I’m not a big fan of the crowds of Paris – you have to queue for every sight and the chances of making a good picture are slim. Therefore, I try to escape the capital city as soon as I can when I have to fly there. This particular escape included visiting some of the most beautiful castles of the Loire Valley, Saint-Malo, Mont Saint-Michel, swimming in the sea, night driving, sunsets and sleeping in a tent under the stars. And here’s the itinerary of this escape if you wish to experience the same.
Day 1: Pilgrims and Armored Maidens
I and my friend decided to go on a road trip from Paris. This meant that the morning of our first day was very busy: we had to rent a car and buy food and gas for camping. Navigating our way out or the Paris sprawls was also not an easy task.
At around midday, we reached Chartres, a small and cozy town on L’Eure river. It features one of the biggest and most famous Gothic cathedrals in Europe. Our day coincided with the last day of the Pentecost Pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres. While it was fun to observe the colorful crowd of pilgrims converging to the walls of the cathedral, it was almost impossible to enjoy the architecture itself. Most of the building was closed for visitors, and we had to sneak along the walls to see at least something. While the center was bustling with the religious crowds, the rest of the city center was surprisingly calm and serene. We especially enjoyed exploring the quiet interiors of Saint-Aignan and Saint-Pierre churches.
After Chartres, our next stop on the way to the Loire valley castles was Orleans. It also has a huge cathedral, rather marvelously decorated with stained glass windows. One row of the windows tells the story of Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans. The center of the city is as filled with medieval buildings as Chartres’s one, but Orleans feels more alive. Ironically, the building named “the house of Joan of Arc” is actually only an approximate reconstruction of a house in which she only stayed during the siege. The walking areas along the river are very picturesque and relaxing. We immediately fell in love with the Loire in Orleans.
The plan for the first day was to find a camping ground and pitch a tent there. However, a beautiful sunset prevented us from arriving before 22.00 when all life ceased at the camping check-in desk. So we parked in the fields and pitched a tent in the wild, which was in many ways even better. After a bottle of French wine and a dinner cooked on a portable stove, we were ready to welcome another day in the French countryside.
Day 2: Porcupines and Royal Mistresses
Château de Chambord is one of the most famous castles in the Loire river. Rumor is that Leonardo da Vinci himself might have been involved in designing the castle, which is a nice marketing strategy indeed. It was a great idea to come at the opening time (9 am) because that allowed us to avoid the crowds and shoot some pictures on the empty roof. We spent about 2 hours roaming the castle, and one probably needs as much time for the gardens. However, we were in a hurry and left before 12 pm, a little pissed that you have to pay for parking as well as for the entry tickets. Oh well, at least there was no need to order tickets in advance.
Following the Loire river, we moved on to the city of Blois. It was raining, and the wet streets of the old town were very much in tune with the surface of the calm river. If you climb to Place du Château square in front of the royal palace, the view of the sea of roofs is mesmerizing. Another great viewpoint is from the terrace over the rose gardens close to Blois Cathedral. One of the cool things about Blois is that you can find the insignia of the cute Order of the Porcupine in the decorations of the royal buildings.
Our next stop was the city of Amboise, where we saw the outsides of Château du Clos Lucé (this is where Da Vinci died) and Château Royal d’Amboise. Unfortunately, there was no time for visiting their insides – we were in a hurry for the next great castle on our list – Chenonceau.
Chenonceau is said to be so charming because it was mostly designed by women for women. If you take the audio guide, you will learn about the many times it moved from one mistress to another (with drrrrama!) and dive deep into the intrigue of the French royal court. But most of our time was spent walking around the castle ground trying to find a perfect picture spot – there are so many!
Chambord and Chenonceau by no means exhaust the offer of awesome castles in the Loire valley. On our way to the sea this evening we passed so many more – Tours, Villandry, Langeais, Montsoreau to name a few. But we were in a hurry to spend the third day on the seaside, so we pressed on and camped in the fields after passing Rennes.
Day 3: Pirates and Monks
Early on the third day, we started in the direction of the seashore and soon parked close to the walled historic center of Saint-Malo. This city was a privateer stronghold, and still has the air of sea romance about it. Huge walls surround the center, all of them with walking paths on the top, which provide the best views of the port.
However, we were more interested in the sea than in the historic buildings – by that time we haven’t had a shower for two days. As true backpackers, we solved this problem by washing our heads in the sea at the beach under the walls, under the incredulous looks of tourists on top of the walls. Salty water never felt better!
After the pleasant swim, we returned to the car and headed further along the coast in the direction of the famous Mont Saint-Michel. One of the most iconic places in France, Mont Saint-Michel is a monastery built on a mountain in a tidal zone. This location ensured that the abbey was only accessible at low tides, and was therefore extremely defendable. Now there’s a bridge connecting it to the shore and even buses going between its walls and a huge mainland parking.
If I have to name the most magical place in France, this has to be it. Just after an afternoon rain, the streets climbing the slopes of the mountain to the entrance to the cathedral were nearly empty, and the towers cast a shadow on the tidal sands at the foot of the walls. Down below a group of tourists took off their shoes and were walking barefoot in the direction of a nearby island. I just hope they had a guide or at least checked the tides timetable.
We probably spent about 3 hours exploring every nook and cranny of this awesome island, and then at the sunset, made even more pictures of it from the shore, lit by the windows of its hotels and restaurants. This ended our three-day adventure and what was left is a long night ride to return the car by 10 am on the next day in Paris.