The river Loire is the longest river in France and the one that carries the greatest volume of water in the winter floods. It and its main tributaries rise in the central southern highlands known as the Massif Central.
France’s climate is affected by continental influences and it can be remarkably cold in winter, particularly in the Massif. Much of the precipitation carried in off the Bay of Biscay by the prevailing westerlies falls on this area in winter as snow. It can be several metres deep over an area of thousands of square kilometres. When the spring thaw comes the Loire often becomes a raging torrent more than a kilometre wide and several metres deep.
When the thaw has passed the river returns to its benign summer nature of meandering waterways flowing over sandbanks and split by small, low islands. Napolean attempted to tame and canalise this changeable river up to Orleans (the nearest city on the river to Paris) but even he was defeated by its extremes throughout the year.
Nowadays the river is kept in its place by substantial levées – broad banks built up several metres above the winter flood levels. These substantial constructions carry major roads from which splendid views are obtained of the river and the surrounding countryside.
Over many past millennia the central Loire between Orleans and Angers cut its way down through a low limestone plateau and in many areas the traveller can see the cliffs remaining where the river cut into the soft stone. Here there are many natural and quarried caves. These form ideal storage places for the local wines resulting from the large areas of vines which grow on top of the limestone plateau.
These caves have been put to many other uses, including hiding allied airmen who had been shot down in the last war. The caves also feature in The Eighth Child as the location where the last battle takes place between the hero and the murderer.
The photo shows the remains of the ancient castle at Chinon which is built on an outcrop of the plateau.
Next week I will be telling you more about the Chateaux of the Loire.