Guest Notes for Episode 299: 5 Favorite Chateaux in the Loire Valley

Category: Loire Valley

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Paris/Loire Valley October 2019

 

Background and Trip Overview

 

My wife Suzanne and I are both 54 and enjoy traveling.  We currently live in Rochester, NY, which is in Western NY.  I grew up in and around NYC, and Suzanne and I lived there after college, so we are very comfortable in big cities.

 

This was not our first trip to Paris/France; it was the fifth vacation there for us, and I have been a couple times for business.  Suzanne and I speak little French.  I am pretty good with food terms because I like to cook, though I can make unfortunate mistakes at times.  But on the whole, we are limited to “bon jour,” “au revoir,” “carafe d’eau,” “l’adition si vous plait,” etc.

 

The first four vacations we took with our two sons (and, later, girlfriends).  The first was in April 2007, when our boys were 12 and 15; the second was in 2009; the third was in 2012, when we went after our older son did his study abroad in Paris for the summer; and the fourth was in 2015, when we went after our younger son did his study abroad in Paris for the summer.  So, this was the first Paris trip that was just for the two of us.

 

We arrived at CDG on the morning of October 3, 2019.  We stayed in Paris five nights (in the 6th Ar.) until October 8, 2019.  We then took a morning TGV train to Tours, rented a car at the station and toured the Loire Valley.  We stayed two nights in Chinon and two nights in Amboise.  We then took the train from Tours back to Paris and stayed our last night in the Marais.  We flew home from CDG on October 13, 2019.

 

Photography is a hobby of mine.  So, I think my wife plans these trips to take me places with outstanding views.  On that, to be clear, my wife is the chief trip planner.  While she will ask for my opinion on places to go and schedules, in the end, she’s the chief architect of the itinerary.

 

Paris

 

I’ll just list out the things we did in Paris.  Most are typical tourist things, so they have been covered well on your podcast.  If there is anything you would like me to discuss in more detail, just let me know.  We stayed in the 6th Arr. for the first five nights (Odeon Hotel) and then in the Marais for the last night before departing.  That one night in the Marais was the first time we had stayed anywhere in Paris other than the 6th.  We love the neighborhood of the 6th and especially Luxembourg Gardens.  Though there were extenuating circumstances, we would not stay in the Marais again.

 

We walked most of this trip—in years past, we used the Metro, particularly the trips where the boys were familiar with it, but this year we put many, many miles on our feet.  The weather was mostly cloudy and we did have a fair bit of drizzle, and sometimes a bit more than that.  We dressed appropriately and did not let that slow us down.

 

Here are the things we did in Paris itself for the first five days, some with explanatory notes.  If you want an actual “itinerary,” I can supply that.  Let me know if you want me to comment on anything in further detail:  Luxembourg Gardens (numerous times since we love it), St. Sulpice, Notre Dame, the Pantheon, Hop on/off bus (which is different than in years past and no longer as good), St. Chapelle, Eiffel Tower (first trip that we did not go up the tower and, honestly, I’m not happy with the changes), Rodin Museum (one of our favorites), Musee D’Orsay (our other favorite), Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, Palais Garnier (a first for us and very impressive—a Versailles substitute in my mind), Champs Elysee, Arc de Triomphe (first trip that we did not go up the arch), Parc Monceau (and surrounding neighborhood), Musea Jacquesmard-Andre, Paris Authentic-nighttime car tour (in a classic Citroen—pretty cool, but not cheap), the Louvre, Tuileries Garden, Musee L’Orangerie, and a bateau mouche cruise ride.

 

On our last day in Paris, we mainly just wandered around the Marais, went to the Place de Vosgues and did some shopping.

 

 

Loire Valley

 

We took an uber to the Montparnasse train station and took the TGV train to Tours (actually, Gare de St-Pierres des Corps).  We purchased tickets in advance, on-line.  This is the second time we have taken a TGV (the first was to Nice in 2015), and the experience couldn’t be easier.  The station is well marked and, even though everything is in French, it was easy to navigate for us even though we speak little French.  The trains are incredibly fast and comfortable.

 

We rented a car through Hertz.  The rental place was right next to the train station, so it was very convenient.  Driving outside of Paris is easy enough—if you use common sense and have Google maps (or whatever your favorite mapping program is).  I would also recommend listening to the podcast episode on driving in France.  That was extremely helpful.  The most confusing part was the ever-changing speed limits on the country roads.  I would strongly recommend making yourself a little cheat sheet to make sure you understand.  We did not really have any issues, though, as we’d always just pick the slower speed—we were sightseeing, were in no rush, and were happy to let others go around us.

