7 November 2012 – The Loire Valley, Castles, Chateaus and Spectacular Gardens

The Loire Valley has been on our ‘to do’ list for a long time. Before we left we researched and were still undecided the best way to approach it.  Ideally a few days to explore different chateaus and towns would have been nice but we are running out of time so it looked like it was back to our original plan of a day trip. Several companies run day trips out of the town of Tours but they are all bus based and are about 14 hours long. We weren’t sure this was a good idea with a baby. We had debated hiring a car and doing it ourselves but it did seem like a lot of effort. In the end, we decided to go with the car and do our own tour. The car option was very similar in cost to the bus tours, so price wasn’t really an issue. We figured it was best for Astrid, and we actually got to see the chateaus we wanted as none of the tours went to the combination of places we wanted. It turns out the car was a very good decision.

A 6am start again.  Astrid somehow slept through our alarms and bashing around getting ready until we had to wake her to get dressed. We efficiently got down to the metro station and had a long ride to Gare Montparnasse. We hadn’t been there before and the main lines are a fair walk from the metro and involved as many travellators as we have seen since Heathrow.  Our SNCF train to Tours was on time and we were away by 7.30am. The trip to Tours was very efficient. Tours is 240km South of Paris but it only took a little over an hour to get there as the train cruised at 300km/h for most of the trip and only had 1 stop.  Astrid was very well behaved and murdered a chocolate brioche for breakfast.

Our first stuff up the day was not getting off at the correct stop. I thought we were going to the end of the line but it turns out it was the stop before. Anto had the correct stop but by the time we checked it the doors had locked and we were stuck on the train. It wasn’t far down the line but it cost us half an hour to get back.  Then we had to find the car hire place and obtain our car. Some confusing signs had us wandering all over the train station in the cold but we eventually obtained our car, complete with car seat for Astrid. The car was also equipped with GPS and reversing camera, both of which came in handy!

One of the reasons we decided to go for our self-drive option was to allow Astrid to sleep while we drove around. She is hard to contain on buses and rarely sleeps. This paid off early as she napped on the way to our first stop.  One of the down sides of our self-drive option was that we had to drive. So far we haven’t really been on the roads much, even as passengers. The whole driving on the other side of the road thing is pretty freaky. Anto did well negotiating a car with everything back to front and navigating through a busy town when all the cars seem to be on the wrong side of the road.  Once we got out of Tours (which is a large but uninteresting city) we got into the realm of windy roads and tiny narrow streets, with houses jutting out into the road and speed limits of 30km/h. We frequently had to stop to let cars pass on the other side as the roads were way too narrow.  We survived and manage to find our way to the town of Villandry, which is where the chateau and gardens of Villandry are located. I have been hanging out to see Villandry gardens for years, so was rather excited to finally get there. I had high expectations!

Chateau and Jardins de Villandry
Villandry was built in 1536 along the banks of the Loire river. Villandry is famous for it’s amazing gardens.  The gardens include an ornamental garden, woods, a maze, a herb garden, a vegetable garden, and a renaissance kitchen garden. The gardens are laid out in a formal pattern and created with low box hedges.  Aspects of the garden are replanted seasonally. The vegetable garden was gorgeous, and was a very cute way of doing vegies! Astrid also love the cat that resided in the vegie garden and stole some of our bread.  We spent ages walking around admiring all the intricate patterns and lovely plants.  The gardens are quite large and very impressive. There were teams of gardeners out replanting and pruning. Apparently it takes three months for  the team of gardeners just to prune the fruit trees.  We did love the pair of swans cruising around their very large formal pond!

Astrid had a good run around and loved the gardens, despite it being quite cold still. She ran up and down the gravel and had a few spills but didn’t seem to mind too much. We could have spent all day wandering the gardens and taking photos but after about an hour and a half we thought we should head to our next stop or we wouldn’t get everything done. Villandry definitely didn’t disappoint, I’d go back there in a flash!

Our next stop was the town of Amboise and Chateau Amboise.  Getting from Villandry to Amboise was another 45 minute drive through some scary small lanes.  However, it was nice seeing some of the French country-side and cute little towns.  Astrid had slept most of the way again, which we were very pleased about. It was a long day so any sleep was good sleep. The driving was a little nerve wracking but the GPS was invaluable. We thought we were doing well to still being staying on the correct side of the road.  At times, our small car barely fitted……..  this is a typical view driving through a village:

Once in Amboise it was lunch time and it was supposed to be a nice spot to stop. The Chateau is very imposing and sits atop a hill looking over the town. We found a parking spot and wandered through the town, which was full of interesting buildings and lots of lovely cafes. Not far from the chateau was a nice looking restaurant so we stopped in for lunch. My second mistake of the day was managing to order 2 different salads for my lunch, one with meat. Anto ended up with one of my salads and his duck he ordered. He didn’t mind except it meant we took longer for lunch than we anticipated and we didn’t get time to try their crepes, which looked very yummy. Especially the salted butter caramel ones.  Astrid tried a bit of everything, and made a huge mess as usual.  Lunch was lovely and we could have spent all afternoon there but the Chateau awaited.

Chateau Amboise is a medieval fortress which made way for a royal residence during the reigns of King Charles VIII and Francois I (late 15th-early 16th Century). Many European artists stayed at Amboise over the years, including Leonardo da Vinci, whose tomb is in the chateau’s chapel.

