Sunday, 12 June 2016
Whatever happened to the Lad on Tours?
“You look like Neil Pearson”, my mother said to me the other day. It was true that my haircut rather resembled this comic actor of yesteryear, but what did I care? With my Depardieu-esque locks, I was off to Tours, France for a customary late-spring week of over-indulgence. Think fine food, wonderful wine, cracking culture and of course a cheeky chateau or two to boot!
So on a mizzly Sunday morning, armed with my flowing, mousy brown locks, a trusty duffle bag and a bucket load of coffee I embarked on the plane to Nantes (some readers might remember I went there last year for a night). Leaving the farcical EU Referendum debate behind, I breathed a sigh of relief as a I sank the usual, first G&T of the holiday, looking forward to a week uninterrupted by slippery fish, truffling buffoons and swivel-eyed loons.
It was all about getting away from it all and immersing myself in something completely different. Perhaps this was he last time I go to could go to Continental Europe without a Visa! Who knows? Indeed who cares? This was my holiday and I wasn’t going to let Cameron, Osborne, Izzard, Gove, Johnson or Farage spoil it for me!
A little geography first. Tour is roughly equidistant between Nantes and Paris (around 200 kilometres each way). It is situated on the banks of the river Loire and has long had an association with wealth and prosperity alongside its neighbouring region of Anjou. The rich flood plains of the Loire Valley give fertile pastures for growing all manner of crops and vegetables and the surrounding limestone escarpments offer the perfect vehicle for terraces of vines and caves for mushroom growing. It’s a lush area, punctuated by thick woods, medieval towns and of course the world famous Chateaux.
I visited the area briefly last year and was immediately struck by both the charm of the city and the rich culinary heritage of the surrounding countryside, it was high-time for a return and I want to share the best bits with you from this trip!
Aside from the restaurants, I have intentionally not included links because I feel you, as the reader, should hopefully be inspired enough by this post investigate details for yourself!
easyjet flights from Gatwick to Nantes go daily so shouldn’t be too hard to track down. My advice is to fly out on Monday and come back on Saturday. For anyone who has ever been to France, Sundays and Mondays are dead days, everything (except for the tourist traps) is shut, a little bit of strategic planning will avoid this.
A car is recommended as it means you have the freedom to get to some of the harder-to-reach chateau you might have on your itinerary. You’ll just have to sort this out for yourself from the usual suspects of messrs Hertz, Avis or Europcar. It’s an easy, two hour journey from Nantes-Atlantique airport via two motorways to Tours.
However, you can also do plenty on the very extensive and sophisticated train network operating across France. A short journey from the airport to Nantes’ main station, followed by a 1.5 hour journey by train to Tours is all it takes.
There are a number of options, it’s not a one-horse town so there’s plenty available from the budget chains to something a little more chichi, this can range anywhere from £35-£175 a night (season dependent).
My preference is for Airbnb, I stayed in a lovely apartment this time, right in the heart of town with parquet floors, high ceilings and that 'je ne-c’est quoi' you only find in French flats!
Water pressure can be an issue as I found out but it’s a small price to pay when everything else is top notch. On this latter option, expect to pay around £70-£110 per night.
Let’s put it this way, if you’ve read this far then you must have an interest in Renaissance chateau… there are plenty to whet the appetite, in fact, there’s no escaping them. From my last visit there were three which I think are essential:
Amboise - It’s striking position, built up on a promontory overlooking the Loire offers an awe-inspiring approach. Overlooking a pretty, if tourist-spoilt town, this castle is the final resting place of none other than Leonardo Di Vinci who occupies a spot in a very fine late-medieval chapel. The main building itself is sparse in its interior but set within a very tasteful gardens. The view from the top over the surrounding countryside is worth the admission itself.
