Destination of the day: Loire Valley

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talcy windmillThe ribbon of castle along its banks can be a distraction, but to see the star of the show, perhaps the star of France itself, it is necessary to swim the Loire at dusk.

The Seine is a bigger celebrity, the Rhone wider, the Canal du Midi the package holiday icon, but the Loire remains central to understanding what France is about, its longest river (1,013 km, just made it to four figures) and still deliciously moody, despite the centuries of attempting to tame its intemperance.

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This heat is so intense there is only one solution, long drives in the air conditioned car with the temperature turned down as low as it can go.

The little town of Beaugency combines everything that is great about the Loire region. One of Le Plus Beaux Detours de France, its church has light streaming in sideways, much as it would have when they annulled the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine here and sparked off the hundred years war. My daughter Constance found an antique shop where she bought Bulletin de Theraputique from 1883, three euro and she is reading it from cover to cover.

Each day starts with a dip in the Loire, surprisingly fast flowing for a river that is so big and already so far from its source. This region of France is very different from where I have been before, big farms with the harvest in full flow. The key is to go off the main roads and drive the small country by-ways, along country path where cars have to stop and yield to each other, in and out of village after village with its markets square and its block-sized church. The hanging baskets of flowers and shutter-protected windows go on for ever.

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There is a statue of Joan of Arc in every market square. You can see a pattern here. Beaugency has the best Joan of Arc statue, with her banner and lance, positioned so red-faced tourists are almost forced to take their pictures up her skirt. The picture postcard village has a small stream running down the middle of tits main street, culverted and then opening like a porpoise coming up for air.

In Chateaudun we found a delicious town of which few have ever heard.

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Each of the stadium chateaux, filled with tourists listening to audio guides, like Chambord, there is somewhere smaller and equally intriguing nearby, like Talcy.

We are the only tourists in Talcy’s Italianate Renaissance mansion. The Auberge de Chateau nearby has no English but one of the warmest welcomes in France.

There were also some self-indulgent diversions along the trail of South Leinster saints Fiachra/Fiacre, Irish saints who set up their stall along the Loire. Their fame spread across France and still lingers, as much as at home. Fiachra is the patron saint of STD’s which is a complicated tale in itself.

Our big trip was to Tours and its amazing cathedral. The small streets are full of amazing local shops, a bulwark against the homogenised shopping streets of Europe. I particularly like the gingerbread in the window of Hansel and Gretel patisserie.

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Each campsite in France has its rhythm, and the rhythm varies from site to site, region to region.

There is a general pattern to affairs, common to them all. The early morning swim with the Germans and Parisians (there is never an English speaker in the deepest pool before 10, and the modern pools ARE deeper (ours in Chateau des Marais in the Loire Valley was 2.5m deep). Then shortly afterwards the queues of daddies in at the breakfast baguette shop (85 cent, so fresh the yeast is humming), the comings and goings of cars en route to local markets and sights, the enthusiastic queues of cyclists, each a veritable Nicholas Roche or Dan Martin and the troops of kids off to the Whoopi Club.

This is followed by the heat-exhaustion of mid afternoon and the splosh of laughing children and sunburned parents in processions down the water slides. I love waterslides, the long and the windy ones, but they are put together for agile children travelling at speed, not the middle-aged and pot-bellied 90-kiloer who bumps along unevenly, feeling the rim between each section on their sunburned skin.

Then the evening, pizzas from the camp takeaway, Liverpudlians laughing in the bar, the muffled microphone sounds of a quiz or karaoke session, teenagers with bicycles flirting and admiring each other in whispered phrases that need no translation despite their multi-lingual nature, barbecues outside the caravans and tents, the voices raised a notch with every bottle of great value local wine that is emptied.

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Until the night when everything goes quiet, darkness descends and the last Liverpudlian is coaxed out of the bar: “I’ll put it in a plastic cup for you.” The crickets sing their love songs, the Loire goes pouring by and all in the world seems right.

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Eoghan Corry travelled to France with Irish ferries on their direct service from Rosslare to Cherbourg (www.irishferries.com) and Roscoff and stayed with canvas holidays on their campsite at Chateau des Marais. www.canvashllidays.ie

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