran in Ménestreau-en Villette is a former hunting estate that has been transformed into a conservancy of Sologne's wild fauna: 300 hectares of pure concentrated Sologne!
Also ideal with the family – the Château de La Ferté-Saint-Aubin, one of the rare examples of a 17th century castle, offers recreational visits, with a grand finale in the vaulted castle kitchens. And if you behave yourself, the cook might even offer you a taste of her madeleines made with honey... from Sologne of course!