The Loire valley chateaus 4 Oct 2015n

We bought coffee and croissants at a local covered market then headed out to Villandry, where we visited the Chateau and gardens.

Built overlooking the Loire, Château de Villandry is a château for garden lovers and the last of the major Renaissance castles to be built in the Loire Valley. It was the home of neither a king nor a courtesan but of Jean Le Breton, François I’s finance minister. He demolished the old feudal fortress, except for the keep, in 1532 and replaced it with an extremely elegant and richly decorated purely French Renaissance château. When the Marquis of Castellane bought it in 1754, he revamped the interior in the neo-Classical style. Unfortunately, he also destroyed the harmony of the outside, adding balconies, balustrades and trompe l’œil windows.

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The house was not as interesting as the previous chateau, but the gardens were spectacular.  We spent a couple of hours walking round. The use of vegetables particularly the coloured cabbages and chilies were particularly beautiful; so this is where all the vegetables go – certainly absent from the French restaurant menus.

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After a spinach and cheese tart for lunch we headed for another chateau, close by.

Considered by many to be a “jewel of the French Renaissance”, Château d’Azay le Rideau was built on an island in the Indre River by a rich financier in the early 16th century during the reign of François I and combines the Italianate and French styles. It is more sober than the larger châteaux and one of its most striking features is its monumental fireplaces. The château was abandoned after the French revolution and redecorated by the Marquis de Biencourt. In 1898, the 4th Marquis had to sell out and it was not until it was bought by the State in 1905 that renovation began.

Unfortunately when we arrived there were more renovations going on and half the chateau was covered in scaffolding. The inside was still fully available for viewing. Of particular note were the bed and walls of one of the bedroom, because a video showed how these had been recently done. The walls were covered in a type of reed matting, which helped reduce the damp, and the bed curtains and cushions had been sewn by hand and the lacework using old style mechanical equipment.

In another building there was a video showing how the carpentry, tiling and masonry was being done in the old style. Despite ongoing renovations it was still possible to get a photo of the chateau and nearby trees.

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The town of Villandry was also very beautiful.

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We drove back to Tours and walked through the old town, locating somewhere nice for dinner.  We had a beautiful mixed salad followed by duck Margret, slices of duck in an orange sauce, washed down with wine of course.

On Monday we drove back through the poring rain to Charles de Gaule airport where we stayed at an airport hotel and caught an early flight back to London, hence ending our four weeks in France.

Saturday Oct 3. La Rochelle to Tours (Loire Valley)

Drove to Tours with only one coffee stop in 3 hours, arriving at lunch time. Driving got a bit tricky in the heart of Tours as the satnav has not been updated with all the one way roads. But our delightful Irish navigator always manages to get us out of a fix like that. We like her voice but the fact that all the instructions are in yards and miles took a bit of adjustment. Found our hotel for the next two nights and then a local bar bistro for lunch. Both had a tutti fruit to salad which were delicious. Chicken salad with fresh pear and a Gorgonzola dressing. Never disappointed with French food!

We walked into the main part of town to find the Tourist Office for information about the city and the Chateaux of the Loire and Cher valleys. Worked out we had time to see one this afternoon and chose the Jardins et Chateau de Chenonceax, a 40 minute drive east of Tours. The chateau was built on the River Cher in the 16th Century and has a interesting history dating back to Henry II and more recent history, having been used as a military hospital in the First World War and a centre of French Resistance during the Second World War.

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Just as impressive as the Chateau and which we probably enjoyed more are the gardens. Ornamental gardens sit either side of the building and in the grounds of the Chateau is a large flower and vegetable garden. The vegetables in particular were unbelievable for their size, variety and visual display.

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Tonight we decided to buy baguette and cheese, fruit and Fromage Blanc and have a night in our room. Well worth it watching Australia knock out England in the Rugby World Cup!

Bordeaux to La Rochelle 2 October 2015

We left our hotel and caught the tram into the city, where after a brief breakfast we collected the car from the underground carpark and drove out of town. As we drove along the side of the Garonne we noticed the most unusual bridge where the whole central section rises vertically…

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We drove for a couple of hours until we reached the ferry terminal at Soulac-au-Mar. Unfortunately the next ferry was in 2.5 hours so we found a cafe for lunch and had a great French sandwich…

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We then had a short ferry trip across to La Tranche-sur-Mar.

