France: The Loire

You’d think that we would be put off by castle hotels after our distressing stay at Chateau de Chantore. But one really can’t go to the Loire Valley, or the Valley of a Thousand Chateaux, without living it up like King Louie XIV in at least one castle. That would be sacrilege.

So it was with that in mind that we arrived at Chateau des Arpentis, our elegant castle accommodation in the middle of the Loire countryside, a little after sunset.

Don’t be fooled by how small it looks in the distance.

Like Chateau de Chantore, Arpentis is swathed in acres of rolling green woodlands, which formerly served as hunting grounds for the nobles who lived here. Unlike Chantore however, this castle is a lot bigger — it had its own swimming pool and communal kitchen — and is therefore more popular with tourists and not just the genteel, tea-sipping, poodle-worshipping set.

King Louis XIII and Catherine de Midici were just some of the 16th century celebs who paid a visit.

No one was there to assist us as we heaved our big bags and two tots across the gravel carpark. Behind the check-in counter, a pale, listless bloke (who looked like a distant relative of Hannibal Lecter), half hidden in the shadows, muttered “bonsoir” as we trudged through the automatic doors, scaring the crepe out of us (pun intended).

Gee, I know I’m no Princess Diana, so just calm your tits sir.

Things got a lot creepier when we were led through the musty, maze-like hallway, past many dead creatures both tiny and enormous, whose mouths were agape in silent accusations and whose blank eyes bored right through us, as if furious that we would be enjoying the hospitality of their cold, callous murderer.

Shotguns and dead animals. The recipe for a perfect vacation.

I was about to run out of there screaming but we finally shown our room, the Chambre Rose, a big cosy nest with windows that opened out to the emerald expanse below.

I’m sold!

The table was thoughtfully laid out for us at breakfast the next day, and the food, though sufficient, wasn’t half as glorious as Chantore’s. In the weak autumn light, we spotted Arpentis’ royal coat of arms hanging in the sitting room and had to stifle a giggle — it was not a Black Mamba or a Box Jellyfish or some other savage beast like I had expected with half the woodland population decimated and displayed as trophies in here. It was a hedgehog…balanced atop a bloody gourd.

Talk about an identity crisis.

Anyway, the Loire is blanketed in fertile fields and studded with storybook villages but does anybody care about that? No! We’re all here for the castles, though not medieval ones like you get in Germany but pleasure palaces built by the rich during the Renaissance to impress, entertain and keep up with the Joneses. This used to be France’s Beverly Hills 90210, y’all.

Chateau-hopping is the name of the game here, but don’t expect to sightsee from the road. Many of these castles are ringed by vast tracts of land or high walls, and therefore aren’t immediately visible to passersby.

The first castle we visited was Chateau du Close Luce, because I am a geek and this is the former residence of my homeboy Leonardo da Vinci, who was not a royal himself, but travelled all the way here on a donkey from Italy at the behest of King Francis I.

Fangirling outside da Vinci’s home.

He spent the last three years of his life there — in fact, a moving picture of a da Vinci on his deathbed with Francis I by his side graces the walls of his bedroom, which is now open to public.

Though his head looks a bit misshapen.

Da Vinci was not just a painter, he was also an inventor and an avid student of science and mathematics, a visionary of his time. It was especially fascinating to see the lab where he used to work.

There was also a room where they detailed some of his wacky creations, including the predecessor of a motorized vehicle…

The great granddaddy of cars.

and a rotating tank modeled, no doubt, after a Vietnamese conical hat.

Would’ve been cute, if not for the cannons at the bottom.

The children were happiest outside in the garden, because they were allowed to clamber onto a few life-sized inventions as well as fiddle with some of the contraptions dreamt up by da Vinci himself.

Every geek’s wet dream.

The next castle we visited was Chateau de Chenonceau, nicknamed the Castle of the Ladies because of the famous queens and courtesans (and the resulting drama worthy of a telenovela) behind it. But first, we had a picnic close to the car park — not the most scenic spot but yeah, it was either that or the carpark itself.

Wondering when I’ll ever have a real meal again.

After the picnic, it’s a looooong walk to the entrance, across two moats and a shady avenue lined with tall orange trees.

Do you see the castle? Me neither!

Once there, you are greeted by a dreamy facade — from the stately gardens centered around a fountain to the four graceful columns bounding over the River Cher — designed by King Henry II’s girlfriend, Diane de Poitiers, who was 21 years his senior and no doubt a role model for all aspiring 16th century cougars.

Girl’s got good taste.

By this time however, our one-year-old has busted his maximum threshold for castles, and was flailing in his baby carrier and screaming “Go out! Go outtt! GO OUTTTTT!!!” like he was a piglet bound for the slaughterhouse.

It didn’t get any better as we stepped in through the castle’s huge doors. The crowds in there were enormous, and Ari grew so agitated that we began attracting plenty of attention. This was not how I planned on getting famous so we had to sprint through the rooms before somebody reported us to social services for child abuse (if this sounds a little too familiar, it’s because we got into a similar predicament in Paris and Gruyere), but not without ogling at a few interesting paintings first.

Especially the picture of the Three Graces, the three favorite mistresses of King Louis XV.

We didn’t manage to take a picture because we were in a mad rush for the exit, but the checkerboard-tiled grand gallery was the centerpiece of the castle. When King Henry II died in a jousting accident (the lance pierced his eye) in 1559 — karma can be a real bitch! — his wife Catherine de Medici wasted no time in giving that homewrecker Diane the boot, and celebrated by throwing obscenely grand parties here that would put the Kardashians to shame.

God bless her soul.

Someone has had enough of castles.

I am happy to report that this was the extent of our castle visit. That evening, I finally got my wish to dine in a civilized manner by having dinner at L’Ecluse, a fancy restaurant in Amboise. Our three-course dinner would’ve been enjoyable if we didn’t have to carry Ari the entire time since only dastardly bar stools were available. It would’ve also been the fabulous opportunity to try one of the Loire’s many famous vin blanc but alcohol, bar stools and toddlers do not go together.

Still better than picnicking by the carpark.

Amboise town itself was a little low on charm, but it was nice to walk along the Loire River and watch the sun set over Chateau d’Amboise, the town’s crowning jewel set atop like a fortress on a hill.

But obviously our 1-year-old was more interested in this stop sign.

If you think King Henry II’s cause of death was awful (and awfully ludicrous), you haven’t heard of how King Charles VIII died in this castle. He hit his head on a door lintel. Yeah, that’s the beam that holds up the door.

I guess being a French royal is not all it’s cracked up to be.

STAY

Chateau des Arpentis A massive, modernly furnished property with its own communal kitchen and swimming pool, making it convenient for families. Rooms are worn but lovely, with huge windows offering fabulous views. Breakfast is decent. Don’t expect top-notch service here. $$$

TIPS

  • There are hundreds of castles to choose from in the Loire, but the most popular ones are Chambord, Close Luce, Chenonceau, Villandry and Cheverny (and all for good reason). Do your research to see which one best suits your interest and spread out your visits over the span of several days. It isn’t necessary to book tickets in advance.
  • If you’ve always wanted to stay in a castle, now’s your chance! From regal palaces to chic country manors, you’ll be spoil for choice here. Many of these properties have been snapped up by enterprising owners who then restore and turn these buildings into quality bed and breakfasts.

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