Nestling between two rivers, the Loire (to the north) and the Cher (to the south), Tours is ideally situated for a daytrip from Paris or a longer stay as a launch pad for visiting the castles of the Loire valley or the pretty town of La Rochelle. If you take the TGV (fast train) from Montparnasse station in Paris, you will find yourself in what is known as “The Garden of France” (because of the city’s many parks) in just over an hour. A slower (and cheaper) train leaves from the Gare d’Austerlitz.
Tours’ inhabitants pride themselves on the purity of their spoken French, and certainly, if you are given to eavesdropping on people’s conversations (strictly as a student of the French language, of course!), you may well be delighted by the clarity of the local accent and the relative lack of slang. One of the great French novelists and masters of the French language, Honoré de Balzac, was born in Tours and set a number of his works there, so carrying a couple of his novels (as heavy as they may be) around with you will do no end of good to your Tours street cred!
The undoubted cultural highlights of the city are the cathedral and the art museum (both of which lie to the immediate north of the train station).
The present cathedral was begun in the 12th century but not completed until the 15th, which explains its Gothic grandeur. The 13th-century stained-glass windows are stunning, especially the one depicting the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. A cloister from the early Renaissance, which can also be visited (for €3), includes an old library (with very poor reproductions of illuminated manuscripts) and a copyists’ room. It is worth paying the price just to get interesting views of the cathedral and the chance to inspect some of the many gargoyles at close quarters.
The Musée des Beaux Arts, housed in magnificent grounds right next to the cathedral, with a huge cedar tree planted by Napoleon, is a must for all art lovers. The permanent collection has many impressive works by Monet, Rodin, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Rubens, Mantegna and others.
The medieval district of Tours has many restaurants, and if the weather is good, go to the Place Plumereau, where there is plenty of space to lunch or dine outdoors. The nearby Rue Colbert also boasts a wide variety of restaurants. If you wish to stay the night, there are many hotels to choose from. The three star Central Hôtel on the quiet Rue Berthelot is housed in a particularly attractive mansion.
Tours lends itself well to outdoor living: benches line the banks of the River Loire, and the attractive parks all over the city have plenty of seating. Why not settle down with a Balzac novel on a bench overlooking the Loire and enjoy the gentle pace of this beautiful city?
Musée des Beaux Arts: 18, place François Sicard. 37000 Tours. Tel.: 02 47 05 68 73. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed November 1 and 11, Christmas Day and New Year’s Dady. Admission: €4 (free the first Sunday of the month). Exhibition through January 12.