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we drove through open country to La Rochelle, and after navigating the narrow streets and traffic found a parking space right outside the hotel, where we found we had a delightful room – very French!

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we then spent the rest of the afternoon doing a walking tour of the town before finding a restaurant for dinner. Apparently La Rochelle was the port from where the French emigrated to “New France” – Canada.

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The lighthouses were very interesting, one is part of a house and another looks like a tower.

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After dinner we walked through the arch back to our room.

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Thursday October 1st. Sarlat to Bordeaux via Bergerac.

Had coffee and croissant breakfast in Sarlat before walking out of the old town to pick up the car. Drove west towards Bordeaux stopping off en route in Bergerac for a walk around and lunch. Bergerac is famous for the play of one of its inhabitants In the 17th century, Cyrano. There are a couple statues of him around town. The town dates back to the 11th century, built on the banks of the Dordoyne River. It has some lovely old buildings, well restored.

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As we approached Bordeaux we began to notice more and more vineyards. Strange that in a country known for its wine and having been here for four weeks and drunk a lot of it, this was our first sight of vineyards. I guess we have been too far south so far. After a while all we could see in all directions were vineyards!

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We drove into Bordeaux around 3pm, over the magnificent long arched bridge over the River Garonne. We hadn’t realised how big this city is; the fifth biggest in France apparently. The congested traffic and trams were very challenging so we found an underground carpark as quickly as we could and decided to leave the car there overnight. With packs on backs we walked around the city centre until we found the Tourist Centre. We hadn’t booked a room, thinking we would find one on arrival, but rooms were scarce so we had to take a room in a hotel a few kms out of the city centre. We spent a couple hours walking around the city and then caught a tram out to the hotel. The port city is a World Heritage site, renowned for it’s extensive and beautiful preserved 18th century architecture. The cathedral is immense with double flying buttresses and a separate bell tower. The buildings along the river bank remind us of Bath and there is an interesting mirror pool. The Garonne river is a feature in itself, very wide when the tide is high, but at low tide reduces down to mud banks. The tidal height difference is huge and the incoming tide surges with great energy and swirling eddies.

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Cahors to Sarlat 30 September 2015

Today we started our CARmino. We had breakfast in our hotel then walked the 100m to the Eurocars office where we had booked our car, a Peugeot 500, which is da Diesel engine and we also hired sat Nav (in English, well The voice has an Irish accent)

After taking photos of the bridge in Cahors we drove to Saint-Cirq Lapopie. This was recommended by a French lady on the Camino as a “must see” and how right she was. Perched on a hillside above the cliffs and overlooking the river a beautifully maintained village, rated one of the top villages in France. The pictures do not do it justice.

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After having a walk around and eating lunch we drove to Sarlat, about 1.5 hours away along winding country roads. We parked just outside the old centre and wandered in to find somewhere to stay the night. We found a bar that had rooms above and we took a room at the top of the building with a view across the square.

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Using a guide provided by the tourist office we did a walking tour of the old town.

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Lots of interesting buildings, one of the most interesting was the church with a glass elevator that rose above the tower.

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We had a leisurely drink at our bar, then dined at a local restaurant. Hazel loved

her cassoulet of pork, beans, frogs gras and duck.

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The crime brûlée for dessert was delicious.

Tuesday September 29. Mas de Vers to Cahors. 18km

Our last night on the Chemin was in a shared room with two others and It was a bad night, which only reinforced my previous experience on the Spanish Camino of not coping with mass sleeping. Snores and noisy dreams, not to mention not-so-discrete red torchlight, added to the head cold I have developed, made for a rough night. But it was the last night so it didn’t matter. Plenty of time to catch up with sleep later. In general, walking in France has been much easier than Spain because of getting better sleep and better foot management.

We disturbed our bed-fellows by setting our alarm for 6.30am having decided to reach Cahors by lunch time. This would require an early start. We weren’t alone at breakfast, our recent French Canadian friends were also there. The full moon was still in the sky as we strode off around 7.30. The walk was mostly flattish, through very rocky terraine and paths which were hard on the feet and obviously hard for the farmers to work with. We had a couple of short breaks and then the final few kilometres across a high heath-like area. Reminded us of Reigate Heath, without the golf course!. The path then dipped down steeply and our first sight of CAhors came into view. It is an old and newer city nestled in a huge ox bow of the River Lot. We walked into the city, across one of the newer bridges around 11.30am. A record 18km before lunch for us!