 

One thing that struck me about our tour is that all of the sights were pretty close together, so a 30-minute drive between sights was pretty typical.  In many ways, the drives were a large part of the fun.  The little villages and rolling hillsides are incredibly picturesque and quaint.  One thing we did not find were easy or obvious opportunities for winery tours.  We had scheduled one in advance, but they cancelled a few weeks before our trip and we did not look to book another tour in advance, assuming that we’d just come across wineries as we drove.  Unlike Tuscany, where wineries were everywhere, they were not apparent in the Loire Valley.

 

One general point:  we went in early October, which is obviously not a busy part of the tourist season.  Given that, we had incredible access to the chateau we visited and regularly had good angles to take pictures without a ton of people in the way.  But, even still, there were plenty of people at each stop, particularly the well-recognized names.  I can imagine that the high tourist season would see these places packed with tourists and more difficult to navigate and enjoy (like Versailles).  On the flip side, being there in the off season meant that the small villages were often times pretty dead quiet—and not in a good way.

 

One thing to ask about is that many of the chateau are affiliated with each other in some way.  Point is, at many of them, there are two-for-one deals or at least discounts on the tickets if you buy both at the same time.

 

Chateau Villandry

 

Chateau Villandry was our first stop after picking up the car in Tours.  It was about a 30-minute car ride from the train station.  I understand that Tours is a smaller city but being in the countryside that quickly was very nice.  Chateau Villandry itself is also well worth the trip, and there is a fair amount to see inside.  But the real treat is outside.  The gardens are spectacular—and we were there in Autumn.  The grounds are well worth the trip and are some of the nicest and most well-manicured of all the chateau.

 

Make sure to go up behind the formal gardens as there are additional informal gardens with some more modern, whimsical sculptures.

 

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau

 

The drive from Villandry to Azay-le-Rideau was about 15-20 minutes.  Azay-le-Rideau is nicer inside than Villandry but the grounds are not quite as impressive/manicured.  But, the chateau is pretty much surrounded by a moat, so it does provide a different type of cool scenery.

 

Chinon

 

From Azay-le-Rideau we drove to Chinon to check in to our hotel.  It was about a 30-minute drive.  We stayed at the Hotel Diderot, which is on the outskirts of the town itself—though you could walk the whole town in about twenty minutes (and we did so several times).  The hotel was very quaint, and our room was lovely—real French manor style with beautiful furniture (either antique or faux, I’m no expert, but it was nice and “period”).  There was also an available “annex,” but we preferred the main house.

 

The included breakfast was excellent.  The hotel makes its own jams and, along with fresh bread, made for a fantastic meal.  While I would not necessarily recommend staying in Chinon, I would recommend the Hotel Diderot with only one minor reservation.  While we were there, a Rick Steves’ tour was also using the hotel.  While that did not really bother us, they (and the hotel employees) were a bit proprietary about the common spaces.

 

A word about the parking at the hotel.  They have “on-site” parking that is “first come, first served” and the gates close at 9:00 p.m.  They had alternate parking about 100 meters away.  It was not an issue for us, particularly in October, but I imagine well could be during high season.

 

The town of Chinon itself is quite small.  Our first day, we made a critical “feeding” error and did not get a proper lunch.  By the time we checked in to the hotel, everything in town—and I mean everything—was closed.  That was a bit frustrating.

 

Later in the day, we found a beautiful wine cave in the walls of the Chinon fortress:  Caves M Plouzeau, which is owned by the winery of the same name.  The hotel also directed us to a very cozy wine bar, La Cabane à Vin, where we had some fine local wine and pre-dinner snack.  The wine bar had a great selection of local wines to sample and fun charchuterie; we actually went back the next night.  The proprietor was welcoming and a great host.  Dinner that first night was unplanned, and we ended up eating at a restaurant called L’Entrepotes.  The food and service were good and I’d certainly eat there again.

 

Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud

 

The drive from Chinon to Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud was about 25 minutes or so.  I say “or so” because this was the only time in our trip where the parking for the attraction was poorly marked.  So, we drove around a bit looking for it.

