Thursday 20 September 2018

Loire Valley: Castles... of every kind

 

The Loire Valley is famous for its historic chateaux and gardens which were once the holiday homes of France's royalty. Chenonceau is the best known.
The Loire Valley is famous for its historic chateaux and gardens which were once the holiday homes of France's royalty. Chenonceau is the best known.
Accommodation at Domaine De Dugny

Tara McGinn

'But what about the beach?' The children were not impressed with the prospect of a summer break far from the seaside.

For them, summer holidays have always involved the sea - and they love it: salt water, rock pools, sandy ice-cream cones and seafood lunches.

But it was time for a change.

I have always liked the idea of the Loire Valley, France's picture-postcard central region full of fairytale chateaux, vineyards and lush greenery - and sometimes I do get my way - so this time, as we pack up the car for the ferry, we leave the buckets and spades behind.

"There will be other things to do," I promise. "There are castles..." They are dubious. But in the meantime, there is the overnight trip with Irish Ferries to look forward to - and the giddy excitement only bunk beds and portholes can bring.

I know for many people the idea of driving to Europe on holiday can seem like a turn-off but for us it is an essential part of the experience. From the kids' point of view, there's something magical about getting into your own car, at your own house, with your own things and embarking on an adventure over land and sea, ending up in a faraway country, still in your car seat.

Accommodation at Domaine De Dugny
Accommodation at Domaine De Dugny

We board the Oscar Wilde at Rosslare and settle in to enjoy the magic show and children's disco before heading to bed to get a good night's sleep for the trip ahead.

Our destination the next morning is Siblu's family holiday park at Domaine de Dugny. We arrive mid-afternoon in the sleepy village of Onzain, and follow a winding road that seems to cut right through the centre of a massive field of golden grain. The park comes into view and the kids are instantly won over - there is a field of bouncy castles just by the entrance. There is no one else around and they can't quite believe it's real - and they have free rein.

"See," I say. "Castles."

We are no strangers to the French campsite experience but this is our first Siblu holiday. Siblu owns 17 holiday villages across France from Normandy to the Cote d'Azur. Many of them are right by the sea, but this one is on the banks of a little fishing lake and is leafy and peaceful.

We stay in a shiny new three-bed holiday home in a quiet corner of the park overlooking a meadow and a forest beyond. For city folk like us, it is a perfect spot. Sitting on the deck on our first evening, enjoying a bottle of the local rosé, we see rabbits, dozens of butterflies, an eagle, and a family of deer. At one stage, three hot air balloons glide into view and it's as though the whole scene has been choreographed for maximum effect.

Our holiday is at the very start of the summer season so it's fairly quiet, which is nice. The large supervised pool area is never too busy and the kids can have as many goes on the waterslides as they like without having to queue. There's also a covered heated pool, which is very handy when the weather turns, which it inevitably does from time to time (This isn't the south of France - and it's June).

There are several playgrounds dotted about the place, a crazy golf course and sports areas. Siblu runs free kids' clubs daily throughout the summer, jam-packed with lots of fun activities. And in the evenings there is family-friendly entertainment at the bar and restaurant area, provided by a very enthusiastic team of young performers.

It doesn't take us long to find a routine of sorts... mornings are croissants and coffee, then a swim, followed by a lazy lunch. Then some time by the lovely, leafy lake which has little pedalo boats and picnic tables and fishing rods.

After a few days of relaxing and getting settled into our new home, we get back in the car to do some exploring. We had promised there would be castles and really, in this part of France, there is no avoiding them.

The Loire Valley is famous for its historic chateaux and gardens which were once the holiday homes of France's royalty. There are 160 castles and stately homes in the area, with a selection of the biggest and best within a short distance of Domaine de Dugny.

Admittedly, to the untrained eye, they all seem fairly similar. We decide that - realistically - one is probably going to be enough for us, so we opt for the obvious choice, Chenonceau, which is the most well-known. Its iconic bridge of arches is one of the most photographed attractions in the country. It is opulent and undeniably impressive and strolling about you do sort of feel like you're in a different era - despite the many, many, many tourists.

