Well, we have been saying that we needed to slow down a bit, and we have finally done it. The heat since we arrived in the Loire region has been such that we have been forced to stop. So this week we have been going to bed late, sleeping in and taking a long lunchtime siesta, followed by the afternoon in the pool (in fact some days a whole day in the pool!). Temperatures have been in the mid-30s during the day, only dropping to a low of about 20 degrees overnight and last night it was still 29 degrees at 9pm!
There is loads to do and see in this region, mostly connected with all of the beautiful chateau that are spread out along the length of the Loire, at Blois, Amboise, Chenonceau, Azay-Le-Rideau and more. This is also great cycling country, with a cycle path all the way along the Loire itself, and visiting the chateau ‘en velo’ is a very popular activity. And then of course the region is also famous for its delicious wines!
Highlight: visit to Chateau Chambord, the biggest and flashiest of the Loire Chateau
Château de Chambord, with all its towers and turrets, really is stunning. It is the largest, grandest and most visited chateau in the region and rightly so. It has splendour and renaissance glory in abundance.
It was built (or at least started to be built) in 1519 by King François I and was intended to be a weekend hunting lodge. It finished up about 30 years later as a vast, ostentatious chateau with 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces and 84 staircases topped with innumerable turrets, chimneys and lanterns. Ironically, once it was finished, François found his chateau too draughty and only stayed there for a total of 42 days, preferring to use the Royal apartments at nearby Amboise and Blois instead!
One of its most famous features is its double-helix staircase, thought to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci, who was a friend of the king and lived down the road at Clos Lucé in Amboise (François called him ‘first painter, engineer and king’s architect’). The intriguing staircase is in the centre of the chateau and serves its three main floors. It is very clever since it is actually a pair of staircases in the same stairwell that only interconnect on each of the landings. In the centre is a hollow core with openings that allow you to see people on the other staircase but without ever crossing or passing them.
The rooms in much of the chateau are vast, with ridiculously high ceilings. You can visit the elaborate royal bedchamber of François I, an enormous room of 80 square metres, where he slept, ate his meals and received courtiers as well as rooms adapted for Louis XIV when he stayed here. In the 18th century, as we learnt at Versailles, they were much more concerned wth comfort and privacy and so at this time some of the rooms were partitioned and given false ceilings, creating a range of smaller rooms that were easier to heat and more comfortable to live in.
Impressive audio visual guides
One of the most impressive things about the chateau though was how they have used technology to enhance the experience for the visitor. We got audio guides for the children and these came with headphones and an iPad or tablet that used GPS to locate their position within the chateau and display this on a detailed interactive map. The audio started automatically when they entered each room and there were additional photographs they could access and questions related to what they had just heard. In addition, the map turned green when you had visited a room and you could zoom the scale in and out so you could see exactly where you needed to go next and didn’t miss anything. It was great!
We set the girls up as our tour guides for the day and they decided which way to go and which rooms they wanted to visit. All this meant that they were totally engaged with everything and excited to be in charge of their own learning and exploration. Every so often they would tell us what they had learnt from the audio guide (or we could hear it ourselves if we stood close) and so we all discovered the chateau as we went.
Everywhere in the chateau you see stone and woodwork decorated with the F of François I, along with his emblem, the salamander. In the kitchens, we learnt that during the Renaissance people ate all sorts of game, including chicken, peacocks and swans. However, in the 18th century, the most prized food on the table was fish, since it was believed that by eating terrestrial animals you could contract their diseases. There was a wonderful recipe for ‘Carp à la Chambord’ from a cookery book of 1735. It involved the fish being gutted, greased and baked in the oven. Then after an hour it was stuffed with quenelles, pigeons, calf sweetbread, crayfish, poultry, foie grass, truffles, cockscomb and rooster kidneys. Blimey, that’s a whole lot of complex flavours! When they did eat meat, the nobility of the time favoured game rather than pork or beef, which they hardly ever ate. Roe deer and wild boar were very popular, but hart (stag) deer and rabbit were not. And Chambord had plenty of land for hunting; each successive occupier acquired more and more land and today the hunting reserve is the largest in Europe, stretching for 54 sq km around the chateau, enclosed by a 32km-long wall.
As well as the great use of technology, the chateau had good facilities, including plenty of toilets and several covered picnic areas, with tables and benches where we sat to have our lunch. We didn’t use them, but it also had several cafes and a proper restaurant complete with white linen table cloths! Altogether, we had a fun and interesting visit and would definitely recommend it if you are coming to this area.
Note: On our arrival at Chateau Chambord, we finally understood why we have seen such stringent security everywhere we have been. There was a sign at the entrance saying “Heightened security measures in public buildings and in major tourist locations in the national territory have been put in place. Entrances are likely to be controlled and bags will automatically be searched.” So I guess we can expect more of the same, which is fine by us if it keeps everywhere safe.
Other things we did:
Most of our time here was spent swimming and playing in the pool. The girls’ swimming is coming on in leaps and bounds and they have even started learning to dive. And once they’d had enough of that and of jumping straight in and doing handstands, Megan set them off doing forward rolls into the pool! There is an indoor area with a retractable roof where the water is quite warm and there is some shade, or a really fun outdoor area with slides, water jets, tipping buckets and a deep pool perfect for handstands and cooling off. Being in and around the pool has been a necessity during the heat of the afternoon (37 degrees on the hottest day).
We also went to Decathlon to find Andy some slightly less skimpy speedos (see his earlier post) and to look for some sandals for Emma as hers are now too small. We were successful with the speedos but not the sandals. It seems that everywhere here is already into autumn mode and you are more likely to find slippers and dressing gowns in the shops than sandals and sun hats! She’ll have to make do with her crocs and some flip flops for now.
Campsite: Camping Le Grande Tortue, Candé-sur-Beuvron near Blois
This is a really great campsite, perfectly placed to explore the chateau of the Loire valley. There is plenty for children to do, with really well-equipped play areas and pool, but also with a good animations (activities) programme.
What we liked:
- Covered swimming pool plus fabulous outdoor pools, water fun area and slides
- The best (and biggest) pitch we have had so far – caravan in the shade all day, awning in the dappled sunlight morning and evening, plus area at the edge of the pitch to sit in the sun if you wanted to
- Great activities on site – we tried out Aquafun and the girls went to a children’s pizza night
- Good restaurant and shop on site – pizzas to take away, plus specials like paella or moules frites
- Huge children’s play area with trampolines, an enormous bouncy castle, basketball area, table tennis, swings, roundabout etc
- Plus, if you are camping, they have some pitches with their own private facilities – there are little huts in between the pitches with a toilet, shower, sink and fridge.
- Swimming shorts allowed at the pool – yay!
What we didn’t like:
- Not much really! Some of the evening activities were very loud and went on until quite late, but to be honest it didn’t really affect us as we were all going to bed so late anyway (it was too hot to sleep any earlier!)
Tomorrow we leave for Saint-Cyr, near Poitiers, en route to the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle.