The Palace of Versailles

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Now, if I had planned out our trip a bit better, I would have had us stay an extra night in Paris so we could see the Palace of Versailles by only traveling 40 minutes.  Instead, we ended up driving our car around 2 hours from our chateau in Tours.  But, we didn't mind...the scenery was lovely.  I just couldn't get enough of those fields of gold flowers everywhere and all the small towns we wound our way through.  
Not to mention...it was SO worth the drive.  I guess I never paid much attention to Versailles, I mean, I knew there was a palace there, but I was thinking along the lines of what we had already seen...but those chateau's were mere shacks compared to The Palace of Versailles!
Here are some fun facts and a tiny bit of history:
The palace and it's gardens are set on 19,262 acres and is larger than the whole of Paris and the island of Manhattan combined.  Guesstimated cost of the construction of the palace is around 2 billion dollars.  The chapel took 28 years to complete (from 1682-1710) because Louis XIV demanded absolute perfection.  The Hall of Mirrors contains 17 large chandeliers and 26 smaller ones made of solid silver.  Each chandelier held 1000 candles.  The Hall of Mirrors is also where the Treaty of Versailles was signed and ended WWI.  The garden is just as impressive as the palace, covering 1,976 acres (800 hectares) in a structured French Garden style. It has 200,000 trees, 50 fountains with 620 jets of water, and 210,000 flowers planted every year.
Walking up to the golden gates all I could think was...wow...so over the top!  The gold trim around the palace itself was amazing.  I had no idea it was going to be so large.  Matt wandered off to buy tickets and I stood around the other tourists staring at the palace beyond the gates.  So far we had been lucky to have most of the chateau's we visited nearly empty of tourists....totally not that lucky here.  We joined the mass of people entering the palace and we found ourselves kind of swept along in a steady flow of bodies.  
Every inch of every room was covered in something...fabric, artwork, paintings, murals, marble, gilded gold paint.  It was enough to make your head spin...I can't imagine spending hours in each room!  Ostentatious doesn't cover this place.  Marie Antoinette sure loved to show off! 

Because of the amount of people and the short attention span of our kids, we moved pretty quickly through...I would have liked spent more time just getting a feel for the palace, but instead we found ourselves outside in the gardens.
Now, the Villandry gardens were incredible...just beautiful, but the gardens of Versailles are massive.  You could literally spend two days here and still probably not see or do everything available.  We made our way past enormous fountains and headed down the "lake" area.  People were out on boats paddling around enjoying the day.  We wandered around...getting lost in the maze of trees and shrubs.  Grabbed a quick snack of crepes and wine and headed back up towards the palace itself. 
By now, everyone was tired and we still had a two hour drive back to the chateau.  I really wanted to walk around the city of Versailles...it reminded me a bit of New Orleans.  But, we didn't have time.  We started our drive back and kept our eyes open for somewhere to eat.  Once again, we were early and not much was open yet...
Matt suggested an Asian buffet...I said no way...we can eat that back in Saudi.  So, we drove around some more...and...ended back at the Asian buffet.  All I can say is that this place had sashimi and fresh sushi rolls...and I know the staff got a kick out of watching us load up like a family of refugees.  We went back for fourths on the sushi and managed to eat a few other things...including frog legs.  The girls both at one each...said they tasted fine and went back to their sushi.  My girls.  
It was a great day and I'm so happy we got to visit the palace...I would have hated to have missed out on that experience...hoping to maybe go back someday and get a chance to take in more of the history.  
Tomorrow...we head to one of my favorite places on Earth...the horse stables!  


Blois and Da Vinci's last home

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Today was a slower morning...girls were having fun playing with their toys..so we figured we'd just get to one spot today. 
The day started off sunny...but by the end, it was dark and cloudy with a bit of rain.  I loved it.
We drove over to the town of Blois.  One of the most interesting bits of history about Blois (at least to me) is that Joan of Arc used the city as her base of operations to make her plans to release the city of Orleans.  The chateau in Blois was once occupied by King Louis XII.  It was also here that Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before departing to Orleans.  Chateau de Blois was constructed between the 13th and 17th centuries.  It has 564 rooms, 75 staircases, 100 bedrooms and a fireplace in every room.  Of course, our favorite part was sitting on the throne!  :)
After we saw the chateau it was time for lunch (kids were getting cranky).  Then we headed for the oldest part of town and just enjoyed walking around and taking in the sites.  When the rain started it was time to head home.  We stopped at the grocery store, bought the fixings needed for dinner (and of course more pork and wine) and headed home for an early night.  Ended the evening watching a movie together in the family room.  It was a really nice day.

