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?