Monday, April 27, 2009

Loire Valley, France

For our first full day in France, we decided to take a day tour of some of the castles in France. We found one through Paris Vision that we thought would suffice nicely. A bunch of other tourists had the same idea, because the tour was packed.

When I had booked this tour, there had been four language options for this day: English, French, Spanish, or Japanese. For some reason, I had assumed that meant there would be four separate tours. Don’t ask me why. At some point while we were waiting, it occurred to me that there was probably one bus with audio guides in four different languages, which was fine with me. We waited outside with the rest of the tourist mob for the bus to appear. It finally does, and Hubby and I waited for a line to form to board the bus.

Except the line did not form. Instead, there was a massive surge of people toward the bus. I was totally caught off guard by not only the behavior of some of the group, but also by Paris Vision for not controlling it better. No attempt was made to have everyone line up. We were left to fend for ourselves. I was a little irked by that. I am also regretting having to spend an entire day with some of these people.

Hubby and I sighed and joined the mob, as there was no other choice. I got on the bus first, and Hubby had to literally push his way on behind me in order for us to stay together. It was a double decker bus, so we headed up to the top. That would prove later to be a mistake.

Everyone finally finished boarding, and we waited for audio guides to be passed around. However, there would be no audio guides. The audio guides were only handed out at the castles. The information on the bus was presented orally by the tour guides into a microphone, and they took turns speaking: two girls would switch off doing the French, English and Spanish portions, and there was a gentleman who ran the Japanese tour. Sometimes they did all four languages, sometimes they only did two or three. I started to think maybe this wasn’t the best way to go about seeing castles.

We got comfortable for the ride and watched the French countryside roll by. I watched the lady in front of me have a Heineken for breakfast. And then another Heineken for her mid-morning snack.

The first caslte on the tour was Chenonceau. Here are some pictures:


We both really enjoyed Chenonceau. The castle is picturesque, the information provided by the guide was decent, and the grounds were also very pretty. We didn’t have as long as we would have liked there, but I knew that would be the price we paid for taking a tour of this nature. For our free time, we had enough time to see either the remainder of the interior of the castle that hadn’t been covered in the tour, or the grounds. We chose the grounds, and had an enjoyable time.

Our next stop was Cheverny for lunch and also to see the Cheverny castle. I wasn’t expecting much from the lunch, as it was included in the price of the ticket, but it was actually really good. We ate at a restaurant right outside Cheverny (forget its name). Each table had a bottle of red and white wine, water, and lunch consisted of a salad, salmon over a bed of rice (it was really good), and some sweet breads for dessert.

After lunch, it was on to Cheverny, which we both could have skipped entirely. The architecture of the place, when you’re on a “castle” tour, is somewhat disappointing. It’s really more like a palace at best, and the interior didn’t have anything that we found to be particularly unique. The highlight of Cheverny was seeing the dogs in the dog pen on the grounds, along with the herb garden.

Here is a picture of Cheverny:


And here is one of the dogs:


We got back to the bus a little early, and couldn’t figure out why people were getting on and then getting right back off again. We got on, walked up to the second level, and…there’s the elusive summer we saw so little of on this trip! The upper levels of double decker busses apparently get quite hot when the air conditioning has been turned off for awhile! Having never been on a double decker bus, this was a new discovery for us. But we saw it as a trade off for the cool weather we had in London and sat down.

Our next and last stop was Chambord (on the way there we saw a double decker tour bus like ours that had gotten too close to the ditch on one of those narrow country roads and overturned, gulp). The lady in front of me was on her fourth or fifth Heineken by this point (and that’s not counting the two or three beers she had with lunch).

We got out and…another Wow moment. Chambord is the reality of what you imagine a castle to be. It was gorgeous. Hubby and I couldn’t wait to get going. But we were quickly disappointed to learn we would only have an hour here total. Only an hour? Chambord is large, with extensive grounds, and we really wanted to see as much as we could. But even with an hour, we knew—it was either going to be the interior or the grounds. So we did something that I considered slightly rude, and that I told myself I wouldn’t do: we stayed with the group to see the large circular staircase in the castle, and then we ditched the tour. I justified it by saying I would probably never be back here, and I should, as much as possible, make the most of it.

