We spent last week in the Loire Valley and Normandy regions of France. The Loire Vally is famous for its Chateaus (castles) and its wine. Normandy is of course well known as the site of the Allied Invasion into France.
Day 1: We began by driving through Paris on our way south. We stayed on the outskirts of the city but we could see Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame in the distance (little did we know that a few days later Notre Dame would be burning). As we made our way south, we began to see a lot of yellow flowers in what looked like crop fields. We later discovered that these flowers contain the seeds that are used to make vegetable and canola oils. We continued to see fields like these for the whole trip. They made the landscape look like a patchwork quilt and they were beautiful. We finally arrived in Aunay-sous-Auneau, a very small village about 30 minutes from Chartres. After checking into our accommodations, we walked around the village which was very small and seemed like a proper French town with its old church in the center and the monotone colored homes surrounding it.
Day 2: We began our day by driving into Chartres. The city was very quaint and featured lots of crooked houses. The cathedral was pretty. There was a good mix of light and dark elements and the stained glass is elaborate and contains beautiful colors.
Next, we drove to Sully sur Loire (our first chateau) and to get there we had to drive through numerous French villages. They were all very cute and very quintessentially French.
Sully sur Loire was a very pretty Chateau. We only looked from the outside, but it made a nice impression they way it was situated on the water. Next to the chateau was a little bridge that led over the river into the village. In the village, we stopped at a small church having their Palm Sunday service and then went to a Boulangerie and Patisserie (bakery and pastry shop). We bought a baguette and a pastry bread and they were delicious-possibly one of the best things we ate on the whole trip!
Next, we drove through forest rodes to Chateau de Chambord. This was the hunting lodge of King Francis I in the 1500s. It was a sprawling chateau and made quite an impact over the landscape. We did go inside this one, but it was pretty sparse with a few historic artifacts. The impressive thing about the inside was the spiral staircase in the center of the chateau. The exterior was also unique in that it featured some interesting black geometric designs.
After Chambord, we drove to Blois. In the city, we went to an old church, St. Nicholas. It was a nice cathedral but was in disrepair as some of the artwork was destroyed and the ceiling was falling off-there were actually nets installed to catch falling rock.
The town of Blois was pretty and it was a nice walk up to the chateau. This chateau was lived in by many French kings and Joan of Arc was blessed at this chateau before heading to battle. While we were looking at the outside of the chateau, the House of Magic across the street began making noise and six large dragons (animatronic) came out of the windows. It was kind of cool and the youngest among us really enjoyed it!
Finally, we went to Chateau Cheverny. This chateau was given to Diane du Poitier, the mistress of King Henry II, but she sold it in favor of Chateau de Chenonceau. Cheverny had nice interiors but there was a Lego display going on so it was a little unusual to see the rooms with old furnishings and elaborate Lego creations. On the grounds, we walked through the tulip gardens and the labyrinth and then we went to view the kennels. The kennel is apparently very famous for its training of hunting dogs but it was a little disturbing because there were a lot of dogs in a space that wasn’t that big. Several of the dogs were injured and a dog fight broke out while we were standing there.
After Cheverny, we went back to the town of Blois for dinner. It seems that nothing is open in France on Sunday and Monday, so we struggled to find a restaurant. We finally settled on pizza which was not French at all (something we really hate to do), but we did try the local red Chinon wine and the tart tartin ( a local apple tart dessert). Both were good. We also walked in the city a little and saw this interesting Mona Lisa artwork which is painted onto steps.
Day 3: We planned to begin day three with a look around the gardens of Chateau de Chaumont, but when we arrived they told us the gardens would not open for another week. So, we decided to skip this castle and we just got a few glimpses of it as we drove out of town.
