“The thought of going abroad makes my heart leap.” — Charles Sumner
On Tuesday morning, we got up and enjoyed our last breakfast with the other guests in the dining room. We were a bit sad to leave the Dordogne….after a day or two, you finally get used to an area and feel more familiar on the roads and adjust to the bed and the smell of the place, the shower pressure, and your hotel starts to feel more like home. But it was time to move on, and with our destination being the Loire Valley….we couldn’t complain.
Today was the first day that the Tour de France would be coming through the area, so many of the roads that we needed to get north would be temporarily closed down. This was an unforeseen logistical oversight that we made in planning our trip. We should have left a day earlier to avoid any possible hiccups. Our hosts pulled out their maps and tried to help us figure out the best way to get out of the Dordogne–our electronic devices were useless because they weren’t registering the make shift road closures. We set a travel plan and headed off.
Sooooo, we had not made it more than a few hundred yards before we started to see caravans of cycling teams on the road. Typically, the caravan consisted of several vans and at least 3 cars that would be carrying extra bicycles, all smeared with sponsor stickers (like Formula 500 or Nascar) etc. In fact, the first caravan that we encountered were from a team that we had seen the previous evening who were staying at Le Vieux Logis (I think they were from Qatar or the UAE). Unfortunately, they were headed in the same direction that we were. It wasn’t long before we ran into our first road block and had to turn around…it would one of many. Let’s just say that sometimes when you trust your gut instinct, it doesn’t always work out for the best. We would drive 10km down a highway, with no signage saying “road block ahead”, and then encounter huge trucks blocking the highway. It became increasingly frustrating and we probably bickered more that morning than on the entire trip, but soon we made it far enough north and we were cruising down the highway. And once we saw an aire to stop at, all was right with the world.
The last section of our 2017 adventure would be the Loire Valley. We stopped here earlier for one evening when we visited Chinon (see earlier post) and we were excited to return. Actually, we are only going to see a small section of the Loire, mainly concentrated in the central portion. The Loire Valley is sort of the unofficial border that divides northern and southern France. In the 11th century, castles and fortifications were built to keep out intruders, but when the Royal Court was established here, all of the nobility of France had to be in the “hot neighborhood” and build their own massive fairy-tale inspired Chateaus. In fact, there are over 300 significant Chateaus that dot the region, as well as some of the best wineries and many other ecclesiastical buildings such as Cathedrals and Abbeys.
Our pit stop for this leg would be just outside of Amboise, in Saint Regele, at the Chateau des Arepentis. The Loire Valley is known for its chateaus, and when we were choosing where to stay, we thought it would be fun to stay in a period setting to go along with all of the places we were visiting. Part hotel and part B&B, the Chateau des Aprentis dates back to at least the 14th century and definitely looks the part….when we pulled up, we knew we were staying in a castle! Obviously, it has been renovated and modified over the centuries, including the addition of a swimming pool and an elevator (I’m pretty sure that is not original to the Chateau), but it retains a lot of the old world kind of charm you would expect.
That being said, when we arrived, there was no one at the front desk. There was a sign to call for service and in a few minutes a young man walked out to greet us. Looking and speaking as if we had just woken him from a nap, he rather unenthusiastically showed us to our room and kind of sort of explained the AC and the wifi and the hours for breakfast, but all in the style of a 16 year old teenage boy who is home on summer break and is asked by his parents to greet their out of town friends who are arriving for the weekend. It was awkward for sure, and nothing like the greeting we had received anywhere else that we had stayed (ever). Oddly, we never saw him again for the next 5 days…we really don’t know who he was.
Despite the odd welcome, our room was massive and charming (it even had a sitting area with an old fireplace) and we had huge windows that opened onto a gorgeous pastoral setting. The Chateau sits on 75 acres of bucolic countryside, yet you are literally right outside of town. There were two horses that would come down to the pond to water…and you genuinely felt like you had stepped back in time and were the guests of some wealthy Chateau owner.
A few years back, we went to England and traveled all over the country where we stayed at hotels that were all former manor houses, part of the Luxury Family Hotel chain. Chateau des Arpentis definitely reminded me of that, only it didn’t cater to children/families, necessarily. But it has the former-Castle-Country Estate-turned-hotel- shabby-chic vibe. You get a glimpse of the grandeur of their former glory days, but there is a bit of a tarnished edge. I say this with no negativity or “shade” implied….we were quite happy to be staying where we were and we embraced all of the quirks.
I’m assuming that the taxidermy came with the Chateau when it was converted to a hotel…possibly they were little critters that once roamed the lovely grounds and even bigger game caught on a safari. Or….maybe the hotel’s interior designer just had a thing for hunting-lodge chic. I don’t know…but there were some aggressive little creatures in the mix.
As all big old Chateaus should be, the quirks didn’t end with the taxidermy. We wanted to explore the pool and in order to get there, you have to go down several sort of underground tunnels that I think were once part of a moat around the Chateau. It made going to the pool quite an experience. Spooky, eerie, fun, wacky. All good.
After we had explored the Chateau and settled in, we decided to head into Amboise. By the way, you pronounce Amboise sort of like it looks, which is rare in French. It is Am-bwah-zzz. Much like many of the towns in the area, there is a historic (royal) Chateau on the banks of the Loire, and a small town formed and grew around the Chateau. We will be visiting the Chateau another day, so I will save the history lesson for then.
We had to do a bit of driving in circles to find parking, and the streets of this old town were very narrow, but eventually, we found public parking only a few blocks from the historic center. It’s a lovely little town, obviously dominated by the Chateau on the hill, but it has a great mix of tourists and locals, which is the balance we look for. There are your tourist-geared shops and restaurants, but you also find local boulangeries, fromageries, wine shops and boucheries and pâtisseries (bakeries, cheese shops, butchers and pastry shops).
After we walked around town a bit, we decided to scope out a place for dinner. Rick Steve’s Loire guidebook mentioned a few places including a spot called Chez Bruno. It was right in town and it faced the massive stone ramparts of the Chateau. The menu showed it to be a simple bistro with typical French food, which is what we were looking for. It was probably 7PM when we walked up to the waitress to ask about a table. There were several open seats both inside and outside, but that means nothing. If those tables are reserved….that means that they are reserved for the entire dinner service, which is usually between 7 and 9. So, of course, she asked us if we had a reservation. And even though we knew the importance of a reservation by now, we didn’t have one. We got that sort of disapproving look,….the one a parent or a teacher gives you when they are disappointed in you. She looked at her reservation list, looked around the restaurant, looked at her list again and then took us inside to an okay table, but still clearly in the “detention” area. And before we knew it, the place had filled up with all of the reservations and was bustling the entire time. Honestly, by this point, we should have known better and we were just happy to get a table. Once again, reservations are key during the high season. In case you missed it, I gave my dining in France tips in a previous post called Bye Bye Bayeux.
I remember our dinner being good and it was reasonably priced, but I didn’t take any photographs, so that tells me that it wasn’t that exceptional either. But every dinner doesn’t have to be outstanding and end with fireworks…a nice, tasty meal is perfectly fine. Afterwards, we walked over to the river, which is just a minute away. The sunset view over the Loire and the beautiful light on the Chateau was stunning.
We drove back the short distance to our Chateau (I do like the sound of that) and enjoyed a glass of wine while watching the sun set over the Loire Valley. The horses across the way looked so picturesque and quite a change from our usual view of the homeless people at the chess tables in Tompkins Square Park. We definitely savor every minute of our time away. Tomorrow, we are visiting Fontevraud Abbey and then Chateau Azay-le-Rideau. Bonsoir!