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Trip Report Ellen & Stu Dudley's trip to the Ile de Re & the Loire.

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I normally don't write trip reports - but my wife e-mailed the following to a close friend who wanted to know about our recent trip to France. So I thought I would post it here. We spent 2 weeks in a Gite on the Ile de Re, followed by 2 weeks in a gite between Blois and Amboise in the Loire area and visited many chateaux east of Chinon. We had visited Chateaux west of Chinon about 5 years ago. This was our first trip to the Ile de Re (we had visited nearby La Rochelle on a prior trip), and about our 6th visit to the Loire.

Hi Georgia
In short, we had a great time. We visited one spot where we had never been before (Ile de Re off the mid-Atlantic coast) and the Loire where we had of course been before but wanted to revisit the chateaux now that I have a digital camera (a very dangerous prospect, as the number of resulting photos proves out!).

The Ile de Re was quite fascinating and held some unique adventures for us. First off, it's connected to the mainland (La Rochelle, a pretty well-known town is on the 'other' side of the bridge) by a long bridge only built in the 1980s (ferries before that) for which the toll is 16 Euros!.....certainly made us think whenever we just wanted to hop off the island! The island is actually 10 smallish-towns each with a small port area. The one where we stayed (La Flotte) was truly unlike any town we had ever visited in France - completely flat and a maze of small streets lined with mostly one and max two story homes all painted in white with green or gray trim. Really kind of reminded me scale-wise of Balboa Island in So Calif. So, visually it was very very different. And, apparently, there are very stringent rules about building, so there aren't likely to be any McMansions or condo towers built any time soon! The gite we stayed there was awesome!.....it was an older building that had been renovated by the owner over the course of 11 years. It was the perfect balance of traditional but very up to date and modern and the craftsmanship was quite amazing. In the course of the restoration, he even found some subterranean tunnels that led toward the port in town (we were a 5 minute walk from the port - so not the usual 'rural' gite). The gite owner was an oyster "farmer" (as he referred to himself - in French as he spoke no English - as is common with many gite owners). He proudly showed us all the features of the gite - how to use the appliances, etc (including a clothes washer AND dryer!) Since the gite was in-town it really didn't have a yard, but instead a very sweet, small garden that was chock-full of flowering plants (which he asked me to water during our stay - no problema!) People rode bicycles everywhere in town and I've never seen so many bike rental shops throughout the island. So, here's the amazing part.....we'd only been there a couple of days and the owner came by and invited us over to his place the following evening. I wasn't really sure what he was inviting us to - maybe oysters and wine, snacks, dinner - whatever.....I just wasn't entirely certain since it seemed so unlikely to be invited to his house for any occasion, as the French tend to be kind of private and it's not like we knew him or anything. Anyway, we went and - wow! - it was an amazing dinner!!!....starting out with stuffed and grilled clams, moving along to melon and proscuito sp?), tomato salad and then beef for a main course and some remarkable roasted potatoes, followed by a cheese course (I swear they must have known me in another life because we had 4 cheeses, all of which I knew and loved!) and then dessert. All this with wines for each course and preceded by the local aperitif called Pineau (2/3 white grape juice and 1/3 cognac, fermented together - really quite delicious). Needless to say, it was a lovely evening and the proprietor's wife was delightful (no English there either!). Stu sort of spent the evening smiling and looking friendly as the conversation sped along in French. I translated for him and he had his own questions for me to pose to our hosts ("ask them about......"). We did come to learn that the couple didn't like President Hollande AT ALL. Honestly at the end of the evening (4+ hours later) I was simply exhausted from all the translating, etc. THEN, on the way out (they picked us up and took us back to the gite - they too lived 'in town') they asked us if we wanted to go out to the oyster beds later in the week (or oyster "parks" as they're called there). Next thing we knew we were trying on their knee-high rubber boots to see if they fit, consulting the tide tables to see when would be a good time to go and making a plan. So, the day came, we put on our boots, the proprietor carried along a couple of pails and some 'implements' and out we went into the water. Oysters are grown on metal 'racks' in 'sacks', so we waded out, he opened up a sack and proceeded to haul out and open oysters for us to eat right then and there! Now, to be honest with you, I have never eaten an oyster and wasn't sure I would like them. The proprietor was clearly so pleased to be offering us these delicacies in what was obviously their freshest, most wonderful state there in the water. So, we waded all around and kept sampling different ones. They tasted quite briney - sort of like the sea water in which they were submerged - so I can cross 'eating oysters' off my bucket list now! We got about a dozen to take back to the gite and I selflessly told Stu he could eat them all himself! When we thought about both the dinner and the oyster park adventures later on, I couldn't help but think the whole thing seemed like a Rick Steves travel episode - where you get invited to somebody's house and go on all these local adventures with them. In any case, it was truly a remarkable experience - one we'll surely never forget. The proprietor said we were the first Americans who had ever stayed in his gite. I do think that in smaller towns where few Americans (ever?) go, we are sometimes seen as a minor curiosity. I even have a saying for this whenever local people seem to be looking us over as we pass by: I always say the locals are "checking out the Martians". Actually, along those lines, I swear we never heard one word of "American English" the whole time we were on the island (British English - yes; American English - no.) One more little tidbit about the island (since the proprietor loaned me a bunch of history books about the area). In one of the other towns on the island there was a huge (Vauban) military fort from the period of Louis XIV. Over time, it was retired as a working fort and by the late 1800s and early 1900s it was a prison from which convicts were shipped to terrible French penal colonies in French Guiana. The fort and the associated penal colonies were the basis for the 1970s film Papillon.

