Monday, December 10, 2012

The Loire Valley

My final French trip for the year was a fitting finale as I explored the fabulous castles and countryside of the Loire Valley.  My friend Melissa and I made the easy 2 hour drive from Paris to the Loire to see some of the most spectacular chateaux.

The Loire Valley has the most densely populated cluster of chateaux in France.  This was the result of beaucoup de riches in the area.  In the 12th Century, French and English Kings hunkered down here, each one upping the other with the structures they could build.  King Francois I went so far as to bring Leonardo da Vinci from Italy for a Renaissance introduction to the area.  Dukes and counts starting their own building to watch over their boss' property and also protect themselves against everyone else.  Future wars saw an increase in defense for the chateaux with moats, tall brick walls, and even high backed chairs to protect from stabbings.  The area started acting as the defacto capital of France in the the 15th Century.  Louis XIV wanted to make his own name so soon he shifted things to Versailles.  There still stands many magnificient castles in this area.

We started with the largest chateaux in Loire, Chateau de Chambord.  The only thing I could do was gasp when I first saw it.  It's 420 feet long with 440 rooms and 365 chimneys.  Luckily a few of the chimneys were still working with fires during our visit as they don't exactly heat these grand palaces in the winter, so touring them in December was a bit chilly.

Work began in 1519 and continued for over 12 years.  Da Vinci was said to be an advisor on this project and likely the brainchild of the double helix staircase, because why would you want to run into someone while climbing the stairs.

The roof is the real eye catcher here.  I've never seen so many shapes and size of spires and domes on top of a building.  You can even get on the roof here for closer looks at the ornate detail.

Our next stop was the more modest Chateau de Chaumont.  They had a good strategic location on top of a bluff overlooking the Loire. 

Catherine de' Medici spent some time here with the court astrologer.  There's beautiful views, park land, stables and never hurts to have a grand opening of a drawbridge between twin turrets.

We camped out in Amboise to rest up for another round of castles the next day.  Amboise is a charming, small town with cobblestone, pedestrian streets with shops and restaurants scattered in between. 

In the summer the town is teaming with people, but while we were there, we had the place to ourselves.  We may have had to deal with chilly temps, but it was worth it to feel like the place was just opened to us.

Our hotel was an adorable inn that I'd recommend called Hotel le Clos d'Amboise.  I asked our host if there was a wine bar in town to have a drink before dinner, and he looked perplexed and apologized for only being able to offer us the name of a cocktail bar.  Melissa and my eyes lit up as vodka is one of our favorite food groups, and we had no issue trekking over a cross wind bridge to find "Shakers."  We got to the door and weren't able to open it.  We realized it was a type of private lounge with a bell you ring to enter.  Somehow we were allowed in and then were given a multi page cocktail list with way too many options.  Melissa found a section on the menu called "Vodka Experience," and with barely a word spoken, we were soon "experiencing" a flight of 8 different vodkas, each one flavored with something more fabulous than the next - speculoos, caramel, cucumber, pepper, melon.  It warmed our winter chill tout de suite.

We were then definitely ready for dinner and went to the recommended Le Lion d'Or.  Walking in, we realized we did in fact have the town to ourselves as we were the only people in the dining room.  We were a bit wary, but happy someone was serving food and then pleasantly surprised by the wonderful meal of mushroom veloute with poached egg and bacon, and a fabulous surf and turf of pork and langoustine.

In the morning we started with the beautiful Chateau de Chenonceau.  The Ladies like Catherine de' Medici and Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed time here and you can see the feminine touch in the gardens and castle. 


This chateau was used more for pleasure than protection, and while we were there, it was quite pleasing with many rooms decorated for Christmas.

Several of the chateau were closed while we were there, but we did some drive bys to admire the views like this one at Chateau de Cande.

With the castle closures, there were also restaurant closures, so we'd often just eat whenever we could find something open.  Such was the case when we visited the tiny town of Sache, where Balzac spent some time writing.  We found the adorable Auberge du XIIe Siecle and couldn't believe our good fortune that this beautiful looking place was open for lunch. 

The building has been around since the 19th Century and had historic wood beams and floor and a crackling fire to welcome us.  Then we opened the menu and saw that there were 3 fixed price options with the first one going for 78 euros.  Luckily there was one for 38 and we decided we should just eat since we didn't know what else lay ahead.  Best decision of the trip.

We received about 6 different amuse bouche that were some of the best tastes I've had since arriving in Paris with the most notable being a foie gras flan with caramel sauce.  Unbelievable.  I also had ordered a foie gras ravioli that was delicate and rich at the same time with a piece of crisp bacon across the top.

We had an orange duck for our main which was also delicious, but the dessert was an even better ending with a trio of petit crepes with a praline almond drizzle. 

We were done and ready to hit the road, or a nap, and then 4 more desserts came.  When the bill finally arrived, we actually couldn't believe the value and quality for the low price.  A great find.

Our final stop of the day was Azay le Rideau, another picture perfect town on the River Indre.  Lots of old stone churches, buildings, shops, and of course a Chateau.

This wasn't much of a secure fortress, but did have a moat surrounding the building for a little protection.


Chateau d'Usse was the castle that inspired the writing of Sleeping Beauty, and while we couldn't get inside, we could admire the view and see where the inspiration began.

On our last night we slept in the wine town of Chinon.  Again, we only shared the few streets with some locals, which made the experience all the more special. 

While there isn't a chateau here, there is a fortress with views of the city.

We joined the locals for a very good dinner at the newish La Part des Anges.  Another high quality meal for a low price.

On our way back to Paris the next day, we explored the Gardens of Villandy, which I expected to be dead in the middle of winter, but still worth a walk through.

We were the only one's there, but there was plenty growing - winter greens, eggplant, lettuce, pumpkins.

It was evident that there's still a full staff managing the precise details, clipping and topiary gardens.

We made a brief stop in Tours on the way back.  This was a much larger city, but has a medieval quarter with well preserved half timbered houses around Place Plumereau. 

 Now it's back to Paris for the final week....of the year at least.

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