The night train we boarded to Paris had 2 separate classes, but like our night train between Vienna and Venice, we hadn’t been able to get a triple compartment. Thus there was an additional stranger sharing a cabin the room for 4. The double sharing cabin in the front section was pretty nice though. As it was close to midnight by the time the train arrived, we were ready for bed by departure and after our passports and ticket train stub has been collected by the conductor. While I knew this was the standard procedure, there wasn’t any need for us to surrender our passport during out night train to Venice. I suspect that since this train passes by Switzerland, there will be a passport check during the journey by the Swiss authorities.
The ride during this train ride is expected to be smoother since it passes mainly plains and flatlands after crossing into France, while the Vienna to Venice train passes the Italian Alps. Still, it wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel, and perhaps might be my last night train journey. Before arrival into Paris we weren’t provided any breakfast either, though every passenger had a bottle of water for them to quench their thirst throughout the night. One major qualms about taking night trains, though was that most night trains run older locomotives and usually arrive at older train stations. In this case, our arrival was at Paris Bercy, as opposed to the more modern and larger Gare de Lyon which is a short 5 minute walk away from Bercy. As our rental car agency, Europcar/National was located opposite Gare de Lyon, we had a short but nice walk under the Parisian sunny morning. Weather in Paris was cool similar to that of Hamburg and makes for a very relaxed walk towards Gare de Lyon. Turns out the rental car agency is located in a building across the Gare de Lyon and connected via an overhead bridge. All the major car rental agencies like Hertz, Avis and Sixt had their counters here and there are also several cafes where we had out breakfast. I ordered a continental breakfast and english breakfast set to share between 3 of us before collecting our car. Having initially booked a Citroen C5 or similar car, I was pretty disappointed to be given a Peugeot 5008 which is a medium sized MPV as I prefer saloons. The agent, though mentioned it was an upgrade. We were given keys to the car, the parking coupon and headed down to the car park. Apparently the car had just been cleaned and placed in a location totally different as said on the key fob. Thus it took some time for us to find the car before settling in and adjusting the seats, getting used to the controls and setting the sat-nav. The car was spacious, allowing 5 to be seated comfortably with ample luggage compartment. I didn’t really like the hard support the seat provides and the large feel of this car, which makes it less nimble. We were however soon on our way towards Versailles from Paris. After a slight delay from the outer ring road in Paris due to traffic, we soon reached Versailles, with the help of the sat-nav that has an English language compatibility.
The large parking lot outside the Château de Versailles was convenient though it has to be mentioned pricing was quite expensive here. Making our way towards the Château de Versailles, we noticed the palace being located in a slightly higher ground elevation and was magnificently decorated in gold allowing it to shine in the morning sun. It is without doubt as to why many palaces including Schönbrunn and Charlottenburg have tried to copy the grandeur of this palace. History buffs would know that this palace was also the scene of drama during the French revolution which forced Louis XVI and his wife to flee the palace grounds before being caught later on. Fronted by a large courtyard, visitors need to head left upon entering to find a ticket and information booth and queues for the public restrooms. A small archway beside the public restroom also leads to the gardens of the Château which was beautiful during this time in summer. From this area, one can admire the architecture of the palace and view the exterior of the Grand Appartement de la Reine or the Queen’s Apartment.
After the short walk around the gardens, we entered a new modern visitor’s entrance to the palace after showing out tickets and was greeted with the inner courtyard as well as the marble courtyard directly outside the King’s apartment. This section of the palace has got to be the most beautiful with its amazing array of colours and golden roof linings. Crossing past the marble courtyard into the starting point of the tour, one is greeted by the vast royal chapel or chapelle royale.
A staircase allows visitors from the ground floor to reach the Tribune Royale and obtain a great view of the Royal Chapel, as seen by the Royal family when they hear mass. The adjoining chamber leads to the Salon d’Hercule where 2 famous paintings reside at. The most mesmerizing point of view in my opinion, though has got to be the Apotheosis of Hercules, which gave this salon its name. The ceiling mural would give visitors the impression of being in Olympus amongst the gods.
The next few chambers along the hallway are exactly a tribute to the gods at that time from the Diane, Vénus, Mars, Mercure and Apollon. The Vénus salon had buffet tables displayed with flowers and pyramids full of fruit and marzipan treats for the King’s guests. The Diane salon served as a billiard room during Louis XIV’s reign and had platforms for lady guests to applaud the king’s skillful play. The Mars salon, initially intended as a guardroom with its military theme, was made into use for music and dance, and utilized as a ballroom. The Mercure salon served as a ceremonial bedchamber though the bed might be removed in winter to make space for gaming tables and had decorations with a silver theme. The last Apollo salon was originally the most sumptous room as Louis XIV identified himself with the sun-god and had this room dedicated to music or a concert room. Though the silver furniture and magnificent throne has been melted down. It is worth noting that busts of Louis XIV decorates all the salons and wonderful ceiling murals depicting each of the gods the room is named after ensure that there will be much to see during this section of the palace.
From the Grand Appartement du Roi or the Grand Apartment of the King, there is the room of War which leads to the Hall of Mirrors, perhaps the most splendid room in the palace. As the name implies, rows of mirrors line this long hallway which connects the War and Peace Room as well as the Grand Appartment du Roi with the Grand Appartment de la Reine or the Grand Apartment of the Queen. The Hall of Mirrors has windows on one side which overlooks the vast gardens of the palace. A small connecting room from this hall brings visitors to the Chambre Louis XIV.
