Let your gaze linger on the beauty of the Loire River a minute too long and the tiny village of Montsoreau will have rolled on by.
Courting a location in France where the road signs replicate a fine wine list, Montsoreau sits comfortably west of a good Sancerre and is settled on the same soil as the nearby Anjou-Touraine vineyards. This wine region and the towns and cities that dot the department are famous in France. Richard the Lionheart’s tomb can be found in Fontevraud while nearby Saumur merits the tourist crowds that descend on it by the coach-load. Yet, while these spots vie competitively for visitor attention, Montsoreau appears to shun an equivalent level of self-promotion.
Quietly confident, naturally charismatic and presenting the perfect balance of luxury in a rustic French setting, those who do stumble across Montsoreau seem to keep the secret of the village’s charm closely guarded, not wanting to dilute the magic that exists there.
Place du Mall, Montsoreau’s main square, contains the heart of the village and is where life plays out daily. Little more than a hiccup along the smooth continuity of the Loire River, the square offers the essential ingredients for existence in a French village.
A charcuterie satisfies the carnivorous, a traditional bar-tabac can be found behind a plume of tobacco fog (thanks to modern-day rules that prevent drinking and smoking from occurring concurrently inside), and a short turn around the corner will place you in front of the village boulangerie, Aux Pains de Diane that, were it in Paris, would rival the likes of Fauchon. Standing in queues is rarely a recommended way to spend your time but the café éclairs from this bakery in Montsoreau merit an exception.
With your appetite whet, your culinary exploration can continue into the evening thanks to the small, understated restaurant Diane de Meridor. Possessing Cuisinerie Gourmande status, this restaurant’s commitment to quality ensures it serves some of the best food around. The exterior is cast in limestone, barely a shade brighter than old French lace, yet the flavours offered inside couldn’t be more colourful. In true French style, truffle, langoustine and foie gras feature strongly giving your taste buds the vacation they came for.
But Montsoreau isn’t just about the edibles. Stroll along the river a handful of paces and you’ll reach the Marine de Loire Spa & Hotel. The subtle exterior is elegant in a sapphire blue that is a prelude to the luxury promised inside. Decorated in the style of a rustic beach retreat fringed by floating white chiffon drapery, the hotel has a sun spot so inviting you could lose a day. Upstairs, the rooms are individually unique and a Cinq Mondes spa with heated swimming pool, dedicated treatment parlour, and hammam provides the finishing touches.
Montsoreau is a blessing to visit any day of the week but its magic is best illustrated on a Sunday. Swarming from their shuttered houses like bees buzzing lazily from their hive, the village slowly comes to life. Stall after stall the locals fill their traditional wicker baskets with the market’s freshest fruit, vegetables, oysters, cheese and meat. You won’t see any theme of tourism in this French market, which is as genuine as the soil encrusted on the carrots.
As the market winds to a natural conclusion, the tempo changes once more as the villagers migrate to the bar-tabac. Caffeine-laden grande crèmes are swiftly drunk before giving over to coups of Crémant, the perfect prelude to the tradition of a long Sunday lunch.
Almost translucent with bubbles so fine you might have to focus to see them, the Crémants of the Loire Valley are one of the area’s greatest finds. Healthily capable of competing with the pricier Champagnes of Reims and Épernay, the brands of the Loire – Gratien & Meyer, Ackerman and Ladubay – merit international acclaim. Yet, like much that goes on in this part of France, they barely seem to have strayed beyond their doorstep; understandable – if you were French, you probably wouldn’t want to share them either.
The non-consumable delights of Montsoreau may not compete with the likes of Paris but there are certainly sufficient sights to entertain a laid-back break. Most pleasing on the eye and camera lens it the Château de Montsoreau, which provides a permanent presence of grandeur towering above the banks of the river. Inside, this 15th century château has been restored to provide an atmospheric and faithful representation of the castle’s inhabited life.
Leading from the château, along the meandering, guiding route of the river, walk for about one mile and you’ll discover a row of troglodyte caves cut into the cliff-side. Typical of the region and delicately cast in fluorescent light at night, the caves are occupied by local residents even to this day.
When night arrives, the sunlight retires slowly, lazily creeping its way through the sky towards the horizon. As it touches the tips of the trees that litter the banks of the Loire the leaves are highlighted in a kaleidoscope of shades. If the confluence of colours is just right, the sunset with sketch a pallet of pastel pinks and blues onto the river’s soft surface. For the shortest moment the water seems to slow to a stop and passing drivers will turn their heads to stare, requiring that they lock their gaze on the Loire River just seconds too long…and in those moments Montsoreau will have rolled on by.