My Momma was in town! After touring for two weeks with the Magnolia Sisters my mom was ending her trip with us in Paris. Well…sort of. Mom, being the smart lady she is didn’t want to spend four august days in hot, mostly everything is closed, Paris. So we escaped! Along with the fella we rented a car and drove to Val de Loire to see some chateaux and drink some wine! with truly only those two things as objectives we set out.
Val de Loire is only an hour and a half outside of Paris (give or take traffic) and is a wonderful change from the whole city. Some of the Chateaux are even assesable directly by SNCF trains so they make an easy day trip. We started out by going into Orléans. Neither mom and I had ever been so it was pretty cool to discover this adorable city built and paved with white limestone. It was so charming, a full metropolis with shopping and transit but two steps away from the Loire, this ragging, massive, wild river that just won us over. In the main square we loved that we found magnolia trees in bloom around the statue of Joan of Arc. It was a nice reminder of home (not to mention just being in the namesake of New Orleans).
We slowly made our way to the VERY small town we were staying just outside of Blois. The town of Mer was more than tiny! they had two pharmacies and 3 kebab stores and that was it. But it was so charming. Later on we discovered by walking into the inhabited parts of the town there were fresh springs flowing through it, what a cool thing! We were staying in a guest house that we had found through Gites de France a great site where you can find lodging in someone’s home or vacation rentals in France. You can even stay in a private chateaux!
Insider’s tip: find the phone number of the places you like, or their email and check your dates with them personally. When we were trying to book the site said no vacancy but the places we liked the most had plenty of room for us. It averaged out to about 45 euros a person for the cozy house we stayed in with a lovely garden and really nice people.L’Épicerie D’Arlette, La cafetière émaillée 1 route National 41500 tel 02 54 81 32 20
Our first night the fella and I went out for a drive around the Chateaux Chambord which has a 13,000 acre forest around it (that’s the size of intramural paris!!!) that you can drive or discover on foot. There are also lots of activities like boating, horseback ridding, even 4-wheelers in the woods. We just road around however, trying to spot the notorious wildlife (deer, wild boar…) that overruns the forest. Afterwards we went to a wonderful little épicerie [L’Épicerie D’Arlette] and small restaurant/ antique market at the entry of Mer to taste some local wine. We were NOT disappointed. We fell on an adorable shop where the owners lived in the back and continued to serve us wine as they ate dinner with their granddaughter in their garden. We returned two days later for our last supper with Mom and the owner’s husband was playing jazz Manouche inside. It was incredible after a day of walking to sit and eat local chèvre, drinking some of the best white wine I have ever had in my life and having the airs of this uniquely French music floating on the wind.
We saved a good bit of money by buying a Chateau pass at the tourists office (in every town and also one in every chateau also online). We chose a groupe of Chateau Chambord/Chenonceau/Blois/Cheverny for around 40 euros each. We saved around 10 euros each.
Visit #1: Le Chateaux Chambord
What a behemoth of a castel, who couldn’t be impressed! This Castel has 144 rooms! It was the fantasy of Francois 1ere that he fashioned after an imaginary castel in the Heroic tales of Amadis de Gaule. The castel was drawn up by Leonardo De Vinci! Who’s chief impression on the castel is its central staircase that if two people climbed and descended it at the same time, they would never meet! This castel was a massive hunting lodge and welcomed all the monarchy and further on the presidents of the republic, most notably Charles De Gaulle and Georges Pompidou who were avid hunters. It is here where we were introduced to the symbole of Francois I : the salamander. This symbole would pop up EVERWHERE in the loire valley! It’s said that the person charged with removing all of them during the revolution when all sign of the disgraceful monarchy was to be erased, gave up out of exhaustion of the task because of their numbers. The castel was very easy to discover without a guide and lost of information was provided without the audio guide even though I do wish we had one but then our visit might have taken 3 hours if I was trying to absorbe all that info and this blog would be ENDLESS. Going up on the roof was probably the highlight of the visit. We got a close-up look of the super detailed towers and enjoyed the view of the forest and the grounds from the chateau. I could have stood there for hours! One of my favorite things in the castel was looking at the graffiti. There was a lot of vandalism; tourists that visit and scratch their names in the walls but some of this “griffonnage” dates back to early chateau invitees. I was particularly struck by one from 1725 that I spotted on the roof on the northern face.
Visit 2: Chateau Cheverny
This was a MUCH smaller chateau and was in fact smaller than some of the french country home’s that i’ve been able to visit. This chateau still belongs to the same family it has for over 6 centuries; Hurault. Its lay to fame is that is was the residence of Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II, while she renovated Chaumont sur Loire after she forcibly exchanged it for her beloved Chenonceau newly occupied by Catherine de Médicis, Henri’s wife and simply a royal factory producing 3 kings of France and 3 Queens! But more on them in visit 3!
This castel is also the castel that Georges Remi used as a model for Captain Haddock’s Castel in the Adventures of Tintin.
