I'm kicking around the idea of another french trip. My usual plan is always fly into Paris, spend a week, rent a car there & drive somewhere else (Haute Savoie, Provence, Brittany, etc.) where I settle into a quiet settle commune for a week & use the car to explore the area. This time I'd like to see the Loire Valley. Any ideas on a small, attractive village to use as a base to explore the Loire by car?
You didn't give the month of the year. The Loire can be very crowded in high season. You may wish to think about whether you want to focus (i.e. sleep) to the east or to the west of Tours. We were happy to stay in a chateau-hotel, without a village or restaurants to walk to. That was Château de Marçay, in 2012. We also like air conditioning in the summer. We had to buy a 240V box fan in a big-box store, due to lack of it.
It is not a village, but if easy parking were available, I would consider staying in or beside Chinon. It's a small city, but it's a very nice place to walk around and have a wide choice of places for dinner - rather than eating again and again at the place where Anthony Bourdain would also go again and again! (Just reading between your lines ... ) I think the Loire is thoroughly touristed, alas. We thought Château de la Bourdaisière looked like a promising chateau stay, but it has some major (entirely modern) garden features that interest both of us, including a taxonomy of tomatoes! They also specialize in Dahlias. I have a professional interest in "illumination" evenings and "son et lumiere", but those nights can be hard to match with a personal itinerary.
You sound like a devoted car-driver, but you could take the TGV to St. Pierre des Corps and rent there. That's what we did.
Try Amboise. It has a nice tourist zone, attractions (Clos Lucé, Chateau Amboise) , and close to several other chateaus (Chenonceau). We were there for 2 night in the spring of 2014 and enjoyed our stay.
The problem with attractive small villages is that there are hundreds of them in the Loire Valley, but hardly any have accommodation in the village any more. You're much more likely to find accommodation (these days it will be a self catering gite) in the nearby countryside, as most of the hotels in villages have shut.
You will find hotels in some small towns, but even that is getting more difficult: our town has now had 2 out 3 hotels closed in the past 10 years, ironically, the least appealing remaining open because it caters mainly for itinerant workers.
Small towns with hotels include Azay le Rideau, Chinon, Loches and Amboise. Amboise (pop 12000) has a number of good hotels but suffers from the Rick Steves effect, and can feel as if it has as many tourists again (and few places to eat), while Loches, Chinon and Azay le Rideau only have a couple of hotels each, but more reliable dining options.
My choice of those would be Loches (mainly because it's the first Loire Valley town I stayed in).
You may be better off looking for either chateau hotels near Tours, or self catering in or near a small village. The problem is that the smaller the village, the more likely it is to have lost most of its services.
I have stayed twice in Onzain, across the Loire from Chaumont, between Blois and Amboise.
I started by mapping out the chateaux I wanted to visit. I settled on a handful closer to the western half of the valley. That made Amboise a good choice for a base. I was happy with the choice. I rode a bicycle through Tours and wouldn't have liked that as a base, too much traffic.
I had originally considered staying longer and seeing more chateaux further east. I was looking at Blois as a base for exploring further east. I scaled down my plan based on feedback that too many chateaux doesn't improve the experience so didn't visit Blois or Orleans.
I stayed one night in Chinon before biking to Amboise (by way of Villandry and Tours). I liked Chinon as a different, older feel than much of Loire. Also the fortress is a different experience than most chateaux in Loire. I don't think it would be a good base because it's too far west.
Along the same line. I was coming from Brittany and stopped at Fontevraud Abbey before Chinon. Again the Abbey added something to the overall experience that visiting another chateau wouldn't have.
I would vote Amboise. It’s small, but large enough (and popular enough) that there’s a good array of restaurants, markets, etc. Amboise has a couple sights itself and is an attractive spot on the Loire river. It’s closest to Chenonceaux, with other chateau decently close to the east, and good access to the west of Tours (Villandry & Azay) via the autoroute. In short, we enjoyed staying there.
Smaller villages can be limited in services and activities, and as someone noted here, accommodations are more likely a country house. Which could be cool, but you’re driving everywhere for dinner. The town of Azay-le-Rideau kind of felt this way, an attractive place but a week would be a bit much.
If you’re staying a week, consider splitting your stay between two bases to the west and east of Tours. This could really be worthwhile. You’ll limit your daily driving and get a chance to explore a bit more.
Amboise probably does suffer from the "RS effect," but it's popular for good reasons that others have given. Another good nearby chateau is Blois.
If you can uproot yourself once in the Loire, pick bases east and west of Tours so you don't spend too much time driving around or through that city.
Loches is a beautiful town with a very good chateau up the hill, but a little remote from others. We stayed a week (too long in retrospect) in St-Aignan, a nice town on the Cher River near Chenonceaux. We had an apartment but there were hotels and some good restaurants (Chez Constant comes to mind). Also a very nice church right in the town.
If you decide on Amboise (not a bad decision - very centrally located to chateaux) consider Le Clos d'Amboise for lodging.
We stayed in Azay-le-Rideau and loved it. It's southwest of Tours, rather out of range for day trippers from Paris. Hotel Biencourt was recommended in the RS guide and we'd stay there again in a heartbeat. It is right in the village, a stone's throw from the Azay-le-Rideau chateau on a pedestrians-only street (except you can pull in your car to unload/load luggage). It has a courtyard where you can sit with a picnic lunch, or read or whatever. It was used as a girls' school in the early 19th century and there are charming paintings on the walls of the children & teachers. The innkeepers are the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. The breakfast is delicious.
Even though Azay-le-Rideau is a small village (very walkable), it has about half a dozen high-end restaurants as well as more casual places to eat, and a Saturday morning market where you can buy lovely local food for your picnic (see above re: hotel's courtyard).
An easy drive from there is the Fortress of Chinon to the southwest; also the Chateau Villandry to the north. If you have time (we didn't) you can venture further to the west, e.g. Fontevraud Abbey. To get to Chenonceaux and the other more eastern chateaux it's about an hour's drive.
Since you want to stay in the Loire for a week, I'd recommend this instead of the more crowded eastern/northeastern end. If you only had time for a short hop from Paris, especially if you weren't renting a car, then yes Amboise would make sense.
"If you only had time for a short hop from Paris, especially if you weren't renting a car, then yes Amboise would make sense."
I can't think of a worse town to stay in if you only had a short time and no car. It's a PITA to get to from Paris, then getting to your accommodation is a hike, and once you're there you either spend all your time in Amboise with its teeming tourists and generally poor restaurants, or spend most your time trying to co-ordinate buses and trains.
The problem many locals have with Amboise that that it's no way typical of the area, mainly due to the fact it is pushed to tourists as being typical. Although we are grateful for the fact that Amboise gets all the tourists, tourist restaurants and traffic jams, it would be nice if people looked further afield.
Does anyone have any input on basing in Langeais? How are their restaurants within the town? I am looking for a similar spot as the original poster. We don’t want super touristy but a pretty small town with good restaurants we can walk to.
We're looking at doing the same. Around one week in Loire... 3-4 nights around Vouvray and 3-4 nights around Saumur. So, I'm taking in everything that is said on this post. We'll probably spend a couple days in Poitiers also. Our daughter's best friend is from France and currently living in Paris and her parents live in Poitiers. She's going to be back in the US this summer, so I know I'll be asking her a lot of questions.