Archive for July, 2012

I first heard of Loire Valley a year and a half ago from a classmate who had studied abroad and visited.  As soon as he said it was a beautiful region full of chateaus, I was sold.  Aside from just seeing the chateaus, another thing I had really wanted to try at least once in my life was a multi-day bike tour.  So a few internet searches later, I found myself booking a 2 day self guided bike tour through Loire Valley with Detours de Loire.  While I really wanted to book the 4 day tour since it would allow us to bike to the major chateaus, I’m really glad that the hubs insisted on the shorter tour.  My butt totally did not want to get back on that bike the second day so I can imagine how painful it would have been on the 3rd and 4th day!

As a compromise, I ended up booking a full day Loire Valley Castle minibus tour to make sure we got to visit all the major chateaus that I’ve read so much about.  It was the best decision ever since it was a small group of just 8 people, we got to spend approximately 1-1.5 hours on our own at each chateau, and our driver was extremely nice and informative.  We then went on our 2 day bike tour and got to visit the smaller and in my opinion, more charming chateaus completely on our own time and with the added benefit of very little crowds (partly due to the scattered showers).

For those of you contemplating visiting Loire Valley, here’s our itinerary to help you plan out your visit.

Day 1 – Arrive in Tours by train from Paris.  Tours was a great base for exploring Loire Valley.  It’s one of the larger cities in Loire Valley so there’s plenty of restaurants, unique shops, and charming architecture to keep you occupied for a day or two.  **Tip: stay in a hotel close to the train station** We stayed at Hotel De L’Europe which was right across from the train station, 1 block from the tourist office where all the tours depart from, and 2 blocks from the Detours de Loire bike shop.  It’s small and bare bones but economical and most importantly convenient.

Day 2 – Full day castle sightseeing.  Visited Chateau de Chenonceau, Chateau de Chambord, Chateau de Cheverny, and had a choice of either Chateau d’Amboise or the Clos Luce gardens, with lunch in Amboise.

Day 3 – Start of bike tour in Tours.  Visited Chateau de Villandry and then biked to Azay-le-Rideau for overnight stay.  The hotel that Detours de Loire booked us in was a 2* hotel, although seemed more like a boutique hotel, and it was absolutely charming!  Azay-le-Rideau is a very small village but oozes countryside charm.  I highly recommend staying at Hotel de Biencourt and having dinner at Cote Cour which was just a few storefronts away from the hotel.  The restaurant had a daily menu based on seasonal ingredients and the staff was extremely friendly and attentive.

Day 4 – Visit Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau.  Bike to Chateau d’Usse and end bike tour in Chinon.  **Tip: Make sure to spend a few hours in Chinon, a beautifully preserved medieval village**

Okay, so now to the good stuff!  Loire Valley is chock full of chateaus and it can be difficult to narrow down so I’ll post pictures of each chateau and my general thoughts on each one.

Chateau de Chenonceau, aka ‘the ladies chateau’ due to the women who’ve influenced the architecture and surrounding gardens.  It has an interesting history of first being bequeathed by King Henri II to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and then forcibly taken away from her by his widow Catherine de Medici.  As such there are two gardens on the grounds, named for each of the ladies, beautifully maintained and offers great views of the enchanting castle.  This castle is one of the most famous in Loire Valley and is certainly one of the prettiest.  The interior is also well maintained and offers a glimpse of 16th century life.  I particularly enjoyed viewing the kitchen.

Clos Luce is most famous for being the residence where Leonardo da Vinci stayed for the last few years of his life.  Not so much a chateau as it is a mansion, the main draw is really the garden full of da Vinci’s inventions.  The basement showcases miniature models  of da Vinci’s various mechanical machines, which are then reproduced full scale in the gardens.  The hubs and I really enjoyed seeing how each machine worked and some of them were even interactive.  It was also full of families as the kids really loved running around to all of the structures.  It really brought out the inner nerd and inner kid in all of us!

 Chateau de Chambord is probably the most recognized chateau in Loire Valley and certainly the grandest of them all.  The size of the chateau was just absolutely immense.  We had about an hour to tour it and I don’t even think we went to every room.  Not that we really wanted to since the inside was quite bare.  Apparently the chateau was used mainly as a hunting lodge when the King would travel through in the summer.  As such, the interiors were decorated minimally since the King’s party would travel with all the furnishings.  Nonetheless, the exterior really is quite magnificent and impressive so no trip to Loire Valley would be complete without visiting this chateau.

 Chateau de Cheverny is a stately home owned and still inhabited by a Marquis and his family.  Although much smaller than the other chateaus, this elegant home is warmer, meticulously decorated, and just feels like the home of a wealthy family.  Since the family still lives there, the entire staff, from the grounds keeper to the tour guides, have been interviewed by the Marquis.  Another interesting and fun fact, the creator of “The Adventures of Tintin” used this chateau as a model for the chateau in the series.  One of the outhouses even has a gallery of Tintin artwork.  The family also breeds hounds used for hunting so the grounds has a kennel of over 100 hounds!

Sadly here is where I lost all my pictures so the following pictures have been taken from the internet.  Sources below pictures.

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Chateau and gardens of Villandry is most known for the gardens.  The gardens really are vast and magnificent.  There’s multiple sections of meticulously groomed flower and vegetable gardens, a water garden, a sun garden, and even a children’s maze.  You can spend a good hour just walking and admiring the beautiful gardens and the view from the chateau overlooking the garden is just breathtaking.

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Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau was also unexpected for me.  I did not have this on my “must-see” list so I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed visiting this fairytale-like castle.  It’s one of the smaller chateaus but it’s one of the more enchanting ones being situated on the water amidst a dreamy wooded area.

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Chateau d’Usse is known as the inspiration and model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  Unfortunately out of all the chateaus, I liked this the least.  Maybe because it was the last castle we saw and by then we were just castled-out but while the exterior was pretty enough, it was just not impressive compared to the others.  The interior however was the most disappointing.  It was rather cheesy as they used mannequins to depict scenes of daily life and they even depicted scenes from Sleeping Beauty.

While there are many more chateaus in the region, I felt that the full day tour plus the bike tour really gave us a good taste of Loire Valley.  We managed to cover all the major chateaus as well as visit some lesser known ones.  The bike tour also gave us the opportunity to stop by little villages along the Loire River.  While the bike trail was mostly flat, we rode approximately 40 miles per day so you do have to be in fairly good shape in order to enjoy yourself.  Over the 4 days, we also had the opportunity to visit Tours, Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, and Chinon, all of which are charming in their own way and warrant a brief visit.

Lastly, while I don’t regret booking the bike tour through Detours de Loire (they provided quality bikes, helmets, guide maps and recommendations of sites and restaurants, hotel, and luggage transfers), it is possible to bike on your own for much less since the bike path through Loire Valley is well marked (La Loire a Velo).  The only thing to worry about would be luggage but that can be easily remedied if you backpack lightly.

Up next, Paris!

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Paris, Je t’aime

No phrase sums up our trip more than this one.  Seriously, the hubs and I felt as though we left our hearts in Paris.  We had the most amazing vacation, one that was full of delicious food, romantic walks, and beautiful sights.  It’s been about a month and half since we’ve been back and we’re already hatching a plan to go again (Paris in the winter anyone?)!

There’s so much I want to tell you guys so I’ve decided to do 4 separate posts: Loire Valley, Paris sights, Paris FOOD!, and general tips and advice.  Also, the one sad part of our trip, besides the day we left of course, is that I only have 1/3 of the pictures I took.  Unfortunately our memory card became corrupted towards the end of our trip so most of my posts will have a combination of my own photos and images I find on the web.

a bientot!

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