Chateaux et chevre:
A week in the lovely Loire (part one)
September 1999

France’s world-renowned chateaux country lies among a cluster of ancient
towns and rustic villages along the scenic northern bend of the Loire river,
around 100 miles southwest of Paris.

We spent a relaxing and enjoyable week there in mid-September of
1999…just us, with little Allie staying at home with Grammy Susan and
Grampa Bob the Nav. We stayed the entire week as guests in a 17th
Century manor house in the heart of the wine country, just outside of
Chinon, within a stone’s throw of the river.

If you are planning a trip to the Loire Valley, we strongly recommend renting
a car and touring the area at your own pace and on your own schedule.
This is not a destination for non-stop thrills and excitement, but it delivers
charm and beauty and simple pleasures by the wagon-load. And no place
on earth offers a greater concentration of beautiful palaces, cathedrals,
gardens and grand estates from a better, vanished time. Go, and enjoy the
views!

Note: Do not even think about attempting this trip without a good map. We
used the yellow Michelin regional maps, and found them to be more than
adequate. We needed two of them; one for the area east of Tours and one
for area west of Tours.

The Hotel - Manoir de la Giraudiere, Chinon

We found our accommodation by searching the Internet, and it was only
the second time we had ever booked a place to stay online, sight-unseen.
The Manoir de la Giraudiere is a 300+ year old manor home that offers
about a dozen rooms for bed & breakfast accommodation. A portion of the
estate is a working vineyard, one of dozens in the immediate area.

Our room was fairly large, with a second bedroom area that came in handy
when Chris started snoring one night. The bathroom had been updated
recently, and the fixtures and hot water were in good working order.
Breakfast was your standard European 3-star assortment of breads and
pastries, fruits, meusli, etc. The notable standout was the coffee…trés
magnifique! The proprietor spoke excellent English, which is not as
common as one might expect in a region this close to Paris. He was very
bright, helpful and engaging, and was full of suggestions and
recommendations on where to go and what to do.

Food & Wine

We are not really foodies, but the region is noted for its rich country cooking
and local wines…especially the whites from Sancerre and Saumur, and
the reds from around Chinon. Our hotel turned out to be a popular place for
dinner, and we had the chance to discover why. Good thing we didn’t have
to walk far afterward!

The primary regional delicacy of the Loire Valley is goat cheese (or chevre,
in French). It is prized the world over, both for its quality and its incredible
variety. Neither one of us would have ever guessed that so many different
types of goats cheese exist, and we were happy to sample our fair share
throughout the region.

Transportation

We flew into Charles de Gaulle, which we don’t especially like for a
number of reasons. This time, as usual, we had to wait an eternity for our
luggage. Marisa had used her corporate travel desk to make our car
reservations, and they in turn booked with AutoEurope. Too bad Marisa
never took a good look at the paperwork, or she would have noticed that it
was missing a key piece of information – the name of the actual rental
agency, and the voucher for our pre-paid rental. That meant we had to
stand in line at every single car-rental counter, only to be told rudely time
and again that no, they didn’t have our reservation and no, they couldn’t find
out for us who did.

Of course, the very last desk we checked, EuropeCar, had our reservation.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have the automatic Renault we had requested.
Rather than settling for a similar stick-shift model, we stood our
ground…and were rewarded with a free upgrade to a full-size luxury
Mercedes. Things were starting to look up.

Our only other mode of transport for the week was an extremely convenient
and value-priced bike rental service based in Chinon. We asked the hotel
concierge to place the call, and the bicycles were delivered to the courtyard
of the hotel within 40 minutes. The area is superb for biking, as the terrain
is fairly flat and scenic and the local drivers are accustomed to sharing the
road with bikers. You can bring your own picnic lunch in a backpack, or
stop in virtually any small town to find snacks and beverages.

Getting There

The Peripherique around Paris was a hellish snarl of 5 mph traffic, but
once we hit the open road to Chartres we were able to crank up the stereo
and let the Mercedes stretch its legs. Sweet.

We spent the first afternoon in the medieval town of Chartres, home to one
of the grandest cathedrals in Christendom. We parked on the edge of the
historic downtown area, and spent several anxious minutes trying to figure
out the self-park ticket machine. The town itself is fairly interesting, with a
few cobblestone streets and dozens of half-timbered buildings recalling
the ancient heritage of the city. But most of our time was spent exploring
the massive cathedral.

Our #1 tip for visiting Chartres Cathedral: bring binoculars (or at least a
telephoto lens). The famed stained glass windows are as beautiful as
their reputation holds, but they are so high above floor level that you simply
can’t appreciate them without zooming a little closer to them. Tip #2: don’t
ignore the carved wood choir and enclosure. It was almost as impressive
to us as the stained glass windows.

Inside and out, Chartres Cathedral embodies a grandeur that is scarcely
imaginable to the modern mind. Built in an age of rampant disease,
widespread poverty, endless labor and constant conflicts…this building
was, by orders of magnitude, cooler than anything that anybody around
there was likely to see in their short life. How awe-inspiring it must have
been to them, if it still impresses us so much today!

After a quick lunch, we were back on the road and heading for our
destination. It was smooth sailing as we headed west past Tours, and
pure scenic splendor as we tore through the royal forests that lead to
Chinon. Our hotel’s address was in the small village of Beaumont-en-
Veron, but as we slowly proceeded into town, we saw no signs or
indication of where it might be. We stopped at a neighborhood store and
approached a couple of locals. It was getting late in the afternoon, and
there was no time to screw around if we were going to find the place before
dark.

This is where our “language teamwork” came in handy. Chris can
remember enough French vocabulary and can manage the tortured
pronunciation just well enough to be understood. Marisa can understand
what is said in response far better than Chris can, so it works out as long
as we are together. As it turned out, Manoir de la Giraudiere was several
miles outside of town, out in the country. And no, we would have never
found it on our own in the dark. Good thing we stopped and asked.

Chateaux et chevre - part II

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Saumur
Loire - part II

our travels
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Manoir de la Giraudiere, near Chinon
Amboise
Chenonceau
Chartres cathedral
Chartres street
Amboise
Amboise