‘That Was Good … Take a Picture of It”:
Jen and Jana’s
All-Eatin’, All-Drinkin’, No-Bikin’ Tour
of Paris and the Loire Valley, May 2002
Words by Jen
[My travel diary follows, and as usual, it’s not brief. If you just want to look at the pictures, click here. Otherwise, there are links in the text below to nearly all the pictures anyway, so you can look at them as you read. Hope you enjoy it. – Jen]
By now, the obligatory early morning start – up at 5.20 am for a 5.40 taxi, and at the airport for 6. We take off on time at 7 and it's an uneventful flight to Paris. Due to a date mixup, all our careful planning has let us down – Jana and I meant to arrive in Paris together (she coming from Montreal, me from Dublin) but as it turns out I’m arriving the day before her!
On arrival at the somewhat antiquated Terminal 1 of Charles “Vive le Quebec Libre” De Gaulle Airport (think acres of concrete and weird Sixties pod shapes), I follow Jana's instructions and seek out the Air France coach which gets me from the airport to Montparnasse railway station, not even a mile from our Paris hostel in the southwest part of the city. However, doing that 15-minute walk with a largish bag, even on wheels, I begin to feel the distance. I check into our spartan hostel, called Ma Maison, but as there is a lockout until 5 pm, I have to leave my bag in the lobby. So, no chance of a quick wash and change of clothes, then. Ah well.
I transfer my valuables to the hostel safe, repack my handbag with the day's essentials, then I'm off for a day around Paris on my own. First stop has gotta be lunch – have had nothing but a synthetic muffin (courtesy of Aer Lingus) to eat today. I hop on the Metro (the subway system) and head for the rue Mouffetard, and a lunch stop recommended by culinary travel guru Sandra Gustafson in her book Great Eats in Paris. Andrew and I tested her excellent dining recommendations while in Rome, so as soon as I knew I was coming to Paris, I snapped up her Paris guide toot sweet.
Getting off the Metro at Place Monge, I am met with the very agreeable sight of the Sunday market in the square. I have a quick wander through, looking at the appealing displays of flowers, fruit and veg and fresh fish. But my tummy's a growlin’, so it's off to prowl rue Mouffetard (a bit of a foodie's paradise) in search of Sandra's suggestion, L'Assiette aux Fromages. There's barely a soul in the place, but that's ok. I order, then tuck into one of their plateaux des fromages – there are five different themed cheese platters, but I don't feel terribly adventurous and so spring for the mild variety. I get to sample five types of cheese – don't ask what they were – but though four were very nice indeed, the fifth was horrendous. Blergh – tasted like it had been placed next to some sort of industrial solvent. Still, I just pushed it politely to the side. As accompaniments, there’s a green salad and some fresh walnuts, as well as the basket of Paris' famed pain Poilane (a dense sourdough bread). Now, I had been very much looking forward to tasting what is apparently deemed the finest loaf in France. Martha Stewart has sung its praises, and as a result Americans can apparently have loaves FedExed to them, same day from Paris, at a cost of US$45 per loaf! I can report that, while it was certainly good, I can't say my socks were knocked off. Guess I am either a culinary Philistine, or was just expecting too much. However, the lunch as a whole, washed down with a small pichet of the house white, was very agreeable indeed. One slice of tarte aux fraises later and I’m out the door – after no doubt having made the waiter very happy by leaving him a tip as I forgot that in France the service charge is always built into the price!
After lunch, a short stroll down the rue Mouffetard in the sunshine (it had been raining on my arrival, but it's now a lovely afternoon). Back to Place Monge, only to see the market closing down for the day at 2.30 pm – ah well. Back onto the Metro I go and my next stop is the Musée d'Orsay. Have been very much looking forward to this, as Andrew and I didn't visit it when we were last in Paris in 1997. It doesn't disappoint – it's a veritable Greatest Hits of Impressionism and Art Nouveau. As it's so rare for me to go to a gallery where I'm actually a fan of all the artistic styles on display, I have a lovely visit. Every room in the place has something amazing – here Degas' ballet dancers, there Van Gogh's The Starry Night, over here Renoir's Japanese bridge series. Plenty of room for the collection of Art Nouveau furniture and glass too – a few iridescent Tiffany pieces, but more emphasis on the French designers, which tend toward the creepier end of Art Nouveau. On display are two entire rooms panelled, furnished and decorated in Art Nouveau, but the designs are overwhelmingly plant-based and quite tortuous-looking. I don't think I could sit long in a room where the panelling looks as though at any moment it might come to life, reach out a tendril and grab you.
More weirdness to come in the exhibition galleries. I find myself in a temporary exhibition called The Last Portrait. As soon as I walk in, I realise what they mean by The Last Portrait – it’s the artistic depiction of the dead. Centuries-old paintings, sketches and death masks are all very well, but as the exhibit moves into the modern period I blunder into a small side room, missing the discreet sign at the door which says to beware the contents, which may shock. It's an entire room dedicated to the Victorian pastime of dressing up the dead and photographing them. I'm appalled – I know of this practice, but had never seen any examples before. Many are of older people, lying in their beds, looking as though they’re asleep – but of course they're not. Most horrible of all are the pictures of babies – mothers cradling their 'sleeping' infants or, even worse, the stiff little bodies of toddlers dressed up and lying in cots, meant to be 'sleeping' but looking as far from natural as possible. It's utterly ghoulish. I beat a hasty retreat.
I try indulging in a little retail therapy to settle my nerves, but it’s quite difficult. The museum is absolutely packed – I had to queue outside for half an hour to get in, and the crowds just kept coming afterwards. Not wanting to fight to look at art books, I decide to leave as it’s nearly 6 pm and the gallery is about to close anyway. As it's still a lovely bright evening, I take a stroll along the river past the Assemblée Nationale, the Invalides and down towards the Eiffel Tower. As I reach the Pont de l'Alma, I cross the river to see the flame statue, which is next to the road underpass where Princess Diana was killed. No plaque or any sort of memorial there, but all the walls and ledges in the area are covered in graffiti (and new graffiti at that), with messages to Diana. I stroll along reading them and finding it hard to believe it is nearly five years since she died. I still think about her a lot – foolish, I know, but there you are. I feel I've completed a sort of pilgrimage now, having also gone to Kensington Palace the day before her funeral, and a year later to her family home where she was buried.
By now my feet are starting to ache a bit so I hop on the Metro and head back to the hostel. I am finally allowed into my room, though as I’m here on my own tonight and they’ve no single rooms, I find myself in a hostel dorm for the first time ever! Not too bad though – it’s a private four-bed room, and I find I am sharing with three other girls (a bit of a relief as I wondered if the dorms might be mixed – didn't fancy the idea of tripping over some dodgy bloke on the way to the bathroom late at night). In true small-world traveller fashion, one girl is from Montreal, another is a student at St. Mary's in Halifax. All are much younger than me and I feel v. creaky and decrepit as they get dolled up and head out at 9 pm for a night on the town. But at least that gives me peace and quiet to write this diary, and get myself organized. V. sleepy, and windburnt (very gusty day here). In bed by 11 – Jana arrives tomorrow a.m.!
