Normandy and Loire
Normandy and the Loire Valley offer beautiful scenery, a window to significant events in French history and excellent food and wines.
Both are an easy drive from Paris.
Starting from Paris we follow the River Seine to our first delight, Monet's House and Garden at Giverny. Here he spent the last half of his long life creating what many people say was his finest works. As you walk through the cottage, gardens and Japanese water gardens you experience the magic of being in an impressionist painting.
Now we meander further along the Seine Valley to Rouen, another of Normandy's unmissable jewels. The largest Norman city famous for its Half-timbered houses and Gothic trio of the Cathedral, St-Maclou and St Oeun.
One of France's major ports lying alongside the Seine it is steeped in History from Roman to Viking to Dukes of Normandy then the English who put to death Joan of Arc burnt at the stake in the Place du Viex Marche. We arrive with plenty of time to explore the highlights and enjoy dinner at one of several excellent restaurants. Accomodation our recommedations.
We leave the delights of Rouen and head further North to the sea at Fecamp a fishing port better known today for the heady sweet liqueur invented by a monk in 1510 from a secret blend of 27 herbs and spices.
It was little known until rediscovered and relaunched in the amazing neo-gothic Palais Benedictine now Fecamp's star attraction.
Our tour will stop and enjoy a visit plus a special tasting here.
Continuing along the coast we come to Etretat famous for its luminous white cliffs.
A bracing walk up to the western cliffs to enjoy the view that inspired Monet amongst many artists building up an appetite to enjoy some of the many Norman seafood specialities offered by the local restaurants.
Onwards and westwards through Le Havre and crossing the Seine via the magnificent Pont Normandie we arrive at Honfleur, the start of the Norman Riviera, and undoubtedly Normandy's most picture postcard pretty port an an essential stop on any itinerary.
Clustered around its inner harbour are lofty houses with chestnut tiles, the largest wooden church, chique art galleries and classey stores, the Museum of it's most famous son Eugene Boudin the father of Impressionism and a plaque to commemerate Champlain's departure for Quebec 400 years ago. An enchanting place to explore.
Finally to the enchanting old town of Bayeux famous for its Tapestry and ideal location for visiting the D-Day Beaches our base for two nights.
We head out furthest west from Bayeux to explore the American sector starting with the paratroop landing areas leading Utah Beach. A visit to the Airborn museum at St Mere Eglise a town famous for the American paratrooper John Steele who was snagged onto and hung from the church steeple there whilst the battle went on in the square below. Now we work our way back to Omaha Beach and Cemetary by way of Pointe du Hoc where the Second Rangers scaled the 100 foot cliffs to take the German gun positions there. After visiting the cemetary we are back to Bayeux with time to see the famous Tapestry which tells the story of a William the Conqueror's Norman Invasion of England in 1066. Enjoy this delightful Medieval town with plenty of charming restaurants perhaps a creperie and essential to try the local cheese Camembert and apple brandy called Calvados.
Now to the very edge of the Normandy/Brittany border and Mont St Michel a wonder of the Western World. En route a stop at Villedieu-les-Poeles celebrated place in France for the manufacture of copper cooking pots and pans, essential for the professional chef and keen amateur a charming small town with its one shopping street richly adorned with copper.
Now to the Magic Mountain a sight that has inspired pilgrims for centuries and is still an awesome sight to the modern day pilgrim. Here we climb the steps to the top for the wonderful views out over the bay of Mont St Michel and perhaps watch the tide come in at the speed of a galloping horse. Then visit inside this Romanesque and Gothic Abbey built so high above an unseen rock of an Island. Magnificent. Tonight we enjoy it at the best time after the crowds have gone as we stay in a hotel on the Mont itself. Chance tonight to try one of the famous and ludicrously expensive Omelettes chez Mere Poulard.
Heading South to the Loire Valley, a longish drive to our first stop the Chateau of Villandry sometimes called the 'JEWEL' of the Loire for its beautifully restored Renaissance gardens.
After lunch and a visit here onto Amboise where the royal chateau stands majestically overlooking the Loire and a nearby manor house the final abode of Leonardo da Vinci. Visits to both. Here we are perfectly placed in the Touraine region of France famous not only for its Chateaux and once having been the playground of the Kings but also for its wines, cheese and fruits - the garden of France as it is often referred to. Again plenty of restaurants to choose from in this charming town so steeped in history where we stay for two nights.
One is spoilt for choice in the Loire which is dotted with Chateaux like pearls on a necklace and we see three of the best all magnificent in their own way. Starting at Chambord a gloriously obscene show of royal wealth best described as a gigantic bouquet of stones. Most renowned for its chaotic early French Renaissance rooftop of chimneys, lucarnes and lanternes which rise up enchantingly. Chambord is perhaps best appreciated from the exterior but the roof terraces are well worth the visit and its double helix staircase is considered a work of genius.
Now to Blois a royal chateau that towers above the impressive town on the Loire. This Chateau has such a rich history being the residence of many of the Kings and personalities over centuries that it is almost impossible to keep track of, the most infamous at directly involving the Chateau itself was the Murder in the royal chambers of the Duke de Guise. The architecture reflects this long history and nowhere can be seen a better contrast in styles with Gothic, Renaissance and 17th Century wings.
Last but not least the sumptious Chateau and gardens of Chenonceau for many the most beautiful, fairytale like of the Loire Chateaux. Due no doubt to the influence in its conception and evolution of six women most notebly Diane de Poitiers the King's Mistress and Catherine de Medici his wife. Everyting about chenonceau is gloriously beautiful starting from its tree lined approach, to the chateau itself perhaps the most beautiful bridge in France built as it is spanning the river Cher and its surrounding gardens whose colours contrast magically with the butter stone of the Loire. Not to be missed the kitchens built into the riverbank itself.
The road back to Paris with a last stop en route at Chartes Cathedral that Gothic marvel, a book written in stone.
Undoutedly the grandest display of gothic stained glass windows in a town built around it. A visit and lunch here before we end a memorable trip back in Paris.