Tours is described by the Lonely Planet as ‘a smart, solidly bourgeois kind of place’. I wasn’t entirely sure what the guide book meant but upon our arrival, it became clear. Around 200km east of Nantes, the city of Tours is filled with wide boulevards, picturesque piazzas and up-market shops. As soon as we saw the grand Hotel de Ville, we knew Tours was indeed a bourgeois kind of place.
For a city I’d never heard of previously, Tours provided a very pleasant stop-off on our travels from London to the Dordogne in southern France at the end of July. With the likes of Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Biarritz within reach, it’s a practical place to stay halfway down France for those travelling south.
Located between the rivers Loire and Cher, Tours is in the province of Touraine. Known for its good food and purely spoken French language there’s good reason to linger in the area.
We travelled there in one day from west London. Getting the Eurotunnel from Folkestone at around 10am, we arrived in Tours for 5pm. That left us around 250 miles to cover the next day to reach our destination near Bergerac in southern France.
Originally a Gallic settlement, the Romans took over in the 1st century AD. An important figure in the city’s history was Saint Martin who was its bishop during the 4th century. Once a Roman solider, he chose to follow his religious path after seeing a vision of Christ. It followed an incident where he cut his cloak in half to share with a naked beggar. As a Roman soldier he would not have been encouraged to mingle with the locals. This act of Christian compassion has made him a popular figure.
His shrine put Tours on the route of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It became a thriving centre during the Middle Ages. The battle of Tours just outside the city in 732 is cited as a turning point in the Christian fight against the Moors. The French, under Charles Martel, were victorious and helped to preserve Christianity in Western Europe.
What did we do?
Arriving late afternoon with our two children, we headed straight out. We soon spied the magnificent Hôtel de Ville which is opposite the (just as impressive) Palais de Justice. The fountains outside each of the buildings gave them an extra grandiose flair.
Of course there was a carousel – a pink one at that. My daughter was delighted.
There was also a big wheel there when we visited in July.
We fuelled up at a nearby brassiere and enjoyed the late evening sun.
The next morning we spent a couple of hours looking around Tours before embarking on the rest of our journey to southern France. Tours’ medieval centre and its half-timbered housing was the first area in our sights.
It was there we came across two contrasting sights. We encountered a ‘hole-in-the-wall pizza place (although resisted trying it out).
A few streets away is the Basilica of St Martin. It houses the relics of the famous Tours resident. Built in 1862, it replaced the original building which suffered heavy damage during the Wars of Revolution and French Revolution. Inside, there’s a small museum with artefacts from the original church
The only remaining building from the original St Martin church is the north tower, the Tour Charlemagne. It stands across the road from the new basilica and gives some idea of how big the original building would have been. Consecrated in 818, my daughter’s eyes opened wide when I explained that some of the building was over one thousand years old.
Tours’ centre piece is its cathedral. I could have stared at its show-stopping Gothic facade for a long time. Dedicated to Saint Gatian, the first bishop of Tours, it is a bit of a mishmash of styles. The lower sections of the towers are from the 12th century (so are Romanesque) the tops are Renaissance while the rest is from the 15th century (Gothic).
The cathedral is no less spectacular inside, giving the ‘wow’ factor as I walked in. Adding to the ambience were two female singers practising a sweet duet which resonated around the religious building. The 13th century stained glass windows glistened and we marvelled at the towering ceiling.
It is no wonder a number of French monarchs are entombed within the cathedral. A fitting, regal resting place. We were very glad we made the time to visit.
With that, our short trip to Tours was over and we returned to our car and continued our journey to the Dordogne. A great stopover en route to southern France or northern Spain.
Tours is known as the ‘Garden of France’ due to its numerous open spaces. Its 19th century botanical garden has tropical greenhouses and a petting zoo. The Musee des Beaux-Arts has a number of high profile artist’s works such as Monet, Rubens and Rembrandt. Of course Tours is surrounded by vineyards. Take a wine tour out of Tours and taste what the Loire valley has to offer. If you want some more history (or a more family-friendly activity), the area is dotted with magnificent castles to explore.
We stayed at the Mercury hotel close to the railway station which had an underground car park. It had a large room and it served us well for our one night stay.