You could be forgiven for not knowing the Loire 42, the irresistible home to some of the loveliest villages you’ll find in France. They’ve just hidden it well so you’ll have to earn your visit.
I’ll give you a clue: it’s south of Burgundy, and barely an hour from Lyon. I don’t live far from here – a few hours’ drive – yet I didn’t know it existed either.
And it looks something like this.
It’s still called the Loire, not as in the Loire Valley, but as in Loire département, or county. Département number 42, to be precise.
This is France at its best – undulating vineyards, rugged hiking hills, deep river gorges, medieval villages and chateaux and churches but even in a weekend you can make a serious dent in it (and don’t forget those hills for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter).
I’ve made it easy by sharing my own three gems of the Loire with you – as for the rest you’ll have to discover it on your own.
Gem Number 1: Villages of the Roannais
My first is a string of tiny villages with evocative names like St-Haon-le-Chatel and Ambierle, tucked away in an upper corner of the irrésistible Roannais, as it’s known, which makes up the northern half of the Loire.
I started with St-Haon-le-Chatel and its 14th century ramparts and half-timbered houses built hundreds of years ago, early in the day, enjoying a good old-fashioned stroll before the crowds. And I admired the ancient doors, buildings and streets and take in sights that probably aren’t much different than they were centuries ago – this immutability is one of my favorite things about France.
A few artists have settled here, probably in search of a little corner of France not too many people have found yet.
St-Haon-le-Chatel will whet your appetite for Ambierle, a village not so much seen, as unveiled. Rounding a corner, a vista opens on rows of vineyards climbing towards a compact cluster of old homes, all crowned by a Benedictine abbey whose contents were first inventoried back in 902 A.D.
Ambierle is gaining some notoriety as a producer of light, organic rosé wines, which you can taste in one of the départment’s two Michelin starred restaurants, Le Prieuré (the other Michelin restaurant is the world-famous Troisgros in nearby Roanne). Better yet, if you’re driving just buy your bottles directly from one of seven local vintners.
If you’re not in a splurging mood for lunch, here’s a little secret: next to Le Prieuré you’ll find the Bistrot À Coté (literally, the bistro next door): for €20 you’ll have a four-course meal cooked in Le Prieuré’s own kitchen and served up by Géraldine, the wife of Le Prieuré’s chef.
And then go for a well-earned walk. The twisted streets all climb to the priory, a massive building whose patterned roof tiles and gargoyles can be seen from far away.
Please try to make time in Ambierle to visit the Musée Alice Taverne, which retraces years of everyday life in the region – you’ll see dining rooms and bedrooms and kitchens filled with items that were actually used by real people in the early 1900s, a living, learning museum (I wrote about this museum and several other irresistible ones nearby in this post) whose every corner is crammed with mementoes of the way life used to be.
Gem Number 2: The Bâtie d’Urfé
My second gem is part-Renaissance chateau, part fairy tale manor house, further south in the lush mountains of the Forez region just south of the Roannais.
It’s lovely and photogenic but more important, it has a story behind it. Possibly more than one story.
Come, let me show you.
It all started with Claude d’Urfé, sent by King François the First as a diplomat to Renaissance Rome, whose art and architecture the diplomat brought home to his rural mountains of the Forez. It’s a chateau unlike any other in the region, more Italian than French, with its double-gallery and ramp so steep horses probably hurt themselves often as they skidded up or down in the rain, pulling their aristocratic charges.
Claude allowed himself flights of fancy, like this Sphinx guarding the bottom of the ramp.
Or this… rockery, for lack of a better word, an entire room made of pebbles, shells and sand, a reflection of legend, mythology and paganism and a most unlikely entryway into the chapel to which it leads.
In the best of 16th-century humanist tradition, D’Urfé created magnificent gardens to highlight man’s domination over nature – each corner a perfect 90-degree angle as though nature had never had a mind of her own.
D’Urfé hired the best French and Italian artists of his time and created this masterpiece – all for the love of a woman, his wife Jeanne, who died at the age of 26 after bearing him six children (modern family planning methods clearly hadn’t been developed yet). He never remarried and continued expanding the chateau in her memory.
The love story goes on… Claude’s grandson, Honoré d’Urfé, is famous as the author of the 17th century novel L’Astrée, possibly France’s first modern romantic novel. It traces the love of two shepherds, Celadon (who wore green ribbons and gave the color celadon its name) and Astrée, and takes place here in the Forez, where you can retrace the lovers’ steps.
The novel is famous for its length (5400 pages in 60 books), for its complex plot and for the fame it achieved throughout Europe at a time when books were rare and expensive. Love, of course, triumphed.
The family eventually stopped taking care of the chateau and by the mid-18th century the family was forced to sell it. It began falling apart over the years and was only saved from destruction when a local preservation society, the Diana, bought it, had it classified as a national monument, and began extensive renovations.
Gem Number 3: Priory of Saint-Romain-le-Puy
This is a tiny gem but so are some of the best jewels: the Priory of Saint-Romain-le-Puy, a historical monument, is a minuscule place you can see in a few minutes if you choose. Or, you can spend a few hours allowing its treasures to gently appear.
Push the door open and frescoes of faded blues and crimsons greet you, partially defaced from a time before they were treasured. Adults still remember breaking pieces off as children.
If no one is around, raise your voice and listen to the echo. The acoustics are so good the priory is used for classical concerts, and I can certainly see why.
Outside, the Forez plain sweeps out in every direction. If you can get up early enough you might see the priory rise slowly from the mist.
I could have spent days exploring village after village but if all you have is a single day and you happen to be in Lyon aching for the countryside, a detour through the Loire will put you in a region few people visit – you’ll have it almost to yourself.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- You can drive to the Loire 42 in less than an hour from Lyon and just over two from Geneva. It’s autoroute all the way.
- Speaking of which, Autoroute 89, from north of Lyon to Roanne, is a bit hard to find so use a GPS: the Lyon authorities don’t like the bypass and have refused to signpost it. Really.
- If you can’t afford the cooking of Troisgros (main dishes hover between €70-110/US$90-145), why not take French immersion and cooking classes at the Ecole des Trois Ponts? It might not quite be Troisgros but you get to go to the market, learn about food and play in the kitchen.
- To walk it all off the tourist office of the Roannais has a list of great local hikes. You’ll find others here. Best not to walk around the wilderness on your own – go with someone. They are woods, after all.
- The Vignoble du Roannais is well-known for a number of excellent wines and boasts recognition as an AOC .
- In Ambierle, drop by the Maison de Pays for local specialties and for the friendly young man whose name I never caught but who loves his village with contagious passion.