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.

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.