Up at 8 am, packed up my bags and cleared out of the dorm room for 9 am. Partook of the free breakfast downstairs – just coffee, hot chocolate, juice and baguettes with butter and jam, but tasty nonetheless. Then it's off to Montparnasse station to meet Jana's coach from the airport. I arrive for 10 am, the earliest I think she might arrive. Two hours and one very chilled Jen later, she finally arrives (she had a two-hour trip from the airport – due to roadworks). Great to see her at last. We haul her bags back to the hostel, and then strike immediately for the Louvre, which she is keen to see but which is closed tomorrow and Wednesday. So it’s gotta be ‘done’ today.
We arrive and get our tickets by about 2 pm, and spend about three hours visiting the various galleries. It’s my second time at the Louvre, but it's great fun to rediscover the place. Due to the lack of time, we do a kind of ‘greatest hits’ tour, making sure to take in the Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, etc. (and this marks the genesis of our tour theme: ‘There’s the [insert interesting sight here] – take a picture of it!’ Jana snaps away madly as the official photographer of this trip, and manages to plough through 18 rolls of film by the time we’re done…). However, we also try our best to seek out and appreciate some of the less-celebrated works in the Louvre as well. Jana is very impressed by it all, as am I – it's a wonderful museum, and beautifully organized and maintained. However, by 5.30, we are both beginning to flag, and after buying some postcards and other gifties, it's time to head out.
We try to find one of my favourite teashops in Paris, Angelina, for restorative beverages, but it turns out to be too far of a walk and we settle for a closer café instead. There we consume delicious, thick, sticky cups of soup-like hot chocolate and consult Sandra's Great Eats guide for our dinner. We decide to head back to the vicinity of our hostel and choose a Breton créperie called Ty Breiz. We get a bit lost trying to find it, but it's a pleasant evening and en route, we pass a lovely florist selling enormous bunches of fragrant lily of the valley (a sign of things to come – we find there are flower shops everywhere in France and they sell the most astonishing and unusual selection of flowers). We can't resist and get a posy of them for our room, sniffing them compulsively all evening. The crepérie turns out to be a wonderful choice. The Great Eats guide entitles us to a free kir Breton each (fruity and delicious – made with cider instead of white wine). For our main course, we have delicious buckwheat crepes filled with egg, cheese, mushrooms and ham, all washed down with a pichet of fiery Breton cider. Then it's on to the dessert crepes – mine with vanilla ice cream, cherries and whipped cream, and Jana's with apples, nuts and flaming Calvados (apple brandy). Gorgeous....and with a pot of fragrant, fresh mint tea to wind it up. Yum.
Jana is now fading fast – the jet lag is getting to her – so we wind our way back to the hostel and our own room. It's pretty small, but decent and most importantly, private and cheap, so we're not complaining. Another early night as it's been another busy day.
I'm up early, bound for the Central Bank of France (!) to exchange a sackful of franc coins for Andrew, collected as donations for the Dublin SPCA. Leaving Jana to sleep off her jet lag, I hop on the Metro and I get there by about 10 am. Unfortunately it's all far from straightforward. There is only one counter open to accept franc coins, and the guy in front of me in the queue has a grocery bag full – must be hundreds of euro worth – and none of it sorted or counted. So I sit there for about half an hour, waiting. Finally, as I’m about to give up, I'm seen and everything is worked out – good thing, as I was dammed if I was going to hump that sack of coins all the way back to Ireland.
As a result it's nearly 11.30 before I get back to the hostel to find Jana waiting in the lobby as the hostel has a lockout policy from 11 am to 5 pm...grumble. But it’s then back onto the Metro, to Montmartre, for a stroll about. We wander up and down the butte, studiously avoiding the main Place du Tertre with its hordes of 'artistes'. Montmartre, despite being a bit crass in places, still retains a charming feel, with lots of old stone houses, little winding streets and pretty gardens. We eventually stop for lunch at a super little place recommended by Sandra. It’s called Chez Claude et Nicole and at first glance, it's just a little hole in the wall. But a superb meal was had – we sampled three courses of traditional French cooking for a mere 11 euro. To start, Jana has a salad and I have a very nice turkey terrine. Next I enjoy some roast lamb while J. has succulent trout in a creamy dill sauce. Both are accompanied by fresh veg and tasty fried potatoes. For dessert J. partakes of the tarte des fraises while I have the pear tart baked in a creamy custard-like base. Both made in house, both delicious. All is washed down with a half-litre of the house white. Our waiter (who I think is Claude himself) is most amiable and, on discovering I’ve come from Dublin, asks if I’ve any Irish euro coins to exchange with him as his daughter is trying to collect a full set of all the euro coins issued by the various Eurozone countries. A girl after my husband’s own heart, it seems. I’m happy to oblige.
After lunch we amble slowly toward the Metro, stopping en route at a little boutique where we have espied lovely jewellery in the windows. We are both tempted to splash out on beautiful crystal necklaces – Jana’s in silvery-grey, mine with a more elaborate Art Nouveau design in pink and green, with butterflies and dragonflies attached to it. Next stop on the Metro is the Île de la Cité and the cathedral of Notre Dame. I’m happy to see that the façade is in full view – during our last visit to Paris, it was swathed in scaffolding. We visit the interior, but both of us agree that, while impressive, it is not the most spectacular cathedral interior we’ve ever seen (though the exterior certainly makes up for things). We walk in the cathedral cloister afterwards – J. snapping pix of the famed flying buttresses – and then we wander onto the Île St. Louis, popping our heads into various shops. We purchase posh comestibles at a v. fancy little food shop called L’Epicerie.
By now it’s about 5 pm and it’s time to hit one of Paris’ famed tea salons, so we head for a place called Mariage Frères (founded in the 18th century as a tea trading company, and home to France’s only Museum of Tea). It’s shockingly expensive – 6 euro for a pot of tea. However, on ordering one is presented with a ‘menu’ of hundreds of varieties. I have a pot of a particular Earl Grey blend which I am assured by the waiter is ‘le plus parfumé’, but frankly, I couldn’t discern any special qualities – the stuff I make at home with Twinings tea bags is just as good. J. enjoys her darjeeling though. Waiters are rather snooty – not to us, mind, but we notice them being a tad snippy with a woman at the next table. It’s our first experience of the famed French rudeness and we hope it’s not a sign of things to come. We end up really quite rushed, as the waiters are keen to remind us that the salon closes at 7 pm, and so we don’t enjoy the whole experience as much as we might have. I decide that Andrew will spring for this little indulgence as recompense for having exchanged his franc coins for him!
We get back on the Metro and make our way to the Pont de l'Alma as we have decided to take a night-time bateau mouche tour on the river. We buy tickets, then retire to a bar across the road for a glass of wine while waiting for the 8.30 pm sailing time. It’s quite an enjoyable trip – we cruise by all the major sites of Paris – but towards the end a strong wind picks up and we have to go down off the boat’s deck as we’re pretty cold. Nice to see all the Seine bridges and the Eiffel Tower lit up, though. The trip ends at about 9.30 pm and then it’s back on the Metro to the hostel.
It’s May Day (Labour Day in Europe) and we are spending the morning whipping around on the Metro so Jana can have a quick tour of the remaining Big Sights of Paris. First stop - the Eiffel Tower. Queues and more queues. Queues to buy a ticket, queues to go up on the lift to the top, queues to get down on the lift afterwards. Gotta be done, though. We battle a particularly pushy and obnoxious horde of Russian women. Jana doesn’t take terribly well to heights and clutches my shoulder in terror as we go up the glass-fronted lift – odd, then, that going up the Tower was her idea!! Still, can you go to Paris and say you looked at the Eiffel Tower, but didn’t bother going up it?
