by Linda Hull
We have been holidaying in the Loire for at least ten years, encompassing life BC (before children) and after. There is no doubt our holidays have changed – long lazy lunches have made way for picnics, wine tastings have turned into wildlife spotting, and gourmet evenings out are restricted to the occasions when grandparents kindly offer to babysit. However as a destination it continues to work for us, as a combination of chateaux, croissants and being off-line for a few days is very appealing.
Travelling from Oxfordshire, we tend to take the Brittany Ferries boat from Portsmouth to Caen. Although the boat takes 6 hours, we then only have 3 hours in the car once in France, rather than the 7-8 hours from Calais. There are overnight boats, but we tend to go for the first boat in the morning. Breakfast (go to the more ‘classy’ looking restaurant which has an excellent value buffet), followed by soft play, a magic show and then lunch see us nicely across the Channel. Being French-run, the food is pretty good and very good value. This year was the first year we have not booked a cabin, which I would recommend for those travelling with younger children (our youngest is 3) – it only costs about £20 and gives you a bit of space of your own especially for naptime. We then find the girls sleep for quite a bit of the journey down to the Loire.
The house we stay in is between Saumur and Tours, near the small town of Bourgeuil. I can hardly claim to be impartial, as the house belongs to my in-laws, but this location is great and has good access to lots of different places to visit. There is also a good sized supermarket in Bourgeuil, and the nearest boulangerie is a cycle ride away. It is also in the middle of a number of wine regions, but then this is true of most places in the Loire!
Castles in the air
As the main attractions the Loire Valley has to offer, it would be frankly rude not to include at least a couple of chateaux on your visit. For fans of knights and battles I would recommend Chateau de Chinon, which has plenty of towers and dungeons to explore. For those who love princesses, Chateau D’Ussé is supposed to be the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty, and the tower has some waxwork figures telling the story which captivate small girls. I also am a big fan of Azay-le-Rideau as the chateau is just so picturesque from the outside, although there is a minimal amount to see inside. To be honest, this is true of quite a few chateaux, but with toddlers in tow that is really a strength rather than a weakness.
How does your garden grow?
Some chateaux are all about the garden, and nowhere is this more true than at Villandry. We visit here almost every time, as the gardens are just amazing. The children love running round the gardens in general, and at the very top of the garden there is a pretty playpark with picnic area, ample reward for little legs after a long walk. There is also a maze, and on the way out an ice cream and crepe cart – so everyone gets a treat!
Another favourite is Chateau du Rivau, between Chinon and Richelieu – the garden has some magical sculptures such as a giant teacup and a huge wellington boot. There is a maze and a playpark, and I can see us returning here year after year as the children grow older as they would be able to have a little freedom to roam in a perfectly safe environment.
Chateau de Chenonceau is one of those places which features on the cover of many guidebooks, and a place that we had visited pre-children, enjoying a romantic stroll around the gardens and a boat trip on the river underneath the castle. Our visit this year was a bit different, but still very enjoyable. Again there was a playpark and maze, as well as lots of gardens to explore and a few rather bored looking donkeys to add a little interest. The girls also enjoyed visiting the kitchens and running along the gallery which runs over the river.
A couple of other gardens worth a mention (and complete with obligatory maze) are Chateau de Chatonniere near Chinon and Parc Maupassant de Bois Savary in Allonnes. There is something a little bit bonkers about both of these gardens – the large ‘leaf’ garden in Chatonniere and the series of ‘rooms’ in Maupassant both enjoyable for children to explore and with lots of interest for the grown-ups.
Meanwhile, back in the real world
Apart from ticking chateaux off the to-do list there are many other things to do in the area. There are plenty of good bike rides – a favourite with our girls being the one along the river at Chouze-sur-Loire which conveniently ends at a playpark. There are also many good achievable walks – the woods around Brain-sur-Allonnes have good flat paths, or there is a nice walk in Candes-St-Martin up the viewpoint where you overlook the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire.
Saumur is a lovely town to explore – park up at the Chateau and walk down into town for lunch at one of the many creperies. There is a fete in September with very good wine-tasting opportunities (enjoy these things before you are tied to school holidays!) and the Cave De Saumur in St Cyr En Bourg is a great place to buy the wine the locals drink at prices the locals pay!! There are also tours of the sparkling wine cellars available – my favourite being Gratien and Meyer – which doubles up as an educational tour of the caves for the young ones and is a good rainy day option.
A trip to the market is also good fun – Bourgeuil has a good one on Tuesdays (and a Fete des Vins de Val de Loire in the Summer which is worth a visit!) If you’re looking for more traditional children’s fun then the Zoo at Doue La Fontaine is good and makes good use of the caves for a unique setting, allowing you to be eye level with a giraffe while eating an ice-cream at the cafe!
As the girls get older, I suspect we will be exploring Leonardo Da Vinci’s house in Amboise, spending more time at the shops in Tours and visiting the Cadre Noir, the French National Riding School, where there are shows in a similar vein to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And I have a little glimmer of hope that the long lunches might come back into vogue one day. Maybe if I read French Children Don’t Throw Food really carefully I can make it happen!
Related Trunki Files link: Accommodation review, Montengrand, Languedoc