Paris - Five hundred years ago this fall, Leonardo da Vinci arrived in Amboise, a small town on France's Loire River, bringing with him his three most famous paintings - “Mona Lisa,” “Saint John the Baptist” and “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.”
Invited by France's King Francis I, who spurred the French Renaissance, the 64-year-old Tuscan was put up in the Clos Lucé, a house of pink brick and tufa stone next to the royal Château d'Amboise, where the king named him “first painter, engineer and architect; free to dream, to think and to work.”
For our two-day, one-night Loire Valley sojourn, my sister and I just wanted to be free to travel, to eat and to discover - without complications. But unlike da Vinci, we had no royal invitation and were met with limited options, bad weather and a well-intentioned sense of spontaneity that tended to put us in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully, though, laughter still trumped tears.
Our comedy of (mostly) errors began in Amboise, where da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. Having taken the fast train from Paris to the Loire gateway city of Tours, we drove there in a rental car and headed straight for the chateau, which loomed impressively over the cobblestoned town. We walked up its grand, sloped staircase only to find a weathered, arched door that was locked shut.
“I think I see the words for 'closed' and 'lunch,' “ I said, trying to decipher a sign while holding an umbrella over us both against the unfriendly January weather. “Let's grab something to eat and come back.”
But having moved to the country only two months earlier, I was unfamiliar with its generally strict dining hours. Unless an all-day brasserie can be found, there's a small, three-hour window for the midday meal, and we were nearing the tail end of it. Our choices were further limited because many businesses shut down around Christmas and New Year's. It being the 2nd of January, we encountered one “closed” sign after another.
C'est la France.
Eventually, we found a quaint nook named L'Ancrée des Artistes, where we tucked in among other visitors and local post-holiday stragglers to eat a beefy casserole and a crispy chèvre galette, which is a kind of free-form, often savoury, tart.
After lunch, the chateau did, indeed, reopen. So we paid the entry fee and proceeded to wander in and out of rooms filled with harps, candelabras and tapestries. Originally constructed as a medieval fortress in the late 9th century, the Château d'Amboise was turned over to the monarchy in the 15th century and underwent various reconstructions, but preserved two fairy-tale perfect towers featuring spiral ramps built so horse-drawn carriages could ascend. Inside the elaborately gothic Chapel of Saint-Hubert, with its vaulted ceilings and colourful stained-glass windows, we visited Leonardo's tomb - surrounded by tiles inlaid with fleurs-de-lis and emblazoned only with his name in block letters and a stone plaque with his profile in basrelief.
Next, we were off to the town of Blois, about 22 miles east along the Loire. I'd booked us at La Maison du Carroir, a chambre d'hôte - a French B&B - because we were both easily lured by the charm of a fireplace, it was well priced and, most important, a room was vacant.
We arrived as the sun was setting, which meant there wasn't enough light for this city girl, unaccustomed to maneuvering cars in tight spaces, to confidently park - especially after having refused rental insurance. Fortunately, the B&B owner offered to navigate the wheel, and our Renault remained dent-free. (My ego wasn't as fortunate.)
The place was cozy, so we settled in for a nap and a hot shower rather than tour Blois, which has its own castle dating back to the 13th century. In fact, it's where Saint Joan of Arc was blessed before leaving to fight the English in nearby Orleans. The town is also a 20-minute drive from the Château de Chambord, the largest and one of the most visited castles in the valley, featuring a famous double-helix staircase and Renaissance architecture.
We wouldn't be heading there the following day, though. I hadn't quite grasped the lay of the Loire when we made our plans, so we would be retracing some steps to go to the Château de Chenonceau - home to both Catherine de Medici (King Henry II's wife) and Diane de Poitiers (his mistress) - because it was located back in the direction of Tours, where we had to catch a 5:40pm train to Paris. Despite a good night's rest and a delicious dinner at L'Hote Antique, our visit to Blois ended up seeming rather pointless. In retrospect, taking a train into Tours and out of Blois, or vice versa, might've been wiser.
On the road to Chenonceau, we passed a sign for chèvre and followed it so we could purchase a wheel of the creamy goat cheese. Afterward, we followed another sign for the Caves Champignonnières de Roche - mushroom caves that date back to 1893, which I'd read about before our trip and was delighted to come across.
Just when we thought maybe spontaneity was throwing us a bone, or at least some fun fungi, we learned that we'd missed the guided tour by five minutes and the next one wouldn't start for another two hours.
