(I bet you think I'm never going to get through this trip report, hu?)
We woke up the next day extremely early since we had to be on the train in the 7am hour to get to the Loire Valley to see the chateaux. We took the metro to the Gare Montparnasse and stood around drinking coffee while we waited to board. But first, we had to figure out why everyone was sticking their tickets in a little puncher thingymajig and decide if we should do it as well. The answer, my friends, is yes. Apparently they tell you this in the guidebook, but we'd forgotten so like lemmings we followed the crowd and hoped for the best. Success!
I seem to recall that on the train from Rome to Florence you weren't so much assigned a seat as you were a general area of the train (I could be mistaken). Well, in France, you get a car assigned to you and a seat. This might have been a nice piece of information for the ticket agent to share with us as we initially got on the wrong car and looked like eejits trying to figure out what we are supposed to do. Fortunately, I'm fairly good at divining random things from looking at clues around me (I'd be great at this aspect of The Amazing Race - not so much on the running to and from every pit stop as if we weren't all going to wind up arriving at 7am waiting for the place to open at 10am).
As we were settling in for the commute I ripped a key button from my jacket front. This made me testy because I couldn't figure out how to tie it on or come up with a MacGuyver solution. So I was kind of a wee nasty beast to Alan until we hit Tours and then even a bit after then. (Sorry, honey!) Prior to coming to Paris, I had booked a car at the Tours train station at a rather cheap rate for the day. At some point we decided to cancel the reservation; I can't remember why. This meant we arrived in Tours around 9am with a return ticket at 5:30 p.m. and no way to get out to the chateaux. Oops. Initially we were accosted by a tour promoter (very reminiscent of timeshare hawkers here in the U.S.) trying to convince us to take his tour. Only problem was that he didn't go to any of the "tier 1" chateaux that we were told we *had* to see. We thanked him and told him we were still exploring our options. We went into the Avis office where she told us she had 1 car left but it was substantially more money than we had previously booked and we could only drive 250km before we'd be charged extra. Seeing as how our previous reservation was about $20 cheaper and included unlimited mileage, I felt like she was trying to gouge us because we were last minute. She probably was, and I shouldn't fault her for it, but it still didn't sit well with me, especially since I was already in a surly mood.
Next we walked across the street to the Tourist information building. You're probably thinking to yourself right now, "you have to be back at the station at 5:30 and you're wasting a lot of time ... just rent the damn car and get on with it." You, my friend, would be thinking the same thing I was. The lady there provided us with a lot of information, but it left things no clearer in our minds as to whether we should go with a tour, rent a car, and from where (Hertz had now entered into the equation.) At this point, I'd gone from testy to bitchy and the morning was off to an unpleasant start. Finally, we decided to go back to Avis where we rented the only car she had and off we went. But first, as she's ringing us up, I notice they offer a Tom Tom for rent for an extra 10 euro. Eureka! If you're ever driving in a foreign country and someone offers you a GPS service, by all means take it. I don't know that we would have been able to get out of Tours without it given the directions we'd been provided on a map.
And away we go ...
The drive through the Loire Valley is very pretty and relaxing. Except when your Tom Tom starts screaming at you. And the manual doesn't tell you what the shrieking means. To this day I'm convinced we hit a cow or something and it was just letting us know.
Oh, and remember me mentioning how beautiful the weather had been on our trip and how sometimes I didn't even need a jacket? Yeah, well. Today's the day that bragging came back to bite me in the ass. I wore a short-sleeve sweater and it was FREEZING in the Loire Valley. When we first arrived at Chambord, it was still very foggy too, but by arriving early we seemed to avoid the crowds of school kids that were showing up as we left.
Chambord is, in a word, extraordinary. The architecture of the building is unrivaled in the Loire in its sheer scale and absolute style. Sure, the other chateaux are amazing in their own rite, but this building is just a show-stopper.
And yes, I am wearing my scarf funny - it's to hide the fact that I'm missing a key element of the jacket: a button to keep it closed.
I also want to point out that of all the people in France we spoke to in the service industry, the three women manning the check in desk were so very delightful. Their idea of "a little English" was better than what some kids in high school graduate with.
We decided again not to go with the audio guide since we had our guidebooks and we felt they told us enough for us to gain an appreciation for the building. Also, throughout the chateaux there are placards telling you why something is significant or what was going on in the area such that I felt we walked away with a decent understanding of the place, its inhabitants (virtually none, actually) and why it is a "must see" in the area.