Obviously seafood was abundant and wonderful in this area. We ended up eating at one restaurant at the port in our town FIVE times (2 lunches and 3 dinners). The menu was awesome, we were able to have different first and second courses at most every meal. I LOVED their Soupe de Poissons. It was great because it was only about a 5 minute walk from our gite. The (woman) proprietor came to know us after a couple of times (the American "Martians") and she would give us complimentary aperatifs and even dessert on one occasion. We ran into her on the street one evening when her restaurant was closed and you would have thought we'd met up with a long-lost relative - what with all the 'double-kissing'.

A couple other places that we enjoyed while in this area were La Rochelle, the town of Cognac (hence the Pineau aperatif), and Rochefort. La Rochelle is a bustling town just across from the Ile de Re - lots of history and much to see and do. Architecturally (which is always a high point of any city/town for me), it's well-known for the arcades that line both sides of many of the streets throughout town. At night the arcades are lit, which makes it quite memorable. There is also an interesting natural history museum which only opened somewhat recently. The central market has more seafood merchants than you would ever believe - I can't imagine how that quantity of fish can be sold and eaten in one small area. Oyster vendors line many of the market stalls, many with large banners proclaiming they are "4th generation farmers and purveyors". The quantity and variety of fish is just mind-boggling.

Cognac too had a large central market - once again, with staggering quantities and varieties of seafood. Again, the Tourist Office offered up multiple walking routes - also based on the medieval, renaissance, etc parts of town. The large cognac houses (such as Hennessey) were located near the water and, although we didn't visit any of them, I imagine it would have been interesting. We did visit the Cognac Museum in town. It too was relatively new and very interesting and well-curated. We were running short on time, and I wish we could have spent more time there with the audio-guides that were available. Rochefort was an interesting 'walk-around' town. We got tickets to tour the "Hermione" which is a completely accurate reconstruction of Lafayette's frigate (ship) which played an instrumental role in the American Revolution. The ship has been under construction (using tools and materials consistent with the original) for almost 15 years, while the original was built in around 6 months with several hundred laborers. It really was fascinating and the ship will sail to the east coast of the US, making several stops, in the summer of 2015. I would be very intrigued to be on the east coast when it arrives next year. It's important to recognize the French contribution to the American War of Independence (hence "Lafayette, we are here" when American troops arrived in France during WWI.)

Last, but not least was an interesting, quirky museum we went to in Rochefort called Musee des Commerces d'Autrefois (roughly Museum of Trades of the Past). I could have (almost did) stay at this place for hours!!!! It was on 3 levels with individual stalls/vignettes (full size - not models) of commerce as it was conducted around 1900. This included things like a pharmacy, general store, photographer studio, seed store, pastry shop, butcher, cafe, probably around 20 to 25 different "scenes". Each scene was a remarkable collection of the historic objects associated with the trade. I can hardly begin to detail the literally tens of thousands of 'objects' which comprised all the displays. I read that the museum was actually established by a couple who were big 'collectors' (the understatement of the century!) It got to the point where they'd buy something and ask themselves where they were going to put it (a common affliction with people who enjoy collecting), so the wife apparently suggested that they open a museum and that's how the whole thing started. I was truly mesmerized by this museum. I wanted to examine every single item carefully and capture it in my memory. I would go back to this museum in a heartbeat because I can only imagine that it continues to expand with passing time.

