Some recommendations from friends are GOLDEN: Train operators are prone to go on strike in the Loire Valley, so Cindy recommended we rent cars and settle on a fixed home base to avoid train snafus and to assure the best castle-hopping experience.
After lengthy research, we and three other couples headed by train from Paris to Tours to rent a car. Here are a few things we learned along the way:
Rent your car in Paris, not Tours. Ideally, rent your car at Gare De Lyon on the outskirts of Paris. From here, you can keep city driving to a minimum and even squeeze in a castle near Paris on your drive to the Loire. Bonus: You don’t have to switch train stations in Paris. We learned this the hard way, having nearly missed a train at Gare du Nord after arriving across town at Gare Montparnasse just forty minutes earlier.
Only Castle Hop. Don’t Accommodation Hop. Part of the beauty of the car rental is it eliminates the need to constantly move from one château town to the next when visiting. The time you gain and frustration you avoid make for a more enjoyable, leisurely experience. Bonus: You’ll have time to visit a wine cave or two. I highly recommend a tour and tasting at Brédif near Vouvray. Reservations required.
Looking for the perfect hub? Consider Amboise. Since you are going to stay several nights in one location, choose your town and lodgings carefully. Amboise offers a relatively central location with day drives to the chateâux of Villandry, Chenonceau, Cheverny and Chambord. Approaching by car, you’re greeted by a breathtaking view of the Renaissance castle, Amboise Chateâu Royal, across the winding Loire River. Take a day off from behind the wheel to explore. Learn how Leonardo da Vinci impacted this historic town and is buried in Saint-Hubert’s Chapel. Bonus: Dine at the foot of the beautifully lit castle. There’s often a strolling accordion player to add to the romance and a large selection of charming restaurants and cafes which offer Touraine wines and locally sourced specialties.
Book Early! Our group valued an intimate cultural experience with a local host/hostess versus a hotel or gîte (the French equivalent of an Airbnb). By the time we began exploring bed and breakfast options, most Amboise-area B & Bs with four separate bedrooms were already booked up. By going a tad above the agreed-upon group price range, my husband landed rooms in a beautiful 18-century mansion, Le Vieux Manoir. A five-minute walk from Amboise Castle center, it gave our group the ability to explore car-free. The hostess/owner Gloria Belknap fell in love with the charm of Amboise and purchased the Manor in 1998. She has a wealth of local lore to share. Bonus: Breakfast in lovely atrium room with local fare including figs from Gloria’s garden.
The largest chateâux in the Loire Valley, Chateâu de Chambord was built as a hunting lodge for Francis I. It is speculated that Leonardo da Vinci (under the patronage of Francis I) may have designed the centerpiece, a massive double-helix staircase.