Depending upon your schedule, seeing the Loire Valley castles along the Road to Happiness (Route de Bonheur) can be as short as a few days or as long as a summer escape. My three-night mini excursion brought me, and newest Gal Pal Gail, to the Loire Valley where enchanting castles, charming Relais & Chateaux hotels and the best in food and wine awaited us.
The journey began in Paris, of course! We rented a car at Gare de Lyon, plugged the coordinates into the French-only speaking GPS. After a few missed á la droîte and á la gauche turns we arrived in the valley of the grandest estates in the entire world.
Chenonceau Castle was under the care and guidance of some of France’s most famous women. Known as the “Château des Dames,” it was built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, decorated by Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Madame Dupin was its protector during the French Revolution and since it has been a symbol of peace for the area. The grounds include multiple flower gardens and a circular maze lined with yews designed by Catherine de Médicis.
A 16 room renaissance manor house by the name of Grand Hôtel du Lion d’Or was but a short ride away from Chenonceau. As the name suggests, gold (d’or) is very much a part of this lovely property. Regal red fabric is the backdrop for the gorgeous marbled headboard. French blue doors separate the boudoir from the foyer and generous sized modern bathroom and gold accents tie in the legacy of the hotel and its roots as a place where many dignitaries spent time.
The art of the meal is as much about the front of the house (waiters, maître d’ and sommelier) as it is about the food. Eating at du Lion d’Or was a well-orchestrated event where our wines were paired well with the food and service was en pointe. Chef Clement was incredibly accommodating to my recent discovery of an annoying wheat allergy. Warm, freshly baked non-wheat bread was served at each of my meals and substitutes were made to sauces and/or plates that enabled me to enjoy the essence of each course.
Another day, another castle…
Château de Villandry is a home used and loved by the current owner Henri Carvallo and his family but is also open to the public. Once a Medieval fortress, it now stands as an excellent representation of Renaissance décor inside. The public is allowed to wander in most spaces and witness the transformation from ancient to modern without compromising authentic style and materials used.
World-class gardens kept in impeccable shape, year-round by ten gardeners under the direction of Laurent Portuguez, offer visitors a unique opportunity to share in the life cycle of the plantings season by season.
The variety of gardens is not duplicated anywhere: The Water Garden, The Cross Garden, The Kitchen Garden, The Ornamental Garden, and The Music Garden contain everything needed to sustain a sense of well-being. Fruits, vegetables, grapes for wine, and flowers for beauty guarantee a sense of joie de vivre at Villandry.
Nearby is the ivy-covered country estate, Hotel Domaine Hauts de Loire. A long and winding road ends at the grand manor and former stables turned into an extraordinary boutique four-star hotel. There was nothing but five-star food, service, amenities, activities and accommodations in my estimation. Perhaps the lack of a spa keeps them in the lower category, a flaw in the system for sure.
We took a walk in the quiet, densely wooded forest and came upon swans swimming silently in a pond. The only sounds were our feet treading upon the well-worn paths and our voices disrupting the peace to comment how lucky we were to be in such a lovely place.
We feasted like Queens by candlelight in a romantic dining room, feeling a bit guilty our Kings were home tending to their work while we sipped champagne and Vouvray wines. It was agony knowing they missed incredible tastes and textures of the foods served in unique vessels like sea urchin cups and puff pastry purses. But someone had to do it, so Gail and I rose to the course challenges Chef Rémy Giraud and his team put our way and enjoyed every minute of it.
And, of course another day, another castle, but not just any castle, the BEST one in Europe…
The Château of Chambord dates back to the early 1500’s and has had a colorful and rich historical past. Not built as a fortress, but more as a center of hospitality, it was used as a hunting lodge because thick forests with loads of wild game surround it.
It is a place you can spend an entire day enjoying the beautiful vistas from the upper portions of the castle, or down below under the shade of trees and umbrellas at one of the many cafés. There are various boutique shops for local wines, gourmet foods and specialty souvenirs. There is even a wine store performing tastings in the center of the mini village on the promenade.
Over the river and through the woods, then a few paved roads and we were off to the unusual but cool Les Hautes Roches Hotel. Cut into the side of the limestone cliffs along the Loire River, the troglodyte caves have been turned into an interesting modern hotel.
Our Route de Bonheur was paved with excellent food, wine, hospitality and gorgeous landscapes. Thank you to the folks at Relais & Chateaux who knew how to plan the perfect escape for our three outstanding days in the Loire Valley.
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