Itinerary for a Loire Valley vacation to France: 1971 vs. 2017

National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France 1971 also outlined the must-see sites for tourists.  We were surprised to realize we followed almost all of their suggestions for the Loire Valley when thumbing through the information post-vacation.  NG reminds the reader that the Loire is the “garden of France,” and that “the vineyards along the Loire produce a number of good wines – among them Sancerre, Vouvray, and Bourgueil.” Endorsement enough for me!  The wines mentioned were also complimented during a wine tasting class we took, so definitely look for those at home and while in France.

A more detailed layout of center Tours is featured on the 1971 map, and an accompanying caption states: “The capital of the Touraine region affords vacationists a central base for excursions in the Loire Valley.”  We chose Tours for language school exactly because of its ideal location for exploring the Loire Valley!  Andrew always painstakingly researches our trips, and NG of 1971 agreed with him about Tours. The map also mentions the Tours Museum of Fine Arts since it boasts works by Mantegna, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Degas in the permanent collection, but I must have overlooked those pieces during our visit. I would only go in the museum on free admission days. Otherwise, just relax in the garden, and gape at the cedar of Lebanon. NG also points out that the Gothic Cathedral of St. Gatien in historic Tours retains stained glass windows from the 13th century.  Andrew and I filed through the cathedral twice while we were there to see the tie-dye reflections of light on the stone walls of the church.

In regard to the chateaus of the Loire Valley, NG refers to almost every single castle we visited. NG briefly describes Chateau Chambord as the “largest of the Loire chateaus. 16th-century Chambord bristles with an array of chimneys, towers, and dormers. Francois I built the elegant 440 room structure in the Forest of Boulogne as a hunting lodge.” My teacher at Clé also informed me that Francois I only stayed at his monstrous hunting lodge three times! He invited friends and other royals to inhabit his castle during the interim periods, it was left empty after the French Revolution, and during WWII it guarded precious artworks from the Louvre to keep them safe from looting. Andrew and I visited Chambord on June 11, our sixth anniversary.  We decided not to pay the entrance fee to tour the castle itself, and instead strolled the extensive grounds, napped under shade trees on the front lawn, and enjoyed the views of the massive edifice.  Next time I would pack a lunch, rent a bike, and spend the whole afternoon there!

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Chambord
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Chambord
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Chambord
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6th Anniversary

Another chateau mentioned, one we didn’t visit, but that was recommended to us by a server at a restaurant while there, was Chateau Cheverny.  Her favorite chateau, according to NG 1971, is “still occupied by the descendants of the builders[.] The chateau – open to the public – has changed little in its three centuries.” Each chateau was owned by different entities: some by the local government, some by the original families, and others by the state of France. I like visiting the ones still owned by families – it is wild to imagine them still holding family functions there, or living on the premises.  If I were to return to the Loire Valley, I would definitely visit Chateau Cheverny.

Two other chateaus mentioned by NG are Chaumont sur Loire and Chenonceau.  To see the exterior of Chenonceau, canoeing underneath on the Cher River provides spectacular views those along the river banks will never be able to enjoy.  Chaumont sur Loire is special because of its extensive gardens.  Each year, artists from around the world propose a garden concept or design based on a theme the castle selects.  35 artists are chosen to implement their concept on the chateau grounds, and visitors wander through elaborate displays of flowers, trees, and greenery to experience the artists’ visions. Andrew and I spent at least 90 minutes touring the gardens, and while some of the ideas fell flat, other designers created fascinating displays to echo this year’s theme of “Flower Power.” Check the garden exhibition schedule during the spring and summer months if you’re in the Loire Valley, and plan a morning visit.  Just expect to pay a mini-fortune for entrance to the garden and chateau – 18 euros a person.

NG tells the reader about Chateau Amboise as well, another icon well worth a visit for two reasons:  Leonardo da Vinci is buried there, and the chateau stands on high ground directly above the Loire River.

Chinon factors into both NG’s and our itinerary, in my opinion mainly for the view back over the charming town of Chinon.  Our group also climbed each castle tower to look out over the vineyards that produce some of the most famous Loire Valley wines.

