Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Loire Valley

(I'm sorry these posts are so ridiculously long, but I can't figure out how to do extended posts with this new template. We'll be back to more reasonably sized posts after this.)

Day 7: le 4 août, samedi


We reckon that we spent upwards of 15 hours at Puy du Fou, so no wonder we slept in late. We decided to skip breakfast and hit the road.

Just before noon, we decided to stop in the town of Saumur to grab a bite to eat. Saumur is a great town I'd love to spend more time in. Plus, we happened to get there while an open air market was in progress and we randomly passed a British couple selling books in English. I picked up two novels for 10€ before we stumbled into a bar offering sandwiches. Pretty good sandwiches, too, and you can't beat the price.

The temperature was rising as we drove a couple more hours to the town of Amboise. Thanks to its proximity to the famous Châteaux de la Loire, Amboise is pretty crowded with tourists. We arrived at 3:00 and made finding a hotel our first priority. The first hotel we stopped at featured a large terrace and we waited several minutes at the counter for someone to wait on us, until a waiter told us that we'd have to wait until after 4:00 if we were interested in a room. Fine with us, we decided to take our business elsewhere. The next place we tried was a winner. I'm sorry I don't remember the name; it was either Hôtel de la France or Hôtel Français. In either case, we scooped up the last room, complete with a full bathroom, at only 45€. We paid in advance and added in breakfast for the next morning as well. The owner even was kind enough to warn us that the bar below our room was having a rock n roll band that night, but said they should be finished at 11:00. We were so happy to find a room so easily that we didn't mind.

Once the room was taken care of, we paused for a cool drink on a terrace right in front of the Office of Tourism (carefully avoiding the one with bad customer service). Thinking that it might not be a bad idea to check out the hours of the châteaux we were interested in seeing, we popped in to the Office of Tourism, where we learned that we could buy tickets to the three closest attractions, all of which we wanted to visit, at a discounted price. Plus, we wouldn't have to wait in line to buy tickets when we arrived. Bonus! This is a great tip for tourists - always check out the Office of Tourism when you arrive in town - any town!

Since it was only 4:00 by now, we decided to check out the first attraction, the Château Royal d'Amboise.

Chateau Royal d'Amboise

This 15th/16th century castle was the first French castle built in the Renaissance style. Inside the castle, there is a short tour of some of the rooms, including some interesting furniture and paintings. But what really drew me to this château is the fact that it is Leonardo Da Vinci's final resting place.

I had read Letters to Leonardo: A Novel, which is centered on the last three years of Leonardo's life, which he spent here in Amboise, only a few months before, so the stories of his friendship with King François I and his last inventions were fresh in my mind. The following day we would visit his house, Clos Lucé.

After our visit, we parked the car closer to the hotel and brought up our bags and had a rest. Stéph had a nap while I watched the Daily Show Global Edition (yay Jon Stewart!). We roused ourselves when the weather seemed to cool down a bit and we had a little stroll through Amboise. Like I said, it's crowded with tourists and filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, so we settled on a little pizzeria just in front of the Château. Afterwards, we grabbed a couple of ice cream cones and walked along the Loire as the sun went down.

The Loire

As we crashed in our room, we were lulled to sleep by the rock n roll band below us playing such classic French tunes as Mustang Sally, I Feel Good and Sweet Home Alabama. Actually they weren't half bad, and they did stop at the reasonable hour of 11:30.

Day 8: le 5 août, dimanche

Breakfast in the hotel consisted of one croissant and one half of a small baguette each, with jam and butter, plus yogurt and all the juice, coffee and tea you could drink. We were stuffed afterwards.

Our first stop for the day was the Clos Lucé, where Leonardo spent his last three years as the guest of King François I.

Clos Lucé

Inside, you can see Leonardo's bedroom and study, the chapel that (if I remember well) Leonardo's apprentices painted, and the kitchen. What I didn't know is that the house was used by the royal family through the 18th century, and features some rooms decorated from that period. The basement also has a really cool exhibit of some of Leonardo's inventions, many of which are very surprising and before their time.

Outside is the huge Parc Leonardo da Vinci, a wonderful walk, mostly shaded by trees, with exhibits scattered throughout where you can pause and hear the words of Leonardo spoken in four or five different languages, plus interactive exhibits to understand better Leonardo's inventions. It would be very easy to spend a good chunk of the day here, with loads of things to see and picnic areas and playgrounds for kids. I don't think we saw half of them. But, we still had other places to visit so we decided to move on.

Our next visit was the famous château of Chenonceau, where we were delighted to pass the long line for buying tickets and marched right through the gate. We thought that arriving at noon would save us from the crowds, but boy were we wrong. After a quick run through the small labyrinth (I won, woo!), we made our way up to the castle.


Chenonceau is probably the most popular château in the Loire Valley for good reason - the place is gorgeous! Unfortunately, the château was SO crowded that it really sucked the joy out of being there. Every room, beautifully decorated with interesting objects, was so full of people that you could barely see anything, and my first instinct was to run the hell away. We took a breather in the long gallery where we discovered that we could escape the crowds and sneak out on the other side of the river, where I caught this:

Click on the photo to go to the flickr page, and check it out in large. Seriously, I surprised myself with this one!

Another happy surprise was the art exhibit on the second level gallery, featuring the Alice in Wonderland series of paintings by Pat Andrea. We both enjoyed that very much, and if you're interested in contemporary art, it's worth the visit.

Disappointed by the crowds, we left sort of quickly. Chenonceau is absolutely gorgeous and well worth the visit, but I hope someday I'll be able to return in the off-season when it's not so crowded so I can really give the place a good once-over.

Continuing east, we stopped in the town of Blois a couple of hours later. By now the heat was really getting to us. We ate some really bad pasta - at least it was super cheap - and contemplated looking for a hotel, but after walking around for a while looking for the Office of Tourism, our brains kind of melted and we decided to continue on. It seemed there were several interesting sights in Blois, including another château and an interesting pedestrian area, so that might be a place I'd be interested in visiting in the future.

We ended up in Orléans. Just as we exited the autoroute, we were surrounded by large chain hotels, so we decided to try here instead of marching around downtown in search of a hotel. We randomly chose the B&B hotel, where we were able to take a room at the automated kiosk outside. The kiosk spits out a code for opening the door, where we were overjoyed to find an air conditioning unit. We spent a couple of hours just enjoying the cool.

In the evening, we headed into Orléans proper, with the aim of walking around a little and finding a place to eat. We stopped at a little Cuban themed bar where we had a mojito (not the best I've ever had), and continued on in the pedestrian area of town, stuffed with bars and restaurants. Most of the places seemed to have an international feel - I remember a Spanish place, a Florida bar, loads of Indian and Pakistani places. We finally chose an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal where we had, hands down, the best meal of the whole vacation. Since neither of us are familiar with Indian food, we took the menu "dégustation," which is a tasting menu with lots of different dishes. For only 26€ plus drinks, we gorged ourselves on curry, tandoori chicken, fried eggplant, naan and other delights. Seriously, we waddled away from there. The service was wonderful and I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself in Orléans.

By now, we were suffering from full on vacation fatigue. I managed to snap one photo to prove that we were actually in Orléans before we went back to the air conditioned comfort of our room.


Day 9: le 6 août, lundi

We woke up to rain. It's time to go home.

We stopped in the town of Montargis, which was DEAD. Seriously, it seemed like the whole town was gone on vacation. It was kind of creepy. We finally found a crèperie that was open and enjoyed a final restaurant meal before heading home, which we reached by early afternoon.

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