The Loire is three times longer than the UK’s longest river, the River Severn. Rising in the Cévennes area of the Massif Central it flows north first until near Orléans it turns to the west and enters the Atlantic at Saint Nazaire, just beyond Nantes.
You can explore the full length of the Loire by motorhome. It doesn’t matter in which direction you travel but I will describe the source to the sea route. I haven’t given detailed locations of places to stay but books and several apps are available which will find you aires and campsites based on the place names mentioned. There are many other places to stay along or near the river and you shouldn’t feel constrained to follow my suggestions.
I will not give a detailed description of a route either. On some sections of the river the only choice is whether you follow the left or the right bank. But in the upper stretches it is difficult to closely follow the river without taking minor roads. So I will describe a few places to see and stay near the river and you can travel between these on your own initiative. Most people will use a satnav or mapping app but if you prefer to do the route-finding in a more traditional way, one of these will be useful.
This is a boat compass adjustable by a process called “swinging the compass” so it gives a true reading of direction. Something you won’t get with a cheap car compass. For major route planning the Michelin 1/1,000,000 map of France is useful and for daily use the Michelin Road Atlas at a scale of 1,250,000 is what we use. In both cases, I have the laminated versions which are much harder wearing than the paper equivalents. I also use Google Maps, particularly to see the detail layout of a village or to find specific locations using the search facility.
The Loire originates at five springs below a curious mountain with an even more curious name, the Gerbier de Jonc.
There is a marked path leading to the summit of this volcanic outcrop. If you are reasonably fit it isn’t a difficult climb but it does involve a little scrambling. The views from the top of the mountain are far-reaching.
There is a café beside the road below the mountain called the Source de la Loire. Inside the café is a pipe coming out of a wall out of which water flows into a stone trough. It is so unimpressive I haven’t included a photograph but after visiting this little shrine you can tick off the first stage of the Loire from source to the sea. Conveniently near the café is a marker stone to remind you how far the river has to go.
If you are really thorough you can try and find the other four sources nearby but they are just dribbles too.
The Gerbier is part of a ridge running roughly north to south and it forms an interesting hydrological curiosity.
The streams running to the west flow into the Atlantic and those to the east find their way to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. If no cars are around you can choose, depending which way you face or squat to pee either in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. On second thoughts, this being France it doesn’t matter how much traffic is passing as taking a pee beside the road is accepted as normal, at least for men.
Even if you haven’t taken the opportunity to personally help it on its way the Loire starts off with little enthusiasm for becoming a great river but it soon pulls itself together and within just a couple of kilometres of its sources begins to show early promise.
Before we go any further I ought to say something about how to reach the source of the Loire. I don’t mean the five springs but how to get even close to the area where they can be found. Undisputedly, the source of the Loire is a bit out of the way in the south east corner of France.
If you are coming from one of the short ferry crossings or the Tunnel then in broad terms heading through Arras, Reims, Dijon and Lyon will get you near to the right part of France. From Dieppe I would head over the top of Paris for Reims. From Le Havre you could go Le Mans to Tours then Clermont Ferrand.
From Cherbourg or Roscoff you could head towards Nantes and follow the river upstream from the mouth. Alternatively, cross the Loire at Angers or Tours and then on to Clermont Ferrand and south from there.
Once you get close the nearest good aire to the source is at Le Monastier sur Gazelle. This village is also the official start of the Stevenson Trail, a 225 kilometre long route through the Cévennes ending at St Jean du Gard to the south. The route follows the path taken by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1878, described in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. This is a popular walking route and amongst those retracing his steps a few copy Stevenson and take a donkey. There are places to stay on the route which cater for guests with both two and four feet. It isn’t possible to follow the path in a motorhome but it goes through interesting country and I recommend, having driven this far south, setting a few days aside to explore the Cévennes. For example, at St Jean du Gard and the end of the walk is a basic aire in the station car park and steam trains in the station.
The nearest large town to the source of the Loire is Le Pu en Velay where you can see a chapel on a pinnacle of volcanic rock and from the aire by the train and bus station spectacular sunsets.
Puy lentils are a local dish but look at reviews of any restaurants before trying them. We didn’t and had a disappointing meal. North from Le Puy en Velay the Loire flows down through the Gorges de la Loire, the route is marked on signposts. There are spectacular stretches of the river to be seen between Le Puy and the outskirts of St Étienne. Route finding isn’t hard here as in addition to the signs there is only one road which follows the river. Halfway to St Étienne is the small town of Retournac and the aire beside the river worth visiting if only to see the curious water taps at the service point. Unique in my experience because they are operated by long levers.
The supermarket on the outskirts of the town has another interesting feature. A laundrette with a view.
Washing machines like this will eat into your precious stock of coins but many take cards. My UK card has been refused occasionally but you will find machines taking contactless payment which works smoothly in my experience.
There are few aires after Retournac until you draw close to St Étienne and the superb aire at the medieval village of St Victor sur Loire. The aire is beside the Lac Grangent, which is the Loire really but disguised as a lake because a dam holds back the river.
Without going onto narrow roads it is not possible to closely follow the Loire between the Lac Grangent and the city of Roanne. Here you will find another section confusingly also called the Gorges de la Loire just south of Roanne where another dam has flooded the narrow valley.
If you want stay in this area you have a choice of two good aires. If tranquillity is what you seek the aire on the north shore of the Lac de Villerest, just above the dam is good.
Alternatively, if the bustle of Roanne appeals it has an aire beside the river at the marina.
After Roanne main roads follow the right bank of the river closely, making navigation fairly easy. And on the subject of navigation my next suggested stop isn’t on the river but on a canal. Starting from Roanne the Canal Lateral de la Loire runs parallel with the river and near Gannay sur Loire at the Base Nautique, right on the bank of the canal is an interesting, small aire.