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We went into the old city and had lunch, then found the hotel we had booked in the newer part of the city, close to the famous Pont Valentre and Europe Car Hire. We were tired by the time we got there so had a catnap before heading off to explore the old city. We didn’t have much daylight left, especially as we decided we deserved a glass of wine in one of the bars before setting off. The old city is not that special, compared to some of the beautiful old towns and cities we have seen. I think we’re getting spoilt! We wandered for a while before deciding it was time for dinner and fortuitously bumped into our Fench Canadian friends in a restaurant. We joined them for a celebration of finishing the French Chemin. Seems to be a tradition with us.  We seem to get on very well with Fench Canadians!

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Limogne-en-Quercy to Mas de Vers Monday 28th September,

Today is our penultimate day on the Chemin, and our last dY of walking over 20km, so we had an early breakfast at 7am. Marie and Yves put on quite a spread, there was melon, cereals, prunes and the usual continental breakfast.

We hit the road soon after 8am, together with a group of five Canadians. The scenery today was fairly similar to the last few days, but the track was much more level and less stoney so we were soon at our first stop Valeires where we were able to get coffee.

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We bought bread, cheese and tomatoes at the local shop where we got instructions on how to rejoin the Chemin, since we could not see any signs. We soon found our way back on to the Chemin, and walked for a couple of hours, stopping only to have a drink.

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Soon we saw a nice spot to picnic.  With only a few more kms to go Hazel relaxed after lunch.

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It was not long before we arrived at our Gite, and soon after the five Canadians arrived. The number of arrivals increased quickly during the afternoon, and the Gite was soon full (27 people).

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After showers and catching up with washing Hazel relaxed with a beer before dinner.

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…while Mike met the locals…

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finally it was 7pm and time for dinner. We sat on the “English” table, made up of four New Zealanders, two English people who live in France and one Scot who lives in England, one French lady who is a retired teacher of languages and us two Aussies. First course was courgette (zucchini) soup, then roast duck with fig sauce, mashed potato and veg, followed by a chocolate bread pudding with raspberries, and of course red wine! After dinner we went back to our room for the night which had two double bunks. Since the Gite was full we had two other people in the room, oh well we have done well up to now, having rooms to ourselves.

Sunday Sept 27. Saint Jean-de-laur to Limogne-en-Quercy, 9km.

We only have a short walk today so set our alarm for 8am and had a leisurely breakfast We were still doing wifi when the owners turned up to start cleaning but they didn’t seem to mind, we hadn’t made much work for them. They have a full house tonight. How lucky were we to get it all for ourselves?!

Started walking around 10am with the sun quite high already and the air feeling warm. Maybe this was the reason we felt a bit weary today; the temperature makes such a difference to our energy level. Much better to walk when it’s cold. The route was fairly uneventful and a mixture of road and farm tracks. We notice that there are far fewer cows in this area, but many more houses and people around. Must be more industries I guess. The main event of the day was losing our way for a while. The red and white signs are usually spaced every 50-100m, with red and white crosses denoting the wrong paths. Simple to follow you’d think and they usually are, but a moment’s lack of attention can mean you miss a cross (as we did) and carry on until eventually you begin to realise that you haven’t seen the familiar red and white for a while. Fortunately we only went about 0.5km out of our way, Mike backtracked until he found the signs again, while I waited with the bags, and we were soon back on track.

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We arrived at our destination, Limogne-en-Quercy, around 12.30. A Market was spread out in front of the church so we bought a few pieces of fruit for later. The stone fruit is still in full ripeness at the moment so we included a couple of huge peaches. We then looked around the small town for somewhere to eat lunch. Not a lot to choose from but we found a very busy place which looked like the best. Had Cochon in its name but luckily it provided dishes other than pork. Mike had salmon and I had a goat’s cheese, honey and walnut salad. Both excellent. Followed this with coffee at a local bar and by this time our Gite would be open. The Gite La Maison en Chemin is owned by friends of Andy’s brother and French wife, Barry and Eve. We’d had special recommended to stay here. It has proved to be delightful, as are the owners. They welcomed us with a beer and showed us to our very nice blue room. All the rooms are for 2 or 3 people and all decorated very attractively. We read/rested/napped/showered/washed clothes. All the usual. Then went for a walk around the town before returning for dinner at the Gite. Delicious smells had been emanating from the kitchen for some time. We were not disappointed.