Obviously Azay-Le-Rideau held a special place in NG’s editor’s mind, just like it did in mine.  This petite chateau has its own artists rendering on the NG map, and NG suggests a visit to the reader by romantically describing it:  “Surrounded by the quiet waters of the Indre, this elegant 16th century chateau is now a museum of the French Renaissance.” We loved the rolling English garden, the arched bridges over the Indre, the impeccably cleaned and restored stone, and the chaise longues spread across the grass out front.

Finally, NG draws the reader’s attention to an historical gem found in the town of Angers, in the region of Anjou, that we also visited: medieval tapestries on the site of an ancient fortress.  “Guarded by 17 towers, the feudal chateau of the Dukes of Anjou preserves a collection of tapestries.  The longest, from the 14th century, stretches 432 feet and depicts scenes from the Revelation of St. John.” Both the castle and the tapestries merit a look.

So, how did our itinerary compare to National Geographic’s of 1971?  National Geographic highlights 9 chateau in the Loire Valley.  Of those, we did not visit Cheverny (I counted ones we only saw from the outside as ones we’ve seen, too – Blois, Chambord, and Chenonceau).  We did visit two other chateaux that NG did not mention. Villandry, which is worth seeing for its spectacular French gardens, and Langeais, the first chateau we visited, and probably the least impressive of them all.

Have you visited the chateaux of the Loire Valley?  Did you see one that is missing from our itinerary?  Did I include a chateau that you don’t think is worth the price of admission?  Let me know what you think!

Practical Comparisons: France 1971 vs. 2017

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National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France

While cleaning out my grandmother’s home, my mom found a 1971 copy of National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France.  Both Andrew and I eagerly unfolded the yellowed map to see what National Geographic recommended to tourists in 1971. We were impressed to see that we could have taken most of their advice for which monuments to visit, though most practical information is sadly outdated.  Check out a list of comparisons below:

Under the “Hints for the Traveler” section, NG advises that a “valid passport [is] required; visas [are] needed for stays of more than three months.”  Even with the advent of the European Union and Schengen zone, this remains true.  US passport holders visiting France and other Schengen countries can stay within the bounds of this area for 90 days, before they either need to leave the Schengen zone, or hold the required visa to travel, study or work for an extended period.

 

The currency exchange information lists 1 franc as equal to 18 cents U.S.  Clearly, this has drastically changed since 1971, as France introduced euro banknotes into circulation on January 1, 2002.  I have no understanding of the buying power a franc represented (1 franc = 1 baguette? 1 coffee? 1 piece of candy?), but I would have liked to experience France pre-Euro, as currency can be a meaningful indicator of cultural identity.  As of June 27, 2017, Google Finance reports that 1 Euro is equivalent to 1.13 USD.  This should be encouraging dollar holding travelers to Europe, as in recent memory the dollar has been (de)valued to as high as 1.40 USD for 1 Euro, which is a depressing and expensive to the visitor earning a dollar-based salary to any Euro country.  Exchanging money in 1971 probably involved a more direct transaction.  Now, we recommend taking a debit card, and withdrawing money directly from your US bank account at a local ATM in France directly in Euros.  This allows you to avoid any unnecessary fees at your local branch in the US, and gives you the best exchange rate.  Don’t use the airport or train station currency exchange booths; these are truly a rip-off!  Another suggestion is to use a credit card for larger purchases, but be sure to pack a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees.  We use a Capital One card, both in the US and abroad.

Under the “Shopping and Sightseeing” category, NG states that most shops are closed on Monday, which we found to still be accurate in Tours and the surrounding region.  Small shops and local restaurants shuttered their windows for a day off on the first day of the week, which overall had a sleepy, post-weekend sluggishness feel to it.

NG confidently assures the monolingual American that “English [is] understood at most hotels, shops, and restaurants in the larger cities.” While I’m sure this is true, venture out into the provincial capitals and smaller towns, and English is not as “on demand” as one might expect, even in 2017.  The French willingly engage in their language, too, given they sense your effort is honest, and more or less competent.

