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This will be the first of a three-diary series I will write about my recent trip to France. The trip was basically broken up into visits to three very different regions of the country. In these diaries, I will share stories of our road trip from Paris to Nice, give my impressions of the French people and their amazing depth of culture, share the history I was so fortunate to lay eyes on and try to do it all without boring you to tears. All the photographs will be my own unless otherwise indicated.
I've been mad at Paris for the last five years. I have been to the City of Lights a half dozen times and my last time I was sure it would be my last. Without going into a long-winded story, suffice it to say that someone drugged my drink and the manager of the hotel I was staying at woke me up pounding on my door 15 hours later. It's a hell of a story, but it would be a digression.
On my 50th birthday a year ago September, Brian generously offered to take me anywhere in the world I wanted to go. It had been quite a while since we had taken a real vacation together and my advancing age provided the perfect excuse.
I thought long and hard about my bucket list and eventually narrowed it down to a road trip through either Italy or France. Last spring when Paris exploded with protests over marriage equality, I was leaning strongly towards Italy. But my long-held desire to see more of France than just Paris nagged me until I caved. France it would be. Italy will be there for another time.
Still miffed with Paris, I had no desire to spend so much as a day. Brian agreed and when we landed at Charles de Gaul airport, we got our rental car and made a mad dash out of Paris. And when I say mad, let me tell you, it was nuts. Our destination was the city of Chartres with her magnificent cathedral. The entirety of sprawling Paris stood in between. Before we took off in the car, we looked at the map and planned our route thoroughly and then promptly got completely lost. Every time I looked at the Eiffel Tower through the choking exhaust fumes in the distance it told me we were headed to Germany. Somehow in our jet-lagged state, we made it out of there although I'm not quite sure how we managed to do it.
Leg 1: The Loire Valley
At 2:00 in the afternoon we caught our first glimpse of Chartres, or rather its massive Gothic cathedral commanding the view for miles around. For the next fifteen minutes as the church loomed ever larger, our jet lag and my bladder demanded the first room we could find. We parked our car near the city center and the first place we saw was the beautiful Hotel Grand Monarque just a sweet 10 minutes stroll to the cathedral. We treated ourselves to a surprising affordable (during the off-season) suite, dumped our luggage, peed and headed through the maze of streets to see the town's gem, Chartres Cathedral.
The Loire Valley is a region sitting in North Central France and is famed for its stunning châteaux (just a fancy word castles, there). With the Loire river running through its vineyards and orchards, the area is abundant with sweet villages, magnificent palaces and the intrigue and shifting sands of history that lay at the very heart of the story of France. Long before Louis XIV built his temple of vanity at Versailles, French kings and queens built great fortresses that, through the ages, gave way to sumptuous digs in the Loire Valley. This legacy of great estates and the moveable feast of the nobility that inhabited them remain in spectacular fashion. On our way to visit the more renowned châteaux, we passed by countless lesser palaces tucked in trees and situated on moats. Everywhere you looked, something screaming "look at me" threatened to derail whatever loose plans we had made for the next two days. On our itinerary were the châteaux of Chambord, Chenonceau, Blois and Azay-le-Rideau.
First up was Chambord. Sadly, it was pissing rain during our visit, so my shots of the castle are not so hot. So I'm cheating and giving you a picture of the castle on someone else's sunny day.
Photo courtesy of Raul.
This little hunting lodge built by King François I was primarily a vanity effort with the purpose of hosting grand hunting parties. In total, he spent just seven weeks there. I've spent more time in tents.
Our closest town to spend the night was Blois. The beauty of traveling during the off-season is that hotels that are booked months in advance for the high-season clamor for guests after things die down. Prices fall accordingly. We got a beautiful room at an amazing price. We felt completely justified splurging on our first five-course meal in pretty Blois. The food was unbelievable and the wine even better. This would be our first of many times asking our wait staff to recommend the right wines for our meal. So serious are the French about this sacred combo, you will never be up-sold on the priciest bottle. Many times we were pointed to extraordinary wines that were very moderately priced. For an American accustomed to the cynicism of status spending, this was a very pleasant surprise.