Sunday, 23 May 2010

Loire Valley

Last weekend we headed up to the Loire Valley, south of Paris in France. From Nyon this is quite a long trip and we only arrived in Orleans in the evening.

This meant we headed practically straight out from our hotel to find some dinner, which we intended to be something relatively cheap and quick but which ended up being a large and heavy dinner of Loire cuisine that seemed to keep us feeling over-full for the remainder of the weekend.

At one point I picked up a Loire cookbook in a tourist shop and read the nutritionist advice in the front cover - it recommended that the meat, butter, and cream-heavy food was not a healthy diet for normal people.

The next day we headed out to see some castles - the Loire valley being rich in castles as it is with its food.

We started with Chambord, which is a dangerous way to start a weekend of castle-watching because it may well be the most impressive of the whole area. In fact it did not start life as a castle but was actually built as a hunting lodge. The castle is surrounded by forest that was bright green at this time of year.

After a "snack" of fresh bread with goats cheese and foie de cerf we moved on to Blois, which is a town with another impressive castle, although this one is built in the town and evolved over many centuries making it an architectural mixed bag.

The next day we started at Chaumont, with a fairytale castle and some pretty gardens that looked over the Loire valley.

Then we moved on to Chenonceau, an amazing castle built out over the river and surrounded by forest. We had lunch there and took an audio tour, learning the interesting history of the castle and the people who lived within it.

We finished up at Tours, one of the major cities of the region, which has a well preserved old town where we had dinner at a creperie in the main square - finishing with sweet crepes served with Chantilly cream.

On our last day we wandered around Orleans, visiting the rebuild house of Jean of Arc, before moving on back in the direction of Switzerland.

We stopped at one more castle at Sully-sur-Loire, which we'd saved for the last day because it was roughly on the way home, and found we were really lucky with our timing because there was also a medieval faire being held.

It was fascinating seeing all these people dressed up in period costumes and living out of tents of the age, even if there was some strange sights, like "American Indians" and WWII soldiers mixing with medieval knights. Everyone seemed to be having fun and getting along just fine regardless!

The castle itself was also quite interesting and we took ourselves on a tour around it but soon we were feeling the pressure of time to finish the drive back to Switzerland.

In the end we got back home with no troubles, having not really encountered any problems or traffic, but we were happy to have given ourselves time to recover after quite an exhausting and busy trip!

Friday, 7 May 2010

Amsterdam & Keukenhof

Last weekend Linda and I did a somewhat last-minute job of organising a trip to the Netherlands to see the Tulips that we missed out on seeing last year, having arrived about a week after the end of the season.

This time we made sure to visit a good couple of weeks before the end of the season but managed a different oversight this time - we would be arriving in the evening of Queens Day; one of the major events on the Amsterdam calendar.

This meant we arrived on the tail end of some pretty chaotic scenes on the public transport and on the streets for our walk to the apartment where we would be staying. Fortunately the apartment (which Linda found after much searching) was excellent, with a canal view and an excellent coffee shop just around the corner.

The next morning also felt somewhat as though the whole city was suffering from a hangover.

Since we'd been to Amsterdam before we didn't feel much pressure to see everything, and the weather on Saturday was nice and sunny for the most part, so we happily wandered around the city visiting museums and shops and generally just enjoying the town.

The next day we headed out to the Keukenhof gardens, the largest bulb flower park in the world.

This didn't get off to a great start because we thought renting a car would simplify things by letting us keep our bags in the car while we explored (instead of finding a baggage locker at the airport, which is what caused us problems in Sweden). However the car rental was a bit of a mess and we spent what seemed like an age arguing with the rental company at the airport before we were finally able to get on with our day.

After this it was all fine, except for the weather which was rainy.

We drove around the country-side taking photos of the fields of tulips and hoping that the rain would clear a bit before entering the park itself.

An interesting fact about the tulips - it's not the flowers that earn the money for the farmers, but the bulbs. They wait for the flowers to bloom only because this puts the bulbs in the right condition to be sold.

After a while we gave up on the weather and just went ahead into the park.

It really is an incredible place to visit, with miles of winding paths through plots of flowers of many varieties. I liked to imagine that the rain and overcast conditions simply meant that the light was good for photographing the flowers (although in reality I was frightened of ruining my camera and our lenses kept getting covered in raindrops).

We spent our time walking in the park and ducking into shops and indoor displays to dry off.

After some hours in the gardens, we felt like we'd really seen everything we had aimed to see by coming back to the Netherlands. Which is not to say we wouldn't like to come back again, since it's a country we really enjoy visiting and I still have "riding a bike in holland" on my list of things to do!