This part of my trip report focuses on the second leg of our trip which was to the Loire Valley. Part 1 (Paris) is in a separate post which you can easily find by searching for drbb.
We had our last café crème and tartine in Paris on the Place de Vosges at Café Hugo. After checking out of our hotel Pavillon de la Reine we took a quick taxi to the Gare Nord to pick up our car which is a VW Golf. I rented this through AutoEurope. Pick in Paris, drop off at the Lyon airport, 10 days, unlimited mileage. Cost: $426. This was an automatic with a diesel engine. It got unbelievable gas mileage.
We headed out for Chartres by picking up the Peripherique (ring road) that encircles Paris. Heading west and then south, we picked up the A10. Outside of Paris, the character of the land changed dramatically, and we were soon surrounded by fields of leeks, sunflowers, corn, and cabbages. We were in Chartres by noon.
Tip: Via Michelin was invaluable in getting accurate driving directions. Even the amounts quoted for the tolls en route were current and correct. So easy to type in your departure point, your arrival point, and get detailed maps of each leg of the trip. I also used Via Michelin extensively to get street maps of small towns and directions from one small town to another in the Loire and in Beaune. I had Michelin regional maps to take in the car also but did not use them much.
Driving in France is extremely easy I find. Everything is well-marked, and I love the roundabouts. Why don’t we have these in the U.S.? Not sure in which direction you should go? See what your options are in the first go-round and then pick an exit in the second go-round.
Chartres: A gorgeous cathedral that reminded me somewhat of the cathedral in Strasbourg. It just dominated all else around it and was striking in its massiveness and intricacy. Chartres was much smaller than I anticipated. Look for signs to the Centre Ville and it is almost too easy to find the underground parking garage near the cathedral. Since we got to Chartres at noon and had a lunch reservation at 1 PM, we decided to stroll the streets first, have lunch, and then stop at the cathedral. There are many quaint streets with half-timbered houses near the cathedral. It was very quiet, almost deserted. We walked in the old section, near the River Eure.
Lunch: Le Moulin de Ponceau, as its name implies, was once a mill along the Eure. It is but a few blocks from the cathedral. Surprisingly, the restaurant was almost full at 1:00. Since we had a reservation, they had saved a little table right next to the big picture window for us. The back portion of the restaurant juts out over the river and so you feel almost as if you are on a boat, watching the ducks go by and the river flow past you. The river was lined with huge willow trees. Our lunch was a very relaxed affair starting with an amuse bouche of shrimp remoulade and a bottle of wine. First courses were a ravioli of goat cheese and a wedge of sautéed, crusted brie served with a mesclun salad. That was followed by nuggets of beef and veal that were painstakingly wrapped in thin slices of sausage and roasted. And I had a mushroom risotto. I also tried a chaource cheese which was pungent, sour and salty. Delicious! Total cost with wine: 84.50 euros. (note: the prices that I give for meals include everything. We normally had 3 courses each, wine, sparkling water, and coffee/tea at the end of the meal. Sometimes we also had an aperitif or a dessert wine.)
Cathedral: The stained glass was overwhelming. As we walked into the nave, we saw Malcom Miller leading a tour group. I had his book (which painstakingly describes every stained glass panel) under my arm. Since the day was cloudy, the details of the glass were a bit more difficult to see but beautiful none the less. We also saw the labyrinth on the floor which was unfortunately covered by chairs. We (or maybe I should say I, and my husband dutifully follows me) have a ritual of climbing the towers of every cathedral we visit. I had let him wimp out on Sacre Coeur since we had already climbed several hundred stairs just to get up the hill. But not so today. We climbed the 300 steps in the North Tower and are rewarded with breathtaking views over Chartres. There were little balconies for viewing the carvings and the gargoyles. We climbed down and walked around the outside so see all of the portals and carvings.
We left Chartres and traveled on to Onzain which is along the Loire between Blois and Amboise. The trip was quite uneventful. The countryside was very pretty, and as we left the expressway and got closer to Blois, we saw vineyards. We also saw signs to watch out for wildlife on the roads. Now I am used to the “Deer Crossing” signs in the South, but this the first time I have seen signs warning you of wild boar crossing the road. We stopped beside a field outside of Onzain to see if we could figure out what strange vegetable was being grown, and we encountered several deer who nervously bounded away.