Next stop is the Place de la Concorde, site of the guillotine in the 1790s and home to various pieces of monumental statuary – and mad motorists – today. The aim here is to get some snaps and then take in another posh cup of tea at Ladurée, yet another famed Parisian tea salon – but we arrive to find the way locked and barred and a notice saying that their Champs Elysées branch is open. Grumble. However, to be expected – May Day is a national holiday in France and we’ve seen almost nothing open. So we decide to stroll the length of the Champs Elysées, which is hardly an unpleasant way to pass time. At this point, we decide we haven’t enough time to enjoy our tea properly as we’re planning to join a walking tour on the other side of the city at 2.30 pm, so we pop into one of the many small parks that dot Paris and munch upon the meagre provisions we have managed to purchase that morning – some oranges, and a packet of biscuits. While there are no picnic fixings to be had today, there are (oddly) people on every street corner selling posies of lily of the valley. We find out later that it is a tradition in France for men to give lilies of the valley to their lady loves on May Day – which is rather charming.
Afterwards, we make our way across the city on the Metro. The trains are a fearful sight – there are many protests in the city today in the run-up to this weekend’s presidential elections in France and the trains are packed with people going to the marches – both pro- and anti- LePen (the fascist nutter running against Jacques Chirac). Thankfully they all disgorge themselves at the Republique station so we make a mental note to take another Metro route home and avoid it.
By 2.30 we arrive at Père Lachaise station, to meet our tour guide. As a much-needed counter to all the art and architecture of the last few days, this afternoon we are taking a tour of the most famous cemetery in Paris, the nineteenth-century neo-Gothic Père Lachaise. We have a very enjoyable two and a half hours following our amiable guide about, as he explains the history of the cemetery and the area, and relays tales of the various famous people buried here – Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf and many, many others. The most famous resident, however, is Jim Morrison (of The Doors fame – not my father-in-law!). Apparently he’s the source of much grief for the cemetery officials, as they have had to start paying for a security guard to stand next to the grave and move along the wailing hordes of old hippies and college kids who come with plans to spend the afternoon sitting around the aforementioned Mr. Morrison’s tombstone, drinking beer and smoking dope. Visiting a cemetery may seem like a bit of an odd way to spend one’s Sunday (and indeed, there are a few Goth types, in white makeup and black capes, wandering about), but it’s all quite enjoyable. It transpires, however, that the scariest thing in the cemetery is not the dead, but the toilets. At the end of the tour Jana goes in search of the ladies and soon after throws a wobbly at the sight of her first ‘Turkish loo’ (for those not in the know, this is basically a porcelain-lined hole in the floor over which one squats and hopes for good aim). She mutters something about ‘not needing to go that bad’ and beats a hasty retreat.
With the tour over, we plan a route back to the Champs Elysées that is most likely to avoid the mad protestors. Given Jana’s sore feet and her wish to photograph the Arc de Triomphe, we decide to splash out and go to the conveniently-located Ladurée for dinner. En route we make a quick escape from one of the Metro stations as there is trouble on one of the trains – some sort of fight between protestors, it appears. We leave the station just as the police arrive; tensions are running high in Paris these days and we want to avoid this kind of thing at all costs. So we join the rest of the tourists at the Arc de Triomphe, just as a small military remembrance ceremony is ending. We have a stroll and Jana snaps away before the time comes for our Ladurée reservation. As it turns out it’s more expensive than we thought, with a 39 euro set menu, but we decide to go for it and make this our big splurge meal of the trip. For all that, it’s very good. I have asparagus to start, followed by delicious sea bass, and a slice of some sort of decadent chocolaty goodness for dessert, all washed down with a shared half-bottle of very nice rosé. We follow it up with a pot of the famed Ladurée tea, again at a cost of over 6 euro per pot, and as with Mariage Frères, find it thoroughly ordinary. Oh well – what do the French know about good tea, anyway? Still, it’s an enjoyable meal, served quite impeccably in a lovely dining room on the Champs Elysées, so that’s worth something. It’s quite late before we get back and collapse into bed – a very early start tomorrow.
Up at 5.30 am! Today is the day we head for the Loire, and we want to beat the traffic. We are at the Avis Rent-a-Car office in Montparnasse station by 6.45 a.m. With Jana at the wheel and me navigating, we manage to make it out of the city and onto the ring road that surrounds Paris by about 7.15 a.m. – but in taking the wrong exit off the motorway we end up having to turn around and go back practically to our starting point. It’s not an auspicious start, and costs us about an hour and a half. But the second time around we find the right exit, and from then on the driving is uneventful.
By 10.30 am we are making our first stop, in the town of Chartres to see its cathedral. We take an audio tour and marvel at its astonishing collection of medieval stained glass windows – I believe they are regarded as the finest in Europe and you don’t need to be a snooty art history type to see why. It’s a lovely start to the trip. We stop in the town to pick up lunch supplies – goat cheese, strawberries, a baguette, some juice – and then I take over the driving. Yeeg – am somewhat concerned as I have not driven a car regularly in about nine years. I’m also concerned that, after having driven a moped in Ireland for the past two years, I will wind up on the left side of the road. However, the highway is absolutely fine, and in excellent condition. We discover that this is true of every road we drive here in France – we don’t encounter a single pothole on the entire trip. Coming off the main highway, however, we discover why the country has such an excellent road system – it’s the tolls. All the major highways in France are subject to tolls, and between Paris and Angers today (a distance of just under 300 km) we pay nearly 20 euro in tolls. However, if it means excellent roads everywhere, I suspect it’s a price many French people don’t mind paying. By the end of the trip, Jana and I reckon the roads in France are the best we’ve seen anywhere.
I drive over two hours to just outside Angers, where we swap over the driving as I’m a tad nervous about town and city centres at this stage. As there’s a cloudburst of rain at this point, we end up consuming our picnic in the car before heading off to Angers city centre. It’s quite an attractive town and easy to get around. We have a tour of the château and its star attraction – the medieval Apocalypse Tapestries. Our guide actually ‘reads’ them for us as the medievals would have, which makes for a lengthy exposition but is useful as otherwise we would probably have just glanced at them for a few minutes. It’s a fine introduction as it later becomes apparent that there are more tapestries in the châteaux of the Loire than you can shake a stick at.
By now it’s about 7 pm and after some disagreement as to the evening’s plans, we decide to head out to the countryside south of the city and try to find our accommodations for the evening. Lucky thing we did so before it got dark – the B&B, called La Cotinière, is tucked away amongst a series of very lovely, but not terribly well-signposted, remote country lanes. It’s a fine old stone farmhouse, complete with outbuildings and the limestone tufa caves which dot the area. After we arrive, our hosts suggest a restaurant in the nearby town of Brissac called Le Haut Tertre. It’s in the town square, across the road from the extremely posh Château de Brissac (which, incidentally, offers accommodation, with the cheapest rooms starting at about 300 euro per night). After a quick scoot around to look at the château – and for Jana to take some snaps – we head for the restaurant, and decide to partake of the set menu of regional specialities. We start the evening with a kir (my only drink of the evening as I’m driving home) which here is made with sparkling Saumur wine and is offered with a wide variety of fruit flavours beyond the usual blackcurrant (I have mur – blackberry – and Jana has the raspberry). The menu proves excellent, and a bit of a bargain at only 15 euro for three courses. The groaning starter consists of tasty rillons – chunks of pork, deep-fried – served on a bed of greens with a delicious garlicky vinaigrette. We could easily have stopped here but then the Loire salmon arrives, served with a beurre blanc sauce and rice. Yummy. Jana finishes with a dish of baked strawberries, while I manage the lovely pear sorbet with lashings of cherry liqueur poured over (the waitress proffered a vast variety of fruit liqueurs with my sorbet, then after my selection plonked in front of me an entire bottle of the most divine cherry-flavoured beverage I have ever tasted, to administer as I pleased. I spent the rest of the trip looking in wine shops, trying to find that liqueur, but to no avail. Sigh.).