The following morning we had decided to head out to see the last place Leonardo ever lived (da Vinci, not Dicaprio)  I wasn't really sure what to expect and let me tell you...I am so glad we went.  It is such a great place to visit for both kids and adults alike.  There were tons of school children there on field trips mixed in with us silly tourists.
The walk to the chateau was fun as well because we passed by many old homes...that had been literally built into the rock wall.  They were so cool!  I would have given anything to see the insides.  (see pix in one of the collages below)  
Little background info:
Clos Luce (the name of the mansion) is located 500 meters from Chateau de Amboise.  The two are connected by an underground tunnel which was used by da Vinci and Francios I to be able to visit with each other.  The home was used as a summer residence of the kings of France.  
Today the Château du Clos Lucé is a listed monument, and has belonged to the Saint Bris family since 1854. Restoration work inside and outside was begun in the 1960s to restore the building’s Renaissance appearance. The kitchen, the great Council Chamber, the bedroom, the underground rooms where forty machines designed by Leonardo da Vinci are displayed, as well as the chapel and its frescoes, have all been restored to their appearance of yesteryear. 
We toured the home first...moving at a brisker pace than we would have liked...but the kids had seen the expansive green grounds and wanted to get back outside.  It was such a beautiful place and I loved all the exposed brick.  Matt was in heaven when we reached the underground rooms and da Vinci's inventions...the girls were mesmerized as well at the TV monitors showing how some of the machines worked.  It was incredible to see what Leonardo's mind created in a time where none of it belonged.  
We left the home and headed outside...where Sara got very excited and announced "Look Mommy!  Leonardo even had his own restaurant!"  After wiping the tears of laughter off our faces and regaining ourselves, the hubby and I took the girls to see the gardens.  This was the really cool part.  Throughout the grounds they had actual working models of some of da Vinci's creations.  The girls went bonkers spinning around in the "tank."  They worked the water wheel and then found the playground.  Matt and I gave in and sat down to watch the girls play.  At first no one was there and then a group of middle school kids came storming in...we had a great time watching them play on...well, I don't know what to call it...it was a pole with four chains hanging down from the top and a wooden bar at the bottom of each one.  The kids would run around in a circle, holding the chains, count off, and then lift their feet off the ground and sail through the air.  It was hilarious because as soon as someone would let go, the rest would crash and fall into them...all the kids giggling like crazy.  Once the kids left...the big kids took a turn (me and Matt)...I sailed around twice...landed on my butt and was instantly wicked dizzy.  Ah to get old.  ;)
We had lunch at a restaurant on the grounds and really just enjoyed the whole day...the girls didn't want to leave.  Fun day for all!  


Sleeping Beauty Castle and Chateau de Villandry

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Today started the same as the previous two...a lovely breakfast in the chateau (complete with pork and champagne) but, today was special.  We were going visiting the chateau the girls had been waiting months to see.  The Sleeping Beauty castle. (aka Chateau d'Usse)
It was pure luck that I found this chateau.  It's not one of the more famous ones and therefore not mentioned as often when you google chateau's of the Loire Valley.  But, when I saw the wax figures of the famous kids book (and movie...which my girls haven't seen, because, well, the movie scared the crap outta me as a kid and I don't want to do the same to my girls...yet) I knew that we just HAD to see this one.  I showed the girls pictures and they went crazy with excitement.
Also on our list for today was to see Villandry...famous for its beautiful gardens.  
Everyone ready to go...back in the car and on the road.
d'Usse was first built in the eleventh century and was handed over many times through the years.  It is said that Usse was the castle that Charles Perrault had in mind when writing the story of Sleeping Beauty.  The castle is still lived in today and therefore only a portion of it was open to the public.  (how totally cool to live in a real life castle everyday)
It wasn't nearly as grand as Chambord nor as pictueresque as Chenonceau...but the girls loved every minute.  We followed the path through the castle in search of the room where sleeping beauty was laying in bed with the prince standing by her side.  We must have walked back and forth ten times before I peeked into a window and saw the room...then my brain finally told me to try the door I was standing in front of..and viola..we had found her.  Funny enough, Sara was disappointed...Sleeping Beauty wasn't sitting exactly like she was in the photo in the brochure...kid doesn't miss much.
We left the castle and toured the grounds...the gardens were small (in comparison to others) but the stables held old carriages that the girls had fun checking out.  We saw old wine cellars that had been built into the rock wall.  And we stopped in the chapel..very pretty inside.

