How To Spend A Day In The Northern Loire Valley (If It Is Raining!)
What a trip! We’ve packed so much in since we started our trip around France down in the Loire Valley, then on to the Dordogne, then back up to Brittany it feels like forever since we huddled in the cold and the wet exploring the Loire, but it was actually only last Monday! While the original plan was to head straight down to the Dordogne for our family holiday before a few days rest at my parents home in Brittany, a nine hour straight drive seemed a little unfair for my father to do himself (I’m only brave enough to drive on French country roads not motorways, and my mother is so short she can only just see over a Range Rover steering wheel!) so a two night stop over was planned in the Loire Valley, just south of Orléans (the birthplace of Joan of Arc for all you religious history people out there) so we could explore the area for a day (and drink some of the local wine!) We were treated to a freezing 6 degrees and a lot of rain, but we made the most of it with a packed day, so here is my guide to spending a day in the Northern Loire, in the rain!
Okay, so the first three photos in the post have blue skies, I took these just before we left the Loire for the Dordogne, so not all of my outdoor photos are doom an gloom! Now, let us talk first about accommodation. Something I have discovered in France that if you want to stay somewhere truly ‘French’ you have two options outside the big cities, gites (holiday cottages) and chateau/ manoir type hotels. When it comes to the latter, I have found it is very different to research the good ones online unless I go down the route of friends recommendations or other bloggers. Sadly, I had no tips for the area so my parents chose a chateau that suited where we were going: Château les Muids. Built by the British but very, very French, it is really the place to stay to get a taste of they type of Chateau geared towards tourists from other parts of France, rather than an international clientele (though, online reviews show it seems to be very popular with the Americans!)
One of the smallest chateaus I’ve ever stayed in, there were some beautifully appointed rooms in the old style for guests to use as well as a small bar and coffee area, but while I enjoyed my stay, there are a few things to note that may be missing from what you’d usually expect from a luxury hotel experience, but are actually totally normal. For example, there is no shower, just a bathtub (but just look at that painting on the ceiling you can look at while you bathe!), and most of the furnishings (including the bed) are very dated, but still very comfortable. However, I don’t think it is up to the standard of other 4 star places I’ve stayed, say in California.
You’ll notice two things from the pictures: first, that all three of us slept in one room (as an only child I’ve done this many times with my parents, and I know I’m 25 now, but none of us mind and it saves on a whole hotel room – this is more common in France for families to share a room), and that the room was on the ground floor. I like to sleep with the curtains open, and I could not (the bath looked right out onto the patio so those had to be closed too!) so if this sort of thing bothers you, request a room on an upper floor if you’re staying. In the low season rooms start at 112€ (£98) including a very nice continental breakfast.
On the first night as we’d been travelling we opted to eat in the hotel, starting with Kir Royals in the bar and moving through the house menu (with some incredible local Sancerre rose wine, they do have an exceptional wine list), which was delicious, high end cuisine, but was rather expensive for what it was. While we really enjoyed our meal and I would recommend eating there, if you don’t have money to burn there are some great looking places in the local village. I say looking places, because none of them were open on the second night when we were looking for something to eat! You’ll notice there is not really much food in this post as we ran into some issues. Having a home in Brittany we’re used to the fact lots of French businesses – including restaurants – don’t open on a Monday, but we were visiting the day before a national holiday, and it turns out the rest of the businesses had decided to give themselves the day off, effectively achieving a four day weekend! Visiting France, be sure to arrange your food ahead of time if travelling on or before a holiday!
There were so many different options for things we could do that day from the Chateau, so over breakfast we made the decision to head West along the Loire river to look around one of the Loire’s famous chateaux before a spot of wine tasting. We decided to forgo a trip to Château de Chambord because it is the most famous in the area and was most likely to be rammed with people, so we headed to Château de Cheverny instead. Alas, as some of the local schools were still on holiday that had a massive queue as they were hosting a Tintin exhibition, so we ended up exploring Château de Blois, which sits atop the town of Blois. The area of Cheverny (which is marked out as it is an AOC for wine production – more on that later) has several grant chateaux well worth the visit which are all very close together, so to avoid disappointment I would travel armed with the addresses of several ready to plug into the SatNav!
