Leisurely mornings and afternoons are often enjoyed aboard the Renaissance. Life moves ever so slowly on a luxury french barge cruise, so sitting back and taking it all in is one of the most relaxing parts of the journey. Whilst many would enjoy doing this all the time, the Loire Valley day tours and activities available as part of the planned program liven it all up, get the blood flowing, and take us on a cultural and learning experience in one of the most picturesque parts of France.
Loire Valley Tours on Our Luxury French Barge Cruise
The Renaissance cruise takes place in the canals of the Upper Loire and Burgundy regions, running down the border of two of the most well-known areas in France. They are, of course, known widely for two things; the first is wine. Both Burgundy and the Loire regions are at the heart of French wine regions. Their unique soil and other climatic conditions gives rise to some incredible, and very different, tasting wines. The Loire, is without a doubt, one of the more beautiful areas in all of France. Known for its château, there’s barely a moment that goes by where an incredibly ornate, and very old castle can’t be seen.
Whilst Loire Valley wine tours and châteaux tours form a strong part of the week-long adventures off the barge, there’s also a great array of other Loire day trips and activities to keep everyone interested.
Travel to and from all excursions are via the European Waterways private vehicle. It mirrors the cleanliness of the barge and provides transit in a spacious and comfortable manner. The air-conditioned vehicle has large windows allowing all guests to have a view and water is always supplied during and after the trips.
A Private Tour Guide
All of our visits are guided by crew member, Matthew, an easy-going fellow with a penchant for history and telling stories. He has a manner in which he shares information of interest, without being boring, and without feeling as though we need to find a speedy exit for the closest door. His love for the role clearly shows, and it’s hard not to hold onto his every word. He gives everyone enough time to stop and take photos, to admire a painting or to read a signboard. He moved us along when he had too without being overbearing or pushy. Overall, his style meant that we enjoyed every single place we visited, and everything we heard.
He was also happy to stop for a few “surprise” visits to some of his latest finds, like a 10th-century church in a town boasting a population of around 300 people, or taking the back road to check out yet another glorious château.
Château de Fontainebleau
Our week starts off with a visit to Fontainebleau, a city about 68 kilometres south of Paris and home to not one but two areas of interest. The Forêt de Fontainebleau, a huge forest once the playground of royalty, is now a key attraction for rock climbers, hikers and those who love the great outdoors. Its 280 square kilometres of greenery completely surrounds one of the most prestigious castles, the Château de Fontainebleau.
The Château de Fontainebleau is equally impressive, with rich history and yet it receives only a portion of the annual visitors the more widely known Palace of Versailles receives. This is to our advantage, with smaller crowds, there’s more time to move about the palace admiring as much as you can. Dating back to at least 1137, the first recorded reference to the château, it is the only château to have been continuously occupied by members of the royal family for eight centuries. Through the Renaissance years in the 1500’s through to the 18th century, kings, queens and other members of French royalty lived here, making their own changes to a building that began as a hunting lodge and became an ever-growing palace.
The years were tough on the château at Fontainebleau and during the French Revolution, the furniture was removed and sold. Having been bought and sold many times, including by the French military, and occupied by the Germans during World War Two, the mainstream restoration was undertaken by President Charles de Gaulle in the mid to late 1960’s. The château was included as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981. Despite the furniture being removed in the late 1700’s, the furniture seen here today is still hundreds of years old. Its opulence is a sight to behold, particularly in an age where this type of excess and richness is rarely on display outside of such unique properties.
To see this château in its entirety would take days. We were fortunate to be able to spend a little time here, looking through some of the more important rooms of the house, and getting a taste of what life would have been within its walls.
French Military School of Horse Riding
Close by the gates of the Fontainebleau, a very special tour had been prepared for us. A colonel in the French Army waited for us. A passionate horseman he was to be our guide as we made our way around the French Military School of Horse Riding.
Whilst this tour is available once a month, it is little-known to most visitors to the area. The crew of the Renaissance work in and around these local areas, building relationships with people and businesses, which in turn provide special access to the guests on board the barge. It’s not the first time we will see this happen during the week, and we are grateful for the unique opportunities European Waterways provides.
Looking almost like a second-hand store or the back of a farmer’s shed, we visited the museum with all manner of horse memorabilia, much of it from the war years. Dummies wear the uniforms of old, whilst saddles of various kinds compete for space with horseshoes and even an entire horse skeleton. As the Colonel takes us through this and other areas like the blacksmith’s foundry, and the medical quarters, his passion is obvious. He is particularly keen for us to learn how they repatriate and provide jobs for war-wounded soldiers. When he talks about the high number of women employed “because they have such an understanding of horses” and of the French team, including soldiers, winning medals in the equestrian events at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, his pride is palpable. When he takes us to the stables, where his personal horse “Estella” and others live, his love for the horses is immediately tangible. We can see they love him too.