I drive back to the B&B afterwards, both of us straining our eyes in the dark to spot the small signs for the hamlet in which our B&B is located. Jana collapses into bed while I get out my tea-making equipment and brew myself a cuppa before I too hit the sack after a long day.
An adjustment to our itinerary today. We had planned to take a tour of the National Equestrian School (nearby in the town of Saumur) but by the time we realize that the tour starts at 9.30 am it’s too late for us to get there. So we plan on doing it tomorrow. In the meantime, we take our time at the lovely La Cotinière. We have a very nice breakfast, then stroll around the property and in the hamlet of Aligny – just a wide place in the road, really, but this doesn’t stop it from having a crumbly old 16th century chapel and a lovely (private) château. We reluctantly pack up and take leave of our hosts about 10.30 am. It’s a beautiful morning and we have a marvellous, meandering, bucolic drive through a string of picturesque villages. The country roads are in beautiful condition and there is practically no one on them, so driving is a pleasure. We stop in the village of Cunault, with its fine medieval church complete with nesting sparrows in the walls, and watch the Loire winding lazily amongst its sandbars.
We want to visit the château in Saumur, but it closes for lunch and we have time on our hands. So, in a fit of eccentricity, we decide to stop as we pass the Mushroom Museum. It’s a weird little place – we discover that the caves around Saumur produce 80 percent of France’s mushrooms – and we learn plenty o’ fascinating mushroom facts. We get to walk through the production areas where various freakish fungi are being grown for the market. It gets a bit unnerving after a while – Jana begins muttering darkly about the ‘mushroom people’ who will doubtless attack us and leave our corpses for more funky ‘shrooms to grow on…. A fly gets caught in a fly-zapping machine on the wall and she jumps about 50 feet. Back outside the caves, feeling faintly foolish, we observe the mushroom souvenirs on offer and taste some of the local produce, in the form of a bowl of button mushrooms served with a tasty dip.
Afterwards, we press on for Saumur, have a picnic lunch, then visit the château, which nowadays contains two small museums – one of the decorative arts, the other of all things equestrian (Jana being a horse-ridin’ fool). Makes for a pleasant afternoon, though. We leave Saumur late in the afternoon to visit the medieval abbey of Fontevraud. It has a long and fascinating history (with loads of English connections) and is in the process of being restored. The buildings, however, are not quite what we expected. The continental European attitude to historic preservation is very different to that of the British, as I’ve learned. We find the site interesting, but somehow a bit too clean and shiny considering its substantial age. We watch a strange, very French video about the history of the abbey before leaving.
Tonight is the night we have splashed out for our accommodations, so we head for our very own château, the Château des Reaux, where we have booked the Chambre Barois Orientale for the evening. What a place…with medieval foundations and later Renaissance embellishments. Lovely old reception rooms (which we are invited to use) are full of portraits of ancestors and photographs of the family’s brides over the last century. And our room – utterly fabulous, with its canopy bed, stained glass windows, and huge washroom . We take the time to stroll around the grounds and unpack at our leisure. Our hosts have made a dinner reservation at a restaurant called Diane de Meridor in the nearby village of Montsoreau, and it’s marvellous. Of course we spring for the four-course menu – a delightful amuse bouche of herby potatoes and the obligatory kir first, then I move on to a starter of escargot ravioli, succulent duck with apples for the main course, superb cheese course offerings, and to finish a light pastry with apricots. As Jana’s driving home tonight I take the opportunity to sample the local Saumur white wine. Another great meal – and a stunning purple sunset over the Loire to accompany it. The evening light on the river is utterly gorgeous – I always thought this was just a bit of rubbish written by guidebook writers – but it really is true. I guess ‘limpid’ might be the word to describe it.
What a great day. We retire to our château to have tea, write our diaries, and then sleep.
An earlyish start this morning as today we have to get to the National Equestrian School. We have a lovely breakfast, served by the charming chatelaine of the château, Madame Goupil (it was her great-grandfather, Julien Barois, who bought the château at the end of the 19th century and was a great traveller in the Middle East – hence the ‘oriental’ theme of our room). We bid a very reluctant farewell to the Château des Reaux, but then have to boot it for Saumur in order to arrive on time for the 9.30 am tour, which we just make. Despite my utter lack of equestrian knowledge (compared to Jana, anyway) and the fact that the tour is in French, it’s quite enjoyable. After our tour of the facility, we are ushered into the indoor ring where the members of the famed Cadre Noir (an elite group of highly-trained military horses and riders) are practicing. Jana is enthralled, having trained in dressage for a few years herself.
We head out of town to a riverside picnic site, where we have some lunch, then decide to hit one of the many caves and wineries which line the main road. The first one we try, Ackerman, is not offering tours, but we browse their shop and purchase bottles of Cremant de Loire (a sparkling wine). They have about five different types for sale, and feeling flush, we spring for the most expensive, at a mere 7.80 euro per bottle! However, Veuve Amiot, the cave next door, is open for tours, so we watch a video and then have a personal tour of the premises with a very friendly guide, who explains the whole process of making Loire sparkling wines (which, really, are champagnes in all but name – they use the methode traditionelle). Afterwards we hit the bar where we taste four different varieties of Veuve Amiot fizz – Saumur brut, Saumur demi-sec, rosé brut and a very interesting sparkling red – and discuss their various merits. All are lovely – and not available in Canada, apparently. We decide to get a box of three bottles of the sparkling red (two for Jana, one for me) as it is so unusual. The guide tells us that the Saumur region is the only place, other than northern Italy, which produces sparkling red wine. As I’ve had the Italian stuff – Lambrusco – before, and it is sweet and horrible, I’m pleasantly surprised by the Saumur product (though I find out after my return home, in conversation with a friend, that our guide’s explanation isn’t strictly true – apparently some Aussie winemaker now produces a sparkling shiraz). Nonetheless I’m keeping my bottle for a special occasion, to be drunk as suggested with strawberries and chocolate cake. Yum.
As much as we’d love to stand around swigging champagne all afternoon, there are sights to be seen and so we hit the road for our first ‘fairytale’ château, the Château d’Ussé. En route, we stop in the nearby village of Candes St. Martin, which holds the coveted title of being one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France (there’s actually a guidebook so one can visit them all). It’s truly charming and pleasantly deserted. We climb to a panoramic view of the river above the village, then wander in the village itself, which is all crooked medieval houses covered in roses and wisteria, and twisty old lanes. We have a gorgeous country drive – the weather is lovely – to Ussé, where we have our tour of the château. Sadly it proves a bit of a letdown. It’s absolutely marvellous from the outside – apparently it inspired Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty – but the inside is mainly a collection of weird objects cobbled together by the family into ‘displays’ (i.e. "Here’s a funny old pair of boots, some old copper pots from the kitchens, and some medals won by a long-dead ancestor – let’s put them next to the staircase." Eh?). There is an interesting collection of historic costumes to see, but they would be better off in proper display cases, rather than put on mannequins and scattered throughout the various rooms. The tower is best left to kiddies or fans of kitsch – its rooms feature a series of wax tableaux depicting scenes from the story of Sleeping Beauty. A tad cheesy, to say the least.