My favorite section, “Hotels,” lists the price for various categories of accommodation. The average rate for “big-city luxury hotels:  about $20 a day for a single; $35 double (without meals).  Some inexpensive hotels offer rooms for as little as $5, without private bath.” Assuredly, there are no upscale accommodations available in Paris for such a deal in 2017!  Since I have no experience with “luxury hotels” in France, let’s compare an “inexpensive” stay in 1971 with one in 2017.  In December 2009, a friend and I spent a week in Paris, and sojourned at the Hotel du Commerce in the 5th arrondissement, which I’ll use as our point for comparison.  This hotel offers a fabulous location at a budget price (walk to Notre Dame!  explore Rue du Moffetard!).  While not fancy (the shower was at the foot of the bed, spraying water into the floor, the toilet at the other end of the creaky hall, our room up 5 flights of stairs, like sleeping in Gryffindor Tower, but no fire for the winter cold), it was, and still is, affordable.  In fact, I’d stay here again, and recommend this albergue to a friend!  A stay amounts to around $70 a night for 2 people in a full bed, with a shared toilet, even in 2017.  So, a $70 room cost 59 euro in 2009, and supposedly $5 in 1971.  All indicators point toward booking a flight to Paris, right now, with such a reasonably priced establishments available.

Another option for lodging when traveling in the countryside and through smaller towns is to book a Chambre de Hote or a Gite for a larger party.  Both offer a unique cultural experience, normally breakfast is included at the Chambre de Hote, for an outstanding price / quality ratio.  Outrageous by today’s standards, NG informs young adventurers that youth hostels cost only $1 a night in France, with a three night limit.  This chain of Auberges de Jeunesse in Paris advertises a night in dorm in Montmarte for 19 euros a person.  While 20x the amount quoted in 1971, still doable for the modern day budget conscious voyager.

Other memorable pieces of information from the 1971 Traveler’s Map of France include the advice to travel by bike – “the ultimate in inexpensive travel.  For short excursions, bikes rent for about $1.00 per day.”  No longer true as we rented bikes for 15 euros a day, but thoroughly endorse a day by bike experience.  Our pedal along the Cher River counts as a highlight from our recent trip, and continues to be a popular pastime among the French.

Also enviable was the cost of a “top-flight restaurant meal including wine and service: $20.” Blessedly service is still included (one of our favorite parts about dining out in France – the price listed is really what you pay, no 15-20% tip to be added at the end), but a nice meal out for lunch in Tours with a glass of wine cost between $55 and $70 dollars for 2.  While more expensive than Spain, considering the cost of a three-course meal with alcohol in the US (astronomical!), we thought the price quite fair.

Later this week I plan to post about the sightseeing recommendations provided by NG in 1971, which gave surprisingly similar itinerary suggestions to the one we followed in 2017.  That must mean either NG is forward-thinking, Andrew has an old soul and loves the traditional spots, or else the tourist attractions in France remain largely unchanged.

Do you have any practical information for tourists to France in 2017?  Am I totally wrong about the prices listed above?  Do you have insider’s advice to someone booking accommodations, transportation, or restaurant reservations for an upcoming trip?

Cultural Observations from France

As when visiting any country, one’s experience is improved by observing certain cultural customs.  Below are a few norms (definitely not an exhaustive or authoritative list) to follow that will smooth your path to successful interactions with French people:

  1. Always use the “vous” form (formal “you”) address when speaking with a server, store clerk, grocery check-out worker, and basically anyone you don’t know, but with whom you’d like to have a mutually beneficial interaction. Merci and s’il vous plait don’t hurt either!

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    Town of Amboise
  2. Make sure to greet those working when entering any type of store.  It is not the job of the store clerk to greet you, and it is considered rude not to say “Bonjour!” especially since most places of business are smaller than the ones we frequent in the US.  Ignoring the one person working in the store becomes painfully obvious when the store is a shoe box, so when in doubt, just say hello. Say goodbye too, even if you decided not to purchase anything at the store you visited.