Hotel: As we enter the grounds of the Domaine des Hauts de Loire, we are literally overwhelmed by the beauty of the grounds and the serenity. The real thing is actually better than the pictures on their website. http://www.domainehautsloire.com/ The hotel is actually about a mile outside of the village of Onzain which is directly across the Loire from Chaumont between Amboise and Blois. It is a great base for seeing the chateaux of the Loire. Very easy to drive also as it was about 5 minutes to the N152 which runs right along the river down past Tours and northeast up to Blois. Our room was a superior double on the second floor of the ivy-covered main house which is actually a converted hunting manor built in 1840. We had a lovely view over the front lawns and the pond (with swans!). It was a good size room with a large marble bathroom and lots of closet space. There was an adjacent building which also has some guest rooms. The hotel has a restaurant and very pretty public rooms on the ground floor. There were flower and vegetable gardens on the property as well as paths through the wooded areas. This is a Relais & Chateaux property. Cost: 255 euros per night not including breakfast. There is a large lot for parking so you do not have to pay any parking fees.
We unpacked and had a stroll around the grounds. We were really not in the mood to drive much so we asked for a recommendation nearby, something simple. We drove into Onzain to the recommended Auberge de Moulin au Vent for salad, pizza, and wine. It was a small place, family run. Maman did all the order taking and serving. There were about six couples, and despite other items on the menu, it seems that everyone was having pizza.
Our first day on the Loire involved a drive to the chateau at Blois. We stopped at a bar/café near the chateau for a café crème. The day was bright and sunny. Blois is a very pretty town, and we decided to come back to the town center later for some shopping.
Blois: The chateau at Blois is on the river and is noted for its Renaissance architecture and style. It is known for its beautiful spiral staircase, and the salamander of Francois 1er is everywhere, carved in stone and wood. The rooms were nicely furnished with furniture typical of the era. The murder of the Duke of Guise is remembered here in numerous paintings which depict the assassination, the before, and the after.
There was a great terrace with a wonderful view of Blois and the river. You can see several bridges spanning the Loire. I was especially captivated by a very old stone bench carved in the shape of an animal. I am always amazed at the architecture and the fine attention to the smallest details whether it’s the ornate carving on a piece of furniture, the inlay on a box, the tiny angel’s face carved on a stone column, or a rainspout with a dolphin’s head at the end.
Lunch: To Contres, a small village with whimsical topiary animals on the town square. Every second story window had a flower box brimming with blooms. We parked very close to La Botte d’Asperges which is in a restored half-timbered building.. My husband was very hopeful that true to its name, this restaurant will feature dishes of asparagus, preferably white asparagus, but of course asparagus are out of season and nowhere on the menu. There was a nice little crowd in this small restaurant, mostly older French couples. Tip: In small villages like this, I have found the Michelin red guide to be indispensable and accurate. The more popular travel guides usually don’t feature these restaurants. Anything that Michelin rates as two forks or above, and particularly those restaurants with the Bib Gourmand designation, are worth a look. This restaurant was very charming, had a wonderful menu and wine list, and I never would have found it had it not been for ViaMichelin’s red guide on the web. The web version is especially helpful as you can look up a site such as the chateau at Blois and then ask for restaurants nearby.
We started with a 2004 Cheverny from the Loire. My entrée was a little layered casserole of potatoes with a mild cheese like Gruyere. It was accompanied by several slices of a local sausage which was very tasty. My second was a slice of skate (ray) in a basil butter. It had a small puff pastry alongside that was stuffed with zucchini, tomato slices and herbs. Husband had a taboule salad, well seasoned, with a small slice of a stuffed chicken breast. Then a roasted veal in a rich cream sauce. He also had a puff pastry side but his is stuffed with an interesting mix of shredded cabbage and herbs that was tangy and sweet at the same time, as well as a second side of little squares of potato that were puffy and brown. We both had the same dessert – a red fruits soup that is sprinkled with ground nuts and fresh mint. Total cost: 58 euros. http://www.labotte-dasperges.com/
Chambord: Our after-lunch stop was Chambord, just a short drive away. As we came close, driving up a long narrow road bordered by tall trees, I saw something that at first looked like a New York City skyline. Then I realized I am looking at the 365 towers of the immense Chambord, silhouetted against the sky. All I could say is “Oh my God…” I was completely overwhelmed.