With happy girls, we hopped back in the car and headed for Villandry.
The actual chateau of Villandry is not as impressive as some of the others...but, that's not what it's famous for...Villandry is known for it's gardens.  And they were stunning.  But, we'll start with the chateau first...
The original keep was built in the 14th century.  It was expanded in the 16th century.  In 1906 Joachim Carvello purchased the property and poured huge amounts of time, devotion and most important...money into creating what many say are the most beautiful gardens anywhere. There is the water garden, the ornamental flower garden, and the vegetable gardens.  It is still owned by the Cravello family today and is one of the most visited chateau's in France.
We had a lot of fun looking around the inside which was decorated beautifully and modestly (compared to Versailles where every nearly every inch was covered in murals or hung paintings)  We ended up on the roof (where daddy freaked out about the girls trying to peer over the top of the rail) and I was able to get some fantastic shots of the garden.  This was the one time I wished we had waited a couple more weeks before coming to France.  Spring was not in full swing yet and much of the garden was still a bit bare.  Nonetheless, it was incredible.    We purchased some seeds from the flower shop on site and we'll get to have our own bit of Villandry here at home in Saudi...(of course, planting anything new will have to wait...we're already in the 100's here)  ugh.
So, we have now seen 6 chateau's in three days.  The hubby is officially chateau'd out.  But, that isn't going to stop me...lol.  Next up we spend some time in Blois (and the chateau there as well)  And the following day we take in the sites at the last home of Leonardo Da Vinci.  


Chateau de Chenonceau and Chateau de Chambord

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If you've ever looked into visiting the Loire Valley, you'll have found that there are dozens of beautiful chateau's to visit.  The trick is picking the best ones...or, more importantly, the best ones that suite your family.  Some are rich in drama with stories of war and love, others are more simple.  Some are fully decorated (some ostentatiously so), some are mere ruins.  It's a touch choice...if you're smart, you'll ask someone from France (or that region) to give you some tips...or, if you're like me...you spend hours on end researching where to go.  But, I must say, my hard work paid off.  In our nine days in the Loire Valley, we saw a total of 5 chateau's (one's that we actually toured the inside) and not including the Palace of Versailles...which, we went back towards Paris to see.
Now, the next hard part was trying to figure out which ones to see on which days.  We woke that first morning in our chateau to brilliant blue skies and sunshine.  For my selfish reasons (getting wicked good photos) I wanted to see a couple of the chateau's that were really cool looking.  (even though we had promised Sara we'd see the Sleeping Beauty castle that day) 
After a gorgeous breakfast of eggs, bacon and champagne...we packed up, grabbed the tour book and piled in the car.  First stop...Chateau de Chenonceau.  
This chateau was just flat out beautiful to me.  I loved the way it was positioned over the river.  The chateau has been rebuilt a few times...but the one standing now dates back to 1521.  There is a neat history of ownership, and it ended up in the hands of Queen Catherine de' Medici.  She was known for spending a fortune on elaborate parties and the chateau itself.  The first ever fireworks show was held there in 1560.  During World War I the gallery was used as a hospital ward; during the Second War it was a means of escaping from the Nazi occupied zone on one side of the River Cher to the "free" zone on the opposite bank.  (for more history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Chenonceau)
Other than the Palace of Versailles, this is the most visited chateau in France.
The girls were totally stoked about seeing "castles" and they enjoyed running from room to room looking at the decor.  Of course, they could care less about the history and therefore mommy and daddy didn't get to do as much looking as they would have liked.  (Matt kept trying to read about the different items in the rooms...then to find that me and the girls were three rooms ahead of him..he gave up in the end)
The gardens were lovely...even though we were a bit early for all the spring blooms.  The best part was that there was hardly anyone there at all!! 

