Today, the motorcoach’s engine was revving at 8:30 a.m., and with all seated comfortably, we pulled away from Loire Princesse to begin a full-day excursion to visit some of the most beautiful châteaux in the Loire region. Unlike the other excursions on our cruise, which ranged from €37 per person to €71 per person, the Châteaux of the Loire Valley excursion was included for all guests sailing on Loire Princesse.
Of course, the cost of excursions can add up. If a couple did all the excursions on our Loire itinerary, they would pay an additional €353 each. Still, even with all excursions added to the cruise fare, CroisiEurope comes out to be the price-leader, and not just because Loire Princesse is the only game in town when it comes to cruising the Loire. There are a few eight-day sailings remaining this year with rates priced at less than US$2,500 per person, sans excursions.
The cost of excursions becomes irrelevant in 2016, as CroisiEurope will include shore excursions. Rates for next year’s eight-day Loire Princesse sailings begin at US$2,979 per person, with all shore excursions included as well as WiFi, wine, beer, spirits, speciality coffees, bottle water and soft drinks — and more.
As for our day visiting the palaces, the pictures say it all. I do have a few comments to add, however.
The first comment is that the châteaux felt familiar. And in fact, they were.
In Asheville, North Carolina, we have a 250-room château on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate. The estate, with its big mansion, is one of my favorite places in the world. Nestled against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House was inspired by Château de Blois, according to the web site North Carolina History.
The inspiration is clear not only to me but also to at least one Loire local. During lunch, I pulled up a picture of the Biltmore House on my iPhone and asked our guide if he knew where it was. He studied it and said, “That’s the next château we’re seeing.” The next château we would visit was, in fact, Châteaux de Villandry, but indeed there was a resemblance between it and Biltmore House, even if the two were an ocean apart.
Whereas Western North Carolina can claim only a single château, the Loire Valley is littered with these magnificent mansions. We would see three today. There are few other places in the world where you can see so many palaces in such a concentrated area.
Our first stop was at Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, built on a small island in the middle of the Indre River. The château is undergoing renovation and restoration, and unfortunately, most of the exterior was obscured by scaffolding during our visit.
If you’re planning a later visit, the restoration project is scheduled to be completed in 2017. The intent is to restore the French National Monument to the grandeur it reflected under the ownership of Gilles Berthelot, a wealthy financier who wanted to incorporate its medieval past alongside the latest architectural styles of the Italian renaissance. Even with the scaffolding and work going on, the château was beautiful, and its interior and gardens were gorgeous on the day we were there.
After our visit to Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, we headed to Villandry, a village with an impressive palace. Lunch was included as part of the excursion. In a cozy restaurant, French bread was passed around, glasses were filled with local wines, and we enjoyed a starter, main course (chicken with a rich sauce) and dessert (apple tart).
After lunch, we visited the gardens of the Château de Villandry. The gardens weren’t in full bloom but beautiful nonetheless.
How did all of these palaces come to exist on the Loire? Until about the middle of the 16th century, the Loire had been the center of power for France, when many of the châteaux were built. Then King Francois I shifted power back to Paris. The great architects followed along. In the middle of the 17th century, King Louis XIV built what was arguably the greatest of all châteaux, the Palace of Versailles. At the same time, the wealthy bourgeoisie continued to renovate existing palaces in the Loire region and build new ones as their summer residences. The Loire, with its rollings hills and vineyards, and its beautiful river, were where many among the French royalty preferred to spend their time.
The last château that we visited had a history that inspired something entirely different from the rest: Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
Indeed, the fortified towers of Château d’Ussé reminded me of the Disney animation, and along with two friends I made on Loire Princesse, I climbed to the top of one of the towers to see the room where Sleeping Beauty was awakened by a kiss from her handsome prince, at least in the Disney version of the story.
As we made our way back to Ancenis, I could help but think that we had experienced a day when fairy tales took on a degree of plausibility. We had visited three gorgeous châteaux in the Loire region, each a little different from the other. I left thinking I was glad that monuments like this were being cared for. They inspire the imagination as much now as they did back in the day of Charles Perrault.
It was a beautiful evening when we arrived at Loire Princesse. We quickly boarded, and our ship pushed away from the dock to begin its gentle journey downstream. By 10:30 p.m., we would be back in Nantes. Between now and then, however, I had plenty of time to breathe in the fresh air of the Loire and to admire the textured light holding the river and its landscape in its embrace. It was a day and an evening that I will never forget.