A while back, I published some posts about visiting the great châteaux of France’s Loire Valley. What I didn’t mention was that a good way to get to the châteaux is by paying a visit to Tours, the charming city of the Loire.
I spent a couple of very enjoyable days in the city, but with France’s good train service, you could visit on a day trip from Paris. It’s about two hours away (more like one hour if you take the fast train), and it’s a lovely ride through the green countryside of the Loire. This must be one of the prettiest parts of France: it’s little wonder ancient kings ruled the country from here in the 16th century.
In some cities, the area around the train station is pretty sketchy. But in Tours, you step out to see an attractive square filled with a mix of modern buildings and century-old hotels and shops. If you’re hungry, around the corner is the Rue de Bordeaux, a pedestrian street lined with cafés, restaurants and ice cream shops.
That’s the “modern” part of town, however. Walk a few blocks north, past the twin towers of the Cathedrale St-Gatien, and you find yourself in Old Tours. And you’re on another pedestrian street, Rue Colbert, home to some of the city’s most recommended restaurants. It also features some storefronts with wonderful medieval carvings.
Nearby, however, is an even more memorable place to eat and drink. Rue Colbert leads to Tours’ biggest attraction: Place Plumereau, a busy square that is the heart of the old city. The Place lives up to its romantic name, looking like a scene right out of Robin Hood. The sunny plaza is surrounded by ancient half-timbered buildings, some of which have stood there for 600 years.
This was once a place to meet and sell your goods: in fact, it was known as Tours’ carroi aux chapeaux, or hat market. But today it’s a place to meet for a glass of the local wine — perhaps a sparkling Vouvray. The tables that fill the centre of the square always seem to be well occupied. Sitting there, drinking in the atmosphere (and the wine), is a great experience — that must be why France’s version of the Lonely Planet called Place Plumereau the best place in France to have an aperitif.
There’s more history in the old town, as well. Not far from the square stand the ruins of a massive church built to house the remains of Tours’ patron, Saint Martin, who lived in the fourth century AD. The church was at one time an important stop for pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Now, only a couple of towers and some fragments remain, but the city has ingeniously marked the site with a line of crosses down the street where the pillars of the original building stood.
The saint’s bones (lost but rediscovered in 1860) now reside nearby, in the 19th-century Basilique de Saint Martin. The church’s interior is quite impressive, but I was more fascinated by its basement room, filled with stone carvings and inscriptions from centuries past. Somewhere down there is the crypt where Saint Martin’s remains are resting, but I didn’t find it.
Tours isn’t all about historic squares and churches, though. It’s a university town, and an important centre of the Touraine district. And since it’s the jumping-off point to see the nearby châteaux of the Loire, it gets a lot of tourists. That has made it pretty prosperous place.
Sleek new high-tech trams run down Rue Nationale, the main shopping street, and there are lovely gardens around its classic-looking city hall (seen here by night). In fact, there are several expansive parks around Tours, as well as an entertainment centre on the banks of the Loire, which skirts the downtown. There’s even a Ferris wheel, which stands out above the low-rise streetscape.
The food, the history, the riverside parks, the attractive streets, all combine to create a city that’s just a pleasant place to be. Every corner seems to open onto another attractive scene. And every street seems to offer an inviting place to sit and have a drink, or sample some of the region’s food: galettes, a kind of buckwheat crêpe with a filling, are a specialty.
I was in Tours to see the châteaux, which was a memorable experience, as you know if you’ve read my posts. But I would have been happy to spend a few days there just to enjoy the city, or maybe take a jaunt into the countryside to see some local farm towns. I even found myself looking at the ads outside the real estate offices. You could find much worse places for a retirement haven – and the prices are pretty affordable.
If you’re travelling to France this summer, or any other summer,a visit to Tours is a great way to spend a few days. It’s a look at the other side of France: slower, less hyped and a little gentler. And it’s a place that’s easy to develop a liking for — especially after a glass or two of Vouvray.