The chateau is a top the hill overlooking the town and has extensive gardens, a chapel and imposing cavalry towers. There were several layers of gates and thick stone walls leading up the hill to the chateau. There was no way anyone was sneaking up on them!  The chateau was quite impressive. Lots of lovely rooms and the interior was lovely. It was very well-preserved and you wouldn’t know it had been there for a few hundred years.  The royal apartments within the chateau were quite luxurious and had beautiful views over the town and river.  The gardens were huge and you could imagine sitting out in them, drinking and surveying your kingdom.

After a walk around the chateau and gardens we figured we had to rush off to get to our next destination. We spent about an hour walking around and were moving at a fair pace. A lot of the chateau and underground tunnels were not open, so it might have taken longer if everything was open.  Most of the organised tours only allow about 40 minutes per chateau, and I doubt you would see much in that time.

Chateau de Chambord, at Chambord was on our list of must sees as it is straight out of a fairy tale. It is also enormous, and extremely imposing. Chambord was over an hours drive from Amboise but we got there without incident. Astrid didn’t sleep but did rest so was in a good mood once we arrived. It was now 4pm and we only had about an hour before we had to start the long drive back to Tours. Chateau de Chambord is famous for it’s French renaissance architecture. It was constructed by King Francois I and was never completed. It is enormous, with over 90 rooms, a double helix staircase, and roof-terraces that look over the 5440 hectare estate, which is the largest enclosed forest park in Europe.

Even approaching the Chateau from the car park, which is about a kilometre from the chateau you can see how huge it is! We wandered through Chambord (at pace). It takes ages to snake your way through the enormous rooms and up and down the stairs. Most of the rooms are huge, and have multiple rooms leading off them. Everything comes off the central areas but it’s easy to get lost. The views from the top were magnificent and you can imagine sitting out there waiting for hunters to return from the woods with the night’s dinner. Even after an hour we didn’t see close to all of the rooms. Only part of the chateau is open and the rooms that are furnished are very impressive. The residents certainly lived in the lap of luxury and half a country could reside in there! Despite the grandeur it wood have been a bit spooky at night as it was just so enormous and was a bit dark and cold.

We headed out as it was starting to get dark. Had we have had more time we would have gone on one of the boat rides in the lake on the property and walked around the woods. You could spend an entire day there and not even see half of it. It is extremely impressive though and definitely worth a visit. We would have liked to have eaten in one of the many nice looking cafes in the chateau grounds but we figured we should head back in case we got lost. We theoretically had an extra hour up our sleeves but thought it best not to be pushed for time.

The trip back
Aside from an issue getting the parking machine to accept our money, we made it out of Chambord without incident. Some winding through town for about 15 minutes and we hit a highway and could go 130km/h which made the 80km trip back to Tours go much quicker. It was also much less stressful driving on a highway which is why we planned to go back that way.

We were hoping Astrid would sleep on the way back, but no such luck. She was being pretty good though and we made good time until we had an incident trying to pay our toll getting off the toll way. Our understanding of their signage was not what they intended and we were probably lucky the people in the cars stopped behind us didn’t hit us. We had another issue with machines not accepting our cards but we eventually got into the correct lane and escaped the toll way. We did miss the turn off for the road side petrol station, which turned out to be a huge problem. The GPS allowed us to program in petrol stations. Only 2km from the drop off point for our car and with an hour to go til our train things were good……. until the first petrol station was closed. Then the next one was open but had a huge line and then again wouldn’t accept our cards and was pay at the pump only. We only had time for one more go and eventually found one that gave us petrol and let us pay. All of this took almost an hour of driving in circles. Astrid was getting a little annoyed at it was late and she hadn’t had dinner (and we had been promising stopping and dinner). This was the only time she was cranky all day but was fixed by me sitting in the back seat with her.

We eventually made it back to the car drop off point 10 minutes before they closed and 20 minutes before our train. It was dark and cold and we were starving. Off course there was nothing really to eat at the train station and we were cursing not getting something earlier. We will not speak of what we actually fed our child for dinner that night, but she enjoyed it!

Our train was 10 mins late but made up the time during the trip. We were expecting some bad behaviour from Astrid given how late it was and how long the day was and her lack of proper dinner. We had intended to get her milk for the train and it was the only train station yet not to have any, and the restaurant car was shut on the train. Really not our night! Despite all this she happily sat on our laps and played quietly on the trip back.  Once back in Paris we made the trek back through the train station to the metro. Astrid fell asleep in the ergo during the walk to the metro stop and slept the whole metro ride back.  We arrived back at our apartment a bit after 9pm and after some milk we got the sleepy one off to bed with no fuss.

We were extremely impressed at how well she had coped with a 15 hour day. Of which there was at least 4.5 hours on trains, 350km of driving and multiple hours of walking around gardens and chateaus. She was a total trooper!

We loved our day in the Loire valley and were so pleased we decided to hire the car. We saw more of the country side than we would have on a bus. We weren’t too rushed and we got to see the chateaus we wanted. We were happy with our selection. Most of the organised tours see 4 or 5 chateaus but we thought that was too much for 1 day. We tried to pick 3 that were a bit different from each other and that is what we got. A few days of touring the area and checking out the towns and other chateaus would have been lovely but it was a great day out nonetheless.

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