We decided to break up the nearly four and a half hour drive from Plougrescant to Amboise with a stop at L'Arche de la nature park near Le Mans for a quick round of disc golf. Surprisingly, Le Mans has 8 disc golf courses - the highest concentration of disc golf courses in France. The temperature was in the low 80s (around 28 degrees C) with a light breeze. We found the very wooded course well marked, challenging, and beautiful. Highly recommended for any disc golfers passing through the area.
After reading reviews of the hotel's restaurant, we had made reservations for a table on their patio next to the garden. The food was excellent, the service impeccable, and the location next to the gardens ideal. Our only surprise was that every table around us was occupied by Americans.
We're used to spending time in France but we hadn't ever encountered so many Americans in one place. During our entire visit to Brittany, we hadn't heard a word of English. In the Basque region, we occasionally hear British English and rarely encounter Americans, so it was a big surprise to be completely surrounded by English speakers. As we would discover during our off-season stay here in the Loire Valley, most of the people we would encounter were American tourists.
We had a nice conversation with a couple at the next table, but couldn't help being disturbed by a classic 'ugly American' a few tables away. In a very loud voice, this investment adviser was trying to convince his clients to turn the rest of their portfolio over to him to manage. Fortunately, the obviously wealthy client wasn't having any of it. Unfortunately, the over-the-top high pressure sales pitch went on for nearly two hours.
But I diverge. After dinner, we strolled on the banks of the Loire taking in the peaceful river and the looming Chateau d'Amboise (more on that in a bit). Returning to the hotel after the late sunset, we strolled the beautiful gardens of the property and then went back to the room just as they were closing the front gates.
For our first morning we had visions of doing some stand up paddling on the Loire, sort of following up on the paddling we'd done near Plougrescant in Brittany. As we learned after an extensive search of places to put in, the current is much too fast for stand up paddling (unless you have someone to pick you up downstream). We would have been better off renting kayaks for the day. There are numerous small outfits that will pick you up wherever and whenever you want at very reasonable rates.
We enjoyed a light breakfast at a bakery not far from the hotel, then made our way to Clos de Luce - the former home of da Vinci. While the house and its history are interesting (including da Vinci's relationship with King Francis I - perhaps familiar to fans of The Tudors), It's the basement and the adjacent building that captivated our scientific and historical interests. In both places you can see da Vinci's drawings, the history of the deployment of his inventions (many of which were not actually built for hundreds of years), and many modern constructions of his more interesting inventions. Clos de Luce is definitely worth the price of admission.
After a couple of hours there, we were hungry and walked back towards the center of the old town along the walls of the Chateau d'Amboise which dominates the entire village. We spotted an interesting sign pointing down a side street and had an excellent lunch at a restaurant called Le Parvis. Almost all of its dishes were prepared in a wood-fired oven.
That afternoon we took a ride to Chenonceau, one of the most famous Chateaux in the Loire Valley. In addition to the spectacular gardens and a labyrinth/maze, the chateau itself is worth the stop. New since my last visit in 2000 is a hall where the history of the chateau is recounted on story boards in multiple languages. We spent a lot of time here learning about the intrigues in the courts of Francis I and others and how the chateau was a pawn in sensitive political negotiations. It also appears to have been the home to the roots of the feminist movement in France started by Louise-Marie Dupin de Chenonceau (1706-1799!), who hired Rousseau to write a an encyclopedia about the second sex, proving their equality to men.
The great halls, tapestries, and bedrooms were fascinating, but I think Karen was most intrigued by the kitchens and, of course Louise-Marie Dupin.
The next day, with record temperatures forecast (104 degrees - 40 C), we decided to visit the Chateau d'Amboise as soon as they opened, then to stop at Loches on our way back to Guethary.
The Chateau d'Amboise was Francois I's castle. Over the centuries it has undergone many changes, most of which are depicted both inside and outside the castle. As I've mentioned, it really does dominate Amboise and looking downward, you can see the many homes and shops built during the 15th century. Looking up from the village, you can't help but be a bit intimidated by the castle's presence. I'm sure that was a calculated effect.
Built in the 9th century, little remains of the main fortress. The block-shaped building in the picture is largely an empty structure inside. You can see where the floors used to be and signs document what each of the many levels was used for. Still, the best part is the underground dungeons. Across the path is the entrance. You begin to descend a spiral stone staircase and after a minute or two, you encounter the first of the cells where prisoners where kept and tortured. After continuing downward past more and darker cells, you eventually enter a subterranean cavern from which you will ultimately exit. Apparently, the area is riddled with these caverns and for centuries, they were quarried.
We left Loches and the Loire Valley heading south towards the Pays Basque as the temperatures started to soar.
Will we go back to visit the Loire Valley? Probably not. We learned about the history of the area, saw the chateaux, and enjoyed our visit, but largely because it's a major tourist destination, it's not what we think of as the most inviting region of France. While we do cycle, we didn't cycle the Loire Valley. However it's worth noting that many of the roads there have large, well-maintained bike lanes, perfect for those who want to do bike trips which include visiting chateau and sipping the wines of the Loire Valley.
Returning home to our little village in the Pays Basque, we were pleased to find that the ocean breezes had cooled that area. After a quick shower, we made our way to Tantina de la Playa where we were warmly greeted by the always very cool staff and had an excellent dinner to wrap up our trip.