But no matter. It’s a lovely afternoon and we strike out for our evening’s accommodations. The house, La Chaussée, is in a small village north of Chinon, and is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a nineteenth-century house, but the interior decor is classic country with a minimalist slant, if you can imagine it. I love it. The owner, however, is another matter entirely. Madame is a French teacher by profession and although she speaks perfectly good English, once she knows we speak some French she insists on using the language with us exclusively (it’s ‘très, TRÈS important’, apparently). Within minutes of my trying to have a conversation with her, she has already corrected my lousy grammar. Hmph.
To Chinon for dinner and a restaurant she has recommended. However, I’m at the wheel and a small disaster strikes – as I am trying to back out of a parking place, we hear a ‘crunch’. I’m stymied as I can’t see anything. Once turned around, however, I discover that I have managed to back into a small electric bicycle parked against the opposite curb. %$!£@!! The owner of the bike starts waving his hands and shouting at me as I’m trying to get the car moved out of the way (I’m blocking traffic in both directions by this point). The guy obviously doesn’t notice this as he continues hollering at me and starts writing down my license plate number, obviously thinking that I’m just going to take off. As there’s nowhere for me to stop and pull over, I ask Jana to get out and talk to him while I drive around the block and come back. I’m freaking out. What if I’ve wrecked the bike and the guy demands money? I manage to make my way back and pull over, by which time the demented Frenchman has calmed down, having been assured by Jana that I am not doing a runner and will be coming back. Thankfully, there’s no damage to his bike – all I seem to have done is knock it over – but his handlebar has gone through the piece of plastic covering one of the running lights above my back bumper and put a hole in it. Great. Wonder how much Avis are going to charge me for that? Needless to say the incident puts a bit of a damper on our evening, which is compounded by the fact that the restaurant recommended by Madame is thoroughly ordinary. Feel somewhat miserable – was very worried that I would have some kind of altercation with the car during this trip, and just hope that this is it. In the grand scheme of things it’s pretty minor, so if this is the worst thing that happens to the car I’ll be glad.
We get back to our lovely B&B by 9.15 pm, have tea, write our diaries, discuss our plans for the next few days, and then sleep. We have two nights at La Chaussée so it’s nice to know that we don’t have to pack everything up tomorrow morning.
If La Cotinière won the Most Bucolic Location award and Château des Reaux won the Best Room award, then La Chaussée merits Best Breakfast. Madame serves up brioche, croissants, madeleines (little buttery cakes), homemade peach jam, freshly-squeezed orange juice, hot chocolate and coffee with accompanying jugs of frothy hot milk. We have the charming dining room to ourselves and there are lit candles, a spray of flowers, and delightful soft piano music. Superb. We even catch a glimpse of Madame’s enormous dog – an Irish wolfhound called Plato (‘mais il n’est pas philosophe’, she says ruefully).
We had planned to head straight for the château of Azay-le-Rideau this morning, but Madame recommends a detour via the village of Crissay-sur-Manse, another of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. We’re awfully glad we did. It’s another lovely sunny morning driving along quiet, picturesque country roads. The village is wonderful, full of crumbly medieval houses swathed in roses and wisteria. As we’re strolling along we pass a man who greets us with a cheery and now-ubiquitous ‘bonjour’ and proceeds to chat to us and ask us where we’re from. He points out the local château (now in ruins) and informs us that the property has now been purchased by an American, who is working on restoring the outbuildings. He wanders off after we thank him, and we marvel again at the friendliness of the people in this area.
We pop into the village café for coffee and a bathroom pitstop, and afterwards are just about to get in the car and leave when we hear a haloo from the hillside above the carpark. It’s the man we were speaking to earlier, who is now working in his garden and who waves to us to come over. He lets us in through his garden gate (muttering darkly about the few other tourists milling nearby, whom he obviously does not want to allow in) and invites us to view the ruins of the château, which are just behind his garden wall. I climb up the ladder for the first look as he chats to Jana. When I return he has just unearthed a very large snail from his vegetable bed which he passes to me as Jana goes up the ladder for some pictures. It’s quite the biggest snail I’ve ever seen and as I’ve been eating its compatriots throughout this trip, I get Jana to take a snap of it! My French superlatives not exactly being eloquent, the best I can come up with in praise of this fine escargot is ‘bon goûter’, which has Jana rolling her eyes with mirth. We bid the friendly gardener farewell and jump back in the car again. We reflect on how kind, helpful and approachable all the people we have been encountering have been – with so many stories of French rudeness abounding, it’s the last thing we expected and we’re amazed and delighted by it. Perhaps the fact that we are doing our best to speak French is an important factor. It’s made much easier by the fact that the French spoken here is beautiful – people speak slowly, with excellent enunciation, so even I (whose French is shaky at best) can understand a good bit. Jana is doing extremely well with her French and getting better every day.
A half-hour’s drive brings us to the beautiful château of Azay-le-Rideau. After the disappointment of Ussé yesterday, it’s a great improvement, and is beautiful both inside and out. Jana takes loads of snaps as we stroll about the grounds, and buy books in the shop. We buy yummy pastries at the village patisserie for our picnic lunch, and Jana buys some pretty watercolours from a local shop before we press on for the château at Villandry. We actually eschew visiting the château here as the main attraction is the garden, which is enormous and has been replanted in Renaissance style. We enjoy a picnic lunch in the garden itself, then have a walk. It’s lovely, but very French in style, with formal clipped hedges and everything in neat rows; we both decide that we prefer the English style of gardening, with mixed borders and everything looking a bit wild.
Afterwards, we backtrack slightly and stop in a nearby farm shop we passed earlier in the day called La Giraudière. The farm is quite old and was apparently founded as the estate farm of one of the nearby châteaux. We buy duck rillettes (shredded duck, made into a yummy spreadable paste), pressed apple and pear juices, and a large log of peppered goat cheese produced there at the farm (Jana having recoiled in horror at the first cheese presented for her consideration, which was crusted with mold and of which the proprietress was very proud!). We discover that, despite the somewhat ramshackle nature of the farm itself, they have a restaurant on the premises which looks very nice, and promises several tasty and affordable menus. We make reservations for dinner at 7.30 pm. With a few hours to kill, we drive to nearby Langeais to visit its château. However, it proves a tad overwhelming, being stuffed with heavy gothic furniture, tapestries and pious medieval art. We make a mental note to try not to visit more than two châteaux in a day, so as to avoid château overload!
