The 3:47 train from Paris (sounds like an Agatha Christie title) slid swiftly southward into the green Loire Valley, and by 5:30 John and I were in Blois. The hilly town of 50,000 people, rising from the banks of the wide Loire River, was the first stop on this tour of the valley and its famous chateaus.
Armed with maps from the tourist office, we set off in the rain to explore. The Old Town has several points of interest for tourists — a cathedral, churches, walking tours, a “House of Magic” — but the main one by far is the chateau, the royal home of French kings during the Renaissance. A lot of action took place here from the 13th century through the 17th. One significant act was the assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1588. He’d plotted to take over the kingdom, so Henry III’s men killed him with their swords in the king’s own bedchamber. This led to a 30-year war… Politics.
In the chateau you can amble through the royal apartments, restored to their former glory, and perch on a royal throne. In early May and for part of the summer, Renaissance music and sword fighting demonstrations draw crowds.
We took a bus to see Chambord and Cheverny, a trip that allows two hours at each chateau. We could have bicycled; the tourist office has detailed biking routes.
Chambord, another former royal residence, is immense. Scores of rooms, staircases, chimneys; a scattering of towers — it’s an elaborate fairytale fantasy. Visitors wander through the mostly empty rooms, climb stairs, and gawk at views from the turrets.
Paths run past sweeps of lawn and a canal. You can rent a bike or take a picnic (champagne included) in a boat on the canal. Our lunch was in a cafe, and after a taste of good local wines, we headed for Cheverny and the chateau, which still belongs to the family that built it centuries ago. The private apartments, lived in until 1985, are open and beautifully furnished.
The 32-kilometer park also contains a flower-filled kitchen garden, a sizable forest, and a tree-shaded waterway; tours are available by boat or 4-wheel drive. There’s also a kennel full of madly barking hunting hounds, kept because the hunt is an ongoing tradition here, you’ll note by the antlers on the walls. Those who know Tintin, the comics character beloved in France, will recognize Cheverny as “Moulinsart,” which was based on the chateau.
Back in Blois, we ate and stayed at Le Monarque, a 22-room hillside hotel. Small and clean, the rooms have firm beds and good showers and are quiet, the holy three for travelers. The staff was friendly and helpful, and the price was right — 57 euros a night. Meals get mixed reviews, with some dishes excellent, others not so. For fine (and pricier) dining, Au Rendezvous des Pecheurs is said to be the best. Also well-reviewed are Le Marigno, Bistrot du Cuisinier, and Le Bistrot de Leonard.
Next: French Queens, Leonardo DaVinci, and Sleeping Beauty.