We land in Paris at Charles de Gaulle airport. An Air France bus drops us conveniently at the Gare Montparnasse railway station and we take the commuter train to Chartres, a pleasant two-hour journey. Chartres gives us an opportunity to recover in a tranquil place, with one of Europe's finest 13th-century cathedrals to examine by day and a toy train that ambles through narrow medieval alleys past spectacularly floodlit ancient buildings by night.
But the real reason for choosing Chartres as a launch pad is to get close to the Loire Valley magic while avoiding the Paris traffic. The Internet came through: Just C$18 a day for a mid-sized, new Peugeot -- a rate that even astonished the new franchisee at Europcar, who was reluctant to hand over the keys without a call to senior management.
The world is suddenly our oyster. Armed with the only guidebook to make the grade: Eyewitness Travel Back Roads France, and a good map, we are heading south through endless fields of buttery yellow canola -- a perfect contrast against the deep blue sky.
During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the Loire River marked the line between French and British forces. After Joan of Arc helped Charles VII regain his French crown, redundant fortresses became castles, palaces, hunting lodges -- weekend homes for the French nobility. Today there are more than 300 ch¢teaux and countless tiny villages to explore.
Each morning begins with a to-do list. A couple of ch¢teaux, four villages and a market would be typical. Ah, but this is France, so lunch is sacred, meaning everything closes between noon and 2:30 p.m. Don't expect to enter a museum at 11:30 a.m.; the staff know you won't be through by lunchtime. Sites that are open on the weekend will be closed on Monday.
Our first few days are spent scurrying through magical countryside, past grazing horses and sonorous cows (cowbells get more use than church bells). We find contentment ambling along winding traffic-free country lanes, through gorgeous old villages.
We drive into Troo, an ancient village famous for troglodytes (cave dwellers). There are 12 families who still live -- comfortably with hydro and TV -- inside the limestone cliffs that once housed thousands.
We need a room for the night. The only cave B & B is full. Nearby, a long gate set into a high hedge might be a warning to gawkers were it not for a small sign announcing, L'Æle ¥ Reflets B & B. We nervously press the bell. The gate begins to rumble along an ancient rail, revealing a riverfront estate that once held an operating mill.
Our host, a retired, eccentric designer, has turned the old mansion into a themed bed and breakfast. We are assigned the Heron room -- his latest peculiar creation encompassing the entire attic, stuffed to the gills with bird memorabilia gleaned from countless Parisian shopping sprees.
We take a bottle of wine to the riverbank before heading up the hill to the only restaurant nearby. Two rosy-cheeked ladies in matching pink aprons greet us at the door. Pink plastic flowers. Pink plastic tablecloths. Pink flock wallpaper. Pink, perfectly cooked steaks.
By the third day, we are still ch¢teaux virgins. But two "fermé" (closed) signs in a row only strengthen our resolve. Le Lude breaks the jinx. We pass under an arch to find cars in the parking lot -- yeah. "The next tour begins in 20 minutes," announces the traditionally dressed tour guide in English. "Go and look at the gardens."
The gardens alone are worth the visit. Cows graze in a field across the river. Amorous frogs set up a ribbiting chorus. Normally, we like to amble through places on our own, but a guided tour in English is a real bonus. It is obvious from the family photos this 70-room castle is someone's home, which somehow makes it special. A laptop sits open beside the TV in the sumptuous living room littered with antiques. The de Nicolay family has owned Le Lude for 270 years.
A motoring holiday is all about freedom and adventure. Taking unplanned turns. Stopping for the night when you are tired. Buying picnic goodies at a busy street market. Grabbing a decent bottle of Merlot for a couple of euros, as we do in Borgeuil where we also discover our first "Internet café" -- a computer perched among the plumbing supplies in a hardware store. The French countryside does not brim with Internet connections, which may be a blessing or a curse.
Our favourite town is Chinon. Is it the Hostellerie Gargantua that grabs us? We stayed in our very own turret room in this castle-hotel, named after a Rabelaisian novel and set in the town's medieval centre. Or perhaps it is the many wine caves with their entrances tucked between bistros along the cobbled lanes? Even the restored fortress is special, with sound and film re-enactments of Joan of Arc meeting Charles VII here in 1497.
Our favourite ch¢teau is Chambord. With 282 fireplaces, 77 staircases and 426 rooms sitting on a 5,440-hectare estate, how could it not stand out from others in the Loire Valley? However, Cheverny was not far behind, especially when it came time to feed the foxhounds.
Judging from buses lining the parking lots, we are not alone in thinking the gardens at the Ch¢teau de Villandry, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are outstanding. Unless, of course, people were just there to admire Napoleonic rocking horses in the nursery.
We discover the Loire Valley is more than just ch¢teaux. It is surprisingly peaceful, with little traffic and sparsely populated picturesque villages where time stands still. It is about getting endlessly lost and discovering hidden gems that have survived many centuries of history. And it's about buying fine wines and cheeses for a riverside picnic at a fraction of the cost back home.
If you go:
Getting around: RentalCars.com offered a daily rate of C$18 at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, as Europcar did for us in Chartres where we picked up our rental car. Road surfaces are excellent.
Hotel costs: Two- to three-star accommodations ran from 50 euros to 100 euros. Rates are generally posted at the entrance.
Restaurant food costs: Meals are usually offered as a three-course affair (prix fixe) and can run from 15 euros and up, depending on your choice of main course, quality of restaurant and whether it includes a pichet of wine.
When to go: We went in May, which proved good and bad. There was no need to book accommodations ahead, however, the weather was variable.
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