Sorry for the interruption in my summer roadtrip write up. I’ve been busy launching another website at work and celebrating a certain young man’s 9th birthday (more on that soon…)
After our flying visit to the Normandy coast, we began our long journey south through France with a first stop in the Loire Valley. After a lot of web research, I chose a Huttopia campsite in Saumur as our base for our time there. Huttopia run a number of campsites across France which seemed to offer high quality, family-friendly facilities in natural, quiet surroundings – the ideal combination of comfort and peace. And our first experience was excellent.
The campsite was in a beautiful spot, high above the Loire river with far reaching views. The site featured several swimming pools, a little bar and restaurant, great showers/toilets and the all important breakfast breads and croissants! And they ran a limited programme of activities including a magician performance, an astronomy show and a local artisan market. There was loads of space for the children to roam, playgrounds and woodlands to play in. Alex and Sophie immediately made friends, and had so much fun running around safely (which meant Matt and I could truly relax!).
We totally lucked out with our pitch – finding a vast, corner plot at the very edge of the site sheltered by trees and with electricity and a picnic table. We hired a fridge so we could keep our cheese, wine and beer cold!
Check out the view from our pitch. So lucky!
We had three full days in the Saumur region, and managed to fit in a real variety of activities during that time.
Saumur, wine cellars and the Cadre Noir
Saumur itself was just a short drive from the campsite and was a beautiful town straddling the river Loire. We spent our first morning exploring the pretty streets (during which time I appear to have taken no photographs at all) – but take my word for it, the chateau, bridges and churches were stunning!). We enjoyed a lunch of galettes with a range of fillings.
After lunch, we drove out to visit the French National Riding School where the Cadre Noir train (the elite French instructors). We know nothing about horses, but we’d heard it was worth a visit – and it really was! We were taken on a tour of the vast site, learning about the French riding tradition and the incredibly intense and competitive training programme.
Of course, the highlight was visiting the stables where hundreds of horses are resident. We were able to meet lots of the horses, as well as see how the staff managed to care for so many!
I’d highly recommend a visit, especially if you can time it so you can see one of the gala performances with the horses in action.
There was one more very local highlight for me. I, of course, knew that the Loire Valley was famous for wine – but I hadn’t realised they made sparkling wines (my favourite!). I therefore dragged the children on a cellar tour. We visited Bouvet Ladubay for their underground tour and it was fabulous. They have miles and miles of cellars which are dramatically lit and feature incredible stone sculptures and engravings. We learned lots about how to produce sparkling wines – and got to sample a few at the end. Yum.
Sophie was completely obsessed with the horses after her visit to the Cadre Noir, so she insisted that we sign her up for some pony trekking at the campsite! I’d hoped she’d get to go off into the woods, but instead she and Alex did a couple of rounds of the car park on some rather tired ponies! She loved it nevertheless and is now badgering us for a horse riding birthday party!
Cycling through the vines
With the landscape relatively flat, we decided to get out on bikes for a day to explore the landscape at a gentle pace. We’d brought the children’s bikes with us and hired some for us from Saumur Bike Hire. We picked them up in a tiny village outside Saumur, and following the company’s recommendation set off on a well signposted cycle route to the medieval town of Montreuil-Bellay.
It was about a 10km journey along quiet, gently undulating roads – just perfect for a family ride. Almost immediately, we were cycling through vineyards, disturbing loads of butterflies as we went – it was really special!
It was so pleasant, we were almost sad when we arrived at our destination – although that quickly passed when we realised how beautiful it was. A huge, medieval chateaux towers above the town, with narrow streets leading town to the river where we enjoyed a picnic together.
I snapped this picture of the approach to Montreuil-Bellay, crossing the great stone bridge as we were leaving the town when it had clouded over a bit – but you can see how pretty it is even in the grey.
After we’d consumed our body weight in bread and cheese, we ventured into the town to explore. The children, of course, bounded up the pretty steps up to the chateau!
There were flowers blooming everywhere:
We loved the dramatic entrance to the chateau across bridges and through high gates.
Once inside, we opted just to explore the lush gardens.
There were beautiful views, and a surprisingly big terraced garden to explore.
Can you spot Sophie hidden in the tower?
After an hour, we picked up an ice cream and walked back down to where we’d parked our bikes – only to find that I’d got a puncture! No idea how that happened while we were away exploring, but it meant for a tricky afternoon! Matt called what he thought was the bike hire company, but actually phoned a different company he’d been planning to use for kayak hire – the person he spoke to barely spoke any English and Matt’s french wasn’t quite up to explaining the situation. Cue a comedy hour where we thought we’d been abandoned by the bike hire company, so Matt and the kids opted to ride back to the car without me so that they could then pick me up!
Of course, the bike hire company were fab, and when they realised what had happened, jumped straight in their van to pick me up! We felt so silly – especially poor Matt who had been quite annoyed at the company he’d spoken to for not agreeing to help me out. I rather enjoyed my peaceful break waiting to be collected, although was sad I missed out on the second bit of cycling.
I’d highly recommend cycling in the Loire – it was perfect for Alex and Sophie, and so nice to get out of the car and into the vines!
Of course, a visit to the Loire Valley wouldn’t be complete without seeing some chateaux. The castle in Saumur and the one in Montreuil-Bellay had been lovely, but we felt we needed to see something bigger, and more dramatic before we left the region. So, after chatting to some fellow campers for recommendations, we opted to visit the chateaux that apparently inspired Charles Perrault as he wrote Sleeping Beauty – Chateaux D’Ussé.
It was spectacular! Our photos don’t really do it justice – but it was a proper fairy tale castle, with turrets, beautiful views and manicured gardens.
Making the most of the Sleeping Beauty connection, part of the castle told the story through a series of scenes set up in one of the towers with live size models of the characters and panels telling the tale. Alex and Sophie loved following the story.
In the rest of the castle, we were free to explore the many rooms and staircases, learning about the many people who had lived there and the impact it had on the local community.
Once we’d exhausted the inside, we headed out into the sunshine to explore the gardens and chapel.
It was a wonderful end to our short foray into the Loire Valley.
Next stop….the Dordogne.