In July we did a short trip to France – five nights in the Loire Valley followed by four nights in Normandy. We are currently living in England, so flew from Bristol Airport to Paris, picked up a rental car and drove four hours to the Loire Valley, west of Tours. We stayed in a vacation rental (gite) in the countryside north of the Loire River. It is flat in this part of the country, but there were beautiful woods and fields of sunflowers. The towns nearby were not very interesting – we needed to drive about 30+ minutes to the lively towns on the river. The closest town on the river is Saumur and it is an hour’s drive east to Tours or west to Angers.
The days are longer in France than in England. The “0″ meridian line, which sets Greenwich Mean Time, passes through the Loire, but France is Greenwich +1, so that 9pm in the Loire is like 8pm in England. The summer days are long – it was light until after 10pm.
I was a bit wary of traveling in the high summer. Our first two days were hot, a little too hot for me, but after that it cooled and we even had rain one day. I was also worried about how crowded things would be in high tourist season. The only places with real crowds were the main tourist sights like Amboise and Chenonceau in the Loire, and Bayeux in Normandy.
Our Quick Tour of the Loire Valley
Sunday Market in Langeais. A pretty town on the river with a chateau and lively cafes and restaurants. The market was good, with lots of local produce. We did not go into the chateau.
Chinon. South of the Loire, on the Vienne River. We had a lovely lunch in the main square sitting outside under the trees. After lunch we explored the town and climbed up to the chateau, but it was closed for renovation.
On our first day out in France, after parking in Chinon, I stepped in dog shit. I didn’t just step in it, I mushed it into my shoes and sprayed it up my pants (trousers) leg. I had to use the power sprayer at Les Mortiers to get it off my shoe. “Welcome to France” and I kept a careful look where I was stepping after that.
Fontevraud Abbey. Historic abbey not far from Chinon, built in the 1100s. The English King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with their son Richard the Lionheart, are buried here (there is some doubt that their remains are still here, but they were originally buried here). The abbey was used as a prison in the first half of the 1900s and was featured in Jean Genet’s book “The Miracle of the Rose”. The abbey and the grounds are beautiful – I really enjoyed seeing this.
There was a modern art installation throughout the abbey that was supposed to enhance the experience by giving a multi-media interpretation of life there, but it was just annoying – a neon sign in the dining hall, in the Hollywood sign format, with “HolyFood”, loud speakers broadcasting in the abbey grounds, looping a recording in English, saying “time for lunch”. That type of thing.
Amboise Chateau and Leonardo da Vinci House. It was a bit of a drive from our vacation rental to Amboise, but we took the road along the river and drove through part of Tours with no problems. It was a pretty drive but in my mind I had pictured wall-to-wall chateaux along a beautiful shining river, but instead you don’t see much of the river from the road and you only see a chateau every now and then.
Amboise is busy town with lots of tourists. We had a great lunch at a restaurant chosen at random, then went to the chateau. From the grounds of the chateau you get beautiful views over Amboise and the Loire River. Leonardo da Vinci lived in Amboise at the end of his life. He was buried in 1519 in St Hubert Chapel on the grounds of the chateau.
We headed into the chateau to tour through the rooms. This was my first chateau and already I was bored. How many different bedrooms do I need to see? I really wanted to see Amboise, and I liked the town, but plodding through the chateau looking at rooms was painful.
It was a 15 minute walk from the chateau to Leonardo’s house. We should have skipped this. The house was crowded but we joined the crowds and looked at a few rooms. It is exciting to think that Leonardo da Vinci lived here, but I felt more of a connection with him when we visited Vinci, a small town in Italy near Florence, years ago (Leonardo “from Vinci”).
Chateau Chenonceau. This is the best known chateau and is not far from Amboise. We purchased a chateau pass for Amboise Chateau, the Leonardo House and Cenonceau (from the tourist office in Amboise) and saw all on the same day. Cenonceau is beautiful but again it was crowded so we looked at a few rooms then wandered around the gardens.
Saumur. This town was a 30 minute drive from Les Mortiers. It sits on the south bank of the Loire River and has an impressive chateau overlooking the town. The central part of town is full of shops, cafes and restaurants. We never managed to be here during shopping hours because we always seemed to be heading off somewhere for the day, but it looked like it would be a nice town to visit. We walked around one evening after the shops were closed and had dinner there.
The Apocalypse Tapestry at the Angers Chateau. In France I like the small cities, like Aix, Avignon and now Angers. Paris can feel overwhelming but these smaller cities are fun and manageable. We walked around the two historic sections, one on each side of the river. There are wonderful medieval timber-framed houses. We looked at Saint Martin’s Collegiate Church (recently restored, parts date back to the 900s) and the main Cathedral.
We were in Angers for one thing – to see the Apocalypse Tapestry at the Angers Chateau – and it was well worth the trip. This tapestry is 103 meters long (338 feet – almost the length of an American football field). It was made in the 11th century (commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou and brother of King Charles V) and tells the story of the Apocalypse according to St John from the Book of Revelations in the Bible. During the French Revolution the tapestry was cut up and used for other things, but in the mid-19th century the parts were brought back together and it was restored.
The tapestry is displayed in the chateau in a room built for it. The tapestry is in good shape and is very detailed with wonderful scenes of the end of the world, with many freaky-looking devils, and the coming of a New Jerusalem. You need at least an hour to have a good look at all the scenes.
