FRANCE – A BACK ROADS APPROACH TO THE LOIRE VALLEY
“I’ve got next month off,” she announces quite out of the blue. “Let's drive through the States? Or Britain? Or maybe France?” I won’t admit to rigging the coin-toss but....!
As a writer, used to planning a trip en route at 35000 feet, I am a tad surprised when the dining table is suddenly groaning under a tower of library books. Any tome with the word “France” in its title has been removed from the shelf. I suck it up and move my Wheaties into the office.
Planning ahead brings everyone into the act:
“You must visit Normandy – I have an aunt there who would be thrilled to see you.”
“You’ve never been to Provence - Wow?”
“The Alps in May will just be a riot of spring flowers."
Finally, our itinerary decided, we land in Paris at Charles de Gaulle airport. An Air France bus drops us conveniently at Gare Montparnasse (Railway Station) and we take the commuter train to Chartres – a pleasant two hour journey.
This, I have to admit, is a good plan. An opportunity to recover in a tranquil place.
One of Europe’s finest 13th century cathedrals to examine by day and a toy train that ambles through narrow medieval alleys past spectacularly floodlit ancient buildings at night.
Ah, but the real reason for choosing Chartres as a launch–pad is to get little closer to the magic of The Loire Valley, and to avoid dealing with Paris traffic.
The internet came through. Just C$18 a day for a mid-sized, brand new Peugeot. A rate that even astonished the new franchisee at Europcar who was reluctant to hand over the keys without a call to senior management!
The world is suddenly our oyster. Armed with the only guidebook to make the grade: Eyewitness Travel’s “Back Roads – France,” and a good map, we are heading South through endless fields of buttery yellow Canola. A perfect contrast against the deep blue sky.
During the 100 Years War, (1337 – 1453) , The Loire River marked the line between French and British forces. After Joan of Arc came to the rescue and helped lucky Charles 7th to regain his French crown, redundant fortresses became castles, palaces, hunting lodges - Weekend homes for the French nobility. Today there are more than 300 chateaux and countless tiny villages to explore.
Each morning begins with a “to do” list. A couple of chateaux, 4 villages and a market would be typical. Ah but this is France! To the French, lunch is sacred, meaning everything closes between noon and 2.30pm. Don’t expect to enter a museum at 11.30am. The staff know you won’t be through by lunchtime.
While most churches are empty on Sundays, religious holidays abound, creating unexpected long weekends, (two in 3 weeks!). Sights that are open on the weekend will be closed on Monday.
Our first few days are spent scurrying through magical countryside, past grazing horses and sonorous cows, (cowbells get more use than church bells!), only to find an empty parking lot and FERME’ written across the entrance of yet another massive fortress rated high on the “not to be missed” list!
No worries – Go with the flow right? Before setting foot in our first chateau, we find contentment just ambling along winding traffic-free country lanes, through empty gorgeous old villages with only a curious cat or a snarly dog to greet us. Yes empty, as in shuttered. In France, when the boulangerie (bakery) closes up – Well, the community has officially died. Has everyone has moved to the city?
We visit Troo, an ancient village famed for troglodytes (cave dwellers), and spy on the 12 families who still live (comfortably with hydro and TV) inside the limestone cliffs which once housed thousands.
We need a room for the night. The only cave B&B is full - Damn! A long gate set into the high hedge might be a warning to gawkers if it wasn’t for a small sign announcing: “L’lle o Reflets” B&B. We nervously press the bell. The gate begins to rumble along an ancient rail revealing a riverfront estate that once held an operating mill.
Our host, a retired eccentric designer, has turned the old mansion into a themed Bed and Breakfast. We are assigned The Heron room – His latest peculiar creation encompassing the entire attic, stuffed to the gills with strange bird memorabilia gleaned from countless Parisian shopping sprees! Yes – The other rooms are empty but it is the maid’s day off so the beds have not been changed!