We grabbed a bite to eat at the stables...turned restaurant of course.  And planned where to go next.  The other chateau that got rave reviews was Chambord.  It didn't seem too far away, so off we went.  
When we arrived we found we had precious little time to see the chateau..it was nearing closing time (big bonus?  only a handful of people were still milling about).  Once I told Sara were had to hurry to see it all...well, that just gave her a total second wind.  We flew through the castle in hopes of seeing every room.  This place is massive...SO much bigger than Chenonceau.  Up and down flights of stairs...in and out of rooms...snapping shots as I went.  We actually had a lot of fun...and managed to see everything...if only briefly.
A bit of info about the chateau:
Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley; it was built to serve as a hunting lodge for François I, who maintained his royal residences at Château de Blois and Château d'Amboise. The original design of the Château de Chambord is attributed, though with several doubts, to Domenico da Cortona. Some authors claim that the French Renaissance architect Philibert Delorme had a considerable role in the château's design, and others have suggested that Leonardo da Vinci may have designed it.  (more history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Chambord)
One of the coolest features is the double helix staircase...supposedly designed by da Vinci himself.  This unusual stairway consists of two parallel stairways wrapped around one another, where two people can walk up and down without ever meeting.  
I wish we would have had more time to check everything out, but all in all it a great time.
With too very tired kids, we left the chateau and headed back to our own "little" chateau.  (compared to Chambord our chateau would be a condo.)  But first, we had to find food (and wine)  Found a local grocery store and stopped in.  Talk about a unique experience!  At least here in Saudi most things are in English as well as Arabic.  In France...french.  duh.  But, it made shopping a bit hard.  Still we managed to get stuff for breakfasts and some dinners (lots of pork products in there let me tell you.)  Not to mention that Bordeaux wine in France is just silly cheap compared to the States.  We didn't mind taking on the task of sampling the local varieties. ;)  Our first dinner in the chateau was a nice pasta spiked with lardons (aka bacon) and mushrooms.  (oh yeah, and salad)
(okay, so not my best photo, but I was in a hurry...wine was waiting for me! oh, and food)
Another day in the books...more chateau's to see tomorrow!


Off to the Loire Valley

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Chateau La Noue
Our travels continued as we left Paris by TGV train and headed out to the Loire Valley.  The girls had so much fun on the train...not that they looked out the windows much, they were too busy coloring princess pictures.  :)
We arrived at the Tours train station and headed outside to catch a taxi.  We needed the taxi to take us to the Tours airport where the car rental place was located.  In my mind I pictured us walking outside to a line of waiting taxi's ready to whisk us off.
Instead, I walked outside to a line of waiting people.  There were a grand total of 4 taxi's in service.  We waited for a good half hour...not fun. 
We got to the car rental place...it was closed.  We were late and the guy had given up waiting for us.  Thank goodness for another kind French taxi driver...he called the number on the door for us and got the guy to come back.  Car loaded up, kids buckled in, iPad map up and running...time to find our home for the next nine days.
Thankfully we had good directions and we were able to get to Chateau La Noue without any issues.  But, upon arrival...once again...no one was there.  We drove around a bit, tried doors..and then finally a gentleman came walking up.  He was the owners brother.  He spoke very little English, but he was very kind.  He showed us around the part of the chateau that we'd be staying in and then offered to show us the rest.  The girls had found their room, complete with toys, and were beyond happy.  Matt and I set off with John to see the rest of the family castle.
It's a very pretty chateau that they are in the process of renovating...themselves.  It's a big project.  But, we love seeing old homes and enjoyed the tour.  John even grabbed a bottle of wine from the "wine cellar."  (bottles of wine lined up on the steps leading to the basement level)  He told us a lot about his family (in broken English and bits of French we picked up)  Finally we asked him where we could find food.
The chateau is off by itself...it's not really part of any town.  The closest town is very small and we were told there wouldn't be much there.  The next town would be bigger with a grocery store and restaurants.  But, as John informed us, it's Sunday...and well, good luck finding something open.  Instead we decided to head to Amboise.  A large town about 15-20 min away.  It is also home to Chateau Amboise...and I really wanted to see one of the chateau's that were on my list while in the Lorie Valley.  
We set off into the French countryside.  It was so beautiful.  Green fields for miles...small towns, villages, old and new homes, old churches, huge fields of golden flowers...it was just wonderful.  As we arrived in Amboise, the beautiful chateau loomed out from across the river.  We crossed the bridge to the main part of town and it was like a ghost town...everything was closed...there were hardly even any people about...we drove around and around looking for ANY restaurant that was open.  Finally we gave up and crossed back over the bridge...then I spotted a restaurant that looked to be open...we pounced.  It was a little bar that served appetizers (no main dishes) so, we ordered a bunch of different app's and a bottle of wine.  Best part was the view of the chateau across the river all lit up in the night sky.
Back home to the chateau.  Matt managed to find a place selling wine, so kiddos off to bed, and the hubby and I curled up on the couch to watch a movie.  
It had been a long day that started off leaving Paris and ended in our own little chateau.  The following day we would head out to see some of the famous chateau's of the Loire Valley!  (post to come!)

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