04/30/2015 - 05/05/2015
I'd planned to spend our last stop of the trip in Versailles and other small towns around Paris, but fortunately we had a well-traveled friend who strongly recommended that we visit the Loire Valley to the southwest. After I did a little research and saw some pictures of the amazing châteaux, I knew it would be a great little road trip. We had a late arrival in Paris after a long flight from Delhi and drove our rental car straight to Versailles. We were surprised to find an affectionate cat awaiting us at the Airbnb. He led us to his bag of food, so of course we fed him. I rechecked the listing and there was no mention of a cat whatsoever. Fortunately Cleo and I love cats, and none of us has allergies. Good thing though!
The next morning it was freezing cold and drizzly, about the worst weather we'd experienced during the entire trip. While driving to our planned breakfast stop, we came across a large market in progress in the center of town. Naturally, we ditched our plans and immediately parked. The biting wind and rain may have deterred some of the shoppers, but the vendors were well-protected from the elements by their canopies and it seemed to be business as usual. In the outdoor part of the market in the central square we found Mei Ling's beloved rotisserie, with fat dripping down from the meat onto a layer of boiled potatoes at the bottom. There were golden brown baguettes and an enormous variety of French cheeses, as well as seemingly perfect fruits arranged in beautiful displays. There was a type of strawberry we'd never seen before, with what looked like a white net around a red center. Surrounding the square on every side were indoor arcades with delicatessens, butchers, and fish markets. It was a quintessential French market, far better than any restaurant we could have found. The only limitation was the size of our stomachs.
When we were buying some whole sea urchins, another customer asked us in French-accented English how we were going to eat them. We explained that we were simply going to scoop out the roe and eat it raw. It turned out that he was a college professor who lived close to the market, and he invited us to his house to have coffee. We agreed to meet him in the afternoon after we'd had lunch back at our Airbnb, since we were dying to consume our purchases at that point. A short while later, the four of us were stuffing ourselves with some of the best food we'd encountered on the entire journey.
After lunch we drove to our new acquaintance's apartment where we had coffee with him and his wife, and showed them how to open and eat sea urchins. We had a great discussion about parenting and travel. Their children were already grown and had moved to other cities. I was amazed that they were so willing to welcome complete strangers into their home, even with small children who were constantly eyeing their fragile antiques.
We were getting a late start on Versailles, which wasn't a big problem since the palace itself was closed for May Day. I hadn't planned it that way, but it was almost a relief not to have to make the decision about touring the interior. Even though it would have felt like an obligation, I've been inside enough of these attractions to know it would have been crowded and ultimately unmemorable. Neither of us has the requisite interest in period art or furnishings to get the most out of the experience. It was still cold and drizzly, so we decided to spend a couple of hours walking in the gardens before heading to our Airbnb in Orléans.
The gardens were a pleasure to walk in although surprisingly expansive. The rain and mist somewhat obscured the majesty of the buildings, but it enhanced the greenery and the beautiful fountains.
Because the palace was closed, we had found a place to park inside the grounds without much difficulty. I wasn't sure it was entirely legal, but we found our car where we had left it without any evidence of a ticket. We all climbed in and buckled up for the drive to Orléans but within a second of hitting the gas I felt a huge bump as though the car had climbed up onto a curb or gigantic rock. I tried to reverse backwards but the car wouldn't move, and the same thing happened when I gently tried to ease the car forward. I got out and looked under the front of the car and realized that I had mounted a short, thick wooden post that was now suspending the front of the car such that the front tires weren't even touching the ground. Clearly the post had been placed there to prevent people from driving onto the grass but I had completely missed it in the rain. Incomprehensibly, the post was just a foot tall with a slanted edge, which practically invited cars to mount and impale themselves on it just as I had.
I immediately knew we weren't going to make it to Orléans that night, but I had more pressing worries to deal with first. We were stranded in the gardens on a national holiday with dusk quickly approaching, and two small children who hadn't had dinner. I didn't have any phone or internet service because all the stores were closed for May Day as well. I flagged down one passerby who was leaving and asked him to let the security guard at the gate know about our situation. We waited for a while, but no one came so I decided to strike out on my own. I made it to the gate where we'd entered and found the booth empty. There was absolutely no sign of anyone on the street or any open restaurants where I could ask for help. I headed back to the car and found a security vehicle next to it with a guard surveying the damage. More people showed up and we were able to borrow a phone and contact our Airbnb and our rental car company. Eventually a guy came with a tow truck who was able to lift the car off the post. I was hoping the car would still be drivable with only body damage but the tow truck guy showed me that the post had destroyed the radiator. I let the rental car company know, and ultimately it was determined they would send someone out to pick us up and drive us back to the Paris airport where we would be given a new car.
