A Tour from Tours: Les Châteaux de la Loire

For my history and architecture-loving mother, no first trip to Europe would be complete without visiting the châteaux of the Loire Valley. The launch point for this stunning valley is the medieval city of Tours. We arrived on the train from Paris mid-afternoon, relaxed for about an hour at our lovely hotel, and then headed into the historic center of town.

Our first stop was the cathedral, which was jaw-droppingly stunning. Now, I love cathedrals and have been lucky enough to have seen many of them. And if someone ever asks which one has the most beautiful exterior, without hesitation I would respond with this one. I MEAN, LOOK AT IT. The intricacy was awe-inspiring - the things our species can do!

Afterwards, we simply explored the medieval streets. The center is not very large - only a few streets wide - but the history was palpable and if there is one thing about me that you may have gathered from my blog, it’s that I am an absolute history nerd. Put me in the middle of a medieval European town and I will be happily occupied for hours. Mom is the same, so despite having only a couple of streets to wander we managed to take over two hours to do it.

On the way back to the hotel we ducked into a bakery. Mom wanted a quiche and I am a fiend for a good French bakery sandwich. This little bakery, however, has seared itself in my brain not because of how good its food was but because of how frustrating the workers were. Or, I should restate: how French the workers were.

See, the French can be…uh, particular about their language. As in, they sometimes get annoyed if you don’t speak French but if you do then they get annoyed if it isn’t perfect.

Case in point: I speak decent French but will often make grammatical mistakes and pronunciation errors. In other words, I speak it to the point of easy communication but I’m not fluent. At the time of this vacation, I was living in Senegal and spoke French in a professional setting. So silly me, I thought I could order a quiche and a sandwich. I strolled up to the counter and said to the woman, “Salut, on veut une quiche et un sandwich thon, s'il vous plaît.“ I smiled at her, and she...just stared back at me with the most deer-in-headlights expression I have ever been on the receiving end of. She then slowly and silently walked away from the till and went into the backroom, leaving Mom and I standing confused as hell and alone. Moments later, she came back with a manager who said to me in broken English, “yes, I can help you please?”

Oh, I was mad. Apparently my French is good enough to give trainings on malaria but not good enough to ask for a quiche – which the same bloody word in English! I was so irritated that I forgot to order myself a sandwich after Mom got her quiche, and ended up getting a kebab a few streets away instead - from a man who understand that I wanted a chicken kebab. Hmph.

The next day was our tour of three chateaux in the Loire Valley. We went to the Tours Tourist Information Center, where the tour was leaving from at 9am. We ambled around, side-eyeing the other people milling about. There are many tours of the region and they all seem to leave from the Tourist Information Center, so by 8:55 the place was rather crowded. However, each tour was relatively small so when our driver arrived only six of us got into the van - all American, five of us women (the man was a retired gentleman who seemed to fancy himself as a bit like Frasier Crane. I'll get to that in a bit).

It was 40 miles (65km) to our first stop. We admired the absolutely stunning French countryside as we drove along, and our driver told us the age-old joke that God made this perfect land but put French people in it to bring it down a notch or two. It's a variation of the same joke many places have, but after the interaction with the bakery worker the previous evening I was open to the idea of a joke at their expense (side note: I really do love France and the French people, I swear!).

Under the beautiful crystal blue spring sky, we arrived at our first chateau: Château de Blois. This was the home of several Medieval and Renaissance French kings, and was also the place of several famous moments in French history: this is where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before she went to fight the English, where Catherine de Medici died, and where Duke Henri I de Guise was murdered during the French wars of religion. Apart from these historical elements, what makes this château especially interesting to visit are its varying architectural styles. It was not built in one go, but rather it was built by several kings throughout several centuries. As such, Medieval gothic, late-Medieval, Renaissance, and classic architectural styles are all represented in a relatively small space.

You start your visit in the Medieval wing (or, well, we did anyways), which is one of the best preserved examples of Medieval palace architecture anywhere. The Medievalist in me was thrilled to see the colorful wallpaper and wooden beams of the rooms and to imagine what it must have been like to live in these quarters hundreds of years ago. The Renaissance and late-Medieval wings were also interesting (with the late-Medieval wing reminding me quite a bit of England's Hampton Court's architecture).

One of the best parts of the château is the double-spiral staircase, supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. This thing was an absolute mind-trip - see, the point was that it would allow the staff to keep everything running smoothly while also remaining out of sight. It was the strangest experience - half of us went up one staircase, the other half went up the other half, and yup, we didn't really cross each others' lines of vision! That alone makes de Blois worth a visit!

After admiring the beautiful staircase and views of the town of Blois, we all piled back into the van and headed for an early lunch in town. The tour company had an arrangement with a small eatery, so when we arrived we were treated to a semi-private meal of local delicacies. Or, well, most of us were. Mom - one of the world's pickiest eaters - mostly just ate bread. But the rest of us had a dish of sausage and beans. I will admit, it wasn't the best thing I've ever had but at least I ate it unlike a certain someone. They said this was traditional fare in the area but to be honest I think the country known for amazing food probably has better to offer. Though I also have never been fussed with French food, so who knows (caveat: I am talking main dishes here. There is nothing in this world that is better than French bread).