Sancerre has limited opportunities for parking but Flower Camping is within walking distance of the centre. This is very much wine country and you will find a wide selection of local wines available in the shops although don’t expect bottles to be cheap. We bought Sancerre and a Pouilly Fumé and a local goat’s cheese, crottin de chavignol when we visited. We were also hugely entertained by an event held over the weekend where teams were jousting on the canal. Standing on a platform at the back of a small boat powered by a motor the competitors would slowly close on each other carrying lances made of plastic and attempt to push their opponent off the back of their boat. The losers of each joust got very wet when they landed in the canal. There were heats all Saturday and the finals on the Sunday.
Subsequent tasting sessions of our purchases put the Pouilly Fumé as the winner for taste over the Sancerre. The crottin de chavignol cheese had the texture of Brie but with an added flavour of goat. It was good and we must return to try the blue version.
At Briare the canal goes over the Loire on a bridge, a curiosity worth stopping to see. The municipal aire in Briare is free but busy so plan to arrive early if you want to be sure of a place at popular times of the year.
Gien has an impressive bridge and the Château de Gien but when you reach Sulley sur Loire if you are still on the right bank of the river you might want to cross over to the left side here to stay on the wider roads close to the river.
Sulley sur Loire also marks the start of the most famous part of the Loire valley, between here and Chalonnes sur Loire, west of Angers, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is the area with the richest cultural history in terms of architecture, monuments and châteaux.
Orléans is where the Loire starts flowing south west. There is an aire at La Chapelle St Mesmin just to the west of the city but I don’t recommend it. It isn’t bad, apart from a complex entry system, but better places to stay are not far away, such as the free aire at Meung sur Loire.
Blois has a choice of aires and old buildings. The Château Royal de Blois was once the principal residence of the French kings until Henri IV moved the court to Paris in 1598. The château at Blois is in one way an exception because it was built directly beside the river. The majority of the best Loire valley chateaux are found south of the river, either on tributaries of the Loire or in open country.
The Château de Chambord is huge in scale but if you only go to one château I recommend the Château Chenonceau. You will find this by the River Cher twenty five kilometres before it joins the Loire at Tours. It isn’t cheap to get in, thirteen euros each when we visited in 2017 but the setting and design of the building are superb. It isn’t built so much beside the Cher but literally on top of it. The river flows beneath the building through a series of arches. No problem with discharging grey and black waste here! Originally given as a gift by Henri II to his mistress Diane it was reclaimed by the king’s widow on his death. The queen’s name was Catherine de Medici and you didn’t argue with a Medici if you wanted to keep your head in the seventeenth century.
Used as a hospital in the First World War in the Second World War the Cher at this point was the boundary between Vichy France and the German occupied region to the north. The château was then used by members of the Resistance as a convenient and discrete crossing point between the two regions.
The formal gardens of the château have a maze which for adults is an easy one as the hedges are trimmed so low you can see over the top.
If you want to overnight close to the Château Chenonceau the France Passion site Caves du Père Auguste at Civray de Touraine is ideally situated and their wines excellent. You can try them in an underground cellar carved into the rock.
A little further south is the village of Montrésor, one of the “Beautiful Villages” of France and with the added bonus of a good free aire.
Still staying a short distance south of the Loire you will find Chinon on the Vienne River, another tributary of the Loire. There is a small aire but the best views of the town and the fortress are seen from the campsite on other side of the river.
Chinon is popular and you will have no lack of choice if you choose to dine out here. In complete contrast, Chouzé sur Loire just upstream of where the Vienne joins the Loire is a tiny place but with the advantage of an exceptionally good free aire.
You will find traditional sailing craft here moored by the river and on one building are engraved the heights of historic floods. Curiously, not all of the dates of floods are in the winter, when they might be expected, but floods also occurred in summer. Floods are rarer now, probably because the upper reaches have been tamed by dams.
A little south of where the Vienne river flows into the Loire is Fontevraud-l’Abbaye which has been described as the most impressive and intact medieval abbey in Europe. Conveniently you will also find another free aire here too.
The list of interesting places to visit along or near the Loire is almost endless so I will mention just one more, Saumur. Here on an island on the Loire you can stay at a Camping-car Parks aire and explore the city easily on foot. There is a château out of a fairy tale to see and in complete contrast the Musée des Blindés with one hundred and fifty armoured vehicles on display. There are troglodyte dwellings cut into the soft limestone (or tufa) near Saumur and other locations along the Loire, such as at Vouvray, a place worth visiting if only for its wine.
Nantes, the largest city on the Loire has an aire on the outskirts to the north. Bicycles are recommended to reach the centre of the city which is very bike friendly when you reach it.
There are no bridges across the Loire beyond Nantes until you reach St Nazaire with its impressive high bridge. Alternatively, if you are 3.5t or under you could try as a small adventure one of the free ferries or BACs which cross the river at a few points.
It is hard to avoid the Loire if you travel in France. The river almost divides the country into two equal halves. If you are driving to Spain from the Channel you are almost certainly going to cross it unless you take a long diversion through Provence. The upper reaches are in mountainous country with twisty roads but the majority of the river and its valley are easily explored in a motorhome. Pretty villages, spectacular scenery, some of the best French wines and historic buildings it has in abundance. Driving the full length of the river is a rewarding achievement but even if you only spend a couple of days on the river you will have a good time. Pencil in a few dates for your diary in 2020!
John Laidler (DBK) is the author of two books about travels by motorhome. Two Go to Spain and Two Go to Italy, both available as paperbacks and eBooks on Amazon.
All photographs by John Laidler. Original map by FreeVectorMaps.com
This article is part of a series written for MotorhomeFun Magazine. It appears in the January 2020 edition