Monthly Archives: August 2012

My idea of a “relaxing” day in France?

Azay le Rideau in the Loire Valley, one of many famous Chateaux you can visit in France, if you’ve got 9 euro (sometimes a bit more) to spare. Click on the photo for a larger version.

Any day that starts with an alarm clock can’t be all that relaxing. Any day that ends with having to return a rental car cannot possibly be relaxing. And any day I’m doing both is certain to not run contrary to the basic premise here!

Yesterday we had the long drive from Pontorson (after our morning visit to Mont Saint Michel), complete with a myriad of wrong turns as my wife and I attempted the scenic rural route to the Loire Valley instead of the freeway. And not yet mentioned was the debacle at one of the freeway toll booths, which had always in the past taken my US non-chipped credit card without issue, but this time refused, causing me (after talking with the remote toll taker) to have to back up and use a different lane that took cash. There are very good reasons I prefer not to rent a car, and today they continued as we found it impossible to locate an open gas station to refill the tank before dropping it off. But first, the Chateaux tour.

We spent the night at an absolutely stunning hotel in Azay le Rideau, the Le Grand Monarque. A separate sitting room, amazingly-comfortable bed, great shower (in France, you don’t take showers for granted!), wonderful staff (refused a tip for carrying bags up a lengthy staircase even, and he earned it), great location, all for 135 euros including breakfast. Not, not as inexpensive as the Etaps I often stay in, but don’t think my wife would go for that. I have spent more for pretty dreadful places in the past however, and this one had the bonus of being walking distance from the first Chateaux, Azay le Rideau, which you see in the photo.

From there we drove a short (30 kilometers) distance to Chateau Villandry, known for its expansive and impressively-maintained gardens. We didn’t even bother with the Chateaux itself; the gardens were more than enough for a couple of hours.

Next stop? Well, there has to be a low point on a trip, and this was it. Despite high recommendations, I cannot overstate how unimpressed I was with Chateau Clos Luce in Amboise. The Chateau was poorly maintained, dust was everywhere, signs in several places saying that it was their intention to acquire period-appropriate pieces for various rooms, etc. And the main attraction, an exhibit of Leonardo De Vinci’s machines? I’ve seen much better in a museum. And the asking price for all this? 18.50 Euros!!! I fail to understand why this place gets great reviews on TripAdvisor. Must be a lot of die-hard Leonardo De Vinci fans, desperate to see a room he spent only a few years of his life in. It could be that the saving grace for this Chateau was its expansive grass field and lake at the bottom of the hill, but that’s not what we came for.

After that we visited the crown jewel of the Loire Valley, Chateau Chenonceau. That place earns its keep; immaculate, run by people who seem to care, and beautiful. Definitely the best interior rooms we saw during our rounds, and a place we wish we could have spent more time with. Maybe another visit, although frankly, I think it more likely that I’ve done the Chateau thing and so can now cross it off my list and get back to bicycling.

Summing up the day- 4 Chateaux visits, returning a rental car without refilling the tank (for which they’ll charge me a large number of euros), a quick train ride back to Paris and now settled in for three nights at the Concorde Montparnasse, my favorite combination of functional & price when in Paris. 1:13am so time to get some sleep! –Mike–

Mont Saint Michel and a longer-than-should-have-been drive to Azay le Rideau

There’s nothing quite like Mont Saint Michel. Actually, there is. Disneyland. Both have a castle, both have huge crowds, and both have far-removed parking lots (although Disneyland has got a much-better shuttle system for tired legs).

On the other hand, Mont Saint Michel is quite literally larger-than-life. You see it from 30 miles away. Seriously! It’s that big. And when you consider that the Abbey (the Cathedral up on top) was built in the 11th & 12th centuries, you start wondering about all that “modern” building techniques have really accomplished. However, once you understand that, at its core, Mont Saint Michel is basically one huge granite rock and that everything has been built around that rock more than on top of it, you start worrying a bit less about whether a 1000-year-old building can support so much weight.

If you go, best to get there early. Anything up to 9am will avoid the heavy crowds as you climb to the top, although you’ll see them swarming in as you leave. Make sure you’ve got too hiking shoes, because the walk from where you park your car to the shuttle is easily half a mile, and that’s assuming you parked close-in by getting there early! And when the shuttle drops you off, you have yet another long hike to the rock itself.

There are lots of places “inside” for food & drink, and, unlike what some of the guidebooks say, they’re not all outrageous. However, your best bet is to get something at the Brioche Doree you’ll pass on your way to the shuttle.

And finally, the parking ticket payment machines, which you have to deal with when you leave, don’t take anything but chipped-style credit cards. The type used in Europe but not issued by banks for US customers. They do take bills, however. Half a day of parking ran 8.50 euros.

More soon; time to get to sleep. About 12:20am Thursday here, and if I get off this soon, I might get 7 hours of sleep. Radical! Fill you in on the details regarding the longer-than-should-have-been drive later on, but will let you know that I now know where my son gets his navigational skills from. –Mike–