Exploring the regal charm of Loire Valley

A region set on the banks of the Loire river southwest of Paris, Loire valley has long been adored by the likes of Leonardo di Vinci, King Louis XI through XVI and now revered by modern tourists looking for a glimpse into this regal past. Loire valley is also an expansive wine region with many mini-wine appellations to explore. With so much to do in this 100 mile region, it can be hard to pair down priority must sees.

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We had 4 days in this stunning region, but that is not nearly enough time. At a minimum a week is required to enjoy this beautiful part of France, but if you, like me, has limited money and time – below is how we decided to hit all the ‘must sees’ of the region without rushing through what should be a relaxing trip in the sun.

First things first, lets prioritize what you must see, do and taste. Top experiences include: biking from châteaux to châteaux, wine tasting in one of the many small vineyards and visiting the grand homes of people richer than me.

Now, how to do all of these things in 4 days? Here’s how we did it.

Where to stay

Choosing where to stay is extremely difficult. Many sites recommend starting on one side of the valley (near Angers) and stay at another location on the other end (near Orleans) to be able to close to all the attractions. With limited time, however, this is simply not possible.

Wanting to bike, wine and château we chose to stay in Montlois-sur-Loire – if you want to do all of these things as well, I highly recommend choosing a location somewhere between Tours and Blois. This allows you to be within biking distance of Amboise, Vouvray, Chenonceau château (for the ambitious) and 30 min driving distance to Villandry, Tours, Blois and Chambord.

Note: I also looked at the towns of Chinon and Saumur. For cabernet franc lovers, Chinon can be tempting however it is a bit out of the way for seeing the main châteaus. Biking to anywhere relevant can be tough from these locations if you are trying to see as much as possible and keep sites to day trips 

Within walking distance of its own local winery, right on the bike path and with stunning views overlooking the Loire river, I highly recommend staying where we stayed – in a renovated 19th century château.

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Chateau de Bondesir – Chambres d’hôtes

7 Rue de Bondesir, 37270 Montlouis-sur-Loire, France

How to get around

To see the most without relying on tour buses – rent a car. There is public transportation available from the major towns of Tours (best one if you want to stay in a city), Orleans & Angers but getting to the château’s without hoping on a tour bus will be difficult. If you want to avoid driving then staying in Tours or Blois will allow you to easily book trips to the main sites as well as local bike hire. Many accommodations also provide free bike use (ours did).

We drove or biked to nearby towns, châteaus and small vineyards, but did elect to hire a professional for our half day wine tour from Tours to Chinon. We drove to Tours (for ease of purchasing wine) but we could have easily  biked from Montlouis.

What to do

Wine tasting was at the top of my list. I had a grand idea to bike from vineyard to vineyard, which is easily done on your own without booking a tour. Check out the wine route.

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But again, with limited time (and the desire to buy multiple cases) we opted for a half day tour through viator – Chinon small group wine tasting from Tours. Cheaper than the $150pp individualized tours, it was informative but did not cover as much of the wine region as I would have preferred. If you are a wino, splurge on a personalized wine trip. If not, go with viator as it is a good overview and great way to see Chinon.

Château’s was the next item on my list – but there are so many! With entrance fees at each one and over 13 to choose from, we limited our trips to Villandry, Chambord & Chenonceau. Reviews add that Amboise and Blois are also worth seeing, but I do have to say that after 1 or 2…we were good on the life of the rich and dead. Out of those three, I enjoyed Villandry the most for its stunning gardens, pictured below.

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Your sample 4 day itinerary

Smoosh all this recommended stuff together and you have a great mix of wine, food and exploration.

Day 1: Get there + Chambord  – stay at charming Chateau de Bondesir – Chambres d’hôtes and have dinner at La Cave (walking distance from Bondesir)

Day 2: Villandry in the morning, Chinon small group wine tasting from Tours. in the afternoon

Day 3: Cycle from Montlouis sur loire to Amboise, explore the château and cycle back. Make it back before 6pm and go to the local Cave des producteurs for Chenin blanc and sparking wine then move on to nearby town of Vouvary for more wine tasting.

