Air Canada 880 landed at Charles de Gaulle airport only slightly behind schedule. We were fortunate that the winds had been blowing the ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano in Iceland with a name best pronounced with a mouth full of marbles, away from our route.
At the airport, our first order of business was to pick up our vehicle. For our two-month trip, we leased a Renault Kangoo. Leasing is a good option for a long trip. Past the first three weeks, the car costs us about $ 25 a day including a full Collision Damage Waiver. When the car lease shuttle driver arrived at the terminal, we struggled to get our mass of baggage into the full sized transfer van. It was true that our bikes were still in their boxes, but the effort that it took to get our stuff in the shuttle van made us fear that our belongings would not fit in the much smaller Kangoo. Would we have to have a yard sale of our “extra” stuff at the lease office? Would Becky’s shoe collection be able to make the trip?
The final lease, or more correctly, buy back arrangements were over quickly. We set about loading our brand new Kangoo. Somehow, we had sardine-stuffed our baggage load inside the vehicle and we were good to go. Before the trip, we had spent days sweating the interior dimensions of the car. And indeed, the Kangoo, a modified European style mini cargo van, can carry an impressive amount of stuff. To boot, with its turbo diesel engine whirring away, the fuel costs for the Kangoo in Europe turn out to be the same or better than any of our vehicles at home, using the much cheaper American gasoline. All of this comes with quite decent performance on the road. Its no Ferrari but it holds its own on the fast expressways of Europe. With a full tank of diesel, the Kangoo has a range close to 1,000 km and only needs to be serviced every 30,000 km.
With Homer Simpson, the voice on our TomTom, leading the way, our Kangoo with 7 km on the odometer moved out of the airport and onto the Paris’ ring highway or “Le Périphérique.” We quickly learned first hand of Paris’ traffic as we crept out of the urbanity.
The upside of the slow traffic is that we spotted the sign of an invasion alongside the highway. Though Paris is Space Invader’s base, we were still surprised to see eight mosaic tile Invaders were easily visible from Le Périphérique as we crept by in the slow traffic. Later, on our return, we counted more carefully and realized that there were actually 18 Invaders. We will check these off of The List.
As a rule, we make a point of visiting any UNESCO World Heritage designated sites that we are near. On our way to Blois, we stopped to see the UNESCO-listed, Gothic cathedral in Chartres. And indeed, Chartres’ church is impressively massive and easily viewable as we drove into the town. From the distance it almost appears as if it rises directly from the fields. We also spotted more mosaic tiles of Space Invader style affixed to walls in Chartres’ old town. (Space Invader does not list Chartres as an invasion site on his website so I imagine these could have been placed by an imitator.)
When our road time ended we were in Blois. If given the chance, Homer would have pronounced “Blawh” perfectly. The old portion of Blois is located along the banks of the Loire River in the Loire Valley. The area around the Loire River is relatively flat and the shallow Loire Valley is one of those difficult to tell it is a valley valleys. Contrary to my preconceived mental image, you could not see chateaus studding the valley floor from the side of the valley. (My preconceived mental images are usually wrong.) Perhaps “Loire Drainage” would be more appropriate but it does not quite have the same ring to it, even in French, so Loire Valley it will be.
Our stop in Blois was the first of two visits to the Loire on this trip. The visits book-ended a week-long Burgundy canal boat excursion. The chief attractions in the Loire are, of course, the chateaus. Indeed, UNESCO designates “The Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes” as a World Heritage site in part for the abundant chateaus.
Quaint Blois, with about 50,000 people, feels smaller and contains many interesting sites in its small historic area. Sights to see include Chateau de Blois, Blois’ iconic bridge, and the ever-present cathedrals. We might have forgotten that Blois, quiet during our May visit, is a tourist center until we spotted the Maison de la Magie (House of Magic). Maison de la Magie is located prominently at the front of Blois’ most notable sight, the Chateau de Blois. Facing the chateau, the façade of Maison de la Magie features six large plastic dragons that make an animated appearance every 30 minutes. Is there just anything more terrifying than six automated plastic dragons?
Watch this for a YouTube video of the dragons in action.
Our second base in the large Loire Valley was Tours. The two towns are quite different. In Tours, the larger metropolitan city surrounds the small and touristy medieval quarter. It is a college town and the energy and bustle contrast with Blois.
Between our two stops we got our fill of chateaus. Amongst the hordes of largely French tourists, we visited spectacular Chambord with three symmetrical stories each laid out in a lobe and cross pattern reminiscent of a modern freeway cloverleaf intersection. In the center of the cross is a large double spiral staircase. Each leaf of “clover” holds a modest apartment. Despite the over the top exterior of Chambord, the interior spaces of the “hunting lodge” are more modest. Modern executives in New York City would insist on more space. But of course, the apartments were merely the bedchambers so perhaps the aristocracy’s digs weren’t so bad after all.
Our other chateau visits included Chateau de Cheverny, Chateau de Blois, Chenonceau with its bridge-like structure extending across the Cher River, and Azay-le-Rideau. There is much in common between all of the palaces. On the outside, the ornate facades and the erstwhile moats give the impression of a much larger building than what is on the inside. The actual interior spaces of the living quarters are more modest. But then, the chateaus were meant as hunting lodges and summer palaces so perhaps they are large for that purpose. Nevertheless, given the housing standard of their day, it is easy to see that revolution was inevitable.
Aside from the chateaus, there was one more notable stop in the Loire Valley. With Homer Simpson guiding us, we stopped for lunch in Briare. Briare has a well-known church encrusted with mosaics made from tiles produced locally. But the real reason for the stop was our newfound interest in the canals of France. We couldn’t help but stop and see the longest canal bridge in France. The bridge itself was designed in part by Gustave Eiffel and enables the Canal Latéral à la Loire to cross above the Loire River. It seems that it is possible for us to rent a canal boat and make the crossing above the Loire River on our own. Who knows? We might do this on an upcoming trip.
The Wikipedia entry on the Briare Aqueduct is here.
Our hotel in Blois was Cote Loire. Our dinner at Cote Loire was quite good, also.
Our hotel in Tours was Hotel Trianon.
Our best dinner in Tours was at La Deuvaliere. (Michelin BIB Gourmand)