The tour of the military school is unusual but totally unique. It’s the type of travel experience that we regularly seek out and to have it provided as part of a barge cruise was unexpected.
Château La Bussiere
Not every château can reach the heights of those like Fontainebleau. In fact, many of them scattered throughout France and Europe, lie in private hands. Those who live within the ancient walls, have usually inherited them, as they pass down through the generations, or buy them in private treaties. Whichever the case, government funding does not apply, leaving those who own them to do so at entirely their own cost. Privately owned or otherwise, though often aesthetically different, their similarity lies in their history.
Château de La Bussiere has been continuously inhabited for nine centuries, a stunning fact when you consider the more famous Fontainebleau was only eight. Originally a fortress, this smaller castle is surrounded by a lake that once upon a time would have fed into the moat, one of the castle’s security strongholds. In 1814, the Chasseval family owned the castle and have handed it down to their descendants ever since. Access to ten furnished rooms is provided to the public. This lesser known location often sees more school children than the likes of us, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. In fact, it makes it more so.
The kitchen is my favourite part of the castle, with the old auger stove that once would have provided heating for many of the surrounding rooms. I could easily imagine the shiny copper pots hanging on the wall being used to prepare the meals and generous lashings of it all being served on the crockery that now adorns the central wooden table. Most unusually, the castle is home to a strange collection of fishing items and eccentric art pieces, like the fish suspended from the ceiling over a staircase. The grounds are also home to an extensive vegetable garden known as one of the most beautiful in France.
Visiting the Gien Crockery Factory
This was such a great visit, despite it being something that we normally wouldn’t consider. This is the beauty of the barge holiday once again. The excursions are planned to offer variety, fun and a unique experience, catering to a broad group of people with varied interests.
The Gien crockery factory was founded in 1821. The location was chosen due to the proximity to three of the key ingredients for making pottery: sand, water and wood. All of which could be found in the nearby Loire River or forest. As we also know from our time on the canals, the Loire River and canals were an integral part of the transportation network.
Today, all the history of over 200 years of making vases, dinnerware and incredible collections is continued. Products and designs are used that reflect the current trends of the day, taking inspiration from those around, whilst keeping the processes of making them true to its origins.
Here we saw how the crockery is made from a piece of clay, through the production lines, quality checking and the most amazing of all, the hand painting. The Gien crockery is now a mix of both hand painted and stencilled artwork. To the human eye, there is little to tell the two apart, save for a signature under the pieces that are hand painted.
It’s an expensive product to buy, but when you see the process and effort that goes into making these pieces, it’s easy to attribute such value.
The Gien Markets
Every French village has a local market of some kind. The market business is culturally strong here, with locals making regular pilgrimages either daily, bi-weekly or weekly to buy their fresh produce, cheese, meats and fish.
For the guests onboard the Renaissance, we stop by the Gien local markets, tagging along with the barge’s chef, Hannah. Hannah takes us on a tour of her favourite vendors, stopping to pick up products to be used back on the barge for our meals. In between orders, she provides us with samples of local sausage, cheese, seafood and fresh fruit.
It wouldn’t be a food market in France if we didn’t get to taste and the vendors here are more than willing to cut you off a slice of something in order to convince you to buy it. Oftentimes, they are such lovers of food that they are happy just to see your reaction as you bite on a piece of smelly blue cheese, or swallow down a sea-snail. The highlight of our personal visit to the market was seeing the food Hannah bought on our plates on the lunch buffet.
Eglise de Montbouy
We moored near this church overnight, so our first stop in the morning before things got underway was a visit here with our Captain, Hadrien. In a way that only small villages in France can operate, he first got the key off the local village Mayor, allowing us private entry into the church. The various building styles (Roman, Gothic) support the fact that is was built, and added to, over many centuries. Inside, incredible stained glass windows, built during two distinct eras is immediately evident.
Château de Ratilly
Châteaude Ratilly rounded out our visits to castles and it couldn’t have been any further away from the glitz and glamour of the first at Fontainebleau. As much as I loved visiting all of them, it was the simple Château de Ratilly that I adored.
Built in the late 1200’s, it was lived in, bought and sold by families of nobility until notably, in 1951, the castle is bought by private owners Jeanne and Norbert Pierlot. Together they formed a pottery enclave, complete with workshop, where they made practised their own craft and developed it as a cultural hub for others to do the same.