While we ate, we chatted with the other tour group that was in the small restaurant with us. I was seated next to two Australian women, who explained that the reason you always meet Aussies and Kiwis who are in the middle of several-month long vacations is because they live so far away from Europe and North America. It takes two days just to get anywhere - plus a whole bucket of money - so they can't exactly do it often. I had never thought about why I met so many Australians who did those long trips but as soon as they said it the lightbulb went off and ever since I have felt dumb for not realizing that sooner.

Also at lunch, the man in our group became quite agitated with our wine. "We were promised an authentic meal but this is clearly simple table wine!" He spent the entire meal loudly talking about this, while the rest of us shrank further and further into our seats. Two of the other people on our tour, meanwhile,happily bought a couple of bottles of the stuff. I don't know if they bought it because they actually wanted it or if they just felt bad for the staff at the guy's rudeness, but either way.

After lunch, we drove the 10.5 miles (17km) to our next stop: Cheverny. This was the least impressive of the three we visited but that is not to say it wasn't remarkable - it is simply to highlight just how extraordinary the châteaux of the Loire Valley are.

Cheverny was the model for the manor in the Adventures of Tintin books, if that's your jam. Neither of us have ever read them though, so instead we just enjoyed the Classical architecture (it was built in the mid-1600s). We were also informed that the same family has owned and lived in the château for 600 years!

As I said, Cheverny is not the most architecturally-exciting of the châteaux in the area. So what makes it worth a visit if you're not a Tintin fan? Two words: gardens and hounds. The latter might be a little controversial, so lets talk about the former first. Sure, there are more extensive gardens elsewhere, but something about the intimate setting of these well-maintained gardens felt special. We enjoyed the flowers and topiaries with the women who had bought the wine, and then the four of us wandered over to the kennels to see the dogs. And here was where we diverged a little in our enjoyment of the place.

To set the scene, the beagles - dozens of them - live in a concrete enclosure. They are hunting dogs, as the estate still maintains its heritage in this regard - the dogs are used every hunting season to help maintain local deer populations. As such, these are no pets. Mom and I found it an interesting cultural and historical study. The other two women, however, decidedly did not. There were a lot of angry murmurs about animal abuse, and one of the women actually went up to a family and yelled at them for taking pictures (meanwhile, I took several). So if you are sensitive to animal treatment, perhaps you would not enjoy Cheverny. For me, of course I do not condone animal abuse but I do not consider what I saw to be that. These are well-fed dogs who have been bred for centuries to hunt. The history student in me appreciated the insight but again, if you are an animal lover, maybe steer clear.

After about an hour and a half at Cheverny, we piled back into the van for the 11 mile (18 km) drive to Château de Chambord, the climax of the day. On the way, the two women who had bought the wine produced the bottles. According to our driver, France doesn't have open-bottle laws. He obviously wasn't allowed to drink, but we were! So we all had the equivalent of a glass of wine while watching the pretty French pastures roll by. Not a bad moment! As we only had a few miles, we drank the wine quite quickly which meant we were all slightly buzzed when we arrived at the château.

There is a reason that the tour left Chambord for last: it's the largest chateau in the Loire Valley (even though it was never finished), and the architectural beauty of the place is almost surreal. Our tipsy brains were ecstatic. Disney even used the chateau as its inspiration for Beast's castle in Beauty and the Beast - not so much for its size, as the cartoon castle is skinny while Chambord is wide - but because of the detailed gargoyles, ramparts, and towers. Built in the mid-16th century, Chambord was meant to show off the wealth of the crown. As such, it was built with beauty rather than defense in mind.

For being a massive building meant to impress, it was technically a hunting lodge for the king (and yet the French monarchy wondered why, two centuries later, the peasants revolted). In fact, because it was never finished (due to war and money, the pesky things), it was never even used much by the king who commissioned it - who happened to be the same king who built the Renaissance wing at Château de Blois . In addition, it wasn't near a village so all of the supplies had to be carted in so the incentive to actually finish it wasn't that high.

Chambord has the same cool double-spiral staircase as de Blois, as they were both built around the same time by the same king. But we spent most of our time on the rooftop enjoying the architecture and views of the countryside. As I said above, Chambord was built to impress. The rooftop (and entire structure in general) was meant to resemble the skyline of Constantinople (Istanbul); as such, there isn't much symmetry in the towers and facades. They wanted a more dramatic look and by-golly, I think they managed it.

Mom and I were so enamored with the rooftop that we forgot to give ourself enough time to wander the grounds and get a good picture of the château from afar. The downsides of a tour, I suppose. So if you go to Chambord on a tour, don't repeat our mistake! For now, I leave you with a picture of just one small corner of the rooftop of rooftops.