Feeling pretty hungry, we head back to the farm restaurant at La Giraudière, and a gorgeous meal ensues. Far from the rustic country food we expected, it’s actually quite refined and beautifully presented. The dining room is charmingly decorated and we are ushered to a nice table next to a crackling open fireplace (although the reality of our location on a working farm is brought home to us when we discover that the bathrooms are out in back of the goat barn! Ah well). We avail of the fine four-course menu for 25 euro. We have cider kirs to start, along with a plateful of savoury little goat’s cheese pastries as an amuse bouche, as we consider the menu. As frogs’ legs are one of the offerings for the starter, I certainly can’t pass up the opportunity to try them – and they are very tasty (and yes, it’s true – they really do taste like chicken). Jana has foie gras, which I sample – it’s nice, but awfully rich. I don’t think I could eat too much of it. I move on to grilled suckling pig as my main course, while Jana has the RABBIT!!! Guess this is her way of getting back at me for having eaten duck the other night. I try a forkful of her rabbit and I must admit, with dreadful guilt, that it is absolutely delicious – as is my suckling pig. I try not to think of the poor baby piggie being torn from its mother to provide my tasty meal. The cheese board comes next, with a good selection including several of the farm’s own goat’s cheeses (I must say, as good as it is, we are getting a bit tired of goat’s cheese at this point, having eaten it in all its permutations). For dessert, there is a delicious creamy goat’s cheese ice cream (!) with fruit – who knew this was possible? But it’s great. All is washed down with a rather excellent half-bottle of Touraine red wine for me, as Jana is driving home.
Back to La Chaussée for tea and biscuits, a bit of repacking, then bed. Sadly we leave La Chaussée tomorrow.
This morning (as it is time for us to pay the bill, no doubt!) Madame relents and speaks English to us for a bit. We learn that though the house was built in the 19th century, it has 17th century foundations. The land used to be held by the Crown for the royal hunt, the kitchens of which were built next door. After another lovely breakfast, we stroll in the grounds, then load up the car.
This morning we are bound for Loches, and although we get on the wrong road initially, it doesn’t matter as it’s a nice drive. We arrive in Loches around lunchtime. It’s a charming old town; we walk through the old quarter and visit the château, where Joan of Arc met the Dauphin (later Charles VII) after the Battle of Orleans. It was also the home of Agnes Sorel, companion of Charles and the first woman to hold the title of Mistress to the King of France! Afterwards, we follow a scenic drive recommended in our guidebook, west of the town. We try to find an ancient monastic site in the forest, but its location eludes us. We then follow signs for an 11th century priory, thinking it would make a good picnic site, but far from being a ruin it is still a working priory and one of the monks boots us out before we can unpack our lunch! Oops. So we press on to the nearby village of Montrésor (yet another of the Most Beautiful Villages in France) and have our lunch in the main square, below the château. Afterwards we take a quick wander around – like so many villages we’ve been in, it’s sleepy and deserted. Where is everyone? Makes for easy driving though, so we don’t complain. After a stroll along the banks of the river Indre, which runs through the village, we jump back in the car for an hour’s drive north to our last stop of the day, the Château de Chaumont. We arrive at 5.30, hoping to catch the last tour of the day, but all is locked and barred! Oh dear…perhaps another day.
We decide to head for this evening’s accommodations, the Moulin du Fief Gentil. Although it’s located in a small town, the place is lovely – a old mill with a large pond in the back of the house. The owners, a English man (Roger) and his Belgian wife (Ann), are very welcoming and we are ushered to our comfy room. As we have arranged to have dinner here this evening (Ann used to work in catering and now runs a cooking school from the B&B), we are very much looking forward to it. We spend a quiet hour sitting out by the mill pond, writing our diaries and enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
We have a wonderful evening – the atmosphere is really as if we are invited guests in their home. Funnily enough, the other guests this evening are an Irish family from Dublin – an older couple with their daughter and son-in-law. We all meet for drinks in the living room at 8 pm and enjoy the local Vouvray sparkling wine. Dinner is served at about a quarter to nine in the amazing dining room, one wall of which is glass and allows a view of the old mill wheel and waterfall as the stream from the pond outside runs directly under the house. Ann has prepared a very nice four-course meal, with different local wines for each course as suggested by Roger. There is asparagus with mousseline sauce to start, pork loin with rhubarb chutney for the main course, a very fine and varied cheese board (which we are able to discuss at length, in English!), and strawberries with homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert. It’s nice to relax for the evening and be able to chat in English with Ann and Roger, who are a font of local information. Before we know it, it is 11.30 pm and we feel as though we have spent the evening at a dinner party with friends. Of course it did not come particularly cheaply, but it was a very interesting and novel experience. We retire to our comfy beds, full of good food, drink and conversation.
A delightful breakfast in the dining room this morning, while looking at the old water wheel and the millrace beyond. The Fief Gentil definitely wins the award for Most Homey B&B. Roger and Ann have kindly arranged for us to go riding this afternoon at a stable west of the village. We take our leave and make the short 15-minute drive to the Château de Chenonceau, one of the Loire Valley ‘biggies’, where we spend the morning. It’s pretty touristy, but in a tasteful way, and we reckon it’s the best château we’ve visited so far. It has lovely formal gardens, and the château itself spans the river running through the grounds. The interior is beautifully restored, with lots of interesting things to see. I particularly liked the bedroom of Louise of Lorraine, wife of King Henri III. After he died she went into deep mourning and had her room redecorated in black and silver – black bed hangings, black furniture, and black wall panelling with various mournful motifs painted in silver (tears, crowns of thorns, widow’s knots, her cipher and his). Wacky. After the tour we stroll through the château farm looking at the wildfowl, and visit the flower shop. The rooms of the château are filled with gorgeous dried and fresh flower arrangements, and the designer also supplies the shop. The arrangements are fabulous and I drop a somewhat alarming amount of money in there.
Next stop is the town of Amboise, a former royal capital and with several interesting attractions. First we have lunch at Le Caveau des Vignerons, founded by a group of Touraine wine growers who banded together to market their produce. In addition to tasting and buying various wines, one can enjoy lunch platters of local specialties, which we take advantage of as a break from our usual picnic routine. Between us, we are served 4 kinds of goat cheese (aagh), 2 pâtés, and a duck terrine, along with salad greens, bread and a small pichet of Touraine rosé. In the sunshine, it’s a very enjoyable alfresco meal. Afterwards, we take a short walk to Le Clos Lucé, a manor house in which Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life under the patronage of King Francis I. Luckily, the curators have tried to maintain the house to look as much as possible as it would have in Leonardo’s day, and it’s very charming. In the basement, there is a large display of models built by IBM of the many inventions of Leonardo – the machine gun, the parachute, the airplane…. I’m not a techie or engineer type, but even I find them pretty fascinating. The man was truly a genius.
Afterwards we head back towards where we’ve parked the car and pass several troglodyte houses (i.e. houses built in caves dug out of the sides of the soft limestone cliffs – they’re everywhere in this area). Then we head for the stables and our ride, scheduled for 5 pm. On the way, we pass the famed Parc des Mini-Châteaux, which is apparently a rather popular tourist attraction! Adjoining the mini-châteaux, we see the sign for the Parc le Fou de l’Âne. As I’m pretty sure that ‘âne’ means donkey, I wonder aloud if this is, indeed, the Park of the Crazy Asses / the Crazy Ass Park? We both end up in stitches at my lousy translation skills.
Composing ourselves, we find our way to the lovely stables where we are scheduled to take our ride. Compared with many I’ve seen, both the horses and the facility itself are beautiful, clean and well kept. I'm put on a docile chestnut horse called called Quiver and Jana gets a bay. We then set out for our hour’s ride with a guide, Guillaume. It is absolutely marvellous – the best ride I have ever had. We walk and trot through the forest, on quiet country lanes and alongside the river Cher, passing en route two châteaux, an old mill, and a field with two sweet little foals. I don’t know at this stage how this holiday could get any better. Weather wise, this is the most glorious day of the trip – not a cloud in the sky and about 22 degrees. After the ride, we help unsaddle the horses and have a chat with the very friendly staff. It’s been a brilliant afternoon.