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Puy-Clavel to St Jean-de-laur 26 September 2015

Today we were up before the sun and were able to see a spectacular sunrise from the veranda of our gite.

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Just because we had the best dinner in a Gite to date doesn’t mean we are going to get anything more than the standard continental breakfast, but today we had muesli! We ate heartily, knowing we had a long walk ahead of us, 12km into Cajarc and a further 10km to our next Gite.

Being Saturday morning, the sounds of tweeting birds was overridden by the sound of gunfire as the hunting season gets into full swing. Soon however we started our descent into Cajarc which is set in a valley and was covered in mist from the Lot river. Spiders webs lined our path, catching the sun.

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By the time we reached the town the mist had gone and we located a vegetable shop to buy provisions to cook tonight. A nearby cafe provided us with our needed coffee and wifi and after a walk round the old town centre a venue for lunch.

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We left Cajarc and began climbing up the hill. Looking back at the bridge over the river we realised how quickly we had climbed.  We saw where all the corn goes, big drying containers.

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We finally arrived at our Gete with some trepidation; here we have to cook for ourselves and are in a ten bed dormitory. We were greeted with cool drinks and news that we were the only ones in the Gite tonight (whereas the next night it will be full!)

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such a beautiful place again, very well fitted out. Hazel cooked a cheese omelette and ratatouille, washed down with a lovely bottle of local Malbec red wine. We then had the whole dormitory to ourselves.

Friday Sept 25. Figeac to Puy-Clavel, 18km

Made an early start on a beautiful morning, loitering at the back of the tourism office to pick up some wifi and the news from Australia. We left Figeac crossing the foot bridge over the River Cele and then straight up the hill. As usual our morning walk started with a hill climb! The views from the top always rewarding.

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After two hours of fairly easy walking we reached the pretty village of Faycelles where, to our delight, we found a cafe. Coffee and toilets are always a treat! We also met a very friendly couple from Austria, who shared the difficulties of living in a country that was always being confused with Australia! She used to be an English teacher so was very happy to chat away with us in her excellent English.

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As we continued we noticed small round stone buildings dotting the countryside. Some falling down and others renovated. No one has been able to tell us what they are or were used for. We can only guess they were shepherds’ shuts maybe.

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We found a comfortable place for a picnic lunch (nowhere for a bought lunch en route) and the rest of the walk passed easily, through pretty countryside.

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Our Gite for the night, Ecoasis, was a few hundred metres off the Chemin. We arrived around 2.30pm and like most of the Gites it was not open until 4.30pm. Sometimes you can let yourself in and they leave messages for which room number we have, but not so with this one. However there were comfortable deck chairs in the garden and places to leave our boots and bags. It was lovely to relax in the sun and have a little nap and read while we waited. The owners live on the upper level, a French couple and their toddler. They set up this environmentally designed Gite having walked parts of the Camino to research the best type of design and services to provide. They have done well. The Gite is light and airy, a large dining and kitchen area with huge windows overlooking the view sweeping away towards the Lot River. Rooms and bathrooms are either end of the lower level and we had a room for 3 people to ourselves. The toilets are a pit design to save water and are the best of that types we have ever used. No smell! Perhaps the best thing about this Gite was the cooking skills of the host. He has apparently studied cooking and it showed! We had a salad starter of beetroot mousse, pineapple tomatoes, olives and proccutio (Mike had white cheese). Followed by vegetarian lasagne, not just because he knew Mike doesn’t eat red meat. He says he often cooks vegetarian meals because we all eat too much meat. Dessert was Fromage Blanc, berries and ground nuts. We have met Fromage Blanc before and it is devine! Rather like the thickest Greek yoghurt you can imagine, only better. How do French people keep slender compared to the rest of the Western World? Their dairy foods are so good and always full fat! One of the French friends we met at the Gite told us it’s because they don’t snack between meals. Makes sense. She was a teacher of French, Latin and Greek so was also very informative about differences and similarities in languages. Apparently most of the French  expressions and similar words that we use in English were introduced by William the Conquerer  and his mob. Another of our Fench comrades at the table surprised us by paying for everyone’s wine that night. How generous! We didn’t realise until later that night when we all paid our bills. This Gite definitely has the number one position of anywhere we have stayed this holiday!

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