It was another bitterly cold day when we jumped in the car to visit Tours with my mum, who flew from Australia to spend a couple of weeks with us here in France. What this means is all the trees and flowers have shed their leaves, and with grey skies common, the cities and towns are devoid of much colour. Especially when you consider almost all of the buildings in France are a white or creamy colour. And there are far fewer people out on the streets enjoying cafes, shopping and tourist sites, subsequently killing much of the buzz that often makes a place so appealing.
Despite Tours not being at its best during our visit, we could tell it was a really attractive city. If you’re going to visit and have a look around, one day is enough, although another day or two will give you a chance to visit the Loire Valley as well. Even though our feet were frozen and our faces were numb from the moment we emerged from the underground car park in the centre of the city, we managed to see much of what the place has to offer.
Situated in the heart of the Loire Valley, Tours is an important city in the history of the country. According to information found on the tourist map it was the birthplace of the French language, and the locals are said to speak the ‘purest’ form of French in the whole country. I wonder if that’s a bit like saying the residents of Dubbo speak the ‘purest’ form of Australian English, or if it’s a little more refined than that?
It’s famous for its many bridges that cross the Loire River, and is a member city of the European Grand Prix for Choral Singing, if you’re into that sort of thing!
Cathédrale St. Gatien
This place is seriously old, with construction on this Roman Catholic Cathedral starting in 1170 and finishing in 1547. Now I know it’s a big place, but almost 400 years to build a cathedral seems a long time to me. I can only assume it was built by the local council for sure! As with most cathedrals like this it was very impressive on the inside, but once you’ve seen one massive cathedral, you’ve seen them all. A gross generalisation I know, but I stand by it.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Another beautiful building virtually next door to the Cathédrale St. Gatien that used to be the Bishop’s palace. We didn’t go in because we’re not really art gallery people, but we did wander around the grounds which are very impressive. As you enter through the main gate there’s a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon tree that was planed by Napoleon himself, and just beyond is a lovely manicured lawn with sculpted bushes. In the building just in front of the museum is an enormous stuffed elephant that went mad during a circus parade in the streets of Tours in 1902. Fritz (that was his name) was shot and killed and now takes pride of place for all eternity here for people to see. The museum has over 12,000 works in its collection, including several paintings classed as masterpieces.
Château de Tours
This castle was built in the 11th century and was a residence of the Lords of France. As some stage in its history it was used as an aquarium, housing about 1,500 fish featuring around 200 different species, until the early 2000’s! Today it’s home to contemporary exhibitions of paintings and photographs, so as you can probably guess by now, we didn’t go in!
Hôtel de Ville and Place Jean Jaurès
The Town Hall is a truly beautiful building, easily the most beautiful building in Tours, and is up there with the best I’ve seen. I’m not sure why because there’s nothing about it to suggest it’s one of the great architectural feats of history, but given it’s setting in front of the Place Jean Jaurès and the detailed features, it really did appeal to me. Apparently it was designed to evoke a Parisian feel, and for what it’s worth I think it succeeds.
The Rue Nationale is the main shopping street in Tours and reminded me a lot of Bordeaux given its colour and width. It’s a 700m stretch of road with the northern end pedestrian and public transport only. Flanking either side of the entrance to Rue Nationale at Place Jean Jaurès are the Hôtel de Ville and the Palais de Justice buildings. The Palais de Justice building contains the Court of First Instance, the District Court, and the Juvenile Court.
The Old Town
I must admit the original medieval district called le Vieux Tours was a little disappointing if I’m going to be honest. As far as Old Town’s go, I’ve seen way better. The half-timbered buildings were quite impressive, and you can tell la Place Plumereau, a central square surrounded by pubs and restaurants, would get pretty busy in the warmer months. But from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, it’s rather forgettable!
With an extensive TGV rail system and highways leading you to all points of the country including Paris, Bordeaux and the Mediterranean Coast, to visit Tours is easy if you want to spend a day or two here. All of the sights of the Loire Valley are within easy reach, and the brand new (2013) tram system makes getting around town very easy.
We’d like to get back during warmer months, but unfortunately that won’t be happening during this visit to France as we’re heading home in April. But we highly recommend spending a day to visit Tours and another day or two using it as a base to explore the Loire Valley.
Take a look through our photogallery below to get a clearer picture of what Tours looks like in the winter…