Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fun Comes in Threes

Spring is definitely, well springing, here in the Loire Valley so we have selflessly taken ourselves out and about - revisiting some favourite places and searching out new destinations and places of interest for our guests.

Whether we are on the bikes or in the car, our route often leads us to and through the adjacent villages of Candes St Martin, Montsoreau and Turquant. These 3 villages lie along the riverside around the confluence of the Vienne and Loire rivers and almost directly across the valley from our home in St Nicolas de Bourgueil. Each one has a wealth of interest - architectural, historical, natural and commercial - and they all feature on our cycle, wine and discovery tour routes. In fact there is so much to see and do that, despite being in such close proximity, we have devised two separate cycle routes for 2011, so guests can have time to take a leisurely cycle to and from their destination and also explore all each village has to offer. Below is a taster of what you can discover in each destination.

Let's start with the westernmost village, Candes St Martin. This is designated one of the prettiest villages in France and its easy to see why. The houses hug the hillside along the Vienne river, clustered around the disproportionately huge church in its centre. The church is dedicated to St Martin (!) who died here in November 397 and dates back to the 12th century. Many of the houses in the village are from medieval times, so there are plenty of cobbled streets and narrow alleyways to explore. A steep walk to the clifftop rewards you with a magnificent panorama over the Loire Valley and a bird's eye view of where the Vienne river meets the mighty Loire. Back in the village, there has been a recent renaissance and now there are several artists shops to browse, as well as an unusual cafe/bric a brac store and a shop selling hand-restored furniture and home furnishings, combined with an ambiant wine bar in the cellar.

A short stroll or ride brings you to the larger village of Montsoreau. Dominated by the chateau right on the river and the location for a monthly antiques market along the quayside, there is again plenty to see and do here. The chateau has been wonderfully restored; don't expect the usual four poster beds and suits of armour indisde though. Instead this unfurnished chateau is home to an exhibition of the history of life along the river - there are atmospheric displays of river traffic, weather vanes, flora and fauna, as well as details of 'La Dame de Montsoreau' - a steamy novel set in the chateau and written by Alexandre Dumas (of The 3 Musketeers fame). Montsoreau village has several watering holes - you can choose from a simple cafe right up to a gourmet restaurant with river views. Or make up a picnic with goodies from the baker's butcher's and general store and eat it at the picnic tables along the riverbank. A short detour away rom the river will bring you - via Le Mestre hand-made soap makers - to the historic village of Fontevraud l'Abbaye - the abbey has a checkered history but is probably most famous as the resting place of Richard the Lionheart.

From Montsoreau you can follow the Loire a Velo route to the troglodyte village of Turquant. Here there are winegrowers, windmills and caves to explore. Just outside the village centre, a row of former troglodyte dwellings have been restored and now house an artist's village - you can browse through a silversmith's, a glassblower's, a leather worker's shop (great handbags, ladies!) and will often see the artists at work. There is also a showroom displaying (and selling) pottery, jewellery and other household knick knacks made by local artists. If all that shopping works up a thirst, you can visit the Bistroglo for a rhubarb juice or an artisan beer. Also in the village is a troglodyte restaurant - guests eat in the wonderful restored cave and enjoy delicious dishes featuring local produce and often-forgotten old ingredients - nettle soup is often featured.

After all this excitement, if you have arrived by bike, your return route will take you along the Loire river - either on the north or south bank (depending which of our routes you are following!) with opportunities for nature-watching along the way. Then its just a case of meandering back through the vineyards back to base, for a well-earned rest (perhaps a glass or two of the local brew) and an opportunity to relive your day's adventures.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Vive le Red (white and blue) Tape

France has a reputation for being over-bureauctratic - it does after all have the highest ratio of civil servants to population in the world. These 'fonctionnaires' are 'fondly' known to the rest of us as cravattes (tie wearers) or, less politely, as chiers d'encre (ink shi&%ers).

I recently put this to the test; I have lost my UK driving licence so needed to apply for a French one. So, I diligently checked the official website to see what documentation I would need - added a few extra items just in case, and painstakingly photocopied everything - if you don't have your documents photocopied then they send you off to the 'presse' across the road - 10c a sheet. I called the Vehicle Licencing Agency in the UK to get a certificate stating that I had a licence there and the driving categories I am allowed (there was no mention of this requirement on the website but I knew it was needed - clever eh?). Finally, off I trotted to the supermarket to get my obligatory passport size photos (2, cut out carefully because I know from experience that the civil service doesn't have scissors - at least not ones they lend to the great unwashed public!).

After checking the office opening hours (8.30 am to 12.30pm Monday to Friday) - France is notorious for being closed at lunchtimes and all day on Mondays - Mark and I set off early on 6th January to get my new licence. I have to confess to a feeling of smugness (my first mistake) 'knowing' that I had beaten the system - because I had jumped through all their hoops before getting there. We walked past the 'Bureau des Etrangers' just along the road from the driving licence centre - it was mysteriously shuttered and closed - and on to our destination. Zut alors! Also closed - but why? We had heard no news of strikes, impending nuclear war....then we saw the sign, just underneath the opening hours - closed on the first Thursday of each month...6th January was a Thursday! So, after much muttering and shoulder shrugging (how French we are becoming) we shuffled off, had a coffee and planned our return visit.

The following Tuesday (not chancing a Thursday again) saw us back in Tours. This time the office was open. I stood in the queue at reception; when it was my turn I explained all to the lady, she asked if I had some ID (yes), proof of residence (yes, again), I showed her my certificate from the DVLA (she nodded approvingly). She picked up the phone and advised her colleague that she was sending a lady up to transfer her UK driving licence to a French one, then politely gave me directions to said colleague. I'm home and dry here, I thought (second mistake!) At the second window, I explained all again - the lady asked me for the relevant documents. 'Have you photocopies?' she asked, 'of course' I replied and handed them over. She took everytning away to a mysterious back office (obviously going to prepare my French licence I thought....wrong!) Two minutes later, she was back. 'Have you got a declaration of the loss of your UK licence?' My bood ran cold. 'No', I replied - knowing it was futile, 'but there is the certificate proving I had one.' 'Not good enough, you need to go to the police and declare officially you have lost the licence, they will give you a form, bring that back here.' So, tail once more between our legs, we trudged back home.

Next, the police station. I'm very pleased to say that Bourgueil has a low crime rate, but one of the side effects of this is that the police officers don't seem very, how shall I say, dynamic! The old guy I saw was completely flummoxed by the highly unusual request of someone wanting to declare a BRITISH driving licence lost. After consultation with two colleagues and a phone call to higher powers, he discovered the right form to use and as I had luckily brought along my passport, proof of residence, the UK certificate and I gave the names (including maiden name of my mother) of both my parents, I left 30 minutes later clutching the precious declaration.

The end of this story is pretty boring. I returned to Tours, went to see the driving licence lady, handed my forms over and got my licence! Before writing this blog, I surfed the internet a little to look for some statistics about civil servants (see my opening line). I was amazed, then not at all surprised, at the number of articles there are about French bureaucracy and problems we foreigners have with it. Our only consolation is that our French friends find it just as frustrating. Perhaps I should have read the advice of Jo Laredo, journalist for the Paris Voice, BEFORE staring my epic task:

Top tips for dealing with French red tape: 1 Always find out from an official source exactly what you need before making an application. 2 Double-check the opening hours of the office and ensure it isn't a public holiday. 3 Always take a duplicate of everything. 4 Expect not to have the right paperwork the first time. 5 Allow plenty of time to make an application (and take a good book).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year - New Blog

I am embarrassed to realise just how long it is since I last blogged! I have a new year's resolution to post at least one blog per month for 2011 - so far so good.

January is traditionally the time to both look forward to the new year and reflect on the old one. Here at Loire Valley Breaks we have been doing a bit of both.

For the looking forward, we are already filling our rooms with reservations for 2011 and are busy getting the place ready for you - this year as well as the usual annual maintenance jobs we are planning upgrades inside and out. Outside there will be an improved sun terrace - including some much-needed shade and new garden furniture to relax in. Inside all our double bedrooms will have (at least) 160cm - 5 foot - beds and we are freshening the interiors with new bed linens, towels and soft furnishings.

Even our evening meal menus are having a makeover - a new 'bistro' theme with plenty of traditionally based dishes.

We are often asked by guests where the majority of our guests come from - and so as part of our reflection over the last year we thought it would be fun to look at this accurately (rather than our usual guesstimates!) So - with apologies to those who don't like statistics as much as I do - here are the findings from our 2010 guests:

Overall, one third of our guests were from the UK and one third from Australia. Of the rest, in descending order, our guests came from the USA, Canada and New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa.

The mixture of type of breaks was fairly even - a little over a third were adult cyclists, and the rest of our guests were an even mix of family cyclists and those on a discovery or wine tour.

Adult cyclists stayed in the main for 4 or 5 nights and the majority of guests cycled up to 50km (30 miles) daily, although one quarter went further than this. Half our families stayed for 7 nights or longer and most cycled up to 32km (20 miles) each day.

Half the guests on an escorted tour last year were from Australia - so Mark has bought an Australian dictionary ready for this year! The high number of Australian guests overall is due in no small measure to the great review by past guest Nicola Walker, which was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age - we are still receiving enquiries and bookings due to this now, even though it was printed in May 2010!
So that was 2010 - we are looking forward to meeting all our 2011 visitors - both new and returning guests - and sharing with all of them our love for this beautiful corner of France.