Who doesn’t love the noble history and architecture of the Loire valley, a region packed with stunning chateaux and tales of royal hunting parties? I first discovered it years ago when I visited some of the most famous castles there: Chambord, Chenonceau, and Cheverny.
On a recent return trip, I did so with a little twist: exploring this bucolic region on horseback. It’s a delightful way to soak up the natural beauty at a slower pace than the autoroutes — visiting the sights, sipping summery wines, and tasting the delicious bounty from the region known as the “Garden of France.”
Our guide, Anne-France, is a life-long equestrian with a warm, welcoming personality. The ultimate hostess, she organizes fun and engaging trips to include stunning castles, delicious meals, and charming accommodations — all while making sure her guests are comfortable in the saddle and enjoying a great ride.
On the first day, our group of six riders became acquainted with each other and our horses. I was paired with Picadero, a beautiful Lusitano bay with a long black mane and tail. We mounted the horses and started out for our first destination, a tour of the Chateau de Montsoreau.
This impressive fortress is unique, built directly on the banks of the Loire river. With commanding water views, this spot was an effective defensive perch at historic times of war. There were also some non-military conflicts here, as well, and you can read about a dramatic love triangle in the famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame de Monsoreau.
Riding across the countryside, we passed green vineyards and neon yellow sunflowers, nodding east toward the morning sun. (How is it that even farm crops in France are simply gorgeous?) Our next stop was the Abbaye de Fontevraud, one of the largest surviving monastic cities from the Middle Ages. The first structures were built here in the 12th century, a wonderfully serene and beautiful site. In this significant church are the reclining effigies of Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his son Richard the Lionheart. Contemplating the history of it all, I found myself drawn to the cloister, with its graceful arcade and beautiful garden.
I was glad to have packed lightly for this trip as our accommodations changed nightly, and a van shuttled our luggage to each hotel or chambre d’hôte. One night, we even stayed at a privately owned castle: the impressive Chateau de Ternay. As we arrived on our horses, the Count & Countess de Ternay came bounding down the front steps to greet us. I was slightly uneasy about meeting nobility after a full day of riding in the warm summer sun — not at my polished best for the introductions! But they were so welcoming, ushering us to our well-appointed bedrooms for a quick freshening up.
We rejoined the group for a glass of sparkling Cremant de Loire, and shared stories of our day in the saddle. Then the Count gave us a tour of the castle, explaining his family history dating to the 15th century. Then, on to the terrace for a lovely dinner of local specialties: melon with cured ham, duck with potatoes, local chèvre cheese and bread, followed by a lovely berry tart. Local wines included the popular Sancerre, and I also tried the lesser-known Savennières, which has a wonderful level of acidity and a mineral quality – my new favorite. In this regal setting with this amazing feast, I was reveling in my “Downton Abbey” moment — living the high life, if only for one night.
During the following days of the tour, we visited more chateaux, rode through forests and along the Loire river, and enjoyed more delectable food and local wine. I couldn’t help but think this was my favorite vacation ever. And yes, I’m already planning my next horse ride in la Belle France.
If you go:
Cheval et Chateux – organizes 4 or 7 day tours in the Loire Valley and Normandy. Consult with them about which tour is best for your riding ability. www.cheval-et-chateaux.com 
Chateau de Montsoreau – open every day in summer for self-guided tours. Check for off-season schedule. www.chateau-montsoreau.com 
Abbaye de Fontevraud – open every day except December 25 and part of January. www.fontevraud.fr 
Chateau de Ternay – offers overnight accommodations and guided tours by appointment. www.chateau-de-ternay.com 
Phil Tremo is the France Today Ambassador for Washington D.C.