Chenonceau - Possibly the most well-known (with Chambord) of all the chateaux in the Loire Valley. Chenonceau is a visual feast for the eyes. Set deep within a wood, the structure straddles the river Cher with great majesty. The interior is not much to shout about, most of these buildings have had their best objects removed and plonked in The Louvre. However, the manicured gardens are elegant and pristine and Chenonceau’s is viewed on a sunny day, from these trained terraces, its beauty takes your breath away!
Villandry - What a place! Villandry's gardens are, rightly, world famous. In fact, the grounds are some of the most important in the world and have had a staggering influence on modern horticulture. It has to be seen to be believe, especially the vegetable garden which is both ambitious but equally breathtaking, interesting and sophisticating it’s a must see. The chateau is also worth a look but has nothing on its setting.
Other things to do
Unfortunately, I cannot list everything, the chateau section in itself takes up a pretty healthy whack of space, but my way of enjoying a holiday is to live like the local. I don’t tend to go around, glued to the guide book, ticking things off on a list. However, a trip to Tours has a couple of ‘must see’ attractions, so I list them below.
Tours Cathedral - What a magnificent example of Gothic architecture, this grand building is quite a spectacle. You can spend hours entranced both by the fine, ornate exterior or by the understated interior with its fine stained glass. As a church it’s free to attend however I hope, like me, you will put a donation into the collection box (whatever your religion) to ensure structures like this are preserved for generation to come.
Les Halles (the market) - This makes Borough Market look pretty paltry. The food market in Tours has a dedicated building (a pretty unattractive one but a dedicated one nonetheless), full of the most wonderful regional treats. Think huge dishes of terrines and salads, all sorts of sausages and hams, the numerous French cuts of meat, fresh vegetables at reasonable prices, river fish… I could go one, but that is for another blog. It was a feast for the eyes, a bountiful forum full of the freshest produce. Alas, if only we had this in every quarter of this Sceptred Isle! Go and see it for yourself.
As a town with a large, thriving student population, there are plenty of places to go and find a tipplee in Tours at any time of the day. The Place Plumereau is as good a place as any to start. It’s a bit touristy but you can get a good glass of the local, very agreeable wines: Touraine, Chinon, Vouvray Rose d’Anjou.
By the glass, wine is terrific value and good quality with plenty of variety, I’d recommend exploring source of drinking on your visit. The beer offering is often constricted to the usual, mass-market suspects. A brief mention should be made to Cointreau which is distilled just down the road in Angers, and makes the perfect, appropriate end to a meal in these parts.
Where to eat
Restaurant Maison Des Halles - I had two, incredible meals at this restaurant. Right next to the market, this establishment has a menu which should appeal to both the most conservative palettes and the more adventurous. For my part, I dined (on both occasions) on calf sweetbreads, sautéed in butter until golden and served with a beautiful macaroni gratin, carrot puree and veal jus. I also sampled delicate bone marrow, a tranche of foie gras, Iles Flotante and the most delicate apple tart. The wine was excellent and of course, like any restaurant worth their salt, they had a cracking selection of eau de vie to round off the meal!
L’Arome - A lovely little restaurant, perfect for an evening meal. Its small menu is not recommended for the unadventurous but for those who like meaty, offaly dishes, this is a must. I had a bizarre but very tasty warm cep and potato terrine, followed by a thick slice of braised ox cheek with gnocchi and spring vegetables. All this was finished off with a simple poached pear with ginger ganache. Beautifully balance, masterfully executed.
Bistrot les Tontons - I have a bias to this place, in Saumur, not Tour, but worth the visit (accesible both by car and train). It was the charm of the proprietor which first won me over, with his perfect English, quick wit and knowledge of the menu. A bro-mance was born. Using local produce to the best effect I dined on a perfect mousse of smoked eel, a pleasingly textured steak tartare and a rhum baba. On that hot day, this largely (and I should add, intentionally) cold meal was most pleasing. Gerald, our host, chose the wines and I must say did us very proud. All I can say is please, please visit!
There, that’s your lot! I hope I’ve given a rounded enough indication of why this part of France demands your attention and, perhaps, requires your visit very soon!