First, Google Maps navigation is my best friend. It's actually quite good and it's not usually leading me astray, it's just that sometimes the roads aren't really marked as it thinks they are (ie my Mont experience) or in the middle of a 10 person little town the streets just kinda turn one way or another. The best part about the navigation is that it tells me exactly how to manage the roundabouts. Thank god! My lady who I like to call Donna (don't ask, I just always envisioned her being a Donna) tells me what exit to take so I can just count as I go around. She's very detailed and I like that. I've had a few moments of not quite getting it right and making U turns or just flat out reversing to get back on track. I am definitely one of those people just blindly following the GPS and not even necessarily knowing what direction I'm going - though I will not be like Michael Scott :)
Second, I am having a hard time with gas stations. I may or may not have had to pay like $150 for a tank of gas the other day that was EUR50. I'm still confused. I think I was supposed to take what I thought was the receipt (they called it a ticket) to a booth on the way out and then they'd charge the actual amount, not the authorized amount, on my card. I just drove away because there was nothing clearly directing me or forcing me to the booth. I need to check my credit card statement on this one. When I tried to fill up again today it took me three stations to find one that would take my credit card. I was slightly worried that I wouldn't find one and would have to keep driving up and driving away but I was ultimately right to assume that the one that's more expensive and at the freeway rest stop would work. Though again I was confused on the paying and pumping order. There was no CC reader on the pump so apparently you pump then go inside and pay. Seriously people, this is confusing!
Third, like gas stations, tolls are not my friends. I thought they had such a great and easy way of paying for tolls when I drove out of Paris. They're fricken expensive but very modern in that you can pay by credit card if you don't have the EZ-pass type thing. Well I attempted to do the same on a clearly different type of toll road yesterday and failed. This road is like the PA Turnpike where they charge you based on distance - you get a ticket (hence me thinking my gas station issued ticket I should have done something with) and then when you exit you insert it and pay. Thinking I could pay with a credit card I rolled up to the credit card only lane only to find that mine wouldn't work - whatever type of Visa I have isn't accepted (again I think the same issue on some gas pumps). So here I am owing a EUR17.50 toll and it won't take my credit card and I've already had to reverse my car and get out because the wind blew my ticket out of the machine when it spit it back out. I pressed the help button to attempt to talk to a lovely lady over the intercom who likely had been watching me struggle and have to get out of the car once. Her instructions... your card won't work, reverse out, go to another lane that has a green arrow, and pay in cash. OK, reverse I do (thank goodness there weren't more cars, and this was actually now the 3rd time I'd reversed in a toll booth today) and find a new lane. Luckily I had a 20 note in my bag otherwise I would have had to get out of the car again and go to the trunk. I now only go to lanes with green arrows and haven't tried my card again.
I'll claim dumb clueless American on all of the above and any time that I may or may not understand how to handle weirdly flashing lights at an intersection or what the speed limit is!
Between the various mishaps above I spent Wednesday and Thursday this week wandering the gardens and buildings of amazing Chateaus in the Loire Valley. There are tons of them here and I'm sure people just jump from one to another for multiple days but there's only so much I can handle so I picked three and stopped at that. They were all much more enjoyable than Versailles both in that the crowds were much much smaller and they're not so over the top you want to barf at all of the gold.
All of the pictures can be found here.
Chambord is potentially the most famous that I went to. It's quite large and you definitely need the audio guide to help get you around the house. It's on a massive amount of forest land (it was originally a hunting lodge) so the setting is beautiful but the house itself is just enormous. What's most interesting about this one, and the others have similar stories, is all of the different people who 'owned' it and called it a home or some type of property. Over the years the work that different owners did to add on and in some cases modernize or formalize as the years called for is remarkable. At Chambord you can see each person's claim staked with their initials and symbols everywhere.
I was much more a fan of the two places I went to on Wednesday - Chenonceau and Villandry. I think I enjoyed these because the houses were smaller and they had meticulously kept and manicured formal gardens. I thought these were much better than the gardens at Versailles - it could have been that there was a lot more color and flowers.
Chenonceau is built spanning the banks of river Cher river so it's got the house and then a section that's archways over the water with two levels over it. This is actually the picture on the front of my guidebook! The kitchens and some of the servant's areas are in the pillar sections of the arches. Checking them out felt very Downton Abbey. There are gardens on either side of the house and each commissioned by a different woman who was resident there. I was here in the late afternoon as the crowds were heading out so it was actually very nice.
The gardens are what you go to see at Villandry. You can pay for entrance just to the gardens or both the house and gardens. I figured I'd do both. They're best viewed from above so you can get great views of them if you go inside the house, especially up at the top of the keep, but they also have upper levels and some woods you wander through outside for viewing as well. There are multiple sections including the Love Gardens, a maze, kitchen gardens with vegetables and herbs, and everything in each is meticulously maintained and organized. Nothing is left to chance!
My final Loire area stop was to take a little detour over to the town of Sancerre. Given that it's my favorite white wine I couldn't come to France and not check it out. It's a hilltop town that overlooks the valley, all of the vineyards, and other fields both of green and then yellow flowers that you see in fields everywhere. The views are stunning. From the top of an old medieval tower you see not only out over the valley but over the town rooftops as well. They have a simple walking tour of the town that you can do. I picked up a map at the tourist office and the woman told me to follow the red line. I thought she meant just the one noting the route on the map so i was trying to follow the streets and read the signs which totally didn't exist until I got about half way through and realized there's a red line painted on the street too. I'd been wondering what that was - duh! In the tourist office I was also reading about Loire Valley biking through vineyards. I'll definitely be coming back to do that!
What I didn't know was that Sancerre produces white, red, and rose. In the states I don't think I've ever seen anything other than the white but I'll have to be on the lookout. Since I had a two hour drive ahead of me I had to just enjoy one glass of wine with my late afternoon lunch/dinner/snack. Enjoy I did! I had a lovely glass that was a fraction of the price that we pay at home, a croque-monsieur with goat's cheese on the top (apparently the area is also known for it's goat's cheese), and salad sitting in a cafe in the sun and it was all delicious and lovely. Yes, please feel sorry for the rough day I had ;)
Although there's tons to see and do in the middle of the country I'm drawn south to the idea of water (umm hello Mediterranean!) and small coastal towns. Oh, and Languedoc is to be a great wine region too. I stopped mid-way for the evening in a place called Clermont-Ferrand before heading all the way down to Montpellier. Not 100% sure on the plans as of yet but generally thinking of heading south west towards the Spanish border for a day or two and then heading east along the coast through Marseille until I end in Nice. The weather is showing a bit of rain but I'm hoping to avoid it as much as possible. I should not complain if I have a bad day or two weather-wise because I've been so lucky thus far!
To the south I go.