Note on cycling the region: It is easily done. Paths are well marked and take you through country roads or bike only paths. Just visit the local tourist office for directions and a map – there is no need to book a paid tour, it is well made for tourists unfamiliar with the region

Day 4: Round out your wondrous trip with the finale of all châteausChenonceau and then head on home!

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Happy travels!

 

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I am a self-described wino

I am a self-described wino, with lofty aspirations of becoming a true connoisseur of the refined liquid through both life experience and actual training. Although I have a long way to go on this lofty goal, I am slowly achieving parts of it through working extremely hard at trying as much wine as possible.
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I have had the good fortune of trying wine in a number of different places of the world, however, I would like to compare experiences in two very different parts of the world: Burgundy, France and Etyek, Hungary. Although both had extremely wonderful white wines (if you are into that sort of thing – I’m a red girl), they had two very different approaches to the touring experience.

France – and French wine – is everything you would imagine. It has a refined history, a very specific code for the quality of its wines, depending on what hector of land it happens to be from, and a very specific process to how it creates its wines. As I found in the region of Champagne, the region of Burgundy has very specific rules and regulations to what makes wine from that region of France designated “Bourgogne”.

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For starters, if you are drinking white wine from Burgundy it is always chardonnay – there is no negotiating on this. If it is red, it is always Pinot Noir – again, no exceptions. When it does get tricky is what quality of vineyard you are looking at. The better quality are named “Grand Cru” and the lower regions are simply have the name of the village or town it was made in. The soil and/or location is about the only difference in the wines from this region, yet they have such drastic differences in taste. It is amazing to see how a crop from just across the road is classified different from its neighbor and yet has a distinctively different taste.

Hungary on the other hand…has none of the refined, judgmental wine experiences you expect from France. My favorite quote from our tour guide for the day when asked to described the wine we were tasting (mostly white) was a rhetorical question back to the taster. “What do you think about the wine? Do you like it? Then it doesn’t really matter what grape or how old vineyard is or where it is from; you like it, you like it.”

While I do not disagree with this assessment, he offered no other information about the wine we were tasting or the specifics of wine from that region. Later we learned that our wine guide knew little about wine and more about having fun, which I soon learned was worth it.

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Anytime I travel to a new country, I always crave finding that local, unique experience; that experience you tell stories about later or has you questioning your current reality and/or thinking “this is amazing”. It is difficult to find in Europe where most experiences are beautiful, but not necessarily awe inspiring (this probably also indicates I have lived here too long). However, I did manage to find it in Hungry, with our fun loving guide.

We went to a winery that was just being resurged after WWII’s efforts to completely destroy any hope or history of wine in the country. A father son team, their wine was good, but the coolest part was the circle of cellars which their winery was a part of. Only recently discovered in a reconstruction effort of a nearby town, this circle was a co-op of 15 wine growers that all went in to recoup this underground network of wine cellars lost after the war and discovered only a few years ago.

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Better than a WWII wine cellar discovery was dinner at a young couples house in the country. Our last stop on the tour was to an old wine mill turned home. An incredible story, this young Hungarian couple had decided to purchase an old wine mill and turn it into a home. Not only did they create this beautiful, interesting dining room, but they also took their hand at creating wine on their newly bought land. Winning international awards on their first attempt at wine making, we sipped this brew in their dining room as we enjoyed a home cooked meal by locals who not only built their own house, and started their own mini winery but also began their own small business having a mini-restaurant of home cooked Hungarian meals!

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The whole experience was nothing like I had experienced before. I am not sure if it is because I had expected a wine tour and instead got a culture tour with wine or if it was the intimacy of the whole thing, but it was honestly amazing.

What’s the moral of this story? Wine is amazing and different no matter where you go in the world.

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The Road to Champagne

In April, I found out I got, yet another, assignment overseas. This time, it was to Southern Belgium working with our international partners at NATO. I am not quite sure how we pulled it off, but we somehow got the opportunity to go from one dream assignment to another.