We parked at the car park and made our way to the chateau. Again the salamander of Francois 1er is everywhere. There were four floors and many rooms. Not all of the rooms are fully furnished but there are some stunning pieces that illustrate the opulence of the era. There was a wonderful display of tapestries that depict Hannibal’s battle against Roman generals. The double helix staircase was enormous and we spent some time figuring out how it was constructed. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have had an influence on its design. There were nice views from the terraces of the wooded areas around Chambord. Supposedly the 12,000 acres teem with wildlife. We visited the gift shop, and we stopped at the little café near the car park and enjoyed a drink and the beautiful sunny day.
Dinner: De L’Ecole is another Michelin red guide find – 2 forks and a Bib Gourmand. It is in Pontlevoy which is about 18 minutes from Onzain on the southern side of the Loire. A very pretty little dining room dominated by a very large and probably very old sideboard. There was a young woman doing most of the serving – short hair, glasses, thick-soled shoes, and a dapper pin striped suit. She is cheerful but very efficient. The meal was wonderful – how can they make such food in the middle of nowhere? The three course menu was 21 euros and worth every cent. We started with a white wine of the Loire and an amuse bouche of a tiny pastry filled with pate and dab of caviar. Then there was a second amuse bouche – wild mushrooms that had been exquisitely sautéed with herbs. There were girolles, sliced chanterelles, and the small black mushrooms called “trumpets of death.” My first course consisted of mussels cooked in white wine and garlic; they were small mussels, very fresh and sweet. I soaked up the sauce with chunks of crusty bread. My husband had another opportunity for escargots and he took it. They arrived hot in their shells, the garlic butter still sizzling. I ordered the entrée of mignons de porc de peche, small scallops of pork in a thick sweet sauce of very small peach halves. The pork was very flavorful and of a darker color, not like the white, bland meat we get in grocery stores. Husband’s entrée was a chicken breast stuffed with herbs and mushrooms. I selected a chevre and a Pont Leveque for my cheese course. And just when we thought we could not eat anymore – desserts arrived. A “soup” of peaches, the same very small peaches, poached and served with raspberries, strawberries, and a small scoop of gelato. And an assortment of lime, pineapple, and raspberry sorbets. Total cost: 70 euros. http://vialandis.reservit.com/reservit/fiche_htl.php?userid=10862c225c20e90195ae6d58f57fbbfc4e4c&hotelid=2240
On our way to Chenonceau, we stopped at Montrichard at a café/bar for café crème. There were a number of men buying and filling out lotto tickets. We could not figure out how it worked, but it involved looking at numbers in the newspaper and selecting new numbers for today’s ticket. We then walked down the street to a small bakery and bought a fresh, warm baguette twisted in a paper square. We talked of retiring to France and opening small butter-and-jam concessions outside of small town bakeries so that one can get immediate gratification from the morning loaf.
Chenonceau: On to the town of Chenonceaux. The weather was picture perfect -- sunny, blue sky, warm. As we walked toward the chateau, we saw drifts of wild white cyclamen growing underneath the tall trees. The chateau itself was luxurious and gracious. I understood immediately why it has been described as ‘feminine.” There is a very refined and almost liquid feel to the design, the style, and the gardens. The gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de’Medici were entirely done in tones of sage green, white, pinks, lavender, and silver. http://www.chenonceau.com/media/gb/index_gb.php
The rooms inside were very pretty, full of light, gorgeous furniture, and beautiful flower arrangements. In several of the downstairs rooms, women are arranging huge bouquets of white Asiatic lilies and the spicy scent of the flowers drifted through the air.
We especially enjoyed seeing the black and white tiled gallery, the river Cher, the rooms of Diane, Catherine and Louise, and the kitchens on the bottom floor of the chateau. We tour the entire house, then stroll in the gardens. This was my favorite chateau.
Lunch: Le Bon Laboureur in the town of Chenonceaux is a very pretty ivy-covered-inn. http://www.bonlaboureur.com/uk.asp There were not many people in the restaurant, and I was surprised at the cost of the menu. It was more expensive than I would have thought given its web site and the Michelin description. We had a table next to the flower-filled courtyard and we could hear the breeze and the birds as we lunched.
The mise en bouche is a work of art – a small pave of raw marinated tuna surrounded by the thinnest strip of cucumber, all set on a little bed of cucumber and dill sauce. The second amuse bouche was also pretty - a quenelle of pink salmon mousse studded with orangey-pink caviar eggs. We had a bottle of 2004 red Chinon. I selected a simple mesclun salad, followed by an unusual dish. There were two small filets of the fish known as rouget barbet topped with a light sauce. Underneath that was a small browned square of pied de cochon. This is bits of meat and skin from the pig trotter, formed into a square and sautéed until brown and crispy on both sides. The bits of meat were fatty and rich, somewhat like the little fatty bits of crunchy roasted skin on a turkey rump that you know are not good for you, but taste so scrumptious. I ate every bit.