 

To be honest, the Abbaye was probably the only place we went to that we thought we could have skipped.  While there were some nice views, it was, in a word, creepy.  The Abbaye has a disturbing history, having been converted to a brutal prison for a long time.  So, while it is “on the tour,” if you are looking to save some time, this would be a skip.  And besides, it is not really a “chateau”.

 

               Chateau d’Ussé

 

The drive from the Abbaye to Chateau d’Ussé is about 30 minutes.  Again, sorry to keep saying the same thing, but this is a “must do”.  Beautiful building and grounds.  There are some slightly weird aspects inside, though, as there are odd mannequins populating the chateau.  They advertise it as a model for Cinderella’s castle at Disney (or at least one of the models).

 

In addition to the chateau itself, the on-site chapel is in wonderful condition, as are the stables.  There are also storage caves/cellars carved into the limestone hills backing the chateau that you can tour.

 

Lunch tip:  we had lunch in a little café right across the street from the chateau called Café Dechemin Eric.  Nothing fancy but straightforward fare.  It gets panned in some of the reviews, but what are you expecting from a café across the street from a tourist attraction?  It does have a lovely view of the chateau from the patio seating.

 

Château de Chinon

 

After that, it was back to Chinon and a visit to the Royal Chateau de Chinon.  The drive from d’Usse back to Chinon was about 20 minutes.  Both the Chinon and Amboise “chateau” were two of my favorites.  Both were “royal” chateau, meaning that a king was resident in them for some period of time, and both are as much castles or hilltop fortifications as chateaus.  Both are built on a hill overlooking the town and the river, and both having stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

 

The second night in Chinon, we had dinner at Au Chapeau Rouge.  It is one of the “recommended” places by all the guidebooks for dinner and also by our hotel.  Frankly, we were disappointed.  The food was just ok, and the service was pretty haughty.  It was the only time in five trips to France where we were made to feel uncomfortable and, pretty much, unwelcome.

 

Before leaving Chinon in the morning we were lucky enough to get to go to the weekly market in the town square.  Fresh produce, breads, clothes, etc.  Friendly people (who spoke almost no English).

 

               Château de Chenonceau

 

The drive from Chinon to Chenonceau was slightly over an hour.  It is the chateau that spans the River Cher.  In a word, Chenonceau is stunning.  From the walk up to path towards the chateau, lined with trees, to the guard house in front of the chateau, to the extensive grounds themselves.  It is a remarkable place both inside and out.  There is plenty of history and it is beautifully illustrated throughout the chateau.  The formal gardens are outstanding and the view of the chateau spanning the river is one of the highlights of the trip.  Simply put, if you are only going to do one or two days, Chenonceau is on the short list.

 

There is an on-site café/restaurant.  We went in the morning, so it was not open, but convenient if you are there at lunch time.  In addition to indoor seating, it had outdoor tables with a full view of the chateau.  Menu looked inviting and it is billed as “fine dining” though we did not try it.  There is also a wine cave with tastings available.

 

               Amboise

 

From Chenonceau we drove to Amboise to check in to our hotel.  The drive was about 20 minutes.  We stayed at the Hotel Le Manoir Les Minimes.  Again, I would strongly recommend the hotel.  As with our hotel in Chinon, it was a medium-size boutique hotel with a nice breakfast.  The staff was extremely helpful and kind (more on that below).  While the place was an old house (really a manor), the rooms were redone with a mix of modern amenities (large rooms and a spacious bathroom) and French country charm (e.g., wooden beams).  It is also in a great location a quick walk to the town center and a short walk to the Loire River (which our room overlooked).  It is literally at the foot of the hill on which the Royal Chateau of Amboise sits.  There was also ample parking out front.

 

Of note, the walk home in the evening after dinner is particularly nice, since they light the chateau.

 

               Chateau Le-Clos Luce

 

After checking in, we walked to Le-Clos Luce (about a 15-minute walk), which is the chateau that Leonardo DaVinci lived in the last several years of his life.  It is a small chateau, meaning it is not as grand as others we toured.  However, it has expansive grounds.  They do a nice job of displaying many of DaVinci’s inventions and designs and it would be especially good for families with children (say 6-15) because of the DaVinci displays, many of which are interactive.  If you have limited time, Clos Luce may not be in the top five that I would recommend.

 

After Clos Luce, we stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Amboise called Via Roma, which was on the road just across from the Royal Amboise Chateau.  The food and service were both excellent and the prices were very reasonable.  It was also nice to have a change of pace food wise.  There were clearly a lot of locals eating there (men in business attire), which I always take as a good sign.