Not to let an opportunity to be wasted, we took the move as a chance for a road trip from the northern UK to Southern Belgium with a key stop along the way — Champagne, France

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For such a well-known, world renowned region, it is surprisingly understated – and simply – French. There are 2 main cities that you can stay in to explore the countryside, Reims or Epernay (plus Troyes, but I recommend one of these two). We decided to stay in Reims as it was only a 2.5 hr drive from our final destiantion.

Staying at a local B&B (http://www.laparenthese.fr/en/), I felt like I had died and entered some sort of French Indie film. The B&B offered a croissant and coffee for breakfast, which you could eat outside in their peaceful garden or by the window in your room, locals could be seen riding bicycles carrying a baguette and the weather was a near perfect 70-75F.

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There are tours easily booked for the large champagne houses in the region (your well known Moet, Dom Perignon and Gosset), but these are just store fronts with elaborate costumes and fancy glasses. I was interested in physically going out to the vineyards and observing the champagne process first hand.

This proved surprisingly difficult – I had envisioned renting a bike, biking around to all the vineyards, sampling, and biking some more. However, no vineyards allowed you to just ‘stop in’ for a taste. After finally finding a tour that would accomplish what I was looking for, I soon understood why this was such an impossible task.

There are 320 villages in champagne with over 5000 small producers, yet they only make up 10% of the market of Champagne. 90% of the champagne produced is from your large producers, which buy grapes from farmers in the region and process them in large, sterile factories, not located near their pristine store fronts. While these small, independent producers and growers make up a majority of the population, they are run on such a small, untouristy scale they have no capacity for receiving guests.

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I got the opportunity to see this first hand through a highly recommended and wonderful experience called RAW France (http://www.rawfrance.com). Not to be found easily on google, RAW France is run by Rachel, a Brit who fell in love with a local wine producer and saw the opportunity to share the independent champagne industry with the rest of the world.

Taking us on an individualised tour of Sacy, a small village outside Reims, whose whole town is involved in some way in the wine industry, I learned why independent champagne houses are so much better than your large, big name brands. All starting out as towns of farmers who sold their grapes to the large producers, local farmers in the 1950s looked at the price they were getting for the grapes versus the price the champagne houses were selling for the bottles and decided they could do better producing wine themselves, thus the independent champagne movement began.

http://www.france-independent-winegrowers.com/
(this includes all independent wine growers, select the region for the full list)

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After showing us around the Wafflart-Briet patches of land spread out in sections over the hillside, we got to see the cellar where the fermentation process begins and where it all ends, in the labelling process. To top off the whole experience, we labeled our own bottles of wine, and concluded with champagne tasting and pairing on the porch of the family chateau overlooking the vineyards we just walked around.

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The best part? You can purchase these bottles (of gorgeous) champagne for just € 15-20.Their competators? The same bottle (and quality) will cost you upwards of €100 from one of the large champagne houses. These grapes are taken from the same region, fermented using the same process; the only difference is the marketing. Also, independent producers do not exported; 80% of all champagne produced is drank by the French. They keep all the inexpensive quality stuff for themselves and export the rest!

(Not that I can say I blame them)

To Become a Nose

We all have them, but only about 200 people in the world properly use them.
A Nose can be equated to a sommelier, a connoisseur of scents. This individual can literally identify every scent in a perfume bottle as well as hundreds more. To be a true Nose one must go through a rigorous training having the ability to pair and mix scents to achieve some of the worlds oldest and most prestigious perfumeries.
I had the pleasure of visiting such a place on a trip to Grasse, France; the home and birth of perfume. Located in the hilly countryside of the southern province, Grasse is exactly the idyllic town you would imagine.
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Going there gave me a greater appreciation for the true art of scent. It takes nearly 1 ton of flowers to make just 1 ounce of perfume oil! Further, most factories stick to their classic methods developed in the late 18th century and retain their dedication to quality.
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Yes, ladies and gentleman, you too can become a Nose. Simply train yourself to identify the 10,000 smells that the human nose is capable of detecting – and you got it.
(Or you can be like me, appreciate true art when you see it, then leave the rest up to the professionals)
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