Tours, a French royal city invites you to share its serene way of life – Meanderings through France n° 144
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
At only one hour from Paris by train or one hour and a half from London Stansted by plane, Tours, since the Renaissance, epitomizes French art de vivre. Set in the heart of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley area and the equally famous Loire vineyards, it is the ideal starting point to explore this unique region. Once a year in May, Tours celebrates its gastronomy and its wines and for two days, a popular wine fair, called Vitiloire, invades the city centre. It’s a unique opportunity to meet local chefs and over 130 wine makers from 47 different AOC.
French kings of the Renaissance obviously fell in Love with Tours and the Loire Valley and had numerous castles built in the whole area. We are all familiar with their names. Chambord, Chenonceau, Amboise, Cheverny… immediately evoke architectural masterpieces. If Tours’ castle is not one of the most beautiful ones, the city nevertheless has a remarkable architectural heritage depicting its history through the centuries. There still are many medieval houses in the old quarter that still is a lively part of the city with its many bars and restaurants. Its Plumereau Square has recently been awarded “Most beautiful square in France for a drink” by Lonely Planet. Lined with typical half-timbered houses this square is the meeting point for all generations in summer and winter alike.
There are many other interesting buildings in Tours. The chateau whose high towers overlook the river is a mix of several periods from Middle Ages till the 17th century and has been turned into a museum depicting Tours’ history. Of the ancient basilica only two towers still stand. One of them, the “Charlemagne Tower” has been recently restored and is now open to the public. If you climb up its 248 steps you will be highly rewarded by the spectacular view over all Tours and its most impressive monuments: the new Saint-Martin Basilica, the City Hall and the railway station that were all built at the end of the 19th century by an architect born in Tours, Victor Laloux. He was the one who built the Orsay Railway Station in Paris that is a museum since the end of the 20th century. You will undoubtedly recognise his style if you have already been to the Orsay Museum.
Don’t miss to visit the cathedral where you can see Anne of Brittany’s children tombs. Next to the cathedral the Psalette Cloister still is in very good condition with three beautiful galleries with elegant gothic and Renaissance arches. A spectacular spiral staircase will take you up to the scriptorium from where you will have a total view over the cathedral and a whole family of gargoyles!
The Plumereau Square is far from being the only place to have fun in Tours. Whether on the nearby Saint-Pierre-le-Puellier Square, or a little further away on the Loire River banks where trendy “beach” bars and restaurants welcome you all summer long. The “Plage de Tours” is a temporary restaurant set under the trees of the Loire North bank where you will enjoy simple but tasty plates of local produce in a good-natured atmosphere. Note that although “plage” means “beach”, swimming in the Loire is very dangerous due to very strong currents and strictly prohibited!
On the opposite bank of the river you can also go to “La Guinguette”, a lively restaurant with a wide-ranging programme of live music, from rock-and-roll to tango, from salsa to jazz… All day long till late at night families or bunches of friends meet here to share homemade cuisine, fitness courses, foreign language courses, film shows… With this wide range of activities the “Guinguette” is getting more and more successful every year.
Tours has rightfully been approved “International City of Gastronomy”, and there are plenty of wonderful restaurants in town. If you would like to discover the Val de Loire wines I highly recommend that you go to “Le Bistrot des Belles Caves”, (The Beautiful Cellars Bistro). This restaurant was created a few years ago by a group of friends gathering local wine makers and chefs. They propose a delightful cuisine and an impressive wine list, as well as a very good value for money menu matching food and several wines by the glass.
There, at Le Bistot des Belles Caves, you can thus enjoy a beef tartar with a glass of red Reuilly, filets of sea bream with a glass of white Menetou Salon, and a delicious dessert such as homemade lemon curd pie or pistachio sponge cake and its chocolate ganache with a glass of sparkling Montlouis. You will be able to drink here wines made by Jacky Blot who’s been making organic wines for more than 20 years. His wines are so sought-after that all of his past productions are sold out. The “Bistrot des Belles Caves” and its shop next door are the only places where you will be able to find them in Tours. (You can also buy them in a few selected restaurants and wine shops throughout the world). http://www.lebistrotdesbellescaves.fr/ and www.jackyblot.fr
Many different fishes are fished in the Loire River and if you enjoy eating fish you have to go to the “Martin Bleu”, a restaurant dedicated to the Loire’s fish. The menu changes every two months depending on the fresh produce available. The chef, Florent Martin, makes a tasty and elegant cuisine and if he particularly enjoys cooking fish, his meat dishes and desserts are also worth a try. We had an amazing snail burger coated with a spicy tomato puree, perfectly prepared catfish filets with eggplant caviar and ended our dinner with a delightful moist chocolate cake still warm from the oven served with a red bell pepper sauce and a raspberry and bell pepper ice cream. Absolutely delicious! www.aumartinbleu.com
The “Hotel Oceania l’Univers” is the oldest hotel still operating in Tours. It was built in 1846 and has been one of the most renowned luxury hotels of Europe for decades. Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Townsend, Winston Churchill, Prince Yusupov… and many other celebrities stayed at “Hotel de l’Univers”. It has been recently restored and offers modern comfort while preserving its unique 19th century decor. Ideally located in the city centre, it is only 200 metres away from the railway station and will be a convenient starting point to visit Tours by foot.
The Hotel Oceania l’Univers vast rooms are more than comfortable and nicely decorated with warm colours. The new spa boasts a surprising stainless steel pool as well as a Jacuzzi and a hammam. Not to forget a copious breakfast buffet served in a quiet dining room filled with sunlight. With a perfect sound insulation this 4-star hotel is a haven of peace in the heart of the city. www.oceaniahotels.co.uk/h/hotel-oceania-l-univers-tours/presentation
The 16th edition of the Vitiloire wine fair took place in Tours city centre last weekend. Over 30,000 visitors from over the world come here every year to meet wine makers from the Loire Valley area. Each visitor over 18 can buy a glass for 6 Euros and, going from stand to stand, get a free wine tasting from any bottle on display. It’s a good opportunity to taste wines made by 135 different producers, listen to them, talking about their work and wines and possibly buy a few bottles. A groom service will help you carry your wine cases to your car or have them shipped to your home by the delivery department. Simple and easy! All through the weekend several local chefs demonstrate their recipes and many stands propose food tasting. Enjoy!
More information at: http://www.tours-tourism.co.uk/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes