Tag Archive | travel

Châteaux in the Loire

Originally I didn’t want to visit the Loire; I wanted more days down south. I’d stayed at Tours for days and visited several châteaux 26 years ago, on my backpacking trip so felt it was a case of wanting to see something new. But Mr S really wanted to see some châteaux. So for Mr S’s benefit, I planned four nights in the Loire Valley – two in a BnB in the countryside and two in the old part of Tours.

I am so glad we came. I saw different things and saw a couple of châteaux I’d previously seen with fresh eyes. And now I want to go back to see the châteaux in their Christmas splendour.

I picked our first château purely by chance, seeing it on the map, as we had time before our BnB would be available and the chateau was on the way. Châteaux are not castles, more large manor homes with fake, stylised elements of fortifications.

The Château du Rivau was a good lucky pick. The gardens and chateau were filled with quirky artworks. And of course, beautiful flowers. (One of the peacocks is alive! Can you pick which one?)

Who wouldn’t want to sit here on this bench? (Everywhere was declared with pieces of fruit and autumnal vegetables.)

Joan of Arc prayed here. So one room is set up as a chapel, which it probably was used as originally.

The BnB was fantastic. We ate a three course dinner there with accompanying wines both nights with other guests. Aperitif (local sparkling wines and homemade liquors) was served in the cave under the house. The accommodation was more than a bedroom. We had two massive rooms at the top of a remodelled barn.

Our next castle, the Fortress of Chinon, was a true castle – in terms of being fortifications on a hill. There were actually several castles here – from different time periods, and used in battles over the centuries. We walked where Richard the Lionheart and Joan of Arc, again, walked.

And we got to dress up and practice our jousting skills.

We visited the town called Richelieu, planned by Richelieu, whose name crops up everywhere around the Loire, being a powerful cardinal and nobleman. The town was designed as the ideal town in the seventeenth century. It was lovely to walk around the large park, with rows of trees, flower beds, canals, wild cyclamen and chestnuts.

Sorry to harp, but look at the narrow entrance.

After checking out of the BnB, on our way to Tours, we visited Villandry. The gardens here have to be on everyone’s list. Such artistry! Such precision! And such healthy plants – colourful and profuse.

In Tours we were metres from the large square, surrounded by cafes and restaurants, all lively and full. Tours is a university town and the young people party all night. Although our apartment was above several discos that opened after we were in bed, we slept well as the noise didn’t disturb us.

After the success of our small group tour in the Dordogne, I decided we’d take a small group tour to visit some châteaux. There was only one other couple on the tour, so it was a very small group!

We visited two castles, Chenonceau and Chambord. Having the guide, who studied art and history at university, made the trip. Instead of trooping through every room, she picked key rooms and key artworks to relate the story of the building and residents.

The flower displays inside Chenonceau were beautiful and the story of the lady residents – this castle is also called the Ladies’ Château – moving. The long hall extends over the river. Although, really a manor house, châteaux had to have elements of castles, such as a keep. Both Villandry and Chenenceau have towers from earlier castles on the site. Both also had moats.

Chambord, in all its extravagance and folly and decorative details, is my favourite. The couples split and we walked up the “double helix” staircase, going up at the same pace but never meeting.

Lunch on the tour was at a wine cave. Given our previous visits to caves, including at the BnB, this was not such a novel experience for us. The wine cave did have interesting displays where you could test your ability to identify keys scents in wines and a well-done light and sound show on the making of wine and the caves. Before our lunch, which was OK, we had a wine tasting. I failed on detecting the scents, but enjoyed my glasses of wine anyway. No spitting out for me, or anyone else at the lunch.

Again, I’d strongly recommend the small tour company we went with – Loire Valley Tours.

We returned our car a day early as we were going on the tour the day our hire period was up. Never have I been so glad to get rid of a car. SUVs, when French ones, are not made for the parking spots in France.

Paris was a quick TGV trip away.

Advertisements

Caves and art tour

We took a small group tour to the Neolithic caves in the Dordogne. The caves were one of the reasons I wanted to stay at Sarlat.

I am so glad we took the tour. I was relieved from worry about driving. (I won’t bore you with my ongoing stress about driving in France. Oh!!! The roads are so narrow and everyone drives fast and with little apparent care for the narrowness. OK, I didn’t drive for the whole trip. But I had to navigate. Mr S would be, and is, hopeless at this. And I have to be alert and give advice constantly. Yes, truely I do. Mr S couldn’t understand why I wasn’t stressed on the bus trip. Cause I didn’t have to be on alert, nor be responsible if something went wrong. Opps. Sorry. Just bored you.)

But look! We didn’t have to negotiate these single lane gaps in rock walls

The other bonus from the group trip was the wealth of information as we drove about the area; on the area, human pre-history, archeological discoveries, places to eat, French life, different styles of European tourists from the various countries.

Views from the museum

The guide took us through the National Museum of Prehistory, at the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. With our guide explaining key displays, I got more out of this visit than if I had visited it on my own. It has really wetted my interest in reading more on the current views on evolution and humoids and different humans.

Cro-Magnons are kinda us, being Homo sapiens, but the term Cro-Magnon isn’t quite correct as it refers to the place where bones were found in the Dordogne. (Current preferred term is European early modern humans. I prefer Cro-Magnon!) Anyway, I definitely have to read more on this and get my head around it all.

The Cro-Magnons weren’t cave men as in living in caves as we think of them in popular culture – opportunistic, wandering around the countryside, chancing upon a cave. Though they did paint in caves – vast underground tunnels running for miles. Though definitely troglodytes, the caves they lived in were largely overhangs – with walls constructed to provide shelter.

Over-hanging rock with reproduction of winch.

The use of half cave, half building continues.

Our next stop was the hands down best part of the tour. And a highlight of the whole trip for me.

We visited Rouffignac cave. You sit on a little train which drives you miles underground. To “discover” the most remarkable drawings. Hundreds of them. Animals: goats, horses, wooly rhinoceros, and of course the mammoths, from which the cave takes its other name, The Cave of the Hundred Mammoths, as the drawings of mammoths outnumber all others. While most of the commentary was in French (the guide for the cave is from the cave company, our tour guide left us st the opening to the cave after having described many things), the guide did speak in English and he was very funny.

I can’t say enough how blown away I was to be in the presence of these pre-historic paintings. Done in the dark. Not for public viewing. Why did they do them? What inspired all the artists to make the difficult journey underground, walking for miles, crawling in some cases, with little light, to paint on the roof of a cave? It’s not just the age of the drawings, and the unanswerable why, and the degree of difficulty, but the artistry of the drawings that impresses.

Humans weren’t the only users of the caves. Before prehistoric man painted the caves, bears hibernated here. There are enormous “bear nests”, huge dug-outs or gouges, on the cave floor. And massive claw marks on the cave walls.

Lunch was perfect. Recommended by our guide we ate at a river-side restaurant with serene willows in a lovely village. I could have easily stayed and continued drinking in the sun.

Our guide took us passed some chateaux, and filled us in on the local gossip and long standing myths, legends and ghost stories.

But only quick stops as another cave called us. Lascaux. Mmm. Sigh. The popularity of the caves have lead to their destruction. So many people walking through has degraded the limestone and all the breath affects the paint. So you don’t actually see the real timing. The re-creation is apparently exact. But it’s a recreation. I felt I might as well have been in a museum. And you are put together in a big group, led by a guide from the place who it can b difficult to hear as other groups are close by, and you are moved along so quickly. And of course, the shop at the end does a roaring trade. Things made in China. More tat to fill homes.

Not being in the cave, not looking at the real thing, just doesn’t have the same impact. My advice: skip this “cave”.

It was a long day but so worth it. Go with these guys. Our guide was so knowledgeable. You’ll appreciate all the commentary. There’s only a maximum of 8 in the van.

Next stop: Sarlat-la-Canéda

Now where was I?

In real life I am 6 hours away from getting on the dreaded long haul back to Australia (with no offer of an upgrade, sadly). In Blogland I have just left Bordeaux. Off to Sarlat. (Pronounced Se’lah. Remember the French don’t waste time saying the last letter of most words.)

Yet another new favourite! I want to return here. It is divine!

Except for the two main food ingredients – duck and walnut. I’ve never liked these. OK, maybe I should have tried duck here, but I didn’t. Maybe a reason to return? Walnuts, I just don’t like at all.

Sarlat is a medieval walled city. We joined the throng of tourists to wander the town and have lunch. (I wanted a repeat of the beautiful Rocamadour toasted with honey lunch I had in Dinan. It wasn’t as nice here – the cafe was too touristy to take the same level of care, but it was OK.

What to do after lunch? Why, more walking around the old part of town, of course.

As you’d expect in a touristy place, there are plenty of shops with knick knacks to look at. I bought a cheap and very soft cardigan to replace the one I lost in Dinan. Mr S admired all the knives in the numerous knife shops. I had to physically restrain him from buying one. He has enough and imagine getting it in through customs – I think some are banned in Australia. (The lack of health and safety laws here is worthy of its own post.)

But there’s also plenty of “real” shops and food stalls, especially on the Saturday markets. We bought a punnet of strawberries, the like of which I have never tasted in Australia. Mr S bought some olives and semi-dried tomatoes. Heaven!