We have a fun afternoon wandering through the great halls and bedrooms, the children imagining we are a royal family and this is our castle and the tourists are our loyal subjects.

The town of Amboise - where the Chateau d'Amboise, home of King Charles VIII and Louis XIII, looms large over the streets - is not too far away and we spend several afternoons wandering its shady paths and enjoying its cafes and chocolate shops.

The kids are fascinated by what appear to be giant fairy doors high up in the steep hillside… some seem quite ancient but lots are painted in bright colours with little windows alongside and flowerpots clinging to the walls, and seem to be very much inhabited.

These are troglodyte houses and it turns out they are very common in the area. They are a remnant of the 11th century when the local soft rock was quarried, creating cavities in the hills which people then moved into. Some are now offered as holiday accommodation.

There's more to keep us interested at the top of the town where we find Le Chateau du Clos Luce - the official residence of Leonardo da Vinci in the years before his death. It's now a museum with 40 models of some of the machines designed by Leonardo. It's the vast and charming gardens that are the real star though. There are play areas and more models and inventions that the children can interact with. It's a real find.

Towards the end of our holiday there is a special birthday to be celebrated (the big five!) so we decide to try something extra memorable. The birthday boy is a Toy Story fan and Domaine de Dugny is relatively close to Disneyland Paris. It is a two-hour drive and, as we have never done Disney before, it seems like the perfect opportunity to try it out without the commitment of a full-on theme-park holiday.

It's a huge success. It turns out that one day is plenty of time to get a good feel for the place. Given the time constraints, we decide to stick to Disneyland Park itself and give the neighbouring Walt Disney Studios Park a miss - a hard choice as that's where a lot of Toy Story-themed rides are - but in the end, it is a good decision.

The cynic in me isn't sure what to expect from Disneyland but we have a really fun-filled day wandering between the various lands and soaking up the atmosphere. The seven-year-old discovers her daredevil streak, eager to try as many rides as possible - the faster and scarier, the better. The newly five-year-old is a bit more cautious, happy to people-watch and potter about the castle and the fairytale scenery. But as the day goes on he gets into his groove. Towards the end, we even manage to cajole him onto the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster (hilarious!). He's still very proud of himself over that one.

Disneyland is always busy, but it's well managed. Yes, there are queues, but they move - and really I think the secret is to just go with the flow. We had come with few expectations and by the end of the day - as we watch the spectacular parade from in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle - we are completely won over.

With the drive back to Domaine de Dugny ahead of us, we don't stay for the night-time fireworks show, but I think we'll be back.

The joy of having the car on holiday is that you really can go where you like on a whim. A few days later, on the way to Cherbourg to board the ferry home, we find ourselves with a few hours to kill. All along the motorway there are signs for Omaha Beach - where the Allied forces in World War II landed in the D-Day invasion. We visit the Normandy American Cemetery, which is breathtaking in so many ways, and then the beach itself, where a striking steel sculpture, 'Les Braves', commemorates the soldiers who fell there. It is a special place.

And so, as we board the ferry a few hours later and find our cabin for the overnight journey home, the kids are full of chatter about a very successful trip. There were castles, of many kinds - from bouncy ones to Sleeping Beauty's. And we'd even managed a beach in the end.

Take Two: Top attractions

Poolside fun

A good pool area keeps everyone happy. Domaine de Dugny has waterslides, a lazy river, a heated indoor pool, a snack bar — and nice green areas for sunbathing. Lifeguards are always on duty.

Great outdoors

This part of France is especially picturesque. The campsite has bikes for hire, which are a great way to see the local area. For something extra special, hot air balloon rides are very popular.

Getting there

* Tara stayed at Siblu’s Domaine de Dugny holiday village in the Loire Valley, where a seven-night stay from June 9, 2018 starts from €462, based on a family of up to six sharing an Excellence holiday home,

See siblu.ie, or call 01 5268658.

* Tara travelled with Irish Ferries from Rosslare to Cherbourg. Prices to France start from €99, based on a car and driver. This summer, Irish Ferries will launch WB Yeats — which will be the biggest and most luxurious ferry to sail on the Irish Sea, doubling the number of summer sailings to France. Visit irishferries.com, call 0818 300400.

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