The magnet that draws visitors in their droves to France's Loire Valley is its collection of sumptuous chateaux, but its cities, often overlooked, have just as much to offer. Orleans, Blois, Tours and Angers are neatly arranged along a single stretch of France's longest and most iconic river. They offer a wealth of architecture, culture and historical drama in their own right. Each is accessible and easy to get around, and they all have distinctive characters.
Orleans, the most easterly of the four, is also closest to Paris, barely an hour from the capital even without the help of a TGV. These days it is the capital of France's Centre region but you don't need to spend much time there to see how attached the city is to earlier, more glorious times. The object of this interest, bordering on an obsession, is the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc - actually born in Lorraine, but cherished here more than anywhere.
One of a number of powerful and controversial women whom the Loire Valley seems to have attracted, Joan was only 17 when, in 1429, she led the French forces against the English army who were laying siege to Orleans. Apparently inspired by her personal bravery, the French were victorious and the city was saved. The legacy of her myth is there for all to see in the Rue and Place Jeanne d'Arc, her statue (in the Place du Martroi) and the house where she stayed, albeit briefly, which has been reconstructed and made into a museum.
You can also follow her story, or a version of it, in the stained glass windows of the cathedral and enjoy les ftes johanniques - the week-long celebrations which take place every year in the first week of May, when a local girl, not necessarily a maid, I'm told, is chosen to play the part of Joan.
For a flavour of real life in Orleans, stroll down the Rue de la Republique (becoming the Rue Royale) with its elegant and upmarket shops or the more atmospheric Rue de Bourgogne, where you'll find the restaurants and the nightlife. This was once the main street of the Gallo-Roman town which grew up here after Caesar destroyed the original Celtic settlement . The city centre suffered serious bomb damage in the Second World War, but it still boasts a number of historic buildings, chief amongst them being the cathedral of Sainte- Croix.
Highly decorated, with some extremely fine and delicate stonework, it was built between the 13th and 19th centuries and is the dominant feature of Orleans. Next door to the cathedral, in a misleadingly unremarkable building. is the city's other must-see attraction for visitors: Le Musee des-Beaux Arts. Its main collections are French from the 17th and 18th century but there are also many Dutch, Flemish and Italian canvasses and (in the basement) a number of interesting 20th-century works by Picasso and Braque amongst others.
Fifty kilometres downstream from Orleans is the much smaller city of Blois. Approach it from the south to appreciate fully appreciate this "amphitheatre on the Loire" as the 19th-century painter, Turner, described the dramatic spectacle of the old town high on its two hills. One is dominated by the cathedral, the other by the chateau. Closer at hand, modern Blois provides nothing to write home about until you reach the steep streets and alleyways leading up to the old town and its crowning glory, the chateau. More than one chateau, in fact, because each of the four imposing and contrasting wings is from a different period, reflecting its importance as France's principal royal residence for nearly two centuries, until Henri IV moved the royal court to Paris in 1598.
Among the must-see features are the Salle des tats, a gothic hall which has survived from the 13th Century, and the massive spiral staircase in an octagonal tower. The most intriguing room, though, is the study where Catherine de Medicis kept her jewels, papers and, it is …