After wandering around the grounds for a while longer, we stopped at the onsight restaurant and had some crepes and then we drove through Blois on our way to Chenonceau. We had wanted to also go to Amboise, but it takes a while to drive to all of these places and then walk through so we realized that we actually only had time to see two chateaux. Still, the drive was picturesque.
The Chateau of Chenonceau is often called the Chateau of Women because of the immense role women have played in its importance throughout history. You can definitely see the influence Catherine de Medici had on the building in its overt Florentine decor, which interestingly does not reflect its outer appearance.
I bet you're jealous of our sexy car. We were the envy of every Citroen on the road with our pastel yellow Fiat Panda. That's right, a Panda. Bow down, bitches!
Like many of the buildings we toured in France, Chenonceau was also going through some renovations - this time to the garden and outer buildings so the entrance is kind of marred by tractors and dirt and other things associated with tearing things up and putting them back together. But then it's all pretty again. See?
The first thing you encounter when walking down the path is a shrubbery maze. We are ALL ABOUT mazes here at casacaudill. Typically, we spend time in corn mazes being chased by psychopaths weilding fake chainsaws (Hi Heather!), but this one was calm, serene, and pretty. Oh, and I beat Alan to the center because I *rock* at mazes.
Here's what the castle looks like as you approach. We spent a lot of time debating whether this is the same castle from one of my favorite movies, Ever After. Having looked at IMDB I can tell you that it is not the same site (they filmed at Château de Fénélon).
Again, we eschewed the audio tour and just wandered around reading the placards and our guide book. I absolutely LOVED the rooms in this chateau. Whereas the rooms in Chambord were cold and bare (they felt medieval to me), these were warm and filled with life. Several of the rooms were very reminiscent of the room we stayed at in Florence. The basement kitchen was my favorite room in the whole place. I could have cooked in there for hours if given the chance.
After touring the interior, we wandered around the grounds for a bit but my knee was back in fine form so we didn't linger too much longer. Besides, we had a train to catch!
When we got back to Paris from the Loire Valley, we decided to go to the Musee de Orsay since it was open late on Thursdays. I expected to absolutely LOVE the Orsay. Instead, I found myself feeling ambivalent about it. I really didn't like the flow of the exhibitions and while the art was all well and good, I think by this point I had hit my threshold for world class art. It was just too much art, if ever there is such a thing. The only paintings in the museum that I found myself drawn to were - not surprisingly - the Van Gohs. Take everything you think you know about color and throw it out the window - how that man got the pigments and tone he did is beyond me. You just don't see blues and yellows that vivid with other painters, even today.
After the museum we decided that we desperately needed food so we went searching on foot for a place to eat. We didn't know where we were going or what we were looking for which put us at a disadvantage. And while my knees were still killing me, it was freezing outside so I was more worried my nose was going to freeze and fall off than I was about my leg going out. In the end, we found ourselves in St. Germain des Pres at a little restaurant whose name escapes me. It was cute, warm and they had good looking desserts in the window - always a good sign.
Dinner was ... interesting. This was the first time I ate French onion soup while in France and it was very different from very preparation I've ever had of it. Very good, but unexpected (you could taste the butter). Alan ordered what he thought was a cheese course which actually turned out to be a cold cheese soup of sorts. It too was very tasty, but umm ... odd. It was like scooping sour cream into your mouth (texture, not taste). I think I ate more of it than he did.
We ran into some issues ordering wine from our Chinese waiter. We thought we were ordering a white, but we ended up with a red. Then when Alan asked for a glass of white wine he brought us a glass of ice. We finally pulled out the guidebook and looked for the words that would make us successful. I don't know why he didn't understand us when we were saying "vin blanc" but apparently it was hard to know what we were asking for. I ordered duck confit which was good, but not great, and Alan had chicken with a cream sauce. Nothing extraordinary by any means, but we were tired, hungry and this place sat us so that worked. The best part of the entire meal was the fact that we found ourselves seated next to the owner who brought in his little bichon frise who spent the whole time begging for food. Cracked me up.
Happy Valentine's Day, indeed. If you think Alan looks thrilled, you should have seen the picture of me.
And then it was back to the hotel to crash.