We moved on to Chenonceau. This is a very beautiful castle that has a lot of interesting history surrounding it. It was originally built by a husband and wife team and then became a possession of the crown in the 1500’s. It was given to Diane du Poitier, mistress of Henry II, but Catherine de Medici, the queen, had wanted it for herself. When King Henry II died, the queen forced Diane to turn it over to her. She then lived there while serving as regent for her young son who had become king. Finally, her other son became king and when he was murdered, his widow made it her home. The castle itself has interesting furnishings, a chapel where Mary Queen of Scots’s (also briefly the queen consort of France) guards carved sayings onto the walls, a wedding present of Mary Queen of Scots and Francis II, elaborate kitchens and a hall of the history of the chateau. There are also extensive gardens and maze and a collection of carriages. It is really one of the most beautiful settings.
After viewing the chateau, we ate lunch in town. We had some fish and meat dishes but nothing was exceptional. We did have some of the regional chenin blanc.
After lunch, we set off for our next stop. Along the way, we saw several wild pheasants along the roadside. Our next chateau was Clos Luce which was a chateau given to Leonardo Da Vinci to live in for the last three years of his life. Apparently, he and the king of France (Francis I) were very good friends and Clos Luce was connected by an underground passage to the castle where the king lived (Amboise). The chateau itself was very nice and though smaller in size, it was set on an expansive property. There were interesting displays set up throughout the property and house about Da Vinci’s inventions and visitors could see the room where he died and his studio where he continued to work on three of his paintings including the Mona Lisa.
After leaving Clos Luce, we stopped at Amboise and walked around the city below the chateau. We got a look at the chateau from the ground level and then headed onto Tours.
At this point, we were getting so frustrated that none of the restaurants had the regional cheeses and not much in the selection of regional wines, that we went to a grocery store and bought everything that we were looking for (not to mention for much cheaper than it would have cost at a restaurant).
After getting our groceries, we found an authentic restaurant called Au Coin Gourmand. A couple of us began the meal with a bone marrow starter (yes, they just ate the marrow out of the bone-I suppose it was seasoned or something. I did try a tiny piece but that was all I could muster). For the meal, we had Sandre fish (a typical fish for the region) and pork medallions. We also tried a Vouvray wine. Everything was very good. We ended the meal with a pear crumble which was also good. When we got back to our apartment, we enjoyed a little of our purchased cheese (Saint Maure and Crottin-both goat cheese and our favorites of everything we bought) and some red Chinon.
Day 4: Today we headed into Chinon to see the chateau there. Along the way, we passed by many vineyards. The chateau itself was a complex inside the castle walls that consisted of the royal rooms, a clock tower, a watchtower, artillery rooms and the keep. It was not really furnished in any way but they had a cool device called a histopad that was like a tablet you wore around your neck and when you went into a room, you could see what it might have looked like when furnished, read about the history and learn what the rooms were used for. Two interesting pieces of history from this chateau were that this was the site where Joan of Arc convinced the king to let her lead troops into battle and the Knights Templar were imprisoned here and made some interesting wall carvings in their cell.
After this, we moved on to Chateau d’Usse. We didn’t go in this one, but it was very lovely and looked like something from a fairytale. We sat across the street and had Croque Monsieur sandwiches for lunch (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that is popular in France). We tried two French beers-one was a rouge which was interesting and very fruity. We finished our meal with the local tart tartin.
Next, we drove to Azay le Rideau. Again, we just looked at this one from the gates and then we walked in the city where we stopped in a small cathedral.
Finally, we finished our chateau tour with Chateau de Villandry. This one is well known for its gardens so we spent our time wandering those. The gardens were very manicured and sculpted, but there weren’t many flowers in bloom yet at this time of year so they probably weren’t at their most beautiful.
We walked around the village outside the chateau here as well and then went back into Tours to walk around the Guingette de Tours sur Loire-basically a riverfront area. Notice also, the baguette vending machine. We saw several of these, especially in these small villages. I guess when you need a baguette, you need a baguette!
After grabbing some dinner, which none of us were overly excited by, we stopped in a cathedral that was being renovated for a quick look. Finally, back at the apartment, we broke out the rest of the cheese (Pyramid de Valencay, Pouligny Saint Pierre and Selles sur Cher) that we had purchased at the store as well as a Muscadet wine. It was nice, but the kids were not fans of the cheese!
