My memories of Orleans are rather a blur. We had flown into Paris that morning. Even travelling business class, courtesy of my frequent flyer miles from all my business trips the preceding year, didn’t help us avoid jetlag that first day in France after the marathon 30 hour trip from our home in Wellington. Flights from Asia and the South Pacific tend to arrive in European cities at ridiculous hours of the morning, and so we landed at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport at 6 am on a Sunday morning in May. We had arranged a Renault lease car, and we were driving out of Paris by 8 am, arriving in Versailles before the Palais even opened.
But Orleans was to be our destination for that evening, so we drove out of Paris , and headed south, trying to remember to stay on the right hand side of the road. Just before 1 pm we stopped at a small village for lunch. But this was France, and it was Sunday, and even the bakery closed just as we arrived. The sports bar across the square appeared full, and there was a small pizza place. We went into the pizza place, laughing at the ridiculousness of having pizza for our first meal in France. A young couple ran the establishment, and asked me if we would like our pizza to “emporter.” No, we shook our heads. We were keen to sit in another environment to relax before getting back in the car, and also to use their facilities. The couple looked at each other awkwardly. We close at 1 pm they said. “OK, emporter,” I smiled, and shrugged, Gallicly, I hoped. So we sat on a bench, under a tree, by the car park, and ate our pizza At precisely 1 pm, the sports bar emptied. Men of all ages spilled out into the square. There were no women. They were obviously at home cooking dinner. As the menfolk of the village walked past us, they waved and smiled, and called “bon appétit!”
We made it to Orleans a few hours later, and found a small hotel on the banks of the Loire river. We crashed for a few hours in our room, our body clocks screaming at us that it was the middle of the night and we should be fast asleep. They screamed louder when my alarm went around 5 or 6 pm, and we forced ourselves awake.
The key to beating jetlag is (apparently) to eat at the appropriate time in your new destination, and to get some sun and air. So it was time for a walk, then dinner. Alongside the river was a footpath, being used by joggers and cyclists, adults walking with children and dogs. We took a stroll, albeit still feeling groggy, and enjoyed the bright green spring growth on the trees lining the very gentle, languid river making its way through the town. However, the combination of jet lag and swarms of bugs drove us off, and we grabbed a quick snack before collapsing in bed. The next day our French holiday (and 5 weeks of French cuisine) would truly begin. We woke refreshed, and began the day, and the next month, in style with cafe au lait, jus d’orange, and fresh croissants and pain au chocolat, before setting off to explore.
This is when you realise that O = Orleans was cheating, ever so slightly. We didn’t explore Orleans, instead succumbing to the temptations of the Loire Valley to the southwest, starting at the capital of the region, Blois.
I could go through the details of the different chateaux, giving you information on the Kings of France and the thousands in their entourages who visited them, astonish you with the fact that the Chateau de Chambord has 440 rooms, 330 fireplaces and 84 staircases and that Louis XIV added a 1,200 horse stable,
or that the Chateau de Chenonceau and its beautiful gardens was seized from Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers by her dead lover’s jealous mother, Catherine de Medici.
I could list all the chateaux in the valley, naming my favourites, and give you instructions of when to go there, and where to stay when you go. But I won’t. Instead I encourage you to imagine a warm spring day spent exploring these amazing buildings and grand gardens, relaxing under a tree with a baguette for lunch, where Kings and Queens and their Courts and courtesans conducted affairs of state, intrigue, gossip and scandal. And I want to elicit your promise to go there one day if you get the chance.