Five days in France sounded like a perfect way to enjoy our April getaway to me. Damon decided to plan a vacation around Paris-Roubaix, the "Hell of the North," one of the most famous, grueling cycling races in the world.
We started off in the Loire Valley (direct flights on Ryanair from Shannon to Nantes) and drove over to the coast of France to an island called Noirmoutier-en-I'lle, which was interesting, but in hindsight, too far of a drive in the opposite direction of where we were heading. We then drove back east for a tour and tasting at Coulée de la Serrant in the Savennières region of France’s Loire Valley, owned by the famous biodynamic winemaker Nicolas Joly. We then drove to Angers and walked around the city, before continuing east to our B&B in Rochecorbon, near Vouvray. Finding the B&B proved difficult. The GPS coordinates provided on their web site were off a bit. Damon backed into a wall on a skinny street before we finally gave up, started walking, then re-set the GPS and found the B&B ourselves. (The stratch wasn't nearly as bad as we thought it would be -- our first travel problem since Rome in 2005!) We enjoyed a traditional French dinner in Vouvray that night. It was lovely staying at Les Hautes Gatinieres, which is simply Jacqueline & Andre's home with separate bedrooms upstairs for the guests. Jacqueline takes impeccable care of her home; we loved the hospitality and breakfast served in their dining room each morning while their poodle played near our feet.
We spent a full day touring as many Loire Valley chateaux as possible -- because that's one of the main reasons to visit the Loire. We toured the gardens of Chateau Villandry first, a chateau highly recommended by our B&B host due to its sprawling gardens.
Chateau Villandry Photos:
Then we made a quick stop at Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau. Then we drove east to the glorious Chateau de Chenonceau, not to be missed on any trip to the Loire. The Loire River runs under the chateau, and gardens on each side of the wide entrance to the chateau (one side designed by the king's mistress, the other side later designed by his wife, the queen, when she took the chateau back from the mistress when he died. (I didn't realize until we arrived that my best friend from high school, Meredith, and I had toured this chateau our senior year on our language class's French trip.)
Chateau de Chenonceau Photos:
After a walk through Amboise to look at its chateau and taste some local wines and cheeses, we grabbed a French sandwich and continued on to see Chateau de Chaumont. We hiked up the hill, over a crazy bridge, to find the draw-bridge entrance to the chateau. Then we hopped back into the rental car (did I mention that they gave us an Opel? The same car we have here, which Damon detests) and drove through Blois, past its chateau onto the behemothly famous Chateau de Chambord, which I remembered visiting on my senior trip.
Other Loire Chateaux Photos:
We finished our day, as planned at Chateau de Cheverny to watch the daily 5 p.m. feeding of the hunting dogs (probably 70 of them in all). You can watch a video of the dogs at feeding time here. Then we toured the Cheverny gardens and chateau, known for its collection of furnishings.
Chateau Cheverny Photos:
We left the Loire for Roubaix, several hours north, in the early morning. We stopped off at the Palace of Versailles, which we'd missed during our November trip to Paris. We stood in line for more than an hour to get in, and learned a lot from our trip that I used in booking a Versailles visit for myself and Mom during her upcoming visit.
Palace of Versailles Photos:
As we drove north to Roubaix, which is close to the Belgian border, I thumbed through our travel book and discovered that we'd be driving through the Somme, the area where the World War I "Battle of the Somme" took place. We read about all the cemeteries that dot the landscape, overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (and noted by the green signs). We saw a tiny green sign amid fields of mustard and decided to take a look. We hiked back in (the road was too muddy) to take some pictures of this cemetery, and Damon found -- of all things -- a World War I Mills Bomb stuffed into an old military shell casing. (I later decided to ship it back through the post office from France versus having him try to get it through airport security!) We also visited a few of the many monuments (such as Thiepval Memorial and the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial, the latter of which we walked through). Beaumont-Hamel is known for its trenches, well-preserved since the ending of the war in 1918.
The industrial town of Roubaix was quite sleepy, despite the race. We walked down the street where the cyclists would be riding through that afternoon and took pictures of all the stones engraved with the previous winners' names. Then we drove out into the countryside to find one of the stages with cobblestones, where we could watch Sunday's race. Finding a place to buy food on a Sunday in France is always difficult, though. We hunted for a bakery and bought their last loaf of bread. We also found a rotisserie set up in the parking lot of a church and bought chicken breasts and new potatoes, which we ate in the car -- tailgating tourist-style, I suppose. It was a lot of fun. We even bought beers from a guy selling them from his front yard, trying to make a little extra dough off the race watchers.
Stage 5 (where we watched the race) was quite a scene. The tailgate parties would have made American football diehards jealous. One company even partnered with Jupiler beer and brought in two bars and a huge mobile stage with a DJ. We sat at a roadside bar across from the Jupiler party, drank beers and enjoyed the people-watching.
There were two races that day. We didn't realize this at first. The first wave of cyclists rolled through more than an hour before Damon had expected. We didn't recognize any of the riders either. Then we realized it was a juniors' race before the big one. Watching the caravan of sponsors rattle down the cobblestones before the pro cyclists charged through was pretty cool. We also got to see one of the giant French puppets (Les Géants du Nord), not sure what to call these guys. Here's a video link to see them. They are 20-feet tall characters, hollow inside, and people get inside of them to move them along the road, I guess. (I think it takes 8 people to move a Géant.) Each Géant represents a historical figure in Northern France history. There were Géants at every stage along Paris-Roubaix. We got to see Theodoric, who happens to have his own blog, in French, of course.
Damon photographed all the top cyclists while they sped by, and I filmed the race with my videocamera. You could reach out and touch the cyclists, they are so close. It was insane; a real rush. Most of the cyclists were dusty (not muddy) because it didn't rain that day. Many years, it rains on race day, and the cyclists come through on the cobblestones caked in mudd. We did see some bloody elbows, knees and foreheads, which Damon caught on camera. You can watch a very cool photo album of Damon's Paris-Roubaix work by clicking here.
We then drove over into Belgium -- just so we could say we'd done it -- before returning to Roubaix. We went down to the Velodrome in Roubaix to see if any activity was still happening post race, but the vendors were already tearing down. We took some pictures of the track, them bought a few souvenirs for friends back home. Sadly, they don't sell Paris-Roubaix tee shirts or any logoed souvenirs, which was quiet surprising to us. Definitely a business opportunity for someone.
World War II Memorials and Paris-Roubaix Photos:
We spent our last day together in Champagne, a few hours south of Roubaix. We visited a few wineries and had lunch in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger before checking into our hotel in Reims, the largest city in Champagne. That afternoon, we toured the Cathedral of Reims, which was damaged badly in World War I. It was amazing to see all of the damage on this sacred, Gothic structure. We strolled through the streets of Reims before having an Italian dinner -- pizza and Chianti -- for our last night in France together. (It's not that we don't like French food; it's just that the French don't do casual nearly as well as the Italians.) If you want to have dinner in France in blue jeans and tee shirts for under 15€, chances are that you will find yourself eating pizza (if you can't find a French sandwich shop open).