My husband had lightly sautéed langoustines accompanied by “dots” of red beet puree and a mousse of parsley cream. The presentation on the plate was exquisite. That was followed by chunks of roasted lamb “en croute” with a layer of green herbs. He pronounced this the best lamb he has ever had. There was a little round pastry cigar filled with shredded rutabaga that was incredibly delicious and sweet, almost like a mild cabbage. He also had batons of salsify that have been sautéed until crusty brown. His dessert came in a glass – a bottom layer of rhubarb and raspberry compote topped with a mid-layer of crunchy meringue, and a top layer of strawberry granita. My dessert was light and refreshing – a thin layer of lime cream topped with a thin cookie wafer, and that topped with peeled slices of orange and grapefruit. Alongside was a small quenelle of lime sorbet and a swirl of raspberry coulis. Again the plate presentations were gorgeous works of art. We cannot possibly eat any more but gourmandise arrived with our coffee – on a chariot! We select squares of apricot gelee and red cherries in liqueur. Total cost: 137 euros.
After this lunch, we needed a walk. We followed a little country road that ran alongside the restaurant and soon turned into a one-lane dirt road. We looked at the interesting plants, trying to identify those that we know. We spotted two different kinds of chestnut trees and checked out the thick barbed skins covering the nuts. There were also wild cyclamen here growing in the shade of the big trees. It was very quiet. We passed several little cottages. We went back to the main road and then drove to Amboise.
Amboise: Our after-lunch stop was the home of Leonardo da Vinci, Clos de Luce. Smaller than Blois, Amboise’s city center was easy to find. The estate of Clos de Luce was elegant and airy. It was nicely furnished, particularly Leonardo’s bedroom. We enjoyed looking at his study, the reception rooms, and the kitchens. There were pretty gardens. You could see the chateau at Amboise from Clos de Luce. On the bottom floor were reproductions of machines that were drawn by Leonardo in his famous sketchbooks. Everything from a machine gun to a bicycle. These were quite interesting. We headed back to the hotel and sat outside on the terrace enjoying a glass of wine. The sun started to set about 7:00.
Dinner: We drive to the little town of Limeray and the Auberge de Launey which is right next to the Loire. The restaurant was already quite busy at 8:00 PM but we had a reservation and were shown right away to our table. We ordered a kir made with sparkling Vouvray as we perused the menu. The amuse bouche was a sausage slice on a little pastry square. There was also a puffy broiled square of fromage blanc on a chewy bread, flavored with cumin. We order a bottle of Vouvray. When I ordered the featured entrée, the friture de Loire, the gentleman warned me that this was whole fish with some bones. I envisioned detaching a fish filet from the whole fish, so reassured him this would not be a problem.
Our entrees are a mousse of chevre and crunchy vegetables on a sauce of basil and slices of fig and melon with a prosciutto-like ham. The fruit/jambon cru plate comes with a sorbet of melon flavored with rosewater and honey.
Then comes my friture. To my delight, there are several dozen very small fish that have been gutted but are otherwise fried whole. Tail, head, eyes and all. They are sweet and crunchy and served with a tangy remoulade sauce that is perfect for dipping. I have had something like this before – a fritto misto eaten in Venice in a little restaurant that brings back fond memories. The gentleman who served us told me that a Monsieur Boissoneau had caught these fish right outside the restaurant. He fishes every night until 11 PM. My husband’s entrée is a pork dish that has a rich sauce made with local honey and spices. We finish with an apple cake baked with Calvados, and a fresh fruit “cocktail” with a Vouvray granita. Total cost: 78 euros.
Villandry: This will be our last day in the Loire, and I had decided long before that we must visit the celebrated kitchen gardens at Villandry. After our usual stop for café crème (where we see the lotto selection again in full swing – this time an older gentlemen and two older ladies who take lotto selection very seriously and drink a glass of beer while they fill out their lotto tickets. At 8 AM!). we drive towards Tours. Villandry was about 65 minutes from Onzain. We paralleled the Loire on the N152 and saw some vineyards, some troglodyte homes, the chateau at Usse, and many apple orchards.