Luckily, it is about to get better. After our ride we head for our evening’s accommodations north of Amboise, at the Château de Nazelles. After calling for directions, we finally find the place, and are stunned. It wins the award for Most Charming and Historic Accommodations, hands down. Our room, the Chambre de la Tour, is lovely, big and cozy, with exposed beams and a window overlooking the valley and the château of Amboise in the distance. There is an enormous bathroom with piles of cushy-soft towels, a posy of lilies of the valley, Burberry toiletries, and a deep, old-fashioned clawfoot tub. To say we are delighted is an understatement. It’s difficult to tear ourselves away for dinner. The proprietor, the very kind and English-speaking Olivier, has recommended a number of quite posh and expensive restaurants nearby, but we want something more simple and so he directs us to La Cave aux Croix Verts, a nearby restaurant housed in a troglodyte cave. The meal is very nice – we start with escargots in cream, then steak for our main course as it’s a nice break from our usual round of lamb, duck, rabbit and fish. The steaks are served almost bloody-rare, with sharp mustard and Guerande salt – perfect. The inevitable cheese board follows, and we both finish with apple tart and ice cream for dessert. A yummy meal and a very novel experience, dining in a cave!
We’re back at the château by 10.30, whereupon I indulge in a sybaritic soak in that enormous tub before crawling into my lovely soft bed with its crisp sheets. Aaah. Bliss. Can I stay at the Château de Nazelles forever?
A superb breakfast awaits us – Nazelles runs a very close second to La Chaussée in the Best Breakfast stakes, I must say. There are three types of honey (sunflower, spring, and acacia) and a variety of delicious fruit preserves to enjoy with our croissants and bread. Of course, in the interests of thorough research and informed assessment, I make sure to sample them all. After breakfast, we chat with Olivier and meet two of his three children. Little Olivia looks to be about 3 and is utterly adorable. Later, we meet her brother, a small fair-haired boy of 4 or 5, who by way of introduction races into the room and shouts: ‘Papa, j’ai fais un popo!’ Olivier looks mortified and apologies profusely, but we smother our giggles and roar about it afterwards!
We go for a stroll about the grounds outside and meet Olivier’s wife Veronique, who is very kind and shows us around the property. The main house dates from 1517 and was originally the home of the lord of Nazelles. It was originally a wine estate, and the old wine press can still be seen in the caves out behind the house. Historian Jen is intrigued by the wide variety of unrestored, original outbuildings on the property, including the old servants’ kitchen with its original bread oven and sinks. To the front of the house are lovely gardens, and above on the cliffs there is a waymarked forest walk we wish we had time to do. We really don't want to leave. But finally, we tear ourselves away around 11 am.
Today is a seriously heavy-going château day. First we strike out to visit the Château de Chaumont, mark 2 (it’s the one that was closed on Monday). Many consider that it is more interesting on the outside than the inside, but we quite like it – it has a nice little historic interior, a stunning riverside location and lovely Victorian stables. Afterwards, we drive over an hour to the Château de Chambord, perhaps the most famous of the Loire châteaux. Thronging hordes are much in evidence here – it’s the 1945 Victory Day public holiday today. There is a huge forest park surrounding the château, filled with people picnicking and walking. We picnic ourselves, with supplies bought in Nazelles village this morning (bread from the boulangerie; ham and pâté - no cheese, thankfully - from the old-fashioned boucherie, where we queued with the locals). We then head for the château itself. The place is heaving with crowds - we really need a tour but can't wait until 4 pm when the next English tour is on. So we struggle through the enormous and labyrinthine château interior. I’m sure it’s an amazing place, and wish we had more information about it, but it is so horribly crowded that neither of us enjoy it or appreciate it very much and just want to get out as quickly as possible.
It’s a relief to get in the car and head for château no. 3, the Château de Cheverny. Though there are lots of people here too, it’s quite an improvement on Chambord. We have timed our visit to view the Soupe des Chiens (i.e. the feeding of the château’s pack of about 100 hunting hounds) at 5 pm. We stand around for a good 45 minutes, after having secured a good vantage point. It proves to be an amazing sight, however. The Master of the Hounds rounds up the pack at about 4.40 pm and puts them into a pen. He then washes down the yard where they are fed, leaves, and returns with a huge wheelbarrow filled with chicken and turkey carcasses and a massive bag of kibble. The carcasses are arranged into a long low mountain, with a topping of kibble. He then stands and waits until the clock in the stable yard strikes 5, and the hounds start baying. He releases them from the pen then, and it’s an awesome sight. Holding a rope whip (which he doesn’t even use), he watches the dogs as they stand, howling and quivering with anticipation, but waiting for the command to eat. Once he gives the command, they pounce on the heap of carcasses. There’s snarling and fights aplenty, which the Master occasionally steps in to control. Once the raw meat has been wolfed down, the dogs start in on the kibble. When it’s all over, about two and a half to three minutes has elapsed, and there’s not a piece of kibble or scrap of chicken skin to be seen. It’s quite a sight.
After our observation of these slavering beasts, the visit takes a far more civilized turn and we tour the interior of the château. It’s still a private home and is lovely and very intimate. Many of the private apartments are on view, and we see wedding and family photos of the aristocratic French family who now own the estate.
By now it’s about 6.30 pm and we’re pretty zonked, so we head for the village of St. Dyé sur Loire. The B&B we’re staying the next two nights is in a 19th century house in the village, run by an older couple, the Bonnefoys. She is German, he French. They’re wildly eccentric but quite friendly, and we have tea and chitchat in their garden on arrival. We also meet their guinea pig, Pushkin, who lives in a little cage on their patio (apparently, there was also once a Gorky and a Tolstoy, but they’ve now gone to guinea heaven). We discuss dinner possibilities with our hosts. Apparently, there is a nice restaurant within walking distance, but we are unable to get a reservation before 9 pm. So we while away the time by writing our diaries and bringing all our stuff up to our room, which is comfortable, though not quite to the standards we’ve been enjoying. No matter though – it will bring us down gently towards the shock of our spartan hostel in Paris on Friday night!
We walk along the riverside in the dusk towards our restaurant, La Bourriche. It’s a busy, friendly, unpretentious little place with good country cooking. On the street, there is a shop selling local produce, and the restaurant is in behind that. We start with the Assiette des Bois, which includes a very unusual and tasty venison terrine. We then have baked gratins – mine with Loire mullet, Jana’s with little Loire crayfish. Both v. tasty. For dessert, I have the baked pear with caramel. As we have left our car behind, we take advantage and imbibe freely, with champagne kirs at the start of our meal and some local red wine. Maybe it's because we're tired, but despite the fact that we have only shared a mere half-bottle of wine, we both end up a bit pickled. We lurch back to our B&B quite late, then crash.
Up earlyish this morning – no hangovers, fortunately – and enjoy a nice breakfast while chatting to the Bonnefoys. They're a bit of a mad old couple, but quite charming. This B&B wins the Most Eccentric (But In A Nice Way) Award. Then we're in the car to the Château de Talcy. It’s about a 45 minute drive away, on the now-ubiquitous lovely country roads. The château is small but very nice, with interesting old rooms. The family gave it to the state in 1932, so not too much modernizing has been done. As with so many of the sights we’ve viewed during this trip (the Château de Chambord excepted) it's practically deserted.
