THE FIVE BEST DAY-TRIPS FROM PARIS – EXCURSION 1: THE LOIRE VALLEY
Explore easily accessible out-of-town wonders, all while having both morning-time café crème and a warm brandy nightcap at your hotel in the city.
Amboise – Château de Chaumont – Blois
When it comes to things to see and do, Paris really packs a punch. You could come back a dozen times and still leave feeling as though you’d just scratched the surface. Though you might feel like you’re cheating on her by going out of town, Paris won’t mind at all if you venture out beyond the Périphérique – the capital’s multi-lane ring road – to meander further afield for a provincial pause. And the City of Lights will still be there for you to embrace when you return to her that same evening.
Each of the places we’ve selected can certainly be reached by car, if you prefer the freedom of renting a vehicle and getting around on your own. For many of the places on our list, there are shuttle bus options as well. But we’ve made a specific point of identifying spots that are also well connected by France’s excellent and affordable network of trains.
Today we’re off to the lush Loire Valley. All aboard!
One could easily spend a week in the lavish land between the Loire and Cher rivers, hopping from château to château. The French kings in the Renaissance would spend months at a time in their rural royal residences, with some choosing to establish their courts in them. With just a day to work with, less is definitely more. Rather than loading onto a bus with eager day-trippers whose principal purpose is to “do” as many castles as possible in 8 hours, we suggest a calmer pace and a less volume-based approach. This will enormously enhance your enjoyment of what you see and do, ensuring that you will actually remember it. We’ve selected sites that are all on the same train line, leaving from the Gare d’Austerlitz train station in central Paris. In addition, each of the sites is either reachable by foot from the local station or is conveniently connected by regular shuttle service.
Service from Paris to Amboise during the week begins just after 10:00, on Sundays at about 12:25, but on Saturdays you can get started by 8:30, and that’s what we suggest. About an hour out from Paris, you’ll change trains at Orléans. Ten minutes later your new train will depart for an hour’s journey to Amboise. This small town of some 13,000 souls is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
Have a proper lunch in one of Amboise’s excellent restaurants, sampling some of the local goat cheese, rillettes and rillons, finishing perhaps with a nougat, a cake made of pie crust and stuffed with mashed fruits or marmalade and almonds. A little stroll through town will bring you over to visit the royal manor of Clos-Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci lived for the final three years of his life, by personal invitation of King Francis I. Here there is an air of the elegant passage from the 15th to the 16th century, from the glorious Gothic to the refined Renaissance.
You can see where the great Italian master is laid to rest in the gardens of the majestic Château d’Amboise, perched on a high promontory, keeping watch over the city. In the castle itself, you explore one of the preferred residences of the kings of France for hundreds of years. From the council hall to king’s bedroom, the spectacular period décor whisks you back in time. Be sure to stroll along the ramparts of the castle for an unrivaled view over the Loire Valley and its legendary river.
A ten-minute walk brings you back to the station, where you’ll catch your train – heading back in the direction of Paris – to the fairytale Château de Chaumont. You’ll step off the train at the Onzain-Chaumont-sur-Loire station. There are shuttles that run from the station every hour, for a ten-minute ride to the château. Replacing a 10th-century fortress, the new château – completed in the early 1500s – is an absolute jewel of the French Renaissance, reflecting a time when France was well on its way to becoming the most formidable political, economic, military and cultural power in Europe. As would be the case throughout the 16th century, new châteaux were erected and old fortresses were converted to serve as pleasure palaces in the Loire Valley for France’s monarchs and noble families. In these rural retreats, the grand tradition of the Renaissance Italian garden was developed and enriched, perhaps nowhere more imaginatively than at Chaumont.
The tradition continues today. France’s most prestigious international garden festival has been held on the grounds here since 1992. Talented gardeners from around the globe compete to create what are typically creative contemporary designs, with a different theme chosen each year. The entries remain on display from mid-April to the beginning of November, making it particularly easy to fit into your plans.
The eyewatering beauty of the grounds and gardens and the sheer sumptuousness of the art and architecture are enough to tempt you to stay for the entire day. You may very well give in to this temptation when you realize that this is one of several destinations for thrilling hot air balloon rides. From an angelic angle, high in the sky, you see the laconic Loire gently winding its way through the countryside, threading together the towns and villages, the noble manors and royal castles, that nestle up to its banks.
If, however, you decide to leave that for another time, you’ll return to the station and hop on a train for a 10-minute journey to Blois. Already a bustling little town around a fortress 2000 years ago, the mid-tenth century saw its establishment as the capital of the counts of Blois. The entire county was absorbed into the royal demesne in the late 14th century. When Louis II d’Orléans inherited the throne a century later, he chose to reside in Blois, the city where he had been living for some time. This brought the brightest days of glory and wealth, the evidence of which remains today in the form of resplendent Renaissance art and regal architecture. Today Blois is home to about 47,000 people who live in a city that prides itself on the excellence of its schools of all levels, the warmth of its welcome, its economic activity, and of course its local cuisine.
Perched over the surrounding rooftops is the elegant Château de Blois. Lose yourself in the various rooms of this one-time royal residence, many of which still host furnishings from the various eras of its heyday. Don’t miss the excellent Museum of Fine Art that is housed within the castle walls. Featuring paintings and objets d’art from the 17th to the 19th centuries, the intimate setting includes works by masters such as Ingres, Rubens and Bouchard. The quality of the castle’s collections has established its reputation as one of the best Fine Arts museums in France.
As the day draws to a close, take a little while to sit in a café along one of the squares of the city center or along one of its bustling side streets. Have a pastry and a glass of local wine or a coupe of champagne. You’ve earned it!
On Saturdays, the last trains back to Paris are at about 6:15 and 7:15 in the evening, running until about 9:00 during the week on Sundays. As mentioned above, there are certainly other options for transportation. What we’ve presented here is an easily manageable plan for a pleasant, unhurried trip by train into the heart of France’s Loire Valley. Bon voyage!
Between April and October, and again over the holiday season at the end of the year, you will definitely want to book ahead. Here are links for online reservations.
* To book tickets for the Château d’Amboise: https://www.chateau-amboise.com/en/
* To book tickets for the Château du Clos-Lucé: https://vinci-closluce.com/en/information
* To book tickets for the Château de Chaumont: https://domaine-chaumont.fr/en/home
* To book tickets for shuttle from station to the Château de Chaumont:
* To book a hot air balloon trip: https://www.loire-et-montgolfiere.com/en/flight-destinations-2/
* To book tickets for the Château de Blois: https://en.chateaudeblois.fr/