This was the second last leg of our “French road trip”, though Loire Valley commands a dedicated trip to itself. Spending 3 nights here didn’t seem enough, but basing ourselves in the picture-perfect town of Saumur helped cover all bases!
Loire Valley in central France used to be the summer getaway for the French nobility who built numerous Chateaux along the river Loire and its tributaries. The rich river banks are lush with vineyards and fruit orchards, and dotted with magnificent chateaux, each with its own individuality, not surprisingly, attracting tourists and locals alike!
We left L’isla’sur’la Sorgue (in Provence) at about 11 o’clock, after quickly visiting the Sunday market. This was expectedly a long road journey of about 8 hours and after traversing an “Oh-so-French” countryside, reached Saumur at about 7:30 pm.
Having ogled at the photographs of the Loire region in one of the travel magazines, we were inspired to cycle around, imagining happy summer days of tasting delectable wines and soaking our eyes in the magnificent architectural marvels while cycling around. On deeper research, we figured that it’s not easy for weekend cycling enthusiasts like us to bike from one chateau to another, as they are spread far apart. And we had a kid and grandparents along! For the abled cyclists, Loire is their oyster, and Chateaux a velo website, their guide. For us, there were two options, either hire our own car and cycle, lug them around, and use biking trails. Or one could tie up with local bike rentals who could drive around and carry the bicycles too. Unfortunately, none of the two options worked for us, the former was not possible because of our big troupe (place for either cycles or cyclists 😅in the car), and the latter was priced a bit too steep for comfort. We did manage cycling eventually, as the pic above proves, but you must read on!
During the planning phase, choosing a base to explore the Loire was challenging with many variables to factor in; like proximity to the chateaux, whether to stay amidst vineyards, or staying in one of the many quaint towns.
Factoring in all these variables, we finally decided to base ourselves in Saumur, in itself a very picturesque town. We had booked ourselves in a downtown apartment (Air b& b) which was perfectly located close to all the best eateries, shopping streets, carrefour 😉and a hop across from the banks of the placid Loire river with its romantic vistas.
The first evening was a task to find dinner, as most restaurants/ cafes had shut shop, except for an Italian place. After our hurried dinner, we opted to walk along the river after dropping our car at the charming river-side parking lot. Being dusk, the most beautiful time of the day, and free of usual touristy hordes, (we prefer to call ourselves travelers 😀), this turned out to be a walk to remember!
Words cannot adequately express the feeling of tranquility as we wandered along, while feasting our eyes on the dreamy spectacle of twilight hues, reflecting on the placid waters. After clicking a hundred pictures in maybe 10 minutes we came upon a bridge where we heard some melodies floating in the wind.. and decided to follow the music. This whimsical decision turned out to be a wonderful experience, as we chanced upon an outdoor musical soirée with military bands playing from across continents! The band from Belarus knocked our socks off, playing all our favorite English oldies! Little one burst into an impromptu jig on the road!
The next day was dedicated to visiting the chateaux, and we sat with a map (acquired from the visitor center next door) and chose according to the grandeur (based on pictures), the attractive features, and proximity. Some are known for their manicured gardens, some for their architecture, others for the boat rides, etc The decision was also influenced by the help of fellow travelers and their reviews on various forums. A common sense advice is to wear comfortable footwear, as there’s lots of walking. Hats and sunscreen and water and munchies, the usual “day-in-the-country” needs.
We started with the furthest and worked our way backward. Chateau Villandry was first on the list, best known for its exquisite green spaces with manicured flower and vegetable gardens and a breathtaking water garden. It’s advisable to buy tickets online, though reaching before the usual daily hordes, we easily managed to acquire tickets onsite.
The trip was made worthwhile right from the parking lot. I presume, everybody is a photography enthusiast in their own way, and would understand when I mention my obsession with hay stacks…and trying to photograph them. Now on a road trip, one can see acres of fields and the geometrically organized, picture-perfect hay stacks. But it’s so not possible to capture them while on the go, driving on the autoroutes.
The point of this diatribe is that as we parked outside Villandry, a picture-perfect field with stacks of hay was waiting to be photographed! It was a dream(a long time) come true! Not dithered by the thin fence, I and the little one marched up to the nearest stack and had tonnes of fun, posing and clicking! Must have spent a precious half hour, with every moment worth it!!
As far as the Chateau Villandry is concerned, pictures are worth a thousand words!
Next, we headed to Chateau Chambord. And what a place. We never once ventured inside any Chateau for fact, not really interested in the grandeur of the nobility’s bed chambers or their dining rooms but definitely their vast green spaces and spectacular vistas around.
The highlight of Chambord, or more like the entire Loire trip, was the cycling we could manage around Chateau Chambord! This is a sprawling place, with a tributary of the Loire meandering and encircling the palatial grounds with biking and walking paths and availability of Rental bikes. This ticked our dream of cycling in the Loire! The grandparents and their grandchild biked around in a “Rosalie- pedal car”.. which can carry three or four bodies, while two can pedal, holding hands…could potentially sing “We are going on a summer holiday…”😊
The short, about 5-mile bike trail around Chateaux Chambord was spectacular. The chateaux itself is out of a fairy tale, and the cycling path goes along the stream, over footbridges and woods.. just perfect! No wonder we spent a bit too much time here…which made us a tad late for the next two!
Chateau Amboise must have been a spectacular chateau, but now seems hedged in by the overgrown town.. which limits a panoramic view. The town itself is like many other small French towns, beautiful and on top of the list for tourists to stay in. It sprawls on either side of the bridge and the views of the town are great from the opposite side. We found a dilapidated parking lot, across town, and took some great shots!
Now it was almost 4:30, and we really wanted to see Chenonceau, but knew it to close by 5:30. so decided to wing it, managing to reach by 5 pm, almost closing time. This was a drawback only in one way; that the souvenir shop was closed. In every other way, it was a blessing. Nearly empty parking lot, vacant and thus beautiful green walkway to the chateau, and nearly complete absence of the hordes (other than a Korean family)!
On the outskirts is a maze which was great fun for the little one. The Chateau is a novelty, like no other, surrounded by a moat which makes for great reflections. We meandered through the beautiful wooded grounds, so peaceful and awe-inspiring, just what’s needed at the end of a long day. It also was the time for the take-off of Hot air balloons, and we saw many colorful ones in the sky, making for another unique photo shot! We stayed as long as we were allowed and then started our drive back to Saumur.
Day 2 was about Saumur, the small train ride around town, up to Chateau du Saumur, shopping in town, and Degustation at Combier!