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    Chateau Amboise
  3. You can always window shop if you aren’t in a buying mood.  Lingering outside a store front display is normal in France (and Spain).
  4. Holler “Hello” and “Goodbye” when you enter and leave the host family’s home. This lets everyone know who is where, avoiding any unwanted surprises, and it shows respect for those staying at home as you traipse in and out.
  5. Try to speak French in your daily interactions!  We were pleasantly surprised to find that most everyone would respond to us in French, and were willing to let us practice, even if we made gargantuan blunders.  It could be that Tours is a small town with more limited tourism, so English isn’t quite as widespread as it might be in Paris or another large city.  And, if someone does switch to English, that’s okay too!  People are generally flattered if you notice their English, and comment on how well they speak.  This is another way to open the door to a friendly exchange.  I used to feel insulted that someone would switch on me to English (it happens all the time in Germany!), but now I realize it isn’t generally done in arrogance, rather for the sake of efficiency, or because they’d like to try out their language skills.  I’d rather have a positive interaction than feel slighted, too, and the power to make a conversation uplifting ultimately depends on me. IMG_3017.JPG
  6. Cars have the right of way in France!  We’d been surprised by how fast cars sped by the zebra crosswalks in downtown Tours, and kept commenting to each other on how drivers weren’t nearly as thoughtful of pedestrians as in Spain or Germany.  Well, turns out, they don’t have to be!  I’m sure we made quite a few French motorists upset by barreling out onto the crosswalk without a second consideration!  After asking our host “mére” what the protocol was, we understood the uncomfortable feeling we’d had, even if we didn’t agree with the law.  We began to stop at the curb before each crosswalk, waiting patiently for oncoming vehicles to pass.  Though some drivers didn’t slow down, just as many stopped out of courtesy for the pedestrian.
  7. Dressing “chic” is appreciated, but not a prerequisite to success.  While packing I panicked!  How could I dress as effortlessly as the French?  How could I keep my blackheads to a minimum when I was sharing a bathroom with Andrew and another German student from the school?  What was I going to do with my hair without access to my beloved heat wands to curl, straighten and flatten? (Just fyi, the converter that ConAir markets that will “regulate” the voltage for your hair tools doesn’t stand up to a flat iron that heats to 450 degrees Fahrenheit or your Dyson hair dryer – thank me later for saving your preciously expensive styling machines). Turns out, in Tours at least, people aren’t as “chic” as I expected.  Hair stands up in the wrong places, a natural wave is expected, and as for clothing, anything goes.  There really was no defined dress code.  I way over-packed in fear that I’d have to have a solid rotation of clothes to keep up, but in reality, I could have packed much more reasonably.  Not that I minded having lots of options, since half the battle of a good attitude in the morning can be feeling good about how you look.

These are a few insights we picked up on while in France!  Anything important you’ve noticed while traveling abroad that would improve our interactions in the wide world for the future?  Anything you think we should add to this list?

Thoughts on CLÉ Language School

Monday through Friday during our trip to France, we attended French language school. After multiple positive experiences with language schools in Europe: Treffpunkt Bamberg, Germany (different directors now, sadly), Hispano Continental in Salamanca, Spain, Estudio Sampere, Salamanca Spain, and Portuguese Connection, Lisbon, Portugal, Andrew and I both know that we enjoy attending language school as part of traveling and vacation.  We decided that studying French and staying with a host family while in France would enrich our experience, teach us about culture and language, provide a group of people to practice our language skills with that have similar goals and interests, and give us a home base for exploring the Loire Valley Region.  CLÉ Language School in Tours did not disappoint.

Each morning, after eating a breakfast of toast and jam, Andrew and I set off on a 15 minute walk to the language school, located in the center of old-town Tours, for our classes that began at 9:00 am.  Until 12:15 each weekday, we participated in intensive language courses.  Andrew placed into a more advanced B2 course, while I “parleyed” with the beginners in an A2 class.  On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the school offered afternoon workshops for all students that was included in the price of tuition.  I learned how to talk about my daily routine, practiced oral comprehension of numbers, listened to songs in French, drilled pronunciation (I still need a lot of work), and learned how to order like a French person at a bar or café.  My favorite “atelier” though, was the wine tasting course, in which we learned about the wine regions of France, and how to properly taste wine, followed by a practical application of our learning: a wine tasting session of two different white wines of the region.

