The Best of the Loire - for Less

The Loire Valley is best known for wine and châteaux - or even better, drinking wine in châteaux wineries - accoutrements of luxury not thrift, but where there's a bargain bin there's a cheap holiday, and these are some of the very, very inexpensive ways to experience this picture-perfect-on-the-label-of-a-wine-bottle region.

For starters, the Loire can be traversed for next to nil: one of the best ways to travel the valley is by bike - the region is very flat, and as well cycling being a good way to see the countryside, it also means there's no designated driver, and your whole party can have a tipple in the winery tasting cellars. Tasting is another way to get more for less: it's totally acceptable to try out as many wines as you can mix, and while there is an etiquette that says you should walk away with something to make it worth the wine producer's time, it's up to you how much you buy and the advantage of buying in bulk is that you can cycle giddily away with a steal if you buy a few bottles more. Some train companies will let you transport your bike for free, just check before you travel.

When it comes to the châteaux there's another loophole to look out for: while most châteaux will charge you an entry fee not all of them will charge you to stroll their grounds – in many cases some of the finest 'grounds' in France. Think of it as another way to try before you buy, no one could afford to visit all of them, and taking in the grounds first will give an impression of what awaits inside. For more formal examinations of the kinds of magnifique gardens and 'grounds' the Loire's soils can produce, the Nantes Botanical Gardens has one of the world's largest magnolia trees, planted in 1786, and is free for the public to frequent, and the Loire-Anjou-Touraine Regional Park has 150kms worth of trails, marked with informative historical and botanical notes to be followed while walking or cycling the protected free-to-the-public reserve.

The other great pride of the Loire are its etching-esque medieval towns, littered with historic architecture – much of it with a religious theme – and while they can make you pay for the châteaux it would be heartless to expect you to pay to attend church – sacrebleu! Some of the most visit worthy are Tours Cathedral, the Cathedral of St Etienne of Bourges, Nantes Cathedral and of course Chartres Cathedral - where entry is free but it's 6 Euro if you want to climb the tower. The Abbey of Fontevraud will interest the pious, appreciators of religious architecture and conspiracy theorists – it houses the tombs of the Plantagenet kings and queens of England, including Richard the Lionheart – and opens its doors for free on the first Sunday of the month.

Like the Nantes magnolia and the great old vines that cover this land in delicious rows, there's a lot of life and colour left in the Loire's old towns, and the best way to grab a gulp of it is to show up on market day – one of the best is the Saturday market in the town of Saumur.

The final tip for a cheap tippling trip though the Loire is to have a sample of the 'method traditionel' style wines produced in the valley. This stuff is Champagne, just without the famous name tag and the price that goes with it – but many experts say it's comparable in flavour.

The Best of the Loire Valley

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