Chateau Villandry. This is another popular chateau and was enjoyable to visit because the main feature is the gardens (so you are not nose-to-tail walking through an overly furnished house). It is in a small village with a line of restaurants. We chose a nice looking one in a hotel, had a lovely lunch on a rainy day, then toured the chateau when the rain stopped. The gardens are beautiful and we really enjoyed our walk through them.
Neolithic Dolmens. I love ancient stones. We are surrounded by them where we are living in England – stone circles, standing stones, hill forts, long barrows and dolmen (burial tombs). We seek out ancient stones wherever we go and until this trip, the best dolmen we have seen is Poulnabrone in Country Clare, in Ireland. But Poulnabrone is nothing compared to the dolmens we saw near Saumur (the Loire Valley Eyewitness Travel Guide told us about the dolmen in this area).
Dolmen de la Madeleine is in a field on the edge of the small town of Gennes, west of Saumur. We were driving along looking for it but could not find it – there were no signs. We turned around and headed back towards Gennes thinking we must have missed it, came around a corner and WOW!! – there it was in a field. This thing is huge. At one time someone ran a bakery inside the dolmen – you can see the remains of the bakery ovens. This is not on anyone’s “must see” list and we were the only ones there, which was nice.
From Gennes we drove into Saumur, then out to the suburb of Bagneux. We were not sure where the dolmen was located but we found signs pointing the way. The dolmen is in the backyard of a cafe. Since it has been there for thousands of years, the city was built around the dolmen. We parked on a narrow street and went to a gate with a sign for the dolmen, rang the bell, paid the small entrance fee, and were let into the backyard. This dolmen was even bigger than Madeleine and seeing it in a backyard, surrounded by houses, is different from your usual dolman out on a hilltop somewhere dramatic. It was fantastic. The owner had provided posters with good historic information.
The Loire Valley and Me
I have never been a fan of seeing the “must sees” but I think with age my tolerance has lowered, and we did a few too many “must sees” on this trip. Writing this trip report makes me realize that I enjoyed most of our time in the Loire, but for some reason it did not live up to my expectations and I left feeling disappointed. The countryside is pretty but not staggeringly beautiful like Tuscany or the Cotswolds, and the towns are far apart so you end up driving more. I enjoy driving, but get a bit zombie-like if it takes longer than an hour to get somewhere on a day trip.
Another thing is that I am not a foodie or a wine lover. Being a vegetarian in France means many goat cheese salads – frequently the only vegetarian option – so eating out is not exciting. As in England, the outside tables of a restaurant are the property of the smokers, so the fun of sitting outside for a meal is diminished when the clouds of smoke come over your table.
I love the cafes in Paris and Provence, but the cafes in the towns near where we were staying were horrible. We had a good coffee our first day out, stopping at a nearby small town, but had to get our croissants from the bakery and bring them to the cafe, which is typical in rural France but always bugs me because you end up having your breakfast out of a paper bag. After that first good coffee, we had several very bad coffees, including in the cafe in the town near our vacation rental. These cafes are much more about serving alcohol than coffee. At one small town where we stopped on our drive to Angers, the proprietor put down cups for us, then pulled out a thermos and poured us lukewarm and undrinkable coffee. I longed for cafes in small towns in Italy where the coffee is always good and you are served breakfast pastries (what an idea – the same place that sells you your morning coffee, sells you something to eat!).
I did not find the food shops interesting. The Sunday market in Langeais was good and we stocked up on fresh vegetables, but the small towns near us did not have good vegetable shops, but instead had small chain supermarkets.
Only after getting to the Loire and seeing my first chateau did I realize that chateaux are not my thing. We hardly ever tour through manor houses in England (too many rooms, too much stuff – would rather be on the walking trails) but for some reason I thought I was going to love the chateau in the Loire. For the few that we did look at, I was one of those obnoxious people who walk fast, zip around the crowds, peak into a room, then escape.
I think my lack of enthusiasm for this area is a combination of things: too hot in July to be on the tourist trail, just spent two glorious months hiking in the woods of the Cotswolds and really did not want to leave, too high of expectations for what the Loire would be like, had a bit of a cold before we left, was dealing with a weird family situation in Canada. And perhaps I violated my own rule for Slow Travel – spend a week in one place. If we had stayed longer maybe we would have found more things that we really liked. At least I could have had a day of shopping in Saumur. I wanted to get French tea towels and other household things for our cottage in England.
I know, what a princess! It was a little too hot, I had to drive a little too far, I was bored with the beautiful chateau, and I didn’t like the coffee. Steve had a better time – he was happy to be speaking French, which he does very well.
Getting to the Loire from England
I had wanted to take the train to Tours, then pick up a car, but this did not work out. We had to leave on a Saturday (we had arranged with friends to stay here while we went away) and the train arrived after the car rental agency closed and they were closed all day Sunday. The train trip required changing stations in both London and Paris (could not get a TGV to Tours from Lille to avoid changing in Paris). It would make a long day of travel. Then I thought we might drive to Dover then take a ferry to Calais and get a rental car, but our first destination was the Loire Valley and this was going to be too long of a drive. If we had only been going to Normandy, either train or ferry would have worked well for us.
We flew from Bristol to Paris and got a rental car there. Bristol Airport is small and they make you walk through the perfume-laden duty free to get to the departure area (we are both allergic to the chemicals in perfume). Since it was a Saturday in July, the departure area was packed. Our flight was delayed an hour.
When we got to Paris airport our luggage was delayed which put us further behind schedule. Finally we got our car (no line for the car rental!) and headed out driving on the right after two months of driving on the left. I had a bit of a head cold before we left and was exhausted, so Steve had to do the whole drive, which started by going around Paris. Travel days are never fun.