For many of us who grew up captivated by Old World legends of knights and princesses and exemplary deeds of valor, Europe possesses a special fairy-tale quality -- a view not the least bit dimmed by the realization, with age, that many of these noble heros and heroines tended to be more rapacious than honorable.

Ah well, so all kings were not kingly nor queens queenly; we come to expect such disappointments in human nature. But their castles are an altogether different matter. Europe is full of ancient castles as majestic as we dreamed them: Appropriately, they command the horizon with an array of turrets and towers, and though the moat may long ago have disappeared, most still sport a good drawbridge.

Few places in Europe offer the romantic dreamer as many of these fine old castles in such close proximity as the Loire Valley of France. The "Cha teaux of the Loire" -- more than 15 major castles (open to the public) along a 150-mile stretch of the wide river and its tributaries -- are justifiably famous, in large part, I suspect, because they bring to life our childhood fantasies.

Each has its individuality: The castle at Saumur soars above the city, a gleaming white-stone monument that rivals France's cathedrals in its lofty elegance. The castle at Angers is a massive and forbidding fortress, ringed by an impressively deep moat -- you easily recognize its defensive capabilities, though it's now drained and planted with formal gardens. Usse', sitting high on a country hillside, is an authentic fairy-tale castle; its jumble of charming towers and chimneys is said to have been the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty's castle. Believers can climb the spiraling stone steps to her bedchamber.

Though the castles are the principal draw for tourists to the Loire Valley, about a two-hour drive southwest of Paris, they are only part of a visit. The Loire region is rich in all the delights of travel in Europe: cozy inns, fine food, good wines, quiet roads, intriguing villages, gorgeous flower gardens and a lovely pastoral scenery filled with perfect picnic spots.

And, of course, it has a compelling history, which is why so many castles are found in the valley. It is a story both romantic and bloodthirsty, peopled with such immediately recognizable figures as Joan of Arc; Richard the Lionhearted of England and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (portrayed a few years back in all of her shrewd abilities by Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter"); as well as an army of assorted other kings and queens, seemingly always scheming for love or power.

Prehistory in the Loire is represented by dolmens, strange stone monuments the size of a small house that you can come upon in a field. Some ancient beings raised these boulders upright to form the walls, topping them with a giant flat stone as the roof. The one we found outside a village near Tours had been commandeered by a group of chattering schoolgirls enjoying the sun from the vantage of the dolmen's high roof.

The Romans were in the Loire, too, of course, and much evidence of their stay remains. Some of the older cha teaux were built on the sites of what originally were Roman forts.

Richard the Lionhearted made his name centuries later. He was a Plantagenet, a family whose roots were in Anjou, a region of the Loire, but who came also to rule England from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Richard died in the Loire in 1199 defending his French lands, and his tomb can be seen at the beautiful Abbey of Fontevraud near Saumur. His father, England's Henry II (Peter O'Toole in the movie), and Eleanor, who had retired to Fontevraud, are entombed there also.

Richard's successor, the notorious Bad King John of Robin Hood tales -- the same one who signed the English Magna Carta -- managed to lose much of the family's French possessions in his reign. Subsequent English rulers attempted to regain them in a series of battles waged from 1337 to 1453 on French soil that became known as the Hundred Years' War.

In that contest, the year 1429 was critical for the French. Paris had fallen; much of northern France was in English hands; and the French rulers had withdrawn to the Loire. Then Joan of Arc appeared, seeking command of an army from Charles VII. At its head, she marched through the Loire Valley to free Orle'ans. It was the spark that brought ultimate victory to the French.

You can stand now on the narrow street in the quaint town of Chinon, under the shadow of Charles' hilltop castle, where, according to legend, Joan is supposed to have stepped from her horse when she arrived to meet him. It's a story you want to believe, and so you do.

The Loire is France's longest river, flowing more than 600 miles from the mountains in the southeast to the Atlantic Coast of Brittany in the northwest. The heart of the cha teau country is the stretch of the Loire from Orle'ans to Angers, a landscape of soft green hills and broad fields, where the river runs wide and mostly gentle.

The region is called "The Garden of France," and agricultural abundance is everywhere evident. Pears and asparagus are among the notable crops of the fertile soil; but the most dramatic is the giant yellow sunflower, great fields of them, grown for the oil from their seeds, dancing in splendid unison in the lazy breeze of a summer afternoon.