Here is Chambord:


We walked around the back of the castle, and then down a little way by the canal. The views of the castle from these points were gorgeous. We walked back in front, and then over to the other side, and then…it was time to head back to the bus. I was really sad to leave. I could easily have spent half a day there.

We waited until the last minute before boarding the Oven-On-Wheels that wass our tour bus. Overall the tour was informative, although I thought the structure of it could stand some revision. I was also impressed by the guides that spoke three different languages so well, as I’m butchering the few words of French I remember. One other thing I found interesting is that English seems to be a default languages of sorts. There were people on the English tour who did not speak English natively, but who selected the language because of the four offered, that was the common ground.

Ultimately, however, both Hubby and I felt that if we could do it differently, we would have, and I personally would only recommend this tour as a last resort. Ideally the best way to see the Loire Valley is to take the time and stay in the Loire for several days, allowing enough time to see the castles you want to see. Hubby even commented that for the money (304 Euros) he would have rather hired a private driver, told the driver that we wanted to drive around the Loire and that we’d tell him when we saw a cool castle we wanted to stop at. I had to agree with the latter. I much would have preferred either method to the tour. That being said, I was glad to be able to see this part of France. It was absolutely beautiful. I was also able to sleep most of the way back, which was nice, because it made staying up to watch the Tower twinkle that much easier!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

PARIS

Life is still really crazy but rather than completely abandon the blog indefinitely, I'm going to take the lazy way out and repost the second installment of our European trip report from 2007. After London we headed off for a week in Paris. I was both nervous and excited for this portion of the trip--nervous because I was going to have to rely on my rusty college French for the next week, and excited because, well, because it's Paris.

We arrived in Paris via the Eurostar from London. The train ride was uneventful, but I was a little disappointed to see a gray sky when we arrived. London had been frigid, and after a week, we were really hoping for some sunshine. But when I stepped off the train, I made my first pleasant discovery about Paris: Paris cloudy is warmer than London cloudy.

We took a cab from the train station to the apartment we had rented, and upon meeting our cab driver I realize that my rusty college French is going to become more problematic faster than I had hoped. The cab driver was of African descent, and spoke French as though he learned it as a second language as well. "This is going to be great," I thought. "Two people who don’t speak French well trying to communicate with each other in French." But we manage better than I thought we would, and arrive at the apartment after only a brief minute of confusion. (The street came up kind of fast so the driver passed it the first time around…and coming from the opposite direction, the building address numbers didn’t go in order so we had a little bit of difficulty locating the appropriate building. The apartment rental agency had given us explicit instructions, with pictures of the front of the building even, but of course I had left those in my suitcase, thinking that I had memorized the address and that was sufficient. Lesson learned: always, always have ALL of your travel documents/instructions on your person.)

We get upstairs to our apartment, and…WOW. I had found this apartment through Vacation In Paris, a well recommended agency on both Fodor's and Trip Advisor. The apartment was located in the 15th quarter, which is outside the main tourist center, but had a view to die for. Here are some pictures from our balcony:

Eiffel Tower Light Show


Panoramic Night View


Panoramic Day View


The Eiffel Tower actually looks closer in person than it does in the pictures—Hubby, a professional photographer, said there was a reason for this, which I’ve of course forgotten, but the point is we had a view of Paris that you can only dream of and think that you’ll never actually be lucky enough to have.

Our first day in Paris is very relaxed. We spent the evening gazing at our view, doing laundry (the apartment had a combo washer/dryer, which was nice, because it meant we only had to pack a week's worth of clothes for a 2 1/2 week European vacation) and getting some items at the local grocery store. The best butter and Yogurt I have ever had came from the grocery store a block from this apartment in Paris.

There is a light show on the hour every hour once it gets dark outside, and we didn't go to bed before watching this at least once from our apartment. Here is the video:

video

Here is a link to the apartment we rented, in case anyone is interested:

http://www.vacationinparis.com/apts/id_154.htm

Friday, April 3, 2009

R.I.P.

Hubby's maternal grandmother died this week. She was the quintessential grandmother--she doted on her family and grandchildren, and was the centerpoint of the family as a whole. She had a two year battle with cancer, and toward the end it was really hard for Hubby to see how much pain she was in. The wake is Sunday and the funeral Monday--will get back to the blog when life calms back down.