One stroke of luck was that the cafe in the gardens was still open, so we got the kids and bags out of the trashed car and got everyone some food while we waited for our ride. Eventually we got picked up and had to go through the whole process of returning to the airport rental counter, filling out tons of paperwork, and then getting loaded into our new car. It was too late to drive all the way to Orléans, so I substituted Chartres which was where we had originally planned to spend our last night of the trip. By the time we all crawled into bed at a roadside motel outside of Chartres at around 11, it had been six hours since I wrecked the car. The short description of the episode here doesn't begin to do justice to the ordeal we went through.
In the morning we used the motel wifi to message the Orléans Airbnb that we would be there in the afternoon, and then drove to the center of Chartres. In the heart of the old town we encountered a beautiful covered market, where we assembled the ingredients for another meal of fresh produce. The pedestrian streets around the market were filled with an array of cafes and artisanal food stores.
It was just a short walk from the center to Chartres Cathedral. The perfectly preserved 13th century Gothic behemoth seemed out of place in such a small, unassuming town. To the rear of the cathedral was an open area with sweeping views of the newer part of town below us.
It was Saturday and we still hadn't found an open store to buy a local SIM, so it looked like we weren't going to have phone or data during our stay in France. We decided to proceed directly to the Airbnb in Orléans. Once we arrived in the center of town, I left everyone in the illegally parked car and ran around looking for the right street. I eventually found the address after asking half a dozen people for directions, but no one answered the doorbell. A waitress at a nearby cafe lent me her mobile phone and I tried calling, but no one answered. Back at the car, we decided to press ahead to Château de Chambord and then try the Airbnb again afterwards.
I had compiled a list of five or six chateaux in the Loire Valley that seemed like they would be the most visually appealing. We probably could have managed a couple more, but I figured that after seeing that many in a short period of time they would start to become repetitive and wearisome. Château de Chambord was at the top of our list, and it also happened to be the closest to Orléans.
Chambord proved to be a great first stop on our tour of the Loire Valley chateaux. The 16th century castle is a mixed masterpiece of medieval and Renaissance architecture, and is a clear inspiration for the Disney castles that shape our perception of how royalty and opulence should appear. I loved the complexity of the structure, with dozens of towers and balconies that seemed to be made for exploring. The interior of the castle was somewhat barren compared to the outside, to the extent that they had placed cardboard cutouts of the former occupants in the great hall for tourist to amuse themselves with. Cleo and I took the winding marble staircase upstairs to the second floor, where we went out onto the balcony for a better look at all the little towers and cupolas. Even though the balustrades were taller than Cleo, I was terrified by the way she kept racing away from me around the balconies.
After Chambord, we stopped at McDonald's to use the wifi and got the unpleasant news that our Airbnb hosts in Orléans had decided we were too much trouble and had simply canceled our reservation. Perhaps they thought that meant they would be keeping our payment for the entire three day stay, although Airbnb quickly disabused them of that misconception and compensated us with $100 for our inconvenience. That still left us with the problem of finding accommodation for the next two nights, so I got on Booking.com and found a hotel in Blois, a mid-sized town very close to Chambord. We went there immediately and I had another frustrating saga of searching for the hotel without any online map. Naturally, when I finally found the correct address there was no doorbell and no answer when I knocked on the door, so I once again had to find a cafe and beg to use a phone. The hotel turned out not to be a real hotel but an apartment and the manager wasn't on site, which was why no one had answered my knock. He came to meet me at the cafe and took me back to the apartment, where he insisted on giving me a protracted tour of the facilities while I kept reminding him that my wife and children had been waiting in the car over an hour. He accompanied me back to the car to guide me through the restricted streets around the apartment. By that time, we were exhausted by all the highs and lows of the last two days. We trudged through yet another rainstorm and had dinner in a nearby hotel before crashing back at the apartment.