We spent a full two hours in the gardens at Villandry. The nine immense beds of the kitchen gardens are all different, and there were diagrams to help with identifying the plants. I hadn’t ever realized that swiss chards and cabbages could be so beautiful. My husband discovers arbors that have ripe grapes hanging down and he had a snack, tasting and comparing those that look different. Unfortunately they were not labeled as to varietal. Although the interiors of Villandry are said to be very nice, we never made it inside.
Lunch: We drove towards Druye and the farm of La Giraudiere, about 10 minutes from Villandry. There is a restaurant on the farm called L’Etape Gourmande that features its own cheeses. There is a large house and several farm buildings. There are pens for chickens, ducks, pigs and goats. There is a modest patio and we decided to sit outside since the weather was good. We met Beatrice who owns the place (we had seen picture of her and one of her goats on her web site -- http://www.letapegourmande.com/indexen.html). I started with a tart of herbed goat cheese, topped with bits of bacon and baked, then drizzled with pesto. It came with a small salad. Husband decided on salad for his entrée; it had young lettuces and baby vegetables. We ordered a 2004 Bourgeoil Cuvee de Chasseur which is a local wine. He then had a cochon de lat (suckling pig) in a sweet garlic sauce with roasted potatoes. I had a veal dish described as “pecota” (piccata) but it was actually more like a saltimbocca – small scallops pounded thin and folded over a fresh sage leaf and some chevre. It had been lightly breaded and sautéed, and was served with a risotto-like pilaf and a rich veal jus. Our desserts are also scrumptious – a tarte tatin of pineapple with a pina colada sorbet and a red fruits compote served in a glass and topped with a layer of whipped cream and a layer of strawberry granita. Total cost: 65 euros.
After lunch, we went into the cheverie to see where the goats are milked. The goats were very tame and liked to have their heads scratched. We also made friends with some little pigs who rushed over to the fence to greet us and waggled their little tails just like excited puppies.
Abbaye de Fontevraud: We drove another 45 minutes to the west towards Langeais. I had wanted to see the Abbaye and the abbey church with its tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lion Hearted. Dating from the 11th century, it is one of the nest preserved abbies in Europe. Interestingly, the abbey was ruled by a long series of strong-willed abbesses for over 600 years. The visit started with the church which is very simple but huge. The tombs of Henry, Eleanor, Richard and Joan feature painted effigies. Eleanor is laying down and reading a book. We walked through the other parts of the abbey including the cloisters, the chapter house, the kitchens, and the dining halls. It is all very simple but the vaults and proportions are massive. There is a lookout over what used to be the cemetery for the nuns, but any markers are long lost.
Dinner: We opted for dinner at the Domaine on our last evening. The restaurant rates one Michelin star, and the dining room is top-notch luxury. There were several sets of ceiling-to-floor French doors that open onto the terrace. We dressed up for dinner. We started with a 2002 Chinon, and an amuse bouche of a salmon tartare with cucumber and a fromage mousse. I ordered the duck pate with sautéed girolle mushrooms, baby beets and toast points, while my husband had the a warm goat cheese accompanied by peeled baby tomatoes and tomato and herb granita. Our entrees were exceedingly good – my husband had what he now swears is the best lamb ever, a roasted rack of lamb with an apple compote and a red wine reduction. I had a cochon de lait, slices of tender pork, also in a wine reduction. We asked about a dessert wine, and the sommelier assured us he had something we would like. He brought us two glasses of a Marc Bredif 1986 Vouvray demi-sec that was not too sweet but had a rich, deep taste of apple and pear. One dessert is a vacherin – a tear-shaped “wall” of meringue filled with whipped cream and berries and a wafer thin cookie on the side that has raspberries arranged in rows. I had the macaron filled with raspberries and pastry cream. There was a quenelle of sorbet on the side as well as a rectangular white vanilla gelee that has 8 perfect whole raspberries arranged in 2 rows on top. The gourmandise never seemed to end – little banana tartlets, madeleines, little butterscotch tuiles, citron marshmallows, chocolate truffles, tiny filled gingerbread sandwich cookies. At was after 11:30 by the time we finished and a good thing we only had to walk upstairs to our room. Total: 259 euros.
The Loire was everything I had hoped. Beautiful chateaux, romantic rivers lined with willow trees, outstanding cuisine and wine. I heartily recommend the Domaine des Hauts de Loire.
Next stop – Part 3 of this travel report describes the last leg of our trip. A wonderful stay in Beaune and interesting jaunts along the Cote d’Or.
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