We head next for the town of Blois. Blois is a little difficult to get in and out of, but fortunately traffic is light. We visit the town’s château, home to a whole host of French royalty during the medieval period. The structure is an interesting mix of four different time periods and architectural styles. The interior is very rich but was heavily restored in the 19th century, so none of the decoration is original. Still, we like it – it’s certainly been the site of murders and intrigues aplenty in the past.
After the château we decide to take a carriage ride around the old town. There are teams of draft horses pulling big wagons that can hold up to 20 people parked just outside the château, and it costs only 5 euro for a half-hour ride. So we do that, lurching alongside the river and the streets of the old town. Afterwards we have a bit of a wander, pick up some chocolates and other presents, then hit the road out of town and boot ‘er for the Château de Villesavin, recommended by the Bonnefoys.
After a few twists and turns, we get there about 45 minutes later. Visits are by guided tour only, in French. We don't pay much attention to our visit of the collection of horse-drawn vehicles and children's vehicles, with which the tour starts. Afterwards, the tour seems to be over, so we wander into the chapel and the château’s main attraction, the Museum of Marriage (!). Here they have old wedding gowns and accessories, all French and dating from the 1840s and later. They also have a room full of old bouquets. It used to be the custom that the bride's mother would have her daughter’s wedding bouquet encased under a glass dome, along with little mirrors and other symbolic items. It's a quirky little collection – Historian Jen is quite tickled by it all. We are abruptly pulled out, though, as the tour is apparently continuing without us. Oops. We are given an English text and then go on into the house. Again, a quite attractive, intimate and historic interior, especially the old kitchen which has a fire blazing in the huge fireplace and is very cozy (the château is still a family home).
After the tour we're pretty tired, so after a look at the donkeys and draft horses (there's a sanctuary for old animals on the property), we jump in the car and head back to Saint Dyé. En route, we pop into the Manoir Bel Air, a hotel and restaurant only a 15 minute walk from the B&B. It looks very nice and the price is right, so we make a reservation for 8 pm. After freshening up, we walk there. The menu is excellent value for money, with fine service. To start, I eschew our usual kir and have a pastis instead, which I’ve wanted to try since reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It’s aniseed-flavoured and very, very strong – wish I had Jana’s delicious kir instead! Then I start with avocado and prawns in rose sauce, followed by coq au vin. Jana has a starter of three types of salmon, then lamb. Portions are huge. We struggle through the cheese course. For dessert, I have a creamy chocolate gateau with cherries. There are red and white wines too – half a bottle of each. We finish about 10.30 pm, feeling stuffed to the gills. It’s an unusual sensation; even though we’ve been eating three and four course meals each night, portions have been modest so we felt just pleasantly full at the end of the meal. We stagger back to the B&B under the weight of so much rich food, and collapse into bed.
Up for another nice breakfast, and then the Herculean task of repacking. It’s a real trial trying to get everything we’ve bought into our suitcases – that’s the danger of having your own car. You buy stuff and then just chuck it in the back seat, forgetting that it has to go into a suitcase later. We manage it, though, putting our overnight things into small separate bags. After packing the car, it's farewell to the Bonnefoys – Jana gives them her details as their daughter and son-in-law are emigrating to Montreal in a few months.
I'm in the driver’s seat, and we head for the town of Gien in search of its famed dishes and pottery. Sadly it is chucking down with rain (for the first time on this trip), so I have to drive painfully slowly for the first hour and a quarter. It lets up, however, which is good as it is our last chance to enjoy the beautiful country scenery. It takes us about two and a quarter hours to reach Gien – a bit of a schlep. First stop is lunch, and we decide on a small café. I have a large tasty salad with chicken (need those raw veg – my diet has been woefully lacking in fibre) and Jana has a seafood dish with rice. We follow it with tarte Tatin (the local speciality) and wash it down with some local rosé. Then we head over to the Gien faiencerie, where they produce their lovely dishes and where there is apparently a factory shop.
There are no factory tours on today, but we take a quick look in the Gien faience museum, which features lots of their older pieces. Our main destination, however, is the factory shop. Jana and I are both fans of several of their patterns and are hoping to pick up some nice stuff. The shop is a bit of a scrum, with a tour bus of Americans arriving soon after we do. Great fun though, and with very nice factory seconds going for 20 to 45 percent off. I go a bit mad, and decide to buy three pieces with money from our wedding fund. I choose two large square display plates and a low bowl, in my three favourite floral patterns. Jana goes a bit bonkers buying presents too. We wrap everything up in brown paper and get ready to leave, but first, both of us decide to pitstop at the ladies beforehand. I go first and report back to Jana that the facilities consist solely of a Turkish loo! She looks appalled but needs must…. After a bit of coaching from me, she takes courage in hand and the loo is duly used. She emerges looking rather grim. Well, it’s a memorable cultural experience, that’s for sure!!
We take our purchases back to the car, spend another hour our so strolling around the town, then decide it’s time to go. It's now after 6 and we've decided to eschew Orleans today given our late start and the rain. Jana's also a bit nervous about the prospect of driving in Orleans, with Paris also to be negotiated tonight. So we plot an alternative course to Paris from Gien. It's a straight run, but Jana is a bit rattled as the legendary Crazy French Drivers seem finally to have appeared and there are lots of speeding nutters on the road. Still, we do just fine, and after two hours and some intensive navigation on my part, we get through to central Paris and fill our car up with gas before returning it safely to Avis. All together, we have clocked just over 1500 km in the car during the trip. We are so relieved to finally be rid of the car; both of us were secretly terrified that something terrible would happen to it, and I for one am delighted that we got away with nothing worse than a broken running light.
We are pleased to find that Montparnasse station does indeed have a left luggage facility where we can leave our suitcases overnight – the last thing we needed was to schlep our bags to the hostel and back again in the morning, as they weigh a TON. So we check in the bags, then return the keys to the Avis office. We tell them about the hole in the running light cover, but they say they can't estimate a cost, leaving me to wonder what it will be. Apparently if it costs under a certain amount to fix, they won't charge me. Here's hoping.
We walk to the hostel and check in. As it’s now 10 pm, we go across the road to a pizzeria where a hot ‘za hits the spot. Afterwards, we collapse into our woefully saggy bunkbeds.
Up at 5.45 am. Erg. We check out of the hostel and walk to Montparnasse station, where we collect our suitcases from the left-luggage lockers. Oh, tiredness. We catch the Air France coach to Charles de Gaulle airport at 7.30 am, expecting it to take ages as it did when we arrived. However, it flies through Paris and arrives at terminal 2 by 8.15 am! This is Jana's departure point so we bid one another a fond farewell....she’s off back to Montreal.
I go on to Terminal 1 and check in. My bag is seriously overweight at just under 35 kg – limit was 20 kg! Oh dear. They make me pay for 10 kg of extra weight – at a whopping cost of 7.60 euro per kilo! So that's another cool 76 euro on my credit card...but what can you do? Go on holiday and not buy anything? Oh well.
Home on time at least, and back in our apartment by 1 pm. Great to be back – home, hearth, husband and all that – but all things considered, it was a superb trip. Overall, Jana and I both agree it’s probably the best holiday we’ve ever had.
No charge from Avis has appeared on Jana’s credit card for the ding in the car! Looks like I got away with it!