Some advantages and highlights of studying at Clé:

  1. The school and teachers were serious about language learning!  French people do not take the proper instruction and study of their language lightly.  We received homework almost every evening, and teachers reiterated the need to study!  Every Monday, students were given a test to assess whether they understood the concepts covered the week before.
  2. The library at Clé is immense and filled with resources for students who are serious about taking advantage of their time to expand their French knowledge. Andrew loved taking home the French magazine, Bien-dire, written for second language learners, and I was able to fill some gaps in my understanding with a comprehensive verb-conjugating manual.  Andrew snagged old copies of GEO and National Geographic in French to peruse at home.  Clé also owned a vast collection of French movies, which students could check out to view at their host homes.
  3. The afternoon workshops were creative, oftentimes based on student suggestions for what they’d be interested in learning or improving, and allowed students to work with different teachers, which is always refreshing.  Although I don’t love pronunciation workshops, I did see the value in each different aspect of language learning that the 1.5 hour sessions highlighted.
  4. Geographical location:  Located in the heart of the Loire Valley, Tours is the perfect place to base if one wants to visit impressive chateaux.
  5. Host family:  We experienced a wonderful host family, and had the impression that Clé worked hard to match students with caring families.  We ate delicious meals, profited from the time spent over dinner with our family to improve our language skills, and liked that a bottle of rosé showed up at many meals.

Since we have spent time studying at other schools, we felt a few areas were lacking in what Clé had to offer:

  1. Afternoon and weekend activities:  Canoeing on the Cher River under the Chenonceau castle was a number one highlight of the trip, and Clé organized this experience for us.  Unfortunately, it was the only guided excursion we participated in while at Clé.  In Spain and Germany, we loved going with a group and teacher from the school on the weekend to explore the region.  These type of excursions provide an insider’s view of a landmark, and more language immersion.  I would have loved to see afternoon movie screenings at the school, a guided tour of the impressive cathedral, a visit to a winery, or an organized meeting at the local watering hole offered for students.  It seemed like the director of the school was directly responsible for all the afternoon and evening activities, and it could have been too much a burden for one person.  French people take their weekends just as seriously as they do their language, so it might have been that asking teachers to work on weekends was simply impossible for the school.
  2. We missed having students from more varied backgrounds studying together with us!  Clé attracted Americans, Swiss, and British students.  We wondered where the Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, and Asian students were?  A variety of cultures and perspectives always enriches the experience, and gives people more motivation to practice French – it becomes the common language!
  3. Cost:  This was the most expensive school Andrew found as he searched for places to study in France.  It could be why we didn’t have quite the cultural melange we hoped for.  We decided on Clé since it was located in a small, safe town, in a region we’d been wishing we could explore, and because the internet reviews are overwhelmingly and astoundingly positive (all deserved).  I am definitely glad we chose Clé, and now feel like I know the region well, but we did hesitate based on price initially.  The afternoon workshops do help to justify the price, I should add.

We took full advantage of our time in France and at Clé, and are absolutely satisfied with our choice of language school.  I am already plotting which French school we’ll attend next and in which region, so we can up our levels of French proficiency, and get to know another part of a country we love to visit.

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Andrew with his class at Clé

Bike Ride to Villandry

One of our favorite days in France we biked 36 km to visit the chateau of a neighboring town, Villandry.  We set off around 11:30 am, after seeing the small Fine Arts museum in Tours.  While the art wasn’t really worth the admission price, a visit to the museum gardens rewards one with the chance to behold a giant Cedar of Lebanon.  Just knowing that Biblical authors were in awe of this tree was enough to spark my interest.  The feeling of astonishment I had when I saw the 200-year old mammoth arbor didn’t compare with the curiosity I felt beforehand.  Never pass up a chance to see such natural beauty.

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Fine Arts Museum, Tours.  The cedar is just to the left… I guess Andrew didn’t get a picture of the tree itself?

After speeding through the art museum, gaping once more at the tree, and renting our bikes for the day, we pedaled south of Tours, over the Cher River, past the municipal pool, and into the sprawling park along the banks of the river.  Even though the wind blew directly in our faces, and the biking turned out to be more difficult than we bargained for (wrinkly faces and gray hair sped past us easily), we loved the exhilaration of physical activity, and the ability to see the pristine countryside.

