Chateaus, Champagne & Mickey Mouse: Loire Valley

After leaving Reims we headed past Disneyland Paris (see you in a few days) and drove about three hours to the Loire Valley-known for its thousands of castles and chateaus. We planned on seeing 4 or 5 chateaus, enjoying some great food and wine and relaxing amongst the beauty of the region.

On the way to our B&B, we stopped at our first chateaux, Chateau du Clos-Luce, last home of Leonardo Da Vinci. We chose it because we read that the park grounds were kid friendly and after a long car ride, we wanted Nathan to run around. Nathan’s idea of touring a chateau goes something like this: “Mommy! Look! Wow!” And run to the next room. Rinse and Repeat through the entire house. If a guidebook says the tour takes an hour, you will be done in ten minutes with my child.

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So the chateau itself is a blur to me (beautiful?) and Dan was able to snap some pictures while I chased the little one-who spotted a fountain from a window and was absolutely determined to get to it. Once outside, the grounds were awesome for Nathan! There are a dozen of DaVinci’s inventions in real life models that kids can play with laid out all over the grounds. It’s very interactive for adults and kids. The added bonus: an actual playground with a slide and swings! I am always on the lookout for playgrounds while traveling to give Nathan a little free playtime and exercise.

Who needs the Louvre? Its right here!
Who needs the Louvre? Its right here!

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The biggest disappointment of this trip was the food. We were in France and had grand expectations of amazing French food. Knowing Disneyland Paris has terrible food (sorry it’s awful), we wanted to get in all of our good meals beforehand. Looking back, I’m pretty sure food was the most stressful part of our trip and we ended up never eating at a single good place the entire trip. The food was decent, but nothing was spectacular and I think this is due to traveling with a toddler. We haven’t quite mastered our planning skills with touring and eating while trying to ensure Nathan isn’t restless. I call him the ticking time bomb-he is happily touring but by the time you get him to a meal-it’s hard to make him sit down after being in the stroller for so long. It’s hard to balance eating and touring and food often gets the shaft. Quick meals have replaced the days when Dan and I used to enjoy a glorious dinner while drinking wine on one of our European adventures. So I really don’t have any stories on a fabulous meal we had in France, sadly!

Nathan’s sleep schedule was really off due to the super light evenings so we got a late start the next morning. Our plan was to hit the biggest chateau (Chenonceaux) but it’s so heavily toured that it’s recommended to go early in the day. We didn’t even get to breakfast until 10AM, so we decided to try Chambord instead. This chateau is massive! I felt like I did the first time I saw the Colosseum in Rome-in awe.

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This chateau has 440 rooms and 365 fireplaces! It was a bit chaotic to visit because we knew we couldn’t listen to the audio guide-the only way to really get any sense of what you are seeing at this place. So we haphazardly made our way through the maze of rooms, getting completely lost a couple of times. This was built starting in 1519 by Francois I as a hunting ground retreat in the forest, and of course was rarely used (as most chateaus). Louis XIV only visited 6 times in his entire reign in the 1600’s! It was my least favorite chateau to visit because of the chaos inside, but it was my favorite of all we visited to look at from the outside-it’s grandeur cannot be beat!

View from staircase
View from staircase

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After letting Nathan run around the grounds and joining a new family for lunch (check out the picture below-Nathan just randomly sitting with them).

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We pressed our luck and headed to Cheverny, hoping the lure of the hunting dogs would keep Nathan occupied. Everyday at 5PM you can watch the hunting dogs get fed in their kennel and we thought Nathan would love it.

Nathan didn’t understand our plan (why not?) and threw a major fit upon arrival to the chateau. After begging and pleading (Nathan, don’t you want to see the doggies??), we just decided to let him run around the grounds, out of his stroller while we took turns visiting the chateau. This turned out to be a brilliant way to tour and was repeated at Chenonceaux the next day.

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The chateau was stately and much smaller than Chambord. It felt much more intimate and an actual family still lives there. I had a much easier time visiting the inside of this chateau. The brochure they hand you in English literally walks you through the entire chateau in order, tells you exactly where to go and gives brief synopsis of what you are looking at. I like following things in order, so this appealed to my senses. This chateau was built in 1604 and was spared during the French Revolution. A little American history: There is a letter on display from George Washington thanking the family for their help in beating the English during the American Revolution.

