France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Coronavirus travel info

Just a quick update to the coronavirus travel situation.

You will likely have heard or will soon hear the breaking news that the World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic.

In view of this news, those who have travel planned or who are thinking of travel should know that the Canadian government has created a page specifically for travel advisories related to COVID-19. This is probably the best place to find science-based, non-hysterical information about the dangers of travel to specific countries.

Safe travels!

Is housesitting for you?

Leon, our charming host in France.

Following a recent housesit in France, I have had a number of queries from curious friends and family for more information about how housesitting works. I hope this post will answer a lot of questions and give you a sense of whether you might like to try it.

Mark and I began housesitting about three years ago. I had bumped into housesitting sites on the Web and thought it an interesting idea.

In the typical housesit, no money changes hands. The sitter lives in the host’s home for free while the host is away and performs certain duties without pay. Those duties may include pet care, plant or lawn care, pool maintenance, etc. The sitter is also expected to keep the house tidy and clean to the standards of the host. There are variations on this model e.g., I’ve seen ads where the host expected the sitter to pay for utilities during their sit, or where the sitter was asked to look after an AirBnB suite, but these are not common. Sometimes the host will allow the sitter to use their car. Out of five sits that we’ve done, two gave us the keys to their car.

So that’s it in a nutshell: free accommodations for the sitter and free house/pet sitting for the host.

Sit periods can range from a couple of days to a year. There are sits available in major cities like Bangkok, London, and Los Angeles as well as in very rural settings. They are in sprawling farms and in tiny apartments.

To find a sit, you might want to belong to a housesit website, which will list available sits as well as available housesitters (should you be a homeowner seeking a sitter). I’ve dealt with three sites: nomador.com, trustedhousesitters.com, and housecarers.com, but I’m sure there are many others out there. Nomador (about $90 per year, with a free trial option) has a lot of sits in French-speaking countries plus other countries. Trustedhousesitters ($130 annual fee) I haven’t accessed for a long time, so I’m not sure whether they specialize in certain areas. Housecarers (US$50 per year) is the one I’ve used the most and the one where I’m still a member. It has a lot of sits in Australia, but also worldwide. You can browse all of these sites without becoming a member so you can get an idea of the kind of sits available, but if you want to apply for a sit, then you need to become a member.

Once you are a member of a site, here are some tips for getting the housesits you want:

  • Develop a good resume. Do a couple of sits so that you can advertise experience. You can do sits closer to home in order to gain this experience. Our first house sit was on Mayne Island.
  • Get references. Remember, from the host’s point of view, this is all about trust, so you need to do everything you can to gain their trust. Start with personal references and an RCMP background check (currently $25) then add references from hosts as you accumulate experience.
  • Be diligent about checking the site. An interesting offer will attract a number of applications quickly, so if you don’t see it for several days, you may have already lost out.
  • Be flexible and ready to commit when you see something you like. In the case of France, we had just returned from a trip to Panama and had already committed to a sit in Nanaimo over Christmas. I knew we had open time from mid-January to end of Feb, but I wasn’t seriously searching for a sit and I actually never considered France. However, when the French sit popped up and the time frame was ideal, I did some quick research on the area and thought, Wow, this would be a great place to spend several weeks. I also checked flight prices (terrible) and considered the ongoing general strike in France before applying. The point is, from first seeing the ad to applying was only a few hours, and there were already several other applications.
  • Keep your online profile up to date. Add photos. Mention previous sits and locations. After your initial contact message, your profile is your best chance to impress hosts with your reliability, personality, and character, so make it good.
  • Have a backup plan. We have not had any problems (crossed fingers) but I have read stories about hosts (and sitters) cancelling at the last minute, so I’m sure it happens. Since you’ve already made various arrangements—booked flights maybe, rented a car, taken time off work—what are you going to do? Cancel the whole thing and pay the penalties? Or go ahead and make other arrangements for accommodations? Either way it’s going to cost you more money than you planned, so it’s best to consider this in advance.