This chateau is an interesting juxtaposition. The first half of the tour bringing us through the “private” apartments of the chateau that are in the style of the 19th century France during the new republic. I was a little discouraged at this point having just come back from this massive medieval castel where things had only been placed thier after it had been pillaged during the revolution, things that represented a wealth and history that I can’t even begin wrap my head around, and here I found myself in the middle of a modern day nobel family’s collection of their own “modern” wealth. However the second half of the tour proved to be more interesting opening into a “war” room filled with military antiquities including the armor or a 4 year old Count of Chambord (castel was given to him because of his military success) which I liked since we had just visited Chambord.
The really wonderful thing about this Chateau is its English style Gardens: an interesting contrast to Chambord’s wild hunting grounds and the prim and proper french gardens of Chenonceau the gardens at Cheverny are a tame “fake” forest with little lakes and grounds that you can promenade in delicately. They also have a kennel where they raise hunting hounds and different places on the grounds where the hounds are kept for different activities. I really enjoyed the old orangerie, the place where potted trees are kept in winter or out-of-season on french estates and chateaux, that had been transformed into a snack restaurant. They served wonderful icecream! I had one scoop of Violet and one of chocolat and it was devine!
MY FAVORITE! This is the chateau that brought all the history together for me. We were LOADED down with names and families and dates and Who’s-its I, II, and VI. It was all SUCH a blur but a visit to Chenonceau really brought it into perspective.
A wonderful thing about this castel is that there is a SNCF Gare right at the foot of it so you can literally take the train from Paris right into the castel grounds. What a great day trip! I’ll sure be doing it sometime soon.
The whole castel was really well organized and included a detailed booklet/program with every room numbered in the order they should be visited according to the history of the palace. The really cool difference from the two castels we had visited before was that this place was a residence not a hunting lodge but a place that was loved and doted over by its ladies. Yes I did say Ladies because this amazing structure exists because of women. It was built on the site of a previous chateau by Diane de Poitiers, Henri II’s( son and hier of François 1ere) mistress. She had the structure built in the middle of the Cher river and put in amazing amounts of energy personalizing it. From the beginning she insisted that the chateaux belong to her and her alone and Henri declared it so by law. After his death his wife Catherine de Médicis sort of forcefully “persuaded” Diane to trade Chenonceau for Chaumont Sur Loire. Though Diane gave up her beloved Chanonceau she is buried on the grounds.
Catherine de Médicis was the mother of kings and queens. She had 3 sons ascend to the French crown and there is a bedroom called the 5 queens in the castel dedicated to her, her daughters, and daughter-in-laws. In the castel there is the “morning” bedroom of one of her daughter-in-las who was married to Henri III king of France, who was assassinated at chateau Blois (see below). She was so devoted to him and took his final words “M’amie, j’espère que me porterai très bien; priez Dieu pour moi et ne bougez de là”./My friend I hope you will be well, pray to God for me and do not move from this place”, so seriously that she shut herself up in Chenonceau in mourning for the rest of her life. She was nicknamed the White Lady as she only wore mourning clothes which were white at the time.
During WW1 the castel became a hospital and its great hall was filled with patients beds when before it had been filled with bustling guests at balls and baquets. In WW2 it marked the frontier between occupied and resistance France and the castel was used to bravely sneek resistant fighters and jews into free territory. During the entire war there were German guns pointed at the Castel to destroy it if needed.
One of the fun things we did there was eat in the cafeteria style restaurant on the grounds that had been built in the old stables! The food was actually really good though the system was a chaotic though impressive due to the number of people, choices of meals and language barrier in general. Some of the tables were placed in between the old horse boxes. It was very adorable.
I wish we had had the whole day the entire chateau was surrounded by wonderful gardens in the “french” style, you could rent rowboats or canoes and float under and all around the castel and there was a wonderful historical village built all around that I could have spent the rest of our time wandering around; along with their donkey enclosure that had at least 5 breeds of donkey all with funny bios attached to their fence. I look forward to doing all of these things on my next visit.
When coming in from the main entrance don’t follow the crowds! Take the path to your left into the woods where you will follow the paths up along the river. This is the best view of the chateau and certainly a more impactful first impression.
Visit 4: Chateau Blois
This was not our favorite visit especially after having been blown away as we were at Chenonceau. The visit was REALLY badly organized. We had to pass through the same thing tons of times and it became a reference for me and the fella for the rest of our summer travels; when we found something to be frustrating or overly complicated we said “Oh, they must be in league with Chateau Blois” Alot of this castel doesn’t exist anymore because a town grew around it and occupied what use to be its grounds.
Redeeming factors:- Blois was one of France’s first national monuments and set the pressident for restoring and preserving history in the hexagon -This was the murder site of Henri III so it really solidified the political and historical significance of this castel with our previous visit. -This place REALLY solidified all of the passages and the linages of the Kings most significant to the Val de Loire and was a nice was to summarize all that we had seen and learned in such a short time.
It was a wonderful time and a great short trip for my mom who was “ras-le-bol”( had it up to here [waves hand over head]) with Paris metropole and esspecially didn’t want to be there in August.
I’ll certainly be visiting again and hope that you will too.