On Sunday we had a full slate of Loire Valley castles to see. We began our day at Château de Chenonceau, which largely rests on a series of stone arches over the River Cher. Before the château even comes into view, the first experience of the estate is a wide path through lush greenery lined with majestic trees. The castle's architecture is reminiscent of Château de Chambord, but the setting atop the river made the place truly unique.
For lunch we rewarded ourselves with a gourmet meal at Le Patio in the nearby town of Amboise. The food was delicious and the kids were well-behaved, so we counted that meal as a major win.
Amboise had its own château which hadn't made my list, but since we were right there we decided to pay a visit. The castle couldn't really compare to Chambord or Chenonceau, but there were beautiful views over the town and the Loire from the top of the hill that the château stood on.
Our last stop before returning to Blois was Château de Cheverny, This 17th century mansion was a significant departure from the Renaissance castles we had seen earlier, displaying a more symmetric and conservative classical French style. The interior furnishings were more elaborate and well-maintained than the others. The owner still maintains dozens of hunting dogs on the estate.
We returned to Blois with a couple of hours of daylight left so we decided to explore the town a little. The center of the hillside town was full of interesting features like tall outdoor staircases, cobblestoned pedestrian streets, and several stone bridges across the Loire. We had dinner at a Turkish barbecue restaurant before returning to the apartment for the night.
On our last full day of the trip we took a short walk from our apartment to La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin, a museum dedicated to magic and specifically Houdini. When we arrived, we learned that there would be a magic show in about an hour so we decided to take a look at the Château de Blois, which was conveniently placed on the opposite side of the square we were on. We didn't pay the entrance fee since we could get a good look at the castle from the inner courtyard and we'd already seen more than enough château interiors. The most distinctive feature from the outside was a magnificent octagonal spiral staircase protruding outward from one of the wings.
The kids enjoyed some the the displays at the magic museum but were a little too young to appreciate the magic show, so we brought them out after about an hour. Before returning to our car, we enjoyed the hourly show where gigantic dragon heads burst from the upper windows of the museum and twist and roar for a few minutes before retreating back inside.
On the drive north to Orléans we stopped for lunch at the ancient and scenic riverside town of Beaugency. The little village was almost deserted on a Monday afternoon, but fortunately we were able to find a decent meal at the only open restaurant that we encountered.
We arrived in Orléans three days later than planned, but we hadn't been given much reason to regret all the events that had scuttled our carefully laid plans. We settled into our hotel at the edge of the pedestrian center and resolved to see as much as we could in the one afternoon and evening fate had allotted us. It turned out we were fortunate not to have missed Orléans, because it proved to be the most beautiful French city we'd seen up to that point. We walked from our hotel down the wide pedestrian street Rue de la République, which was lined with boutiques and beautiful classical apartment buildings. Eventually we came to the central Place du Martroi, which was surrounded by cafes where people congregated despite the intermittent drizzle. In the center was a gorgeous two-level carousel which we finally had to drag the kids away from after a half dozen rides. We had a very good seafood dinner in a carefully chosen restaurant on the square and retired to our hotel for the last sleep of our journey.
In the morning we took the car to the southern part of the old town where we had breakfast in the covered market, which was rather subdued on a Tuesday morning.
We had given ourselves plenty of time to drive back to the Paris for our flight, but once we got in the car we were confronted with the problem that our GPS could not recognize the name of the airport no matter what way we tried to enter it. We had never bought a SIM card, so we didn't have the option of Google Maps either. Eventually I decided to use the rudimentary map that accompanied the rental information to get us to the right area and then look for the signs. Unsurprisingly, we did not encounter a single sign for the airport until we were practically on top of it, at which point I was already beginning to sweat heavily and stare at the clock on the dashboard. Even after the first sign, they only appeared intermittently and somewhat ambiguously until we became convinced we were going to miss our flight. We ultimately arrived at the rental dropoff with far less time than we would have liked and prepared to rush for the gate, but the attendant thretaned us with a heavy fine if we didn't do something about the four days worth of kid-related garbage that had accumulated in the back of the car. Mei Ling started sweeping the garbage frantically into a plastic bag while I assembled our little caravan of strollers and baggage, and then we all raced furiously to the gate and barely made it to our flight. After five weeks and six stops in four countries, we were finally on our way home.