ANY trip to the Loire is sure to be spontaneous, because it's not hard to miss a key turn on a back road. You'll see chateaux that aren't on maps, some of which are open for visits and worth a stop.
Here are a few worth aiming for:
Chenonceaux: A pearl-white beauty spanning the Cher River, developed and protected by some of the shrewdest and most renowned women of their day. Rivals Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medicis were the most celebrated, but pick up a postcard of Louise Dupin, a woman of such outstanding goodness that local peasants protected her chateau from the destruction that wasted many others during the French Revolution.
Amboise: A royal chateau with a rich and violent history. Note the portrait of Abd el-Kader, an Algerian resistance leader held here from 1848-52. Guides point out distinctions between Gothic and Renaissance features that are helpful in visiting other chateaux.
Blois: Heavily restored, but it gives some sense of richly decorated 16th-century interiors. Of special interest is the feudal hall of the counts of Blois, where the French Estates General met from 1576-88. Note the seating arrangement in a splendid engraving displayed in this hall, for this is a precursor of the French parliament.
Chateaux in the raw: As you drive, you'll notice houses, hotels, and restaurants built into the white limestone cliffs alongside riverbanks. An especially beautiful example is the Manoir de la Salle du Roc., a bed-and-breakfast in Bourre, built into cliffs that once provided the stone for Chenonceaux. The caves have since housed silk worms, mushrooms, and now tourists. Hector, the resident basset hound, will lead tours of these caves with very little encouragement.
* For travel information, contact: Comite Departemental du Tourisme de Touraine, 9, rue Buffon, F. 37032 Tours CEDEX, France