Monday, January 12, 2004

A Little Bit of Ireland In...France's Chateaux Region??

So it's pretty common to find Irish Pubs in odd places. Afterall, the lore of Irish beer and drinking makes it an easy theme to choose for a pub. Of course, finding one in the middle of Tours, France is something I never thought I'd write about.

Tours is the traditional starting point for any sightseeing of France's famed chateaux. It's at the heart of the Loire Valley, which is where most of the most famous palaces are. It's also very close to the Loire River. We got in rather late to Tours due to a little trouble getting our rental car in Paris and some extra sightseeing in Orleans (from Joan of Arc fame). So after checking into an Etap Hotel for the first time (read about the hotel chain in a previous post) and driving through Tours for a bit, we decided to eat at the first decent place we could find that was still open (keep in mind it was Christmas Night). We ended up at an Irish Pub/Restaurant. The food (all French) was all right and the beer wasn't really Irish. There were more Belgian brews and not a single Irish one on tap! Nevertheless I braved Guinness from a non-draught bottle (not BRILLIANT!) as well as a pretty decent Beligan wheat brew. I'll go on at length about Guinness when I write about our London happenings. For right now, I'll just mention that the drop off between an EXTRA-cold Guinness draught and a non-draught bottle of the same is litterly stunning. I'm telling you, even the Raydahz didn't have such a steep drop off this season.

What topped the night off though was that the place was playing the latest U2 live DVD and had it pumping on TVs and speakers all over. What's more, the proprieters were really into the DVD and were grooving to it as much as we were. So even though the food and drink weren't Irish, at least their heart was in the right place.

With that we headed back to our first night at an Etap Hotel with visions of Bono over dinner and palacial estates over the next day.

The Chateaux are truly amazing. Even in the overcast, windy, and generally dreary conditions in which we saw them, they were still quite a feast for the eyes. Granted, nothing we saw was as awe-inspiring as walking through the entrance to the grouds of the Taj Mahal. But the intricacy of work, the meticulously cared-for gardens, and the sense of history in the buildings was worth the journey to France. I can only imagine how impressive the chateaux are in better weather. The only consolation we had during our viewing was that the grounds were fairly empty. Going during peak tourist season must be a madhouse. We only had the chance to see three estates: Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, and Chambord. Villandry was quaint yet impressive since it was filled with replica furniture and the gardens were beautiful (in the winter no less!). I think Villandry was my fave since it's kept in good condition and the stream they had going through the gardens was really novel. Azay-le-Rideau is one of those fairy-tale type castles which you could imagine in a bedtime story. It's pretty small, yet with the moat around it, quite beautiful. The ground were open, but the inside was not, so we did a quick walk around the grounds and headed off. Chambord was just immense and freezing cold since it lacked any furniture or decoration inside - the stone architechture made the cold all the worse.

In any case, driving through all the side roads and little towns along the way made the trip all the more unique. Renting a car to drive around was definitely worth the trouble. If you're ever visiting Paris and have a couple of days, Tours is only a 2-3 hrs drive away and the chateaux are all over. It's definitely a unique weekend journey if you have the time, especially if you've seen most of the touristy Paris sites.

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