Market stall!

Enter these massive doors to the inside markets, which also fill the streets and the square.

When we arrived we needed to find parking where we could leave our car for three nights. Turns out paid parking has a limit of several hours. But the free parking, which is just as close to the centre of the walled city, has no time limit. Go figure! So if you drive to Sarlat, use the free parking near the park.

As well as being touristy (understandable given the beauty), there’s also plenty of English residing in the area – so you hear English spoken a lot. I still got to practice my French a bit – especially with the waiter at dinner and with the lady who showed us into our AirBnB apartment. One of the waiters spoke English; he had spent time in Australia which he loved. The AirBnB lady had very little English, so it was good I had very little French. Together it amounted to a satisfactory level of understanding between us.

And our apartment? Right in the centre of the walled city, overlooking restaurants, including the one we ate at. It was spacious and tasteful.

That’s our lounge room window. I took the photo while sitting at the restaurant, where we ate the yummy food below.

Oops. Forgot to take a photo before I tucked in.

After dessert, I walk around town is needed.

The staircase. All these stairs are keeping me fit.

View from my bedroom window where I spotted this cat.

Three nights here definitely wasn’t enough.

Is the thought of sitting here in a cafe in the centre square calling you?

Our new favourite in France – Bordeaux.

I’m so behind in posting as we have been so busy doing and seeing and walking and eating. Oh dear, I’m weeks behind! I drafted this over two weeks ago.

Each place we visit becomes our new favourite. Mr S seems to say at each place, “I wish we were staying here a few more nights.”

So it was with Bordeaux.

Simply walking around and absorbing the beauty was divine. And we walked a lot!

Soaking the warmth of the stone and the warmth of the sun. My, Bordeaux was warm! There were a lot more Spanish people because obviously we are much closer to Spain. All the walking in the sun made us quite hot. Mr S bought an icey, like a slushie. Just watching the seller shave the ice from a big block of ice was entertaining. He used a thing like a carpenter’s planner but with a grater bottom. Not at all what we expected. Then with a dash of lemon cordial, it was divine – mouth-burning cold, but divine. So different from the slushies at home.

Walking from our apartment the first time, trying to find the centre of town, we stumbled across Roman ruins, called Le Palais Gallien. We were awestruck. We returned to these the next day. Once just wasn’t enough.

We have not been going into museums – the whole towns are history enough for us. But this time we decided to venture into the Musée d’Aquitaine. While most info blurbs were in French, there was enough in English that we learnt quite a bit. Especially interesting was the different skulls and outline of skeletal system of us and Neanderthals. So many differences!

Most jaw dropping was the Roman mosaic. A full floor! And colourful.

Distressing were the artefacts and pictures of the slave trade of which Bordeaux was part.

We also did a bit of retail therapy in Bordeaux.

Did you know this was our 25th wedding anniversary? That’s silver. OK, I’m not a traditionalist. Unless it suits me. And buying some silver trinkets suits me.

I like my possessions to have a story. And this silver bangle has a story.

It is from Galleries Layfeyette. A French design. (Made closer to home – in Thailand.) But hey! I bought a French design from the major French department store on our trip to France; it’s silver for our silver. Also, I have been searching for years for a simple silver bangle that fits my small wrist, doesn’t have a clasp and has a minor wave in the bangle. We found it so overlooked the overpriced cost. (But to buy this particular bangle in Australia costs more than we paid. So yay us.)

We also ate the most scrumptious, light-as-air, creamy puffs. I confess to popping more in my mouth than was healthy. (Went down well with a cup of tea, and followed by a rosé.)

Night time in front of the castle was beautiful. It was all just beautiful!

There was quite a bit of dust and noise as new tram lines were being laid down. Although we didn’t use the trams, preferring to walk, they are great. Can’t wait until the ones in Sydney are completed.

Things to do in early autumn in Nantes

We arrived on a perfect Sunday, blessed with blue skies and warm weather.

I included Nantes on our itinerary because a colleague said Les Machines des L’Ile was on her top 5 things she saw in France. Mmm. We must have very different tastes. It hasn’t made my top 5, not even my top 5 things to do in Nantes, but I am glad we came to Nantes.

Initially, I was less than impressed. We walked from the main train station to the other side of town, where the island that Les Machines are on. A walk of about 35 minutes.

It must have been a BIG Saturday night the night before. Smashed glasses everywhere, rubbish galore, bins overflowing, masses of cigarette butts, vomit, smell of urine. Then there were the homeless and beggars. And graffiti. I thought we’d made a poor choice to stay here two nights. Too real. Too grotty.

