“In France, we have a saying, ‘Joie de vivre,’ which actually doesn’t exist in the English language. It means looking at your life as something that is to be taken with great pleasure and enjoy it.” – Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat
Once upon a time, the Loire Valley was a land of fairytale castles. I found that in many ways, it still is!
Long before Paris was the center of the French universe and before Louis XIV built the epic and egotistical Versailles, the Loire Valley was the chosen spot of kings, queens, dukes, and nobles. Understandably – to be within earshot of the royals – 16th-century aristocrats and noblemen followed suit. Renaissance châteaux replaced outdated feudal castles with some of the most opulent, sumptuous pleasure palaces that anyone has ever had the gall or money to build. (Picture Beauty and the Beast on steroids.) This historic region is home to over 300 magnificent châteaux and also just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because of the many rivers running through the region, agriculture boomed and lovely little villages grew up in the fertile river valleys to support the playground of French royalty and aristocracy. Known as the “Garden of France,” fabulous foods and vineyards were, and still are, in abundance. The region’s châteaux, and the villages and vineyards that surround them attest to over a thousand years of rich architectural and artistic creativity.
The town of Amboise straddles the widest stretch of the Loire River (see the banner image). The Chateau d’Amboise sits high above the town overlooking winding cobblestone streets that wander down to the Michel Debré Square.
Castles have overlooked the river from this location since early Roman times. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) wintered his troops at Amboise, and there are significant Roman remains from this era. Today, Mick Jagger’s French domain is two miles away. He has been seeking “shelter” there since 1980.
In 1516, the Italian genius Leonardo di Vinci retired to the Château du Clos Lucé as the invited guest of King Francis I and lived in the plush palace until his death in 1519.
Interesting fact: At age 64, di Vinci crossed the Alps on a mule with the Mona Lisa and several other favorite paintings stashed in his saddlebag.
Today, the castle houses over forty of da Vinci’s inventions. His bedroom and the Chapel of Saint-Hubert (where he is buried) are cloaked in frescoes that were painted by his disciples.
Taking our cue from da Vinci, we selected Amboise as our home base for traveling within the Loire Valley. Our hotel, Le Choisel, was located just a five-minute walk from the center of town.
This small, elegant hotel is tucked in below the ramparts of Amboise Castle and is comprised of three picture-perfect period buildings arrayed around a beautifully landscaped terrace and courtyard.
Our room was beautiful with gorgeous views of the Loire River. There is a superb gourmet restaurant, Le 36, in the hotel where we enjoyed an amazing dinner one evening (more about that next time). Le Choisel was the perfect vantage point for our exploration of the Loire Valley.
The hotel offered a €24 buffet breakfast option which looked lovely but none of our group favor a large breakfast so we ambled into town and luckily discovered Patisserie Bigot.
This pastry and chocolate shop was founded in 1913 by the grandfather (René Bigot) of the current proprietor and is a real family affair. In 1973, the bake shop was converted into a warm, comforting tea room with a glowing fireplace that took the edge off of a chilly November morning. I felt as if I were transported back into 1913 with charming white-aproned waitresses giving us very efficient service.
The espresso was rich, the hot chocolate divine, and the tea was served with delicacy in fine porcelain. At breakfast, we enjoyed a warm croissant or pain au chocolat (or both) but they also featured chocolate marshmallow teddies, caramels, Pushkin truffles, muscadine truffles, macaroons, shortbreads, pies … and so many other sweets! On our last morning, Karel stocked up on assorted chocolates to give us strength for the rest of our trip!
Another fortuitous discovery I found was the La Fourchette restaurant. This tiny eight-table restaurant was about as far away from a château as you can imagine, but everything about it was so special that we ate dinner there two nights in a row. We (barely) found it on the corner near the end of an alleyway just off Rue Nationale. The inside was right out of a storybook with small round and square tables, heavy wooden beams, stonework, mirrors, and a beautiful fireplace.
It was run by a father-son team operating out of an impossibly small open kitchen. The father (Clêment Le Levier) handled the service – both food and wine.
The son’s (Thierry Le Levier) cooking gave us an incredible culinary experience.
The dishes of the evening and a wine list were on two hand chalked blackboards. The followng images are just a sample of the stellar dishes that we enjoyed.One thing to be aware of at La Fourchette: if you are gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian or (shutter) vegan, you should take your business somewhere else. This was not a “special requests” restaurant. It was about experiencing what the chef felt like making that evening in the manner he wanted to make it. Guests should not be picky diners – they should simply enjoy their good fortune to be there.
The restaurant is very small and the menu is very limited (two appetizers, two or three mains). What that means is the chef has lovingly prepared something fresh, interesting and delicious. This is the kind of restaurant I hope to find when I travel – locally sourced food and wine served by people whose hearts are in it. When they run out of the fresh food that they have ordered for the day, they turn people away even if there are empty tables.
Très Magnifique, La Fourchette!