Once in the tiny town of Villandry, we refueled with sandwiches and ice cream, then entered the castle grounds.  Chateau Villandry is really renown for its gardens.  The acres of traditional French gardens surrounding the castle are what visitors come to see.  Reflection pools, rows and rows of lime trees, a hedge maze, and a potage garden all await those who stroll through the greenery.

 

On the way back to Tours, we stopped in a little town along the river for a break.  In a green field underneath shade trees, two locals had set up a refreshment cabin, selling drinks, crepes, and waffles.  We sat together under the shade, drank apple cider, read our books, and watched the people out enjoying their Sunday afternoon.  Seeing families and friends together outside, relaxing together on a Sunday, playing cards, swimming, biking, makes me appreciate how important it is to take a rest day at least once a week. It seems that much easier in places like France, where almost all shops are closed on Sundays, so that people aren’t tempted to go on with their daily chores and shopping.

Reflecting on the trip with Andrew, we both agreed that our day biking in the fresh air was one of the highlights of the trip for us.

Visite a la fabrique de Cointreau

I wrote a post in FRENCH for the blog that the language school runs.  I am posting the translation here, but you can hop over to the CLE blog to see the original!

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We love the Chateaux of the Loire region, but we are interested in the wine and spirits the region offers as well.  So, when we discovered that the Cointreau factory isn’t far from Tours, I absolutely wanted to visit. I like making a margarita on the weekend, and learning about new cocktail preparations.  And, since Cointreau, an orange liqueur and the original triple sec, is so expensive at home, we’ve never even purchased a bottle, even though every cocktail recipe that requires triple sec suggests Cointreau as the highest quality option.  So I thought an afternoon at the factory would prove to be interesting.

For the excursion, we rented a car, since we wanted to see different parts of the region that are difficult to access without one.  After a visit to the town of Angers, we took the car to the outskirts of town where the Cointreau factory is located.  I made a reservation by telephone (all in FRENCH!) before arriving, since it is obligatory to have a reservation in order to complete the 10 euro tour and tasting.

The guide explained the ingredients in Cointreau to us:  three different types of dried orange peel, neutral alcohol made with beet sugar, and water.  The whole factory smelled like fresh, sweet orange.

After the visit, that we completed in FRENCH!, we enjoyed a tasting of three different types of Cointreau.  First, we tried a long drink cocktail called the “Cointreau Fizz,” that was made with Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and sparkling water.  Not as good as a margarita, but also less potent, and refreshing for a hot day.  Next, we tried a few sips of Cointreau Blood Orange, and Cointreau Noir.  If you like cocktails, and want to experience a unique visit to the region, I recommend the Cointreau factory.  And, the best part, you can buy a bottle of Cointreau for about half the price of a bottle in the US.

Azay le Rideau

For Andrew’s birthday last week, we decided to make the most of our afternoon after class.  First, we ate a formule of gallettes and crepes for lunch, washed down with apple cider from the Brittany region of France.  If you ever visit Tours, we can highly recommend lunch at Le Timbre Post.  Featuring a neat small space adorned with memorabilia through the decades from the Poste (mail delivery system) in France, and staffed by two efficient men: a server, and a chef, the restaurant serves lacy buckwheat crepes stuffed with ham, emmentaler cheese, mushrooms, and sunny side up eggs.  The dessert crepes are simple and delicious: sea salt caramel, 72% dark chocolate, or butter and sugar.

After lunch, we took the local train to visit Azay Le Rideau chateau.  We didn’t realize that the chateau was a 2km walk from the train station, but that worked in our favor, as we walked off a little of our lunch, and revived after dozing sleepily in the sun on the ride over.

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While we didn’t have any expectations for the chateau, it has ended up being one of our favorites!  A “reasonable” size mansion, surrounded by a gurgling stream and an English garden, provided the perfect afternoon to celebrate a birthday.  I especially loved the chaise longue chairs in front of the chateau.  While the grounds of other castles in the region feel distinctly off limits since they are so carefully manicured, this property invited guests to rest a while, enjoy the view, read a book, and disconnect in a way that set it apart from some of our other visits.