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Loire Dire, Part I

Our house in Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt

Last summer, we were once again able to do a house exchange. Our son James was serving a mission for our church in France, and once he had finished his two years of service, we wanted to pick him up in person and have a family vacation before my VCFA exchange residency in Bath, England. On previous exchanges, we'd stayed just outside Paris, in a posh London suburb, and in southern Burgundy. This time, I had my eye on the spectacular Loire Valley

Patrick and I had done a Loire Valley road trip 24 years before, back when I was pregnant with our oldest child, so I had a few things in mind for us to do during our three weeks. We were lucky enough to exchange with a family who lives just outside Blois in Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, which was perfect for a few reasons. First, it was just two hours from Paris, so we could easily fly in and out of Charles de Gaulle airport, and picking up our son from the mission home when the day came would be relatively simple. Second, the many amazing châteaux right around Blois made exploring a cinch. 

Once again, we struck the house swap lottery, as you can see from the photo above. Here's another view:

It's so funny, when we first started doing house exchanges, I didn't care that much about what the house was like, as long as it had room for all of us and a decent kitchen. But we have been spoiled each and every time with amazing houses--so now when I'm on HomeLink, I pay a little more attention to the architecture.

Our hosts generously insisted on driving up to Roissy and picking us up at the airport. It is rare for European families to have cars big enough for our family, but this time, we were doubly fortunate and didn't have to rent a car. However, fitting all of us plus our luggage in the car proved to be quite the Tetris challenge. But every time our youngest daughter's bony bottom dug into my numb thighs in the back seat, I reminded myself how much money were were saving by not hiring a car service. And soon enough, we arrived at the house. The property--it must have been at least an acre--was surrounded by a high wall, and had a swimming pool, a huge terrace, lovely plantings, and decades-old redwoods and sycamore trees. Paradise. 

Our hosts had prepared lunch for us, which we ate after they gave us a tour of the house. They then left us; they were staying in Blois overnight before leaving the next day for Los Angeles to stay at our house. We got unpacked. The first day in Europe, it's always a challenge to stay up until the local bedtime, but if you can, jet lag is much easier to handle. So that afternoon, we drove into Blois and walked around the castle and surrounding historic district. 

Across the plaza from the château was a museum of magic. Every hour on the hour, golden dragon puppets came out of the windows and bobbed their heads around while the church bells tolled. 

After a nice walk, it was finally time to go home for dinner and then get to bed. We ate on the terrace nearly every meal, only crowding around the kitchen table on rainy days. 

The next day, which was Friday, we went grocery shopping at a nearby Auchan supermarché. Longtime readers know how much I love foreign supermarkets, and this one was no exception. We got fabulous cheeses, gorgeous produce, and other staples to last us for a few days.

In the afternoon, we had visitors. Tess had gone on a youth exchange (which we'd also arranged through HomeLink) the summer before with a girl her age who lives in Versailles. Tess stayed three weeks with their family, and then she and Léonie flew to Los Angeles and Léonie stayed with us for three weeks. Tess and Léonie had stayed in close touch, and we'd hoped that Léonie and her parents would be able to come down and visit us--which they did. Marie and Olivier were just as lovely as their daughter, and we had a fun weekend with them. 

Saturday was a quiet day. In the morning, we went to the extensive outdoor markets in Blois, then spent the afternoon visiting, swimming, cooking, and eating. (What could be better?)

Sunday after church (at a sweet branch in Blois), we went to Cheverny with our guests. It's about a 15-minute drive from our home base, and it's the castle used as a model for Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin books. The same family has lived on the estate for 600 years. They had a whole outbuilding set up as a permanent Tintin exhibit (which was terrific) as well as a neighboring building that serves as kennels for over 100 French hunting dogs. The cháteau, gorgeous inside and out, the extensive gardens, Tintin, and the hounds all made this one of our kids' favorite days. 

After our fun day, we said goodbye to our guests. It was a perfect weekend except for how HOT it was. Our 200-year-old house wasn't air conditioned, which made sleeping a bit of a challenge, even with every window wide open. There was a silver lining, though. That night, a nightingale woke me up, and I lay in bed looking out at the stars and listening to glorious birdsong for a long time. Even now, the memory chokes me up. 

The heat wave continued into the next day (and beyond). We went to Amboise, knowing that the car's air conditioner and the thick stone walls of Amboise's château would help us cope with the weather. Amboise sits high on a hill overlooking the Loire River; the views from the ramparts were spectacular.

We had a picnic by the river. Many of you will remember that our vacation meal routine is simple: yogurt and a croissant (or other viennoiserie) for breakfast; ham, cheese, and salted Normandy butter on fresh baguettes for lunch; and a home-cooked dinner like sautéed chicken or pasta and vegetables and salad, with dessert being either a little store-bought pot-de-crème or an ice cream bar. We bought the bread and croissants fresh every morning at a fabulous nearby bakery. When the food is as good as it is in France, the routine never gets old. 

Next, we visited Le Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci lived for a time (and died). The walk from downtown Amboise isn't bad, and we saw many houses that were built right out of the limestone caves that line the way. Da Vinci's house wasn't as impressive as I'd remembered, but the shady park surrounding it had fun recreations of some of the Renaissance man's designs, in which the kids could run around and play. 

The late afternoon walk back downtown was especially hot, and everyone was tired, so we treated ourselves to some excellent gelato at Amorino, right across the street from the château. Spirits restored, we made the 40-minute drive back to the house. And that was the end of Day 5! Stay tuned for further adventures. 

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