The next morning, we left bright and early for Amboise in the Loire Valley. We stopped by Rennes, the capital of Brittany, for a visit to the beautiful cathedral and to see some of the ruins of the first city walls built between 266 and 280—and we think 200 years old is ancient in the U.S.! Our stop was quick, but we took time to walk around and see some of the half-timbered houses for which the town is famous.
And then we continued to Amboise, our base for the next few days. (There are many towns that can serve as bases for Loire Valley visits, but we like staying in a town where we can walk to restaurants and walk around.)
We arrived at our hotel, Le Manoir Saint Thomas, in time to walk to the first Chateau (aka Castle) on our list, the Château du Clos Lucé. (Note: Check which days the different chateaus are open. Scheduling can be tricky.)
The Château du Clos Lucé was the home of Leonardo de Vinci for his final three years of life. King Francois I brought da Vinci to Amboise not just for his art, but also for his ability to design futuristic towns and weaponry. (Da Vinci’s importance to King Francois I is emphasized by the tunnel that was built to connect the Château du Amboise to the Château du Clos Lucé. Unfortunately, the tunnel is closed, but it is fun to imagine the midnight trips between the two.) Château du Clos Lucé is not a castle like most of the others in the Loire Valley. Instead, it is a very livable house, relatively small and unadorned, with fantastic gardens designed by da Vinci himself. The garden and the basement feature hands-on models of some of da Vinci’s works including a tank, Archimedes screw, and machine guns. (Don’t worry. Nothing is loaded or dangerous!)
After our visit to the château, we headed to a fabulous dinner at L’Iliot, a family-owned establishment with wonderful atmosphere and service. The chef/owner gave us the menu and was charming throughout our meal. The appetizer of Croustillant terre et mer was one of the best dishes we had in France—and we had many wonderful meals. Our experience was so good that we tried to eat at the restaurant again during our stay, but they were booked. (We were thankful that our hotel had sent us a list of possible restaurants several weeks before our visit and made reservations for us at our choices. Throughout France, reservations were a must!)
The next day we headed to the Château de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (We originally planned to visit two châteaus each day, but we opted to spend more time walking around each one and enjoying good food and wine. The Château de Chambord is the largest castle in France. It has 440 rooms, 85 staircases, and a fireplace for every day of the year. French kings and other members of the nobility built hunting lodges in the Loire Valley and lived in them during parts of the year.
Of course, every one of the châteaux had to be bigger and better than the last. The double helix staircase that is a main attraction in Chambord was built so that a person going up the stairs and a person going down would never see each other. Da Vinci is thought to have created the idea for the staircase, but he never saw the completion of the château.
A special section of the Château de Chambord is dedicated to its role as an art depository in WWII. Though Chambord was originally to be a staging area for art from Paris to be sent to other safe places, the castle became a storage place for many pieces of art from the Louvre. All art stored in the Château de Chambord survived the war and was returned to their rightful homes including the Mona Lisa and the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry.
A stop at a winery, a visit to the charming église Saint-Florentin, wandering the streets of Amboise, and another wonderful dinner, this time in the shadow of the Château de Amboise at L’Epicerie, topped off a perfect day.
The last day of our stay in the Loire Valley was dedicated to the Château de Chenonceau, one of the most beautiful castles in the valley and one with an intriguing women-centric history. The 1500’s owner was absent so much that his wife, Katherine Briçonnet, handled most of the building decisions. In 1535, King Francois I took the château in exchange for unpaid debt. Henry II received it upon Francois I’s death and promptly gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. (She built the picturesque bridge across the Loire.) Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici, quickly took the Château de Chenonceau from Diane—in exchange for the not-so-desirable Château du Chaumont. The château’s story continues through various other royal battles and females, all of whom are immortalized in the museum within the castle.
A note about the chateaux: Most do not require advance tickets; however, the Château de Chenonceau does because of its popularity.
The chateaux have very little furniture, probably because very few were fully furnished. The royalty traveled throughout their kingdoms and so would spend relatively little time at any one of their residences. They and their retinue, sometimes consisting of 2,000 people, would pack up their furniture with the staff going on before the royalty to set up the household. I guess this would take care of the people who always wanted to sleep in their own beds!
We wandered around the gardens and back down to the entrance where we had a quick lunch to wait while the rain stopped before we headed back to Amboise for a wine tour of Caves Duhard Winery which has been making Loire Valley wines since 1874. Our guide through the caves was very interesting and we experienced some interesting aspects we hadn’t seen before. For example, one of the displays was a chance to identify bouquets (aka smells) that wines can have. Some, like coffee, were easy to identify while others defied my nose. The video was also a great difference in this winery, and we enjoyed the tasting with no pressure to buy—though we did.
The last night in Amboise was highlighted by a dinner at Chez Bruno. Again, we ate in the shadow of the Château Amboise, but we also experienced a beautiful golden glow as we dined al fresco in the colorful sunset. (We did not visit the Château Amboise this trip. With over 300 in the Loire Valley alone, we could not possibly tour them all!)
And the next day we were off to Chartres as our last stop on our northern France road trip before checking in our car and catching the train to Paris.
Chartres was on our list because of its grand Cathédrale Notre-Dame, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was completed in 1220. The cathedral is famous for its united Gothic architecture made possible because it was completed in only 30 years—an unusual feat in that day. Most of its original stained glass is still in place to give an impressively beautiful experience to visitors. In the center is a labyrinth, the most intact one in France, that pilgrims traversed on their feet or on their knees. We were disappointed that chairs covered the maze when we were there, but I understand that there are certain days that the chairs are moved so pilgrims can still walk the sacred path.
We enjoyed wandering around the cathedral while taking in the exterior views of the magnificent structure. We stopped for a delicious meal at Le Café Serpente and sat under the awning waiting for the rain to let up. The biggest challenge on our road trip was returning the car to the correct place—especially during pouring rain. Unfortunately, our car company did not give directions as to where to leave the car—in a parking lot near the train station—so we spent a lot of time driving and walking around trying to find the correct location. Thankfully, the staff in the train station came to the rescue and we finally turned in our car and caught our train to Paris!
An on to Paris for a few days there before heading home to plan for our next adventure!
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