Loire, Cognac & Bordeaux, France
Welcome to the Loire Valley! Time to get our drinking on. Our first stop: Sancerre, the home of Sauvignon Blanc. The picturesque town was located on a hillside, with vineyards popping up everywhere. We stopped at two cellars, where we tried heaps of different Sauvignon Blancs and surprisingly they all tasted quite different. Not one of them I would have recognised as Sauvignon Blanc as I know it back home. We also sampled a couple of Pinot Noirs, which were insanely nice and insanely expensive. We ended up buying a bottle of Sancerre that most closely resembled what I know and like about Sauvignon Blanc, then hit the road again.
The Loire Valley was beautiful (more scenic than anything else we had seen so far), driving beside the river the entire way. We drove all the way to Blois and set up camp for the night in a car park alongside yet another river with some other campervans. Danny cooked a fantastic soup for dinner out of some cup-of-soup packets, adding pasta, veggies, herbs and condiments. It is amazing what he can do with so little space and so few ingredients.
The next day we set off to go chateau-hopping through the Loire Valley. First we visited Chateau Chambord, one of the most popular in the area. They wanted to charge us €6 for parking in an open air car park with no security. We opted to park around the corner for free instead. The chateau itself was huge (obviously) but so were the grounds: a whole 5000 hectares. Who needs that many hectares? We took the obligatory tourist photos then left.
We hit several other chateaux during the day, or tried to, but the entrance fee for each was exorbitant. We didn't actually enter any as we felt we could see enough from the outside. Really we saw enough chateaux to last us a life time. The best for free viewing was a chateau in Saumur. It was right on top of a hill so we could see it from many angles, plus there were (limited) views over the town from the gate.
The big news of the day: I drove the van. Well, sort of. I did most of it, Danny just changed the gears for me. I only stalled it when I had stopped in the car park and was going to turn it off anyway, so it doesn't count. I drove for half an hour before deciding that was enough for today. Small steps...
We did try some wine today in this part of the Loire Valley from an old, deaf Frenchman. All communication was by gesture. We ended up buying a bottle of his Sauvignon Blanc, again dissimilar from all the others we had tried. The reds were mainly Gamay and Malbec, which were not our favourites.
We drove all the way to Cognac that night and ate dinner about 9:30 p.m. We originally parked on what we thought was a side street, but it happened to be the busiest side street in all of Cognac, so we moved the van at about 10:30 p.m. before finally going to bed.
Early the next morning we took a walk through the small town of Cognac but no stores were open until 10 a.m., so we had to wait around for a while before doing anything. Once the doors opened we visited one of the touristy stores in town, buying a tiny bottle of the expensive brandy before moving on (in an effort to save our money).
Our next stop was St Emilion, in Bordeaux, which ended up being my favourite wine region in France. It was a stunning-looking town set on a hill, with dozens of wine shops, tastings and cafes. Everyone was friendly and many people spoke English (a rarity). We accepted tastings at one wine cellar and two wine stores, which offered a huge range of wines all from the Bordeaux/Bordelais region. One man even showed us the cellar, which had a bottle of Sauternes from 1899 (he was very proud of this). We restrained ourselves and bought just one bottle of Bordeaux (the one that wasn't overly expensive).
With some help from the tourist office we located Chateau Laroque, just outside of St Emilion. This was the wine we drank on our wedding night and we were hoping they would be open for tastings, as it's not available in Australia. Unfortunately, it was closed. It was a pretty winery though, built into an old castle. Back in town we found a couple of vintages of their wine, which were crazy expensive (no wonder they didn't do tastings). We relented and bought these as mementos then headed off before we spent our entire year's budget.
Next we headed over to Pauillac, on the other side of Bordeaux, also famous for pricey wines. We found one store in town selling wine from the region and they miraculously offered tastings too. The man helping us was so nice and gave us seven tastings, including a white (sweet, not great) and a rosé (or clairet as they called it, which was also not to my liking). We enjoyed the reds though and bought a bottle from him for his efforts.
Reading back over this I can see we look like alcoholics. We're not that bad, really...
From Pauillac we drove down to Sauternes and managed to find a car park with a few other campervans and waste disposal site, which made us feel slightly safer than parking on the street. For dinner Danny whipped up one of his usual (but fantastic) rice, veggies and chilli dishes, which I'm sure made all the other campervaners jealous with the aromas coming out of our van. Dessert was a Loire Valley goat cheese with baguette. One of the campervans near us had a generator, which was extremely loud but thankfully he turned it off fairly early. It was not as loud, however, as the church bell next to us, which chimed on the hour every hour (and one chime on the half hour) until 10 p.m., then started again at 7 a.m. the next morning. That's the last time we park next to a church.
After waking to our parochial alarm, I decided I was tired of not having a shower and my hair looking disgusting and oily. This resulted in me washing my hair in our shower. Of course the temperature outside was almost freezing overnight and, as a result, so was the water coming out of our water tank. My scalp was in agony as I managed to very quickly get shampoo into and out of my hair. I can guarantee I won't be doing that too often.
Things started even later in Sauternes than Cognac: 10:30 a.m. However, if you wanted to buy your bread before then, you could, as they sold it in vending machines. Our aim was to visit a few vineyards to try some of the wines of the region, but then we stumbled upon a store that sold Sauternes from possibly every winery in the area. We tasted a few (it was far too early for drinking) before Danny bought a bottle for himself and one as a present. I think we have well and truly blown our budget in the last couple of days.
I managed to summon up the courage to drive again, this time using the gear stick myself. I think I did pretty well: I only stalled once, again as I was coming to a stop at an intersection. After half an hour of nervous driving I pulled into a town called Roquefort. It turned out that there were three Roqueforts in France and Danny was hoping this was the one that produced the famous blue cheese. It wasn't. There wasn't much of anything in this Roquefort. We quickly left.