This is a château that most wouldn’t get to see. It’s in its most raw form; with bedrooms put together in a somewhat mangled configuration, basic bedding, and many of them having to share a bathroom down the hall.
A bedroom, in an almost secret hiding place in the attic, would be the place to be on a dark stormy night as lightning dances about on the castle’s tower visible from the room’s only window.
It’s been retrofitted with electricity, so at least the days of finding your way up flights of spiral staircases with only a candle to light your way now behind them.
We were delighted to meet Nathalie, one of the Pierlot’s daughters, who has carried on the pottery tradition. In a heartbeat, she pulled out some clay and created first a vase, then a jug in front of our ever watchful gaze. Another masterpiece to add to a growing storage area of pottery.
The family has a strong community spirit, running exhibitions and music workshops at the château during the year.
Wine Tasting in the Loire Valley
Wine tastings can be fantastic. They can also be a bit ho-hum, especially if you’ve been to a few. Fortunately, the winery we visited has been carefully selected to ensure both enjoyment of the winery tour and the tasting. As the corks were taken out of no less than 11 bottles of Henri Bourgeois’ finest, employee Jean-Michel told us how the terroir (soil) in the Sancerre area had a significant impact on the flavour and cellaring times of their pinot noir and Sauvignon blanc wines. In the 1950’s Henri Bourgeois started in this area with only a few vines, growing and producing as “it was cheaper than drinking water”. Today, they are the biggest family winery in the area. Our visit to the winery ended with a trip into the town of Sancerre.
Cycling in the Loire Valley
Good quality bicycles are provided to allow guests to ride alongside the barge on the towpath, or to go for a jaunt into the smaller villages that we pass during cruising. The rides are easy and the barge doesn’t go very fast so it’s virtually impossible to get lost or left behind.
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Entertainment in the form of a saxophone player and singer provided an evening of difference. The saxophone player considered himself to be a bit of a dancer, actively encouraging the guests to get up and dance with him. I obliged, whilst others did their best to look busy with their phones. It was a little tricky doing ballroom type dancing that I am not at all accustomed to, nor good at, but it was a chance to have a laugh and some fun.
It doesn’t get much more decadent than to have a hot tub at your ready. During summer it’s a little warm to be jumping into 37 degrees Celsius. In reality, it’s probably not much better getting into it in the evening when it is only marginally cooler. However, with a hot tub on board, there was every chance you’d find me in it at some stage. With a (plastic) glass of French sparkling in our hands, we indulged on several evenings. It was a great way to finish off the day.
Activities don’t just occur off the boat, they can happen onboard also. Midway through the week, Chef Hannah invited the guests into her kitchen, so give us a lesson on how to prepare artichokes.
Most of the guests had either previously eaten them out of a can, or frozen, or not at all. They are a vegetable that no-one ever seems to know a lot about. Many find them difficult to cook with. Hannah’s plan was to take the mystique away from this weird-looking vegetable. Through a series of steps, she showed us how to trim the hard leaves from the outside, squeeze it so we could differentiate between the hard and soft parts of the centre, take the heart out and get it ready to bake. The filling was a savoury farci and topped with cheese and then baked slowly in an oven. It was served with an aioli and a chilli, tomato sauce.
“It’s Australia vs France”, the barge’s captain, Hadrien calls out to us. We’d just come off the boat and into the local park alongside our mooring spot for the night We’d challenged Hadrien and our trusty tour guide Matthew to a game of pétanque.
The crew had mentioned to us that Hadrien took his pétanque very seriously, and judging by his call, it seemed like he meant business. He explained that pétanque, a game loved by the French, was usually played with a glass of pastis in your hand, and a lot of yelling. With a drink in our hand and a reputation for being quite loud and quite competitive, it appeared as though the scene was well and truly set. The race to seven was hard-fought, to-ing and fro-ing, until I’m pleased to say, the Aussies won. That aside, it’s a great way to relax and a great example of the types of activities that can be done even though you are holidaying on the water.
Like anything on board the Renaissance, the daily activities are purely optional. Guests can go to all or opt in and out as they please. If you are looking for a holiday that provides both the opportunity to relax with a great mix of activities then a week aboard this luxury barge is a perfect choice.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of the Renaissance, European Waterways and Barge Lady Cruises for this luxury French barge cruise. The opinions, words and images are authentically our own.
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Kerri McConnel is the owner of travel blog Beer and Croissants.
A world away from the frantic corporate life she once lead, Kerri now chases her travel dreams with her husband.
Often in a motorhome, they love seeking out unique travel experiences that always include great food and wine.