A first-hand experience of the Loire, by Patricia Gilbert, who travelled by Eurostar and TGV

Chateaux of the LoireI was a little apprehensive about my trip. The guide books all said that the only practical way to tour the castles of France’s Loire Valley was by car. But since I consider driving in Europe to be an invitation to certain death, I was not about to faintheartedly abandon the rails. By augmenting the train with a taxi, bus, and bicycle, I saw all the castles and towns I had been dreaming of.

As with much of western Europe, train travel in France is fast and reasonably priced. Conductors are not generally present on trains, only appearing to perform periodic spot checks. It is the traveler’s responsibility to validate the ticket by inserting it into one of the yellow boxes on the platform. The ticket is then time and date stamped and notched so that it cannot be reused. If a passenger fails to validate the ticket prior to boarding or, even worse, never bought a ticket at all, he or she is heavily fined if snagged in a spot check. People seem to love the thrill of living dangerously; every time there was a spot check, the conductor nabbed at least one person without a valid ticket. The trains are clean and spacious, with first and second class cars, and smoking and non-smoking sections. Each station has free schedule booklets of the lines that run from that location.

France’s high speed TGV service from Paris whisked me to Tours in 55 minutes. TGV service is so frequent and cost effective that Tours is now considered a viable place to live for those who toil in Paris. The TGV stopped at St. Pierre des Corps, just outside of Tours where I switched to a smaller train for the final ten minutes of the journey. The shuttle train was waiting on the arrival of the TGV behemoth, but I had to step lively as it does not linger for stragglers to make the switch!

Tours makes an excellent hub from which to enjoy the region. Rail lines radiate from it to all corners of the Loire Valley. The station only lacks luggage lockers in its list of amenities for travelers. The distances between each major attraction on my itinerary were so modest that I could have stayed in Tours for the entire trip rather than moving around so much. A good hotel in town is Hotel Mirabeau, just a few minutes by foot from the station.

In addition to its prime location, Tours offers a wonderful medieval town center with half-timbered houses and the bustling Place Plumereau where I sat beneath an umbrella to people watch. St. Gatien Cathedral dates from the 13th century and features a flamboyant gothic façade and notable stained glass. A miniature “steam train” provides tours of the old city and departs from just outside the train station.

From Tours, I transferred to Amboise. The train station is across the Loire from the town center. It takes about fifteen minutes to reach the gates of the old town where Leonardo da Vinci lived and another ten minutes to find Hotel le Blason. The croissants and baguettes baked on the premises make a wonderful breakfast. The remains of the royal chateau at Amboise are imposing and Leonardo is buried in the tiny, ornate chapel.

To get to chateau Chenonceau, straddling the River Cher, I could have taken a train from Tours that would have deposited me right outside its gates. I opted instead to rent a bike in Amboise and cycle the 7.5 miles from the town center to the chateau. The bike path is safe and well marked, though a little hilly. It winds through a lovely forest and farmland with fields of golden wheat interlaced with poppies. That lovely bike ride was one of the highlights of my trip. The chateau itself is remarkable, inside and out, for its lovely gardens, dramatic architecture and massive floral arrangements decorating most of the rooms.

The next day I switched venues to Chinon. The train from Amboise deposited me in Tours where I had to wait a few hours for my connection to Chinon. The train was worth the wait. It was a passenger car and engine all in one sleek package, styled like a TGV with a sharp nose and engine on each end. It was bright, spacious, new and felt quite futuristic. The beautiful Hotel Diderot is about ten minutes from the station by foot. It is a lovely 15th century house converted into a 27 room hotel. Home-made jam at breakfast is a great way to start the day.

It seems impossible that from tiny Chinon the Plantagenet kings, including Richard the Lionheart, ruled England and much of the Loire Valley. It was here that Joan of Arc confronted the timid dauphin, leading to his coronation as King of France. Rablais was born here and his novels are thinly disguised reflections of the area. Now Chinon is a collection of pretty, twisting streets lined with medieval shops and houses. The chateau and ramparts at the top of a steep hill are mostly in ruins.

Chinon makes a great base from which to explore Azay-le-Rideau and Villandry. Depending upon the time of day, either a train or a bus leaves from the station to the town center of Azay-le-Rideau, 20 minutes away. Frankly, try to catch the bus as it deposits you a few steps from the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, whereas the train is on the outskirts of town about a mile and a half away. The chateau seems to float in the lake that surrounds it. Balzac aptly described it as a “faceted diamond set in the Indre.”

From the town center, I took a cab to the Chateau de Villandry. I prearranged for a return trip several hours later. This was my favorite chateau. It has been extensively restored in the past few years and there are spectacular views from the windows and battlements over the famous gardens. The gardens at Villandry are laid out in formal parterres with the Water Garden, the Garden of Love where hedges and flowers symbolize the four types of love, and the world’s largest ornamental kitchen garden where the cabbage is king.

The next city on my itinerary was Blois. The train from Chinon to Blois took about an hour, passing once again through Tours. Hotel Anne de Bretagne was just steps from the station, but lacking in any particular grace or charm. The best restaurant of my trip was in Blois at Au Rendez-Vous des Pêcheurs. It is expensive, but absolutely exquisite, featuring mostly local seafood, as the name would suggest. The Chateau de Blois is rich in history, but shows its age and the rough use it has received over the centuries.

From Blois, I took a shuttle bus to Chambord and Cheverny to conclude my chateau tours. The shuttle leaves from the right of the train station as you are facing it and makes a morning and afternoon run. The hour long shuttle ride is replete with highly erroneous but very amusing commentary in charmingly fractured English from a guide who prides herself on her fluency. The shuttle service entitles you to a reduced entry fee at both chateaux.

Massive Chambord, with an initial design by da Vinci, was in the midst of significant renovations when I was there in June 2004. It was designed as a hunting lodge and ultimately sprawled to include 440 rooms. Its most famous feature is Leonardo’s double helix staircase that was supposed to allow the king’s mistress to ascend while the queen descended (or vice versa) without requiring them to pass one another. Very considerate.

Cheverny is prettily furnished, but it will always live in my memory for the feeding of the hounds at 5:00 p.m. The 70 hunting hounds are required to see and smell the raw meat heaped in the center of the kennel yard for ten, long minutes before they are given the signal that they may eat. Unless you have been there, I would bet that you have never seen anything like the spectacle when 70 hungry dogs are turned into a snarling, snapping, heaving mass of sinew as they dive and wrestle for the choicest pieces. In two minutes, the brawl is over and they revert to happy, hyper hounds scampering around the kennels after stray scents.

While rail service does not perfectly connect all of the top Loire destinations, it certainly got me close. I never regretted my decision to take the train instead of caving into conventional dictums about the necessity of having a car.