Housesitting has been a great experience for us. We’ve really enjoyed spending time in places we wouldn’t necessarily have visited otherwise and having a “home” rather than a hotel to relax in. We’ve also loved spending time with the pets we’ve met and getting to know our hosts.

If you think this might be something you’d like to try, do your research. Visit the sites I’ve listed and look for others to find the one that best suits your own needs. Read through their rules and browse the available sits before becoming a member. It’s a different way to travel but it might just be right for you!

Knot Spots: Airline Response to Coronavirus

Spotted: vancouverisawesome.com

It seems a bit disingenuous to write about the joys of travel during the current coronavirus scare, when people are afraid to pass through airports or be entombed in airplanes with hundreds of unknown people from all around the world. Even those who would dare those risks are reconsidering travel plans when the very real possibility of quarantine looms large. No one wants to spend weeks in a windowless cruise ship cabin. (Shudder.) My own friends and family are canceling or postponing trips for these reasons.

Perhaps the airlines are starting to feel the pinch, as a note just popped up to say that Air Canada and WestJet will waive fees to change flights if you go ahead and book flights now (between March 4 and March 31 for AC and between March 3 and March 17 for WestJet). I’m guessing new bookings have plummeted to zero and they are desperate to get some cash flowing in. I suggest that ALL airlines and ALL hotels/accommodations follow suit or they will be completely shut down for the next few weeks, until the health situation stabilizes. No one is going to be crazy enough to book travel as long as there’s a good chance they will lose their money if they have to cancel.

Meantime, what I want to know is how will the airlines and hotels accommodate people who booked months ago and are scheduled to travel soon? Has anyone heard anything from them beyond “Tough luck”? I even wonder if travel insurance companies are going to cover any of this. (Doubtful.)

Willkommen/Bienvenu/Welcome

The next time you travel to an international destination, wouldn’t it be fun to meet a local who could speak your language and would take you on a themed walking tour, telling you all about their beloved home town?

When I stumbled upon the International Greeters Association website during our recent trip to France, I immediately loved the idea. When I found out the service is free, I loved it even more.

The first chapter of what would become IGA was founded in New York in 1992 by Lynn Brook. According to Big Apple Greeter: “On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome.”

The concept was a resounding success and the organization now covers 123 destinations, with over 3500 greeters.

The IGA has the following core values:

1) Greeters are volunteers.

2) Greeters welcome individuals and may serve small groups of up to six people.

3) Meeting a Greeter is free of charge.*

4) All visitors and volunteers are welcomed without discrimination.

5) Greeter organizations support sustainable tourism. Programs respect natural and man-made environments, bringing both cultural and economic enrichment to local communities. Programs aim for a lasting positive image of each destination.

6) Greeter organizations create a mutually enriching opportunity for cultural exchange; create links between people in creating a better world.

I connected through the Loire Valley Greeters site, where they feature hosts from six Loire cities, including Amboise, where we were staying. I was also able to specify my language of choice (English, because I’m an ignorant North American monolinguist) and a theme (history). Other themes included literature, architecture, local products, nature, and shopping. Once all those filters were applied, the site offered me several greeter options. I picked a friendly face and sent through my request for a date/time.

I quickly received a confirmation and a contact for our greeter, Charles.

Charles was a delight, full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of Amboise. He was well prepared for our visit and even carried a binder with visual materials to illustrate some of his stories. Together, we wandered through the old streets, with Charles chatting about specific houses or the general history of the area. We peered into courtyards and poked around in one of the lovely old churches, Église Saint-Denis. We had the opportunity to ask about things that had puzzled us. It was really like a stroll with your favourite teacher.

We were thrilled to discover this organization and to visit with Charles. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it earlier in our trip so that we could have met greeters in some of the other towns we visited.

*I was contacted later by the Amboise group to solicit feedback and to request a donation. I was happy to provide both, but it’s your option whether to donate.