The castles of the Loire Valley get all of the attention and rightfully so, as they're the spectacular remnants of a graceful era. Still, the quaint villages that surround the castles are worthy destinations in themselves. If your criteria for places to visit in the Loire Valley are picturesque, pastoral settings with storied pasts, then this is your list.
A good base for touring the region, Amboise seems plucked right out of a storybook below its hilltop chateau, Chateau d'Amboise. The pleasant, pedestrian-only zone offers hours of strolling and relaxing in outdoor cafes with views of the castle.
Once you've marveled at the castle of Amboise, visit Leonardo da Vinci's home, Chateau du Clos-Luce, where he spent the final three years of his life. Here, you can view full-sized working models of his inventions. In the evening, the people of the town perform a night show, son-et-lumi?re, recounting the history of the town in light, music and special effects.
In the town of Azay-le-Rideau, the chateau sits right on the water of the Indre river. It has the appearance of a defensive fortress, but the moat, which is more of a lake, and towers are purely decorative. If you have a car, Chateau de l'Aulee, a winery known for its sparkling wine, is among the few places in the region with a vineyard that you can explore. Tours that show the wine-making process are offered as well as walks through the vines. The winery is also a bed and breakfast.
A gift of Henri II to his mistress, Ch?teau de Chenonceau, in the town of Chenonceaux, has all of the hallmarks of a splendid Loire Valley attraction: the two-story, Florentine-inspired gallery across the bridge, tapestries covering the ch?teau walls, an expansive kitchen complete with pots and pans and a door that opens to the river below. The grounds are beautiful with a labyrinth designed by Henri II's wife, Catherine de Medicis. After your tour, with all of the attention of the tourists on the castle, set your sights on the town, for an impression that you have it all to yourself (at certain times of the year). Leaving the castle, you'll pass through the tree-lined Main Gate Road back to the town of Chenonceaux.
In addition to the chateau, Saumur is home to the famous equestrian training center, founded in 1771, and the Cadre Noir horse show. Guided tours and performances are held regularly. Also a popular attraction in the Loire Valley region, the Mus?e des blind?s houses the world's largest collection of armoured tanks other vintage military vehicles.
Chinon is known for its fortress and red wines. Visit Mus?e de la Devini?re, the home of Francois Rabelais, the famous French writer and Domaine de la Noblaie for a tour of its vineyard and wine cave.