The earliest of the region's cha teaux, built in medieval times, are fortresses, which provided protection from attack. The later cha teaux were hunting lodges and pleasure palaces, some quite lovely and surrounded by elaborate formal gardens, designed when their owners felt more secure. The finest of the cha teaux were built during the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the wars with England had ceased (though strife was rarely absent from the Loire).

Many of them are huge, built to house a royal court that moved from one to another frequently, packing along most of the furnishings. Guides tell you that these travels weren't undertaken because the nobility enjoyed them, but because they and their retinue made such a mess of a place, they had to move on so the servants could clean up.

In a sense, these cha teaux, many of which have been restored, are still the scene of mass migrations, as packs of loaded tour buses from Paris descend first on one and then another. But the cha teaux were built for crowds, and absorb them well. As Adam Nicolson aptly observes in his guide "Long Walks in France":

". . . to hope for solitude at any of these cha teaux would be a mistake . . . Look on the sweaty cha teaux waiting rooms and their murmured conversations as historical experiences -- a means of entering the crowded life of the Renaissance, where privacy was practically unknown and scarcely desired . . ."

There are many ways to see the cha teaux. You can take one of the many guided bus tours, lasting from a couple of days to a week or two. You can rent a car and ramble at your own speed. The more athletic cycle the relatively flat back roads of the valley, on their own or with a guided group. There also are horseback tours of the Loire. Or you can walk, as Nicolson suggests. That is what we did, joining a 15-day guided walking tour of the Loire offered by a British travel firm.

A not-too-strenuous walk of 10 to 15 miles a day took us by road and path through sun-dappled woods and along the Loire and its tributaries -- the Cher, Indre and Vienne -- to many of the major cha teaux. On foot, we rarely visited more than one castle a day, so that we did not grow tired of them. As with rich desserts, it is wise not to overindulge in ancient buildings, even fairy-tale ones.

In some castles visitors are permitted to wander the interior at will; these I particularly enjoyed, because I carried a couple of good guidebooks with me and could move at my own pace. A rare few had English-speaking guides; the guide at Blois was particularly good at putting life into the castle's chilly rooms. She pointed out the figure of a salamander carved in woodwork and stone. Thought to be resistant to fire and thus invincible, the salamander was the emblem of Francis I, who succeeded to the French throne in 1515. It also, she added, represented "his ardor in bed," an insight the guidebooks failed to offer.

At other castles, unfortunately for non-French speakers, the guides spoke only in their native tongue, and you could not enter the rooms unless you tagged along with them. Eventually, I stopped going on these, in part because they were tedious but also because I came to believe that the real glory of the castles is from without.

Some, like Villandry and Chenonceau, sit in the midst of magnificent gardens. Blois, Chinon, Chaumont and Saumur occupy the heights above the city, with commanding views of the Loire Valley. Chambord is fantasy for the eyes, a 440-room oddity topped, so the guidebooks say, with 365 ornate chimneys. You circle the grounds trying to take in the sight from every angle.

Visitors can plot their own route through the Loire Valley with little difficulty, heading up river or down and touring the castles that catch their fancy. But four of them, I think, should be on everyone's itinerary: Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau and, for its gardens, Villandry.

You come upon Chambord rather suddenly, an apparition at the end of a tunnel formed by branches arching over the entrance road. It is startling both in its huge size, its creamy white color (from a local stone) and that profusion of chimneys. It's not a beautiful structure, but it certainly is interesting.

It was ordered begun in 1519 by Francis I, he of the salamander motif, as what surely must be the largest hunting lodge anywhere. The cha teau sits even now in the midst of a 14,000-acre game reserve bordered by a 20-mile wall. Wild boar roam the deepest woods of the park, and there are viewing platforms to watch them feeding at dawn and dusk.

Francis lived for almost three more decades, and that is about how long it took to complete the building. His successors found it cold, uncomfortable and too expensive to maintain, and their regal presence was rare. They passed it around to loyal lieutenants.

You can roam the castle on your own -- through the oversized rooms -- and fully appreciate how hard it must have been to heat. Its principal artistic feature is a magnificent double-spiral grand staircase that rises four stories. The guidebooks tell you that two people, each climbing one of the spirals simultaneously, will not meet as they circle past one another. Of course, we tested this, and the guides are accurate.

The grand stairway leads to the imposing rooftop terrace, the castle's other big attraction. You can encircle the rooftop, just beneath the chimneys, to take in the broad views of the castle grounds and the surrounding forests and fields beyond.

We stayed two nights in Chambord at the Hotel du Grand Saint-Michel, a pleasant country inn (a fine quail with grapes for dinner) just across the road from the entrance walkway to the castle. The Cosson, a Loire tributary, flows alongside the inn after passing under a gracefully arched stone bridge.

