So this time, I wanted to make sure the trip lived up to its long-awaited hype. And, if I do say so myself (using the most current pop-culture reference in my bag of tricks), it was a Great Success! I tried to achieve a balance of the different experiences the Loire Valley has to offer: from châteaux to good food to (obviously) wine, and mix in some of the more off-beat experiences you might not have on your list as the average tourist. And we were lucky enough to have perfect weather, despite forecasts to the contrary, and some interesting unexpected encounters thrown in.
After a girly wine and nibbles evening at La Cave à Manger on Friday night, we were up relatively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a short (c. 30 minute) road trip to Azay le Rideau, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch in a sunny courtyard and checked out the château. Azay was mainly chosen because Philippa and I had yet to go there, but it is also to be recommended for its beautiful setting on a small island on a lake, and its small but pretty style. It probably only took around an hour and a half to see, with the interior not being particularly outstanding, but I think that was plenty to be satisfied but not bored traipsing around for hours. Just taking photos of the beautiful exterior was probably the highlight.
|I was brave and had the "goats cheese and raspberry crème brûlée" for my starter at lunch. It was nice, although it could have passed for a dessert, to be honest|
|Me and Amber at lunch in Azay-le-Rideau|
|A strange optical phenomenon in the sky - around the sun was a dark circle lined with a perfectly round rainbow. I did some research afterwards and found that this is a 22° halo, caused by the refraction of light in tiny ice crystals in the clouds. It was pretty impressive seeing it in this setting, and imagining what people in the Renaissance period might have made of such a sight. In fact, a related phenomenon, "sun dogs", is believed to explain the appearance of "three suns" in the sky before a key battle in the Wars of the Roses.|
|A pretty café in the château grounds which was presumably once a gatehouse or something|
|Me in front of the château|
|The château and its lake|
|Me and Amber at the château|
|View from the castle windows|
By some miracle, Amber, Liz, Philippa, Mel and I were all up and at 'em again on Sunday (after about 5 hours' sleep) and ready for the last of my planned activities, a wine-tasting trip to the nearby small town of Vouvray, an area particularly known for its sparkling wines. (Did you know the Loire Valley is France's second-biggest producer of sparkling wines, after Champagne? And at a fraction of the price too.) I'd carefully researched half a dozen wineries that were open for tastings on a Sunday, and plotted out the route between them on Google Maps. First stop was the splendidly named Domaine d'Orléans-Bourillon, which Liz had seen on Facebook was having an open house that weekend. This turned out to be a fortuitous discovery, an experience a little bit more special than some other wine tastings I've been to in the region, where you were invited to spit your wine into the gutter of a barn (not that I think I'm too good to spit in a drain, of course). From the original glimpse of the cave (French for wine cellar, but also often literally a cave, as in this case), which was decorated with candles and an illuminated picture of Marilyn Monroe, this was a special visit.
|The cave's tasting area|
|Amber and I enjoy a VIP tasting of 30€ moelleux wine|
It was one of the more bizarre encounters we've had, and I hope (and imagine) that it was a different experience than Amber would probably have had if she was just your typical tourist. It's not every day you end up spending an entire afternoon (because yes, we failed to move on to any other wineries as planned) basically hanging out with a vintner and his mates. There wasn't a lot of dégustation in the sense of really focusing on and discussing the wine, but the fun atmosphere more than made up for that I think! And maybe it provided a contrast to the often snobby and stand-offish reputation the French (or should that be Parisians who work in the tourist industry) have amongst tourists. We left with bisous all round, bottles of wine in tow (he managed to sell two of the 30€ numbers, and even I got a white wine for guests). So I think I can declare it a successful weekend in Touraine!