The Ile de Nantes was bustling. There was a huge sporting showcase going on. All manner of sports organisations there to tempt families. Which meant lots of people watching. Waking back through the commercial centre meant we missed all the grottiness.

So here’s my top 5 things to do. (Remembering we were there on a Sunday in September. Many of what we enjoyed may not be open at different times of the year.)

1. The Jardin des Plantes de Nantes is beautiful. There were plenty of flowers blooming. It is also an entertaining garden with quirky displays.

A living sculpture. Fantastic detail.

The photo doesn’t quite show it but the different grass is planted in he shape of a Christmas tree. So it’s the shadow of the living Christmas tree!

The ducks can’t read. Keep off the grass!

A mass of flowers with a giant garden bench (with a man about to walk under it.)

2. Sit in deck chairs at the bar alongside the river offshoot near the main train station. Perfect Sunday afternoon people watching and atmosphere soaking. Drinking a shandy type beer on a hot afternoon in the shade of big trees. I can’t remember the name of the bar but sitting on the desk chairs was cool.

3. Go to the fun fair (except it may have packed up and moved on). We are not fun fair people but we couldn’t resist seeing if they are different to Aussie fun fairs. No they’re not. But it was fantastic to ride the giant Ferris wheel and get a view over Nantes. €5 well spent.

Mr S also tried the gooiest lolly ever. It hangs like stretchy string and is constantly re-wrapped around the stand. When you buy some it is wrapped like a lolly pop. Except it is chewy and stretchy. The violet taste was different.

4. Walk around and admire the architecture, including the chateau of the Dukes. (We didn’t bother going inside to the museums.)

f

5. Have a Sunday early afternoon sparkling wine and feed on the boat on the river where Les Machines are. It’s a quirky bar. The staff had been to Australia and so got our accent immediately and didn’t think we were English.

I’d say yes to visiting Les Machines and even having a go on the merry-go-round. But even the elephant, as well made and interesting as it is, didn’t make it onto my top 5. Maybe I am just not into steam punk? It’s people and buildings that interest me more than machines.

As an addendum to the mixture of glam and grotty, our apartment was the same. Crisp, clean and modern in the actual apartment but housed in a dark, dank and scary block. I felt creeped out on my own. Not sure if any other apartments had people in them, the strange noises and pitch black corridor was the thing of nightmares.

Clearly summer was over and university was resuming. There were streams of young students pulling their wheeled luggage from the train station. Luckily for us, we’re not back to work for several more weeks.

Giants and standing stones

In Brittany, there are hundreds and hundreds of standing stones, from around 3,000 before Christ.

Most are set in lines, with alignments extending for over a kilometre. We visited two sites – at Carnac and Erdeven. The stones are of varying sizes. Walking among them, which we could do freely, leaves you with a feeling of wonder.

Why did they build these? What sort of megalithic society had enough wealth that individuals didn’t need to produce food but could have people build these? Who decided to start it? Did someone suddenly think this would be a good idea and then others copy? Along the lines of “I can make one bigger than yours”.

There are also dolmens, ones set with roofs, used as burial sites for important individuals. Photos of this didn’t turn out. Case of you really have to be there.

And then there’s the giants. Huge stones set upright – some have fallen. We visited the largest one which sits on its own at Dol-de-Bretagne earlier. It’s further north. Here’s the ones near Erdeven.

I’m so glad these were on our trip. For those wanting travel tips: don’t bother with the little train. If you go after summer, you can access the main sites free until 5pm, though there’s plenty of evidence that people bend the little fences to gain entry. They understandably restrict access as all the people walking on them is affecting the stability of the stones. The alignment at Erdeven is a little off the main track, so you can walk around at your leisure.

Mont Saint-Michel

It’s crowded. It’s very touristy. It’s packed.

It’s worth it.

The outline from the distance is so iconic. Impressive now, I can’t imagine how it appeared to the peasants centuries ago.

We drove, arriving around 11am, with plenty of other visitors. But there is stacks of parking. It is all very organised.

The shuttles from the car park to the island run like clock work, shuffling people on and off. The shuttles are free and take around 10 minutes. (Why would you pay to sit for longer on a horse drawn buggy?)

Getting in the island is free. We walked around, up the ramparts, along streets, passed the abbey. You only pay if you want to go into the abbey, which like most people, we didn’t.

We walked half way back to the car park, but as it was so hot and my knee was playing up, we hopped on a shuttle bus. It probably would have been better to walk to the mount, so we were looking at it.

Leaving at 12, we heard the bells ringing for about 15 minutes. We kept glancing back, in awe of the changing light on the abbey.

It’s not night. The mount is in shadow of a cloud, except for the top of the steeple!