We take a bottle of wine to the riverbank before heading up the hill to the only restaurant around. Two rosie-cheeked ladies in matching pink aprons greet us at the door. Pink plastic flowers. Pink plastic tablecloths. Pink flock wallpaper. Pink perfectly cooked steaks!
Day 3. We are still chateaux virgins! Imagine the abuse – “You mean you went all the way to The Loire Valley and never actually went into a chateau?” Two FERME’ signs in a row only strengthen our resolve. Good grief, the birthday of yet another obscure saint?
Le Lude breaks the jinx. We pass under an arch to find cars in the parking lot – Yeah! “The next tour begins in 20 minutes,” announces the traditionally dressed young girl in perfect English. “Go and look at the gardens.”
She is an English student who applied online for a summer job. Flawless French won her the position of tour guide and gift shop manager.
The gardens alone are worth the visit. Cows graze in a field across the river. Amorous frogs set up a “ribbiting” chorus. Normally we like to amble through places but a tour delivered in English is a real bonus. It is obvious from the family photos that this massive place (70 rooms) is someone’s home which somehow makes it special. A laptop sits open beside the TV in the sumptuous living room littered with antiques. The de Nicolay family has owned the place for 270 years.
A motoring holiday is all about freedom and adventure. Taking unplanned turns. Stopping for the night when you are tired. Buying picnic goodies at a busy street market. Grabbing a decent bottle of Merlot for a couple of Euros as we do in Borgeuil, where we also discover our first “internet cafe” - A computer perched among the plumbing supplies in a hardware store! French countryside does not brim with internet connections. A blessing or a curse?
Our favourite town is Chinon – Why? Is it the Hostellerie Gargantua that grabs us? A castle turned into a hotel, (with our very own turret room), named after a Rabelaisian novel, set in the medieval centre? Perhaps the many wine caves with their entrances tucked between bistros along the cobbled lanes? Even the restored fortress is special with sound and film re-enactments from the time when Joan of Arc met Charles 7th here in 1497.
Our favourite chateau has to be Chambord. With “Wow” factors such as: 282 fireplaces, 77 staircases and 426 rooms sitting in 5440 hectares how can it not be the winner? However, Cheverny was not far behind especially when it came time to feed the foxhounds!!
Judging from buses lining the parking lots, we are not alone in thinking that the English-styled gardens at Villandry are the most outstanding. Unless of course people were just there to admire Napoleonic rocking horses in the nursery!
We discover that The Loire Valley is way more than just chateaux. It is surprisingly peaceful with little traffic and sparsely populated picturesque villages where time stands still. It is about getting endlessly lost and discovering hidden gems that have survived 1000 years of history. Not to forget buying fine wines and cheeses for a riverside picnic at a fraction of the cost back home.
Leave yourself enough time to head south to The Dordogne Valley like we did. You will not be sorry. !
IF YOU GO:
GETTING AROUND: www.RentalCars.com had the same rate C$18 a day at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport as in Chartres. Your choice. Road surfaces are excellent.
HOTEL COSTS: 2/3 Star ran from Euros 50/100. Rates are generally posted at the entrance.
RESTAURANT FOOD COSTS: Meals are usually offered as a 3 course affair (Prix Fixe) and can run from E15 and up depending on your choice of main course, quality of restaurant and does it include a “pichet” of wine?.
WHEN TO GO: We went in May which proved good and bad. There was no need to book ahead. Just stopping when we were tired generally around p.m. The bad side was the weather which was “Variable!”
INVALUABLE GUIDEBOOK AND MAP: BACK ROADS FRANCE (Eyewitness Travel) –Map: FROMMERS OR MICHELIN.
WRITER'S NOTE: THE LOIR AND THE LOIRE RIVERS. Some places described (Le Lude, Troo etc) are actually on The Loir river which joins the Loire River at Angers.
IN GENERAL: France is the most visited country in the world and yet the people are warm and welcoming, and that includes Paris. The Euro is low. A trip of a lifetime awaits. Just make the reservation!
Copyright © 2013 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.