The beauty of Paris is stunning and the bustle of city life can be such a thrill, but after a month here, la campagne nous manquait [we missed the countryside]. After waking up at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to board a bus full of Smithies, we found that countryside, and it was as marvelous as one could imagine.
The two-hour-plus bus ride to the Loire Valley was more like passing through a portal into a fairy-tale land, where castles and villages and beautiful vistas reign. The first glimpses of the countryside reminded me of the Etats-Unis [United States], but as castles and ancient bridges popped up here and there, I knew I was someplace special.
During our well-organized trip, I visited four châteaux (two of which we went inside for guided tours) and their jardins, the “castle” where Leonard Da Vinci lived toward the end of his life and a cave where they produce wine, all of which occurred during perfect autumnal weather.
Each castle was as beautiful as the next, but the magnifique Château de Chenonceau was my favorite. Our visit to the castle was truncated by a slightly late arrival (due to minor navigational errors), but our rushed visit gave us just enough time to take in the beauty of the structural marvel.
After picnicking, visiting Clos Lucé (Da Vinci’s house) and strolling the gardens of the Château de Chaumont, we visited the wine production cave for a wine tasting. The night was topped of with an excellent and exciting fondue dinner, complete with four different fondues, with the whole group – including our assistant director’s charming 9-year-old son François who accompanied us on the trip – packed into the basement of “La Souris Gourmande” [The gluttonous mouse] in Tours, France. I don’t know how I had room after so much excellent cheese, but the dessert was also exquisite: meringué glacé (which I chose over the chocolate tart, a popular selection among the crowd) which was a meringue with some sort of fruit cream.
Day two was a bit less hectic, but equally satisfying. We left the hotel around 9 a.m. for a visit of the Château de Blois, where my history knowledge was greatly enhanced by our American ex-pat tour guide who continually reminded us to vote. After lunch at one of the few open cafés – life shuts down in France on Sunday – in the charming town, we traveled to the Château de Chambord, a visually overwhelming gothic-style masterpiece. There, I elected to rent a vélo [bicycle] to tour the jardins and surrounding fôrets [forests]. The view was amazing and it was an unreal experience to be cruising along on a bicycle with this enormous castle looming over us.
We returned to the bus exhausted but satisfied, begrudgingly ready to return to the real world of Paris.