King Louis XIV’s bedchamber is actually made up of 3 chambers which he converted for his own sleeping chamber as well as the Chamber of Council where he held audiences every morning. Its location facing the easterly direction was to ensure the morning sun enters the chamber to greet his day. The rooms also face the main entrance and marble courtyard of the palace. As expected the bedchamber of Louis XIV is lavishly decorated and had a grandiose bed facing the window towards the morning sun. And like the other parts of the palace, busts, statues and potraits of Louis XIV decorates the chamber, showing his vanity.
From the Chambre Louis XIV, one exits onto the Hall of Mirrors again before heading to the Peace Room which is at opposite ends to the War Room. The Peace Room leads to the Grand Appartement de la Reine which is the Queen’s Private Quarters. A similar number of chambers line this wing of the palace with rooms symmetrical to the salons in the Grand Appartement du Roi, before ending with the Guards Room which was the place where guards stood by to protect the royal family. It was here that guards warned Queen Marie Antoinette on the impending revolution reaching the palace gates, thus allowing the royal family to flee from Versailles. The next section of the guided tour involves visiting the History of France Galleries where the highlight has got to be the Salon Napoleon with 3 giant paintings depicting Napoleon during his campaign for Europe.
With the satisfying lunch, we walked back to our car glad and headed out of Versailles towards the Loire Valley. Having seen the travel brochure for France during my University days, and read a book on the Châteaux de la Loire, I just had to visit these magnificent castles of France’s first kings. However coming back to think of it, given that I had limited time and was tired from my train ride from Milan, it was probably not such a great idea. The drive from Versailles to our first stop which was Chambord took around 2 hours though the drive was relaxing enough across France’s motorways which allowed me to drive the rental Peugeot 5008 to a very rapid 150 km/h very easily. Europe’s motorways are really great for high speed cruising, and I would perhaps be as happy renting a car for the trip as compared to taking the high-speed train. Upon reaching the small town of Chambord it isn’t too difficult to miss the Château with well placed signage and help from the sat-nav. A long driveway past the Château hunting grounds showed the use of this castle as a hunting lodge for the Royal family and was as such during Louis XIV’s reign. The chateau was built by François I and today is the largest of the chateaus along the Loire Valley and perhaps one of the most magnificent with its intricate roof spires and grand scale.
After passing the driveway, there was a paid parking area for motorists and it was a short walk passing by several gift shops and a small refreshment store before the castle comes into sight. The architecture of the Château de Chambord was in the Renaissance style and was more elegant and beauty than about fortifications. The highlight would have to be elaborate roof spires which was a sharp contrast to the clean masonry, and was meant to resemble a town skyline. As it was already late when we arrived at Chambord, we did not enter the chateau and left within the hour which permitted us free parking upon exit. Our next destination was our lodging within the Loire Valley at Amboise, which meant we had still around 2 hours of driving distance. The drive to Amboise from Chambord would perhaps have been a very scenic drive if not for the drizzle we enountered along the way. The wet and cloudy day might have dampened our spirits but I thought it was interesting to pass by the route that François I took to travel between Chambord and his primary residence at Blois and Amboise, both of which are much larger towns and have significant royal chateaus of their own. It is also worth noting that both of these towns serve as great lodging areas for its wide array of restaurants and convenient amenities. We passed by Blois first before driving along the Loire river for which the valley is named after to reach our lodging at Le Manoir Les Minimes. Initially a monastery, this elegant small mansion with a well manicured courtyard had nice views of the Loire river and the Château d’Amboise.
However as a small 2 storey establishment, there wasn’t any elevators, but the desk manager on duty was very helpful in bringing our luggage upstairs to our corner suite which we booked. There was also ample parking along the courtyard for guests which was nice and I spotted an Aston Martin as well in the car park lot. With our luggage settled in, we headed out to get some mineral water and dinner which was easy to find in the centre of town. Amboise and Blois are both pretty straightforward towns with a town centre revolving around their prominent chateau and it was easy to find grocery stores and restaurants in these towns and there were more choices as well. We chose a small French restaurant just behind the Château d’Amboise for our dinner location and we had some French specialties including an order of escargot, duck confit, sauteed fish and of course chocolate dessert. The food was pretty good for a small town restaurant and had reasonable prices. The restaurants in town seems to be pretty full and this was our second choice as our first choice was already packed. There was a heavy tourist flow into Amboise by what appears that night.
It was night time as we returned to our hotel and I took this opportunity to venture around the mansion. The first storey of the mansion is dedicated to a small entrance foyer, the reception area underneath the staircase, and a small lounge with computer and internet facilities on the left room. On the right from the foyer lies a bar area and the restaurant and cafe where breakfast is an extra cost for guests of the hotel. Overall the hotel was very nicely decorated and furnished and it gave guests the nice ambience of living in a noble French mansion. We booked the Suite Prestige which would have comfortably sleep 4 person, as the separate living area has a double sofa bed and the main bedroom was fitted with a king bed. Both rooms had LCD TVs and seating areas with a small dining table on the living area. A large bathroom also made the room very comfortable! Another thing to note was the very classy decor in the room, that while given the traditional wallpaper, does not feel antiquated or intimidating. In fact the decor goes very well indeed with the overall theme giving the authenticity of living in a countryside mansion. I would really love to come back to this hotel for an extended visit in the Loire Valley.
Speaking of which, I do recommend visiting the Loire Valley once if one is interested in castles and kings. Besides the rich history, the place would be very beautiful under the correct weather and has ample architectural landmarks that will make up for more than a day’s worth of sightseeing!