Day 5: On our fifth day, we left the Loire Valley and made our way into Normandy. On our way to Mont St. Michel, we drove by tons of the yellow flower fields and even saw some deer in one of them. We also saw many Ecobridges-bridges built over the highways that are designed for animals to use for crossing so that they don’t cross on the road.
At Mont St. Michel, we took the bus to the island and went into the city. We first stopped at a small church before making our way uphill to the abbey. The abbey itself was very interesting as not only had it been an abbey, but also a prison. There were also some really beautiful stone carvings inside from the 1500s and the columns and arches were fantastic.
We left Mont St. Michel and drove to Omaha Beach. There were many monuments to the Allied Forces and several bunkers that could be seen. We walked the beach and it was very surreal. First, it was hard to imagine from such a pretty beach that something so gruesome had taken place there. Then it felt somewhat odd because there were people playing on the beach and it seemed strange to go somewhere to have a good time while remembering what had taken place-how many lost their lives there and what the beach must have looked like that day.
We also went to the American cemetery near the beach.
That night we stayed at a bed and breakfast-our first time. It was very nice and the owner, though she spoke little English, was very kind. She had a drink of cider with us (popular to Normandy region) which was enjoyable. We went into a small town for dinner, St. Pierre sur Dives. We walked the town a little and went into a church before heading to the restaurant.
At the restaurant, we tried Pommeau which is an aperitif local to the region. It was good. We followed that with pork medallions, steak and fish. All of it was very good and came with some very tasty vegetables. We ended the dinner with Calvados, a digestif local to the region. That was reminiscent of whiskey and was fairly strong. We also had an apple and salted caramel sorbet. The calvados could be added over the apple sorbet to form another regional specialty called a Trou Normand.
Day 6: We began the day with breakfast with the owner of the bed and breakfast. She made a lot of food for us including fresh orange juice, homemade jams and milk that had come from the local farm. After breakfast, we went on a tour of the Graindorge Cheese Factory. There they produce 4 cheeses of the region-Pont l’Eveque, Livarot, Camembert and Neufchatel. The tour was very interesting and informative and at the end, they had all of the cheeses for us to try. The best part- it was free!
After the tour, we drove to Claude Monet’s house in Giverny. The house was very nice and there were pieces of art from Monet and his contemporaries inside. But the gardens were spectacular and it was fun to see the famous Japanese garden that served as his inspiration for many of his paintings including the water lily paintings.
After the gardens, we walked down the street to a small outdoor restaurant where we had some white ham risotto and a lamb dish with some regional beer.
After lunch, we drove to Rouen and walked the old district. We went into Notre Dame de Rouen and saw Joan d’Arc cathedral and an abbey. There was also a huge astronomical clock and some beautiful little streets and building facades. Finally, we brought the Joan of Arc story full circle by seeing the site where she was sentenced to death and where she was burned at the stake.
After walking the city, we had dinner at Made in Normandy and I thought my kids might kill me as the food was very authentic and a little outside of their normal dietary choices even though they are pretty adventurous. After some Pommeau and appetizers, we had Marmite Dieppoise (a sort of fish stew), steak and Andoiullet (tripe sausage). I redeemed myself a little with dessert which consisted of specialties of the region-Teurgoule (rice pudding), Normandy tart (apple tart) and something that was like a pudding consistency cheese with a browned butter topping.
We ended the day on the terrace of our apartment overlooking the city.
Day 7: Our last day began with a drive to Calais. We walked to the coastline at Cap Blanc-Nez which is the equivalent to the Cliffs of Dover on the French side of the English Channel. It was a hazy morning but we could just make out the UK and the cliffs on that side.
We went into town and saw the City Hall and the statue by Rodin of the Burghers of Calais. We also walked around a large WWII bunker that has been converted into a museum inside of a small park.
Finally, we stopped and bought a few pastries before driving by the lighthouse and heading back to The Netherlands.
Overall, it was a fun trip. We learned some new things, brushed up on quite a bit of history, the kids stayed engaged and we saw some beautiful places. The language barrier was a little harder this trip and the food was a little disappointing, but we have plans to check out another area of France later in the year, so until then, Au Revoir!