 

               Royal Chateau of Amboise

 

After lunch, we went to the Royal Chateau of Amboise.  As with the Royal Chinon Chateau, this one is on a hill overlooking the Loire River.  Again, I really enjoyed the views and the architecture.  Like some of the others, this chateau had a lot of historical notes.  Much of it is also remarkably well preserved and accessible.

 

We had reservations for dinner both nights in Amboise.  The first night was at a restaurant called Les Arpents.  The second night was going to be our “fancy dinner” at Chateau de Pray (a Michelin starred restaurant).  We ended up cancelling both and eating both nights at a bistro in town called Chez Bruno.  The food was great; the atmosphere was great; the service was great; and it was a short walk home.  Our friends at the hotel were a little “disappointed” in us for going back there the second night (over Chateau de Pray, which has a very good reputation), but we enjoyed the casual atmosphere of Chez Bruno and the food was well worth it.  The owners have their own winery.  Make reservations.

 

Chateau Cheverny

 

The drive from Amboise to Cheverny was about 45 minutes.  Cheverny is also a “must see.”  Unlike many of the other chateau that were looted during the French Revolution or otherwise over the years and had to be “restocked” with period furniture, Cheverny was not.  Reportedly, the family that owned it at the time (and still does) were good to their tenants and thus it was spared.  Whatever the reason, the interior is beautiful and the tour through is well organized and filled with exquisite furniture.  The grounds are nice.  There is no stunning formal garden like some other chateau but there are dogs, many, many hunting dogs.  The owner of the chateau reportedly likes to hunt and keeps a well-stocked kennel.

 

Feeding time for the dogs is a must see.  Times are advertised.  Definitely get there early enough to get a spot along the fence where you can see well.

 

There are also other activities available at the chateau, including golf cart tours and boat tours on the grounds.  We did not partake.

 

Chateau de Chambord

 

The drive from Cheverny to Chambord was about 20 minutes.  We saved the best for last.  Chambord is spectacular, overwhelming, borderline unbelievable.  It is reminiscent of a wedding cake.  The scale of the place is Versailles-like.  (I like it better than Versailles.)  The grounds are extensive and the views from the roof are endless.

 

There are a ton of rooms open for touring.  Some of the rooms are enormous and made more start by the absence of furniture (which is in part a result of the history of Chambord).  The scale is just completely different than any other chateau in the Loire Valley.

 

The double helix staircase, possibly designed by Leonardo DaVinci, is a signature sight there.

 

There is also a “food court” for lack of a better description.  It was far from haute cuisine, but we did get a perfectly acceptable lunch before starting our visit.

 

The drive back to Amboise was about 50 minutes.

 

As mentioned, we went back to Chez Bruno for dinner.  Again, delicious and highly recommended.

 

As I mentioned I would, another word about the staff at the hotel in Amboise.  Late in the evening of our last night in the Loire, we received word that Suzanne’s mom had passed away.  While she had Alzheimer’s for years and had been in a nursing home for some time, it was still sudden and a shock.  We decided to go for a walk (around midnight).  When we came down the stairs, the concierge was just finishing up for the night.  We mentioned the fact that Suzanne’s mom had just passed and that we were going to go for a walk to clear our heads.  He could not have been kinder and more understanding.  In fact, when we returned from our walk, we found a lovely, hand-written note from him expressing his condolences.  For such a young guy (in his 20s), it was a sensitive and moving gesture.

 

Trip back to Paris

 

A quick note on this.  We were traveling back to Paris on a Sunday.  The Hertz location was closed.  We knew that, and the Hertz employees told us when we picked up the car that we should park the car and leave the keys in a local hotel.  The parking at the train station was, to put it mildly, difficult.  The parking lots were completely full.  We found a spot on the street, about ¼ mile away from the station, but it was hard to tell if it was legal and would remain so until the next day.  After circling around for a while, we got lucky when a train arrived and a few spots opened up.

 

Other than that, the trip back was easy.

 

As noted above, we stayed in the Marais.  While our hotel was on a side street, there was incredible street noise ALL NIGHT LONG.  At that point, we were not much in the mood to party, we had an early trip to CDG, and it was not a great experience.  To us, the Marais is just a little too crowded and active.

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Category: Loire Valley