Not having learnt much French history past which Medieval battles the English beat the French in, and a bit about the French Revolution (but it took my taking a French politics module at UCLA to realise there were two of them!) it was a big surprise to me that Château de Blois (history lesson here – usually I take Wikipedia with a pinch of salt, but it is a rather good overview) used to be the main home of the French kings for many years, so was decorated rather beautifully. It is well worth an afternoon spent exploring the beautiful rooms, painted ceilings and inlayed floors, and this bed. Catherine de’ Medici supposedly died in this bed.
After the chateau, wine. We were in the Loire Valley after all, home of some of my favourites white wines including Sancerre (my mother and I have a certain vineyard we pick up in the French supermarket which is basically our house wine), Muscadet, Saumer and Pouille-Fume. The Loire Valley is also home to 87 specific AOC’s (appellation d’origine contrôlée, this is a type of status the French award to certain foodstuffs from a specific region to ensure quality and authenticity of product (think how sparkling wine is only champagne if it comes from Champagne!) Usually the production of AOC products include guidelines on production not just geographical location; in wine for example there are sometimes rules about the exact ratios of grape varieties to be blended in an AOC).
With this in mind, we decided to do something different and focus on wine exclusively from one AOC, right around where the chateaux we were visiting were grouped: Cheverny AOC. So, what makes Cheverny wines unique, apart from the location? White wines have to be blended in a 60%–80% ratio, and made with either Arbois, Chardonnay or Pineau Blanc de la Loire grapes. Red wines are a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir made at 40%–65%. This is good news for me in that this yields either bright, fresh whites or sweet, complex and refreshing whites a lot like my beloved Sancerre. However, on the downside I did not like any of the reds we tasted, because I dislike the earthy element Gamay grapes add to a blend.
If you’d like a good overview of Cheverny wines I’d recommend you head to Maison des Vins de Cheverny, located just by the ticket entrance to Château de Cheverny (utilise their free parking!) Here they have most of the wine produced in Cheverny available to taste for a small fee, with the house selection free to taste. Our taster had good English, and behind the tasting room is a small exhibition about local wine, the area and how wine is made if you’v never really explored wine before, which is also in English.
However, in such a small area with so many vineyards open to the public for tasting, it seems a shame to stay in a tasting cave, even if you can taste lots of different wines there at once. So, for your visit once you’ve got a good overview I want to point you in the direction of two local vineyards: Domaine des Huards and Domaine Daridan. Domaine is a lovely plot where they specialise in organic wines (as far as I could tell one of the few in the area that does) – I loved and took home with me a really, bright, refreshing white. If you have some French it is a good place to learn about production and how the soil makes the local wine really unique. While they don’t really speak English, they have had a brilliant guide to their wines put together by a native speaker (no bad translations here!) they’ll be happy to give you and let you take away with your wine. The wine is a little pricy, even by local standards. Domaine Daridan sells cheaper wine, they speak good English, and know an awful lot about wine. Go here to stock up, I loved the house white (a lot like Sancerre) and treated myself to a 2013 single grape, oak aged number that reminded me of Chapel Down’s first year of Kits Coty’s grown up big sister. Clearly popular with the locals, I saw their wines on wine lists and the owner of the chateau we were staying in was very excited we’d been. Visit both for two very different views of local vineyards.
Thank you for sticking with me through the wine lesson (I thought I’d keep the history in the post to a minimum to make up for it!) and I hope that I’ve inspired you to take a trip to the Loire – even if I can’t guarantee good weather – to explore the local chateaux and wine. Now I’m off to edit my photos from the next leg of the journey, the Dordogne Valley where we stayed at probably my favourite hotel in the world (you can find my 2016 review here), Manoir de Malagorse.