There were older fortresses along the line of one of France's greatest rivers, the Loire, but the real scramble started when French King Francois I built himself a chateau here and all his courtiers rushed to join in.

Altogether, there are over 300 chateaux in the Loire Valley along with many other fabulous monuments from monasteries to gardens, museums, churches and cathedrals, villages and vineyards. The whole river valley is wonderful but a central stretch of 280 kms, including 20 of the finest chateaux and other monuments, including the Abbaie de Fontevraud and Chateaux of Chenoncaux, Villandry, Blois, and Chinon, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site as a living cultural landscape.

There is a guided cycle and hiking path, Loire a Velo, running its full length, complete with cycle hire facilities at regular intervals. It offers an excellent alternative way to explore the magical scenery, wildlife and heritage of France's own 'Valley of the Kings' and work up an appetite for some of the world's most mouthwatering food.

Where is it?
In mid-France, west of Paris. The UNESCO World Heritage site covers an area of the Loire valley from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes-sur-Loire, a distance of 280 km (174 miles).

What is it?
A river, several towns and cities, 20 of the world's finest chateaux and hundreds of other monuments and museums, great vineyards, fine wine, fabulous food, wonderful scenery and even some wildlife. France at its finest.

Best time to visit?
The area is beautiful at any time of year, but many smaller sites close in winter and, being Europe, the weather is infinitely better in summer, so go between May and September. High summer can be very crowded.

Must see?
Doing all 20 chateaux would probably be overkill, so do some homework, make a selection, add in some gardens, vineyards, a bike ride and other sights.

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Chateaux of the Loire, France