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Monday, February 15, 2010

Tour de Tours

After two days in Paris, it was time to visit another part of France: the Loire Valley, home to over 300 chateaus along and around the Loire River. So early Saturday morning I hopped on a train headed south to Tours, one of the cities in the Central Loire Valley. I had a reservation on a small, half-day tour to 2 of the major chateaus, Chenonceaux and Chambord in the afternoon so the morning was open to wandering the city area. The train station is in downtown Tours and only a short walk to the gorgeous City Hall. From the station, I take the 15-20 minute walk to my hotel to drop off my bag and then make my way to the tourist office to pick up a map. On the way I buy a croissant and it is heavenly.

The city of Tours was so quiet compared to Paris. The population is only around 100,000 so its not a bustling metropolis but a beautiful residential area. Most the buildings are small and businessess take up only ground floors. There is also a lot of greenery with ivy and trees spread around. As there wasn't much to visit that was free I spent most of the time walking around gazing at the architecture and walking along the Loire River.

My favorite place in the city was the Cathedrale Saint Gatlen. Though not enormous as the Notre Dame, the cathredral was tall and skinny and to my fascination, not symmetrical.

Inside there was a very interesting altar comprised of two pieces of wood and a rock, and the pulpit was the first of many that I thought were very cool. Being a huge stone church, the temperature inside was probably 10 degrees colder than outside and it was freezing. Despite the cold though, right before I was about to leave the organist began to play a tune so I took a seat and just listened for a few.

The floor of the church was completely uneven and thoroughly worn so I really think it was the original stone. Yes, I was fascinated with that as well. It's all just so different from anything you'd find here in the US.

After the cathedral it was time to head down to the meeting point for the chateau tour. I didn't have to wait long for the van to show up and I was the only American and English as a first language person. There were women from Japan, a woman from Singapore and a couple from Brazil. Our guide was very nice and provided a great deal of information on the area and the chateaus we drove by. After 20 in the van though, I wished I wasn't as tired. Lack of sleep + riding in moving vehicles + narration switching between English and Japanese = me falling asleep. So while I would have loved to observe all the landscapes we drove through, I couldn't keep my eyes open. One thing I did see which was really cool were these homes that were literally built into the mountainside. All you could see were the door and front facade and the rest of it went into the hillside.

Upon arriving at Chenonceaux we were given an hour to tour the chateau and gardens. Chateau de Chenonceaux is the most visited chateau in the Loire Valley, if I'm not mistaken, and it is certainly an extremely interesting and beautiful piece of architecture. The house is built over the Indre River so it basically looks like a house built on top of a bridge. Its really outstanding and there is also a few large gardens and a maze as well as a fortified mill on the estate. Inside the castle the rooms are authentically furnished and decorated with renaissance era tapestries and furniture. The great hall which is the portion over the river is large and well, great.

The kitchen was the most interesting room cause it was built in the basement, but the basement for this specific architecture was in one of the footings. So to get from one part of the kitchen to the other you walk through the archway holding up the rest of the castle. When walking through you can look down and see the river and a small stairwell where drop-offs for the kitchen were done. If that made sense to any of you, I really liked that part.

As I only had an hour to visit the cheateau I was only able to visit the main garden and it was very pretty. It was late November so there weren't any flowers blooming, but everything was green and the view of the chateau was wonderful.

The second chateau we went to was Chambord, the largest in the Loire River Valley. Chambord's estate was MASSIVE and the grounds went on forever and ever. I don't remember the acreage but it was a LOT. Built originally as a hunting lodge, the castle was never finished and so of the 440 rooms, there are only about 40 which you can visit and of those only some are furnished.

The highlight of the castle was the double-helix stairwell rumored to be designed by Leonardo DaVinci. It's two circular staircases that ascend all three floors and never meet.

Besides the few rooms that can be visited, you can also walk around the roof, another highlight of the chateau. The roof is intricately designed and there are all these nooks and crannys and mini tower pieces that come from various points around the roof. Hard to explain, but really, really neat. Overall, I thought the chateau tour was pretty well done. Though it would end up being one of the more expensive things I would do on the trip, it was probably worth it as I wouldn't have gotten to see Chambord via public transportation. And I probably wouldn't have been able to see more than one chateau. The one problem I did have was there wasn't enough time to view the chateaus satisfactorily. With Chenonceaux I wanted to see more of the grounds and with Chambord I rushed through a few of the rooms in order to see everything. If I were to return to the Valley I think I would rent my own car therefor have more flexibility.

We arrived back in Tours around 6PM and I was thoroughly exhausted. I get back to my hotel, check in and relax. There's nothing in English on TV and so I end up watching some French children's programs while looking over plans for the next couple of days. Then I hit the sack early getting a very good night's sleep.

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