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The hunting dogs were much different than I imagined. 75 huge dogs living in a massive enclosure, that didn’t seem big enough to me. I don’t know a lot about hunting dogs, but my vision of dogs comes from having dogs my whole life and they should be living in the house, curled up on your bed as a member of the family. These dogs had one huge water fountain they kept drinking from and dipping their whole bodies in (funny to see actually) and before feeding time they were just lazing around a big cage-inside and outside but I could only see the outer portion. At 5PM, they are all shuffled upstairs while the handler sets out their food (a ton of full raw chickens-bones too-and loads of kibble). The dogs go crazy while the handler sets out the food they can’t touch-I got a great shot of one dog eating the bars. And then the handler lets them loose and it’s a free for all! The alpha dogs are definitely getting the meat-dogs fighting each other for food, peeing on the ground and other dogs drinking it up, dogs barking and spitting chicken bits. It is stinky an awful to watch but intriguing as well. One dog was growling and fighting off 3 other dogs and I realized he was protecting a female dog in the corner. It as all very fascinating but I was also uncomfortable with the whole process. (Do these dogs have names? Does anyone play with them?). Nathan was fascinated by the whole experience.

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That night we had a quick dinner in Amboise at a touristy crepe shop. As we walked back to the car, we heard a booming voice over a loudspeaker and realized a bike race was happening on the street we parked the car. Slowly we realized that the bikes were doing rounds on the same street and we had no chance of leaving until the race was over! We asked a security guy who spoke no English and we understood the race would be going on until 10PM and it was almost 9!!!!! So we watched at first, but then bored by the circling of the bikers we just hung out by the car and let Nathan run wild until we could finally leave. It was an interesting and frustrating experience to say the least! We just wanted to get Nathan to bed….

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The next morning we were determined to get an earlier start since Chenonceau is such a busy place. The map we got showed a playground on property so we decided to take turns in the chateau again. This worked out brilliantly as Nathan spent time running around while both of us got to enjoy the chateau.

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“Enjoy” is a relative term however, this places was packed! Dan had wall to wall people when he went through each room because he happened to get there with a bunch of tour groups. I hit a bit of a lull, and while I did see some tour groups, I actually spent time in 2-3 rooms alone! Shocking! Chenonceaux is a gorgeous 16th century chateau that sits on the river-and was built as the first palace solely for pleasure and not defense. It housed famous women-including a famous French mistress of King Henry II. When he died, his wife, Catherine de Medici took the home away from her. In more recent history, in WWI, the palace was used as a hospital (like Downton Abbey!). During WWII, Germans had their artillery pointed at this chateaux ready to blow it to bits at any moment, as it sat on the dividing line between territories.

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At that point, we were done with chateaus and decided to head back to the room and enjoy the B&B. We grabbed food from the grocery store (cheese, wine, bread, quiche) and headed back for lunch and a dip in the freezing cold pool!

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After spending a good portion of the afternoon relaxing we figured we would stroll through the town and get dinner. Nathan started off by not wanting to leave the room-happily playing on the ipad. Next, he didn’t want to get his shoes on. Then he didn’t want to get in the car. By the time we got to town, he was in full blown tantrum and refused to get out of the car. We dragged him out after much pleading and thought he would calm down by walking through the town with some freedom. Instead we ended up with a shoeless kid screaming next to a tree while onlookers just stared. (Tree was his timeout spot). He would not calm down. He was kicking, biting, screaming and yelling. It was terrifying at one point because I thought he would pass out from all the energy he was putting out. We decided to bail and go back to the room-of course now he was screaming that he wanted dinner and didn’t want to leave. So we dragged him back to the car and when we got to the B&B, the owner came out with a book for him (yep she could hear him). Nothing would calm this kid down and it was a 90 minute tantrum of epic proportions. We skipped dinner that night and ended up eating cookies we had in the room while Nathan calmed down and went to sleep. Sigh. Parenting. It has its ups and downs.

The next morning we were headed off to Disneyland and we quietly hoped the familiarity that Disney would provide Nathan would bring a respite to anymore epic tantrums.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Disneyland Paris!

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