The inn's cafe' terrace is a wonderful place to sip a glass of wine, soak up images of Chambord and watch the tourists from around the world, who all seem to share a bemused look at what they are seeing.

Chenonceau, down the valley a short way, is as lovely (and petite) as Chambord is grandiose. It is the famous cha teau, the one most photographed, that sits across the River Cher, reaching from one bank to the other. Surrounded by water, it looks like a palatial houseboat that might one day hoist anchor and sail away.

The main structure occupies a foundation rising from the water close to one shore. There is also a two-story wing, the gallery, that rests atop a long bridge that reaches to the opposite shore. Fronting the castle are two very formal flower gardens; behind it, across the Cher, is a thick forest backdrop. This 10-room castle is designed for pleasant living.

Completed in 1524, it was given by France's Henry II in 1547 to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. But on Henry's death, his widow, Catherine de' Medici, a woman of formidable power, ousted Diane and moved in herself. It was she who had the gallery constructed across the Cher. Jealousy may have inspired her action, but the addition is beautiful.

Within, the first floor is one long room, a cheery, sunlit place graced with tall windows. Wood benches line the walls, and it is pleasant to sit a moment, listening to a baroque melody from some hidden speaker. On whatever side of the gallery you choose to sit, the view is of the river.

A well-kept 150-acre park surrounds the castle, which you approach on foot down a long avenue of shade trees. The village of Chenonceaux (spelled, unlike the castle, with an "x") is just outside the park boundary. It is a tourist center, but discreetly so, with several good inns.

We stayed at the attractive Hotel du Bon Laboreur in the center of the village in a room that overlooked the inn's own extensive vegetable and flower garden. In the morning, I could watch the housekeepers cutting large bouquets for the lobby; later in the day, the kitchen staff in chefs toques plucked lettuce, tomatoes, berries and other goodies for our dinner.

The castle of Azay-le-Rideau, west of the city of Tours, also rises from the water, its foundations resting in the River Indre. And like Chenonceau, it is a castle of human dimensions -- really more a graceful summer house than a formidable seat of the realm.

It was completed in 1529, built by a wealthy financier in the reign of Francis I. But he fell into disfavor and fled into exile. Francis seized the castle and gave it to an aide.

A small park encircles the castle, and if you are not in a hurry, this is a quiet place to relax for a while, writing postcards, studying a guidebook or daydreaming of the pageantry of a bygone age. At nightfall, that pageantry comes alive in an elaborate "sound and light" show, in which costumed actors sail up the river while others pop out from the windows.

The castle is located on the edge of Azay, another small tourist village that retains its charm despite the throngs of sightseers. Our hotel here, the Hotel Du Grand Monarque, was particularly friendly and cozy. It also offered the special attraction of a huge pet boar, raised from infancy, which usually was sleeping in its small hut out back.

We stopped at nearby Villandry not to see the castle, which is impressive, but the large Renaissance gardens found within its walls. They are designed to reflect what the gardens may have looked like when Villandry was completed in 1536 as a residence for another of Francis' aides.

The gardens are laid out on three terraces. The most beautiful is the flower terrace, ablaze with bright colors in late summer. The most delightful is the vegetable garden, arranged as a work of art. Clusters of white-leafed cabbage, asparagus with their leafy ferns and dozens of other fruits and vegatables are woven into intricate patterns.

On this day, we skipped the castle interior to snap photos of each other sitting under an ornamental pear tree or framed by a delicate bouquet of carrot tops.

A visitor really should be selective about the cha teaux and not try to fill each day visiting several. There is so much else to see and do.

For art, there's the remarkable Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers. Originally 550 feet long (pieces are missing), it was woven in Paris between 1375 and 1380 and is considered the oldest in existence. The tapestry's 70 large panels, displayed in a special building with- in the castle walls, tell an elo- quent story of challenge and hope.

Wine lovers can sample -- at countless tasting rooms -- the region's fine wines: Vouvray, Montlouis, Bourgueil, Chinon and rose' d'Anjou. Narrow, winding streets make exploring fun in the ancient towns of Amboise, Blois and Chinon, where heraldic banners fly from stone towers.

The Loire is fine picnic country -- for the food (bread, cheeses, fruit and wine) and the wonderful riverside settings. Every outdoor cafe' is a temptation, too, if only for a cup of coffee and a hot pear tart. I was charmed by the flower gardens in almost every yard on every step of the trip.

Really, it is a fairy-tale countryside.