En route from the Ile de Re to our second gite in the Loire Valley, we stopped in the town of Poitiers. At first blush from where we parked in the train station garage (which admittedly wouldn't be the high point of any town), the town wasn't all the remarkable, but, once we got the walking maps for the 3 itineraries (which actually represented 3 different periods chronologically) from the Tourist Office, it opened up a whole lot to see and appreciate in town. Several "hotel particuliers" were marked with plaques on the street along with a number of half-timbered buildings. We would recommend a stop there if you are passing nearby. We had allowed a couple hours for our visit and could readily have extended that time if we'd been able.

We clearly enjoyed our stay in the Loire as well. Although we had been there cumulatively over the years for several weeks, I had wanted to return now that I came armed with a digital camera. Based on our prior visits, we knew that the countryside wasn't really the main feature of the area - in fact, it was rather bland as it was very flat and monochromatic with the wheat and corn crops - though in an earlier season the sunflower fields (and there were LOTS of them) would have added some color. But the sunflowers were 'finished' when we were there in September and they aren't really appealing in that state. BUT, the magnificent chateaux (and many other less well-known ones) make the area a 'must' to visit in my view. Years ago, we'd visit 3 or 4 chateaux in one day and by day 2 or 3 our eyes would be glazed over and we'd be in complete chateau overload. So, with 2 weeks to pace ourselves, we devised a saner plan for this trip. Based on the ratings in the green Michelin Guide (and we focused on the 2 and 3 star chateaux), we visited only one "biggie" chateau a day, or two "lesser" chateaux a day. We always arrived at the chateau as soon as it opened in the morning - most often at 9:00 (easy to find parking spots then). We would take pictures of the outside of the chateau before we entered the interior. We purchased hand-held audio guides whenever they were available. The audio guides gave us a lot more history AND forced us to slow down the visit, After the interior visit, we would return to the outside of the chateaux, perhaps have lunch and a stroll in the garden, and then take more exterior pictures with a different sun exposure. For example, at Chenonceaux we took pictures with the sun lighting up the east facade over the Cher River in the AM, and then the sun on the west facade around 2:00PM. Sometimes 'a chateaux' would actually include visiting the town in which the chateau was located, so that added variety as well. This one/two chateaux a day max kept us 'fresh' to enjoy everything we saw. We ended up visiting about 14 chateaux in our 2 weeks there. Having said that about 2 and 3 star chateaux, we also visited some chateaux that we chose simply because they were near our gite and/or had some significant feature that intrigued us (like an original kitchen or a notable dovecote). While some of these lesser-known chateaux clearly weren't of the architectural or historical significance of, say, Chambord or Chenonceau, to me, they held considerable appeal in that you could almost imagine some mid-level aristocrat (like I would of course imagine myself to be!) living in them and, in some cases, the profusion of turrets made them as lovely as the grander places - just on a smaller scale! Having said all that, the Villandry chateau gardens were as completely remarkable as I had remembered them. (a few too many photos that day too!) Chambord never ceases to amaze me, though I didn't recall hearing before that the king who built it never spent more than 2 weeks at a time there! After calling out just those two, I won't go on and on about that part of the trip because it's familiar ground for most travelers and/or there is a LOT of information readily available about it. We had a great gite there too....though it was absolutely HUGE - it slept 8 and, at one point, I couldn't recall where I had seen the washing machine, so I literally had to hunt around to find it again! It was a building originally from the late 1700s and at times I did feel like I was walking around my own castle! The proprietor was exceedingly welcoming there as well - we were greeted with a lovely bouquet of flowers, a bottle of sparking wine, a tin of excellent cookies, orange juice, coffee and all kinds of other goodies. Honestly, I think that the comfort factors of gites are getting better and better as time goes by. Good food in that area too! We had duck breast at our gite one night and beef with our first gite proprietors on the Ile de Re, but, literally, every other night on our trip I had seafood!! If I hadn't eaten so much foie gras, cheese and dessert, it might have been considered a spa vacation!

Unfortunately, because of the Air France strike, we were "forced" to stay 3 nights in Paris before our flight home instead of the 1 night we had planned.

Stu Dudley

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