We couldn't wait that long. Forlorn, we drove away hoping the rain would remain at bay at least for the 15-minute walk from the Chenonceau parking lot to the castle. It didn't. So we made our wet way through the circular maze of yews and into the stunning castle, which elegantly bridges the Cher River. Soaked and shivering, we wandered the rib-vaulted hallways and stood, mouths agape, on the checkered slate floor of the Grand Gallery where Catherine de Medici held fancy parties and spied on nobles. The stately hall features exposed beam ceilings and 18 windows that let us look down at the Cher, which separated German occupied and Vichy France during World War II. Despite the umbrella that continued to photobomb all our outdoor selfies, the Chenonceau visit was definitely a success.
According to Google Maps, we were only about a half hour from the Tours station, and with two hours until our train we decided to seek out a taste of the valley's famous Chenin blanc wines. We'd gotten our directions by typing “Francois Pinon” and “vineyard” into Google on the advice of a friend who said she'd had the best wine of her life from this “small, lovely little vintner.”
“Are you sure we're going the right way?” asked my sister as we zigzagged our way amid curvy green hills around Vouvray, just east of Tours.
I wasn't. But after several three-point turns on narrow, muddy roads, we finally came upon a blink-and-you'll-miss-it wooden barrel, on which “F. Pinon” was painted in white. Voila!
The property looked more like a shire in Middle Earth than an estate offering local vintages, but we walked to the wooden gate surrounded by overgrown bushes and rang the bell. Then we rang it again. Finally, a man with bushy gray hair and matching brows approached. He dubiously welcomed us inside his unheated tasting shack, making sure to mention that visits were “usually by appointment only.” Oops.
Despite some initial awkwardness, our visit with Monsieur Pinon went well; giggling, we attempted to both understand his French descriptions and convince him that our palates were more refined than they are. It ended up being a high note (with its aromas of honey and flowers) in a trip that had included more than a few fails.
Somehow, we still had about 45 minutes before our train would leave, so we sought out a fresh baguette to eat en route along with our cheese. Rolling into the station 20 minutes before our departure time, we hit our final snag: finding a parking spot. We'd been instructed to leave our car in the lot with the keys under the mat, because the rental company was closed on Sundays. But every space was taken. We circled. We stalled. We circled again. We followed people to their cars. As a last-ditch effort I got out (again, in the rain) and approached a car that had been idling in a spot for quite some time, probably awaiting someone's arrival. The woman inside rolled down her window and blinked at me warily while I struggled to come up with the French for “car rental” and “We're going to miss our train!” After a fair amount of back-and-forth in franglais, she agreed to relocate.
Finally, it seemed luck or karma or the spirit of da Vinci was on our side. We made our train home with two minutes to spare.
And so, while our short stint in the Loire was marred with missteps, for every closure we came across there really was an opening around the corner. We'd surely come again - just maybe not in January.
* Lieberman is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Paris.
If you go...
Where to stay
La Maison du Carroir
20 Rue Sainte-Catherine, Blois
The four bedrooms at this B&B blend chic antique wooden furniture with contemporary mosaic-tile bathrooms. Weather depending, the elaborate breakfast spread is either served inside by the fireplace or outside in the garden. Rooms from about $110 (about R1 500).
Where to eat
L'Ancrée des Artistes
35 Rue Nationale, Amboise
Exposed brick and timbered walls give this small spot on Amboise's main strip a fairy-tale vibe. Sweet and savoury crepes and galettes start at $5.
5 Rue du Pont du Gast, Blois
There's a cool warehouse aesthetic to this bi-level restaurant around the block from the Chateau de Blois, with steel beams and an open kitchen where a rotating rotisserie is used to cook suckling pig, a house speciality. Main entrees, such as beef tartare and roast chicken, start at $15.50.
What to do
Royal Chateau d'Amboise
This chateau that towers over the quaint, cobblestoned town of Amboise is home to the famous Chapel of Saint-Hubert, where Leonard da Vinci is buried. Open Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer; hours vary the rest of the year. Adults $12; $8.50 for children.
Château de Chenonceau
Onetime residence of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henry II (and later of Catherine de Medici, his wife), this castle stretches beautifully across the Cher River. Open Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in summer; hours vary the rest of the year. Adults $14; children $11; age 6 and younger free.
Les Caves Champignonnières de Roche
40 Route des Roches, Bourre
Caves created by four centuries of stone quarrying descend some 165 feet underground and cover nearly 75 miles of galleries on seven levels. Since 1893, they have been used to produce mushrooms - these days, about 100 tons a year. Hourly guided tour times vary depending on the season. Open March through November. Adults $11; $8 for children.
55 Rue Jean Jaurès, Vernou-sur-Brenne
With just over 30 acres of land on rocky and clay terroir (with limestone deep underground), this family estate produces sparkling, white and rosé wines.
Visits by appointment only.