A Week in the French Alps (and my skiing saga)

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The week between Christmas and New Year’s, we headed for the mountains to the family friendly resort of Le Grand Bornand.  Unfortunately this was the third winter in a row that there has been no snow at the end of December in the Alps, but luckily the resort had snow cannons so the boys could still do the ski school we had signed them up for.

We stayed in the basement apartment of a chalet that we had found on AirBnB and the accommodations were cozy and charming.  The family who owned the chalet was so sweet and they even left a bottle of local wine and a wheel of local Reblechon cheese for us.  The village in the Haute Sauvoie region is one of the largest producers of this cheese and you can see the little farm shops selling their cheese throughout the village and its surroundings.

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We never really went on vacations when I was growing up, let alone winter vacations so it’s a new experience for me.  Living in Geneva, this type of holiday is now pretty much mandatory and as a family we have really enjoyed the winer fun!  The boys love staying busy with winter activities-this time it was ski school (first time for the little one and the big one was so pleased with himself and his great progress)-and in the afternoon we had some relaxing time playing games at the chalet, sledding, or going for an easy hike.  It was great and quite relaxing!

Before we left we had debated canceling due to the lack of snow but I’m so glad we still went.  There was enough manufactured snow to keep us busy and we had gorgeous sunshine every single day.  After a gloomy couple of months in Geneva, it was wonderful to soak up some Vitamin D!

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And here goes my skiing saga…

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This is my third season skiing since we moved here and I feel like I am not really much better than when I started, nor do I enjoy it any more.  Learning to ski as an adult is hard!!!  I can’t seem to get out of my head and get over the fear factor and the whole time I’m skiing I feel anxious.  I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to feel like that, but I don’t know how to get over it.  Meanwhile my kids make it look so easy and have no fear…my older son (who is 5!) has already far surpassed me and my abilities.  I feel torn between wanting to stick with it and conquer my fears and just giving up and sticking with the winter activities I do enjoy like snowshoeing and winter hiking.

I do know that every year when the ski season is over I feel so happy to have my weekends back again!  I thought it would just be something we did while we lived in Geneva, but now that the boys have learned how to ski (and I see how important it is to get confident while you’re young!), I feel like ski holidays might become a part of our lives.  Definitely not yearly but enough to keep up their skills.  Will have to decide if I will continue or just be content to enjoy the mountains and the aprés ski.  Anyone have any advice?!

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Whether skiing or not, I do love the mountains and feel so lucky to live only an hour away from such gorgeous mountain scenery!

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Paris En Famille

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We spent a magical weekend in Paris this past fall when my mom was visiting.  She’s dreamed of visiting Paris since we moved to Europe six (!) years ago, so it was high time.  And the boys were also very anxious to see the Eiffel Tower so we decided to travel en famille for a long weekend.

Lucky for us, Paris is just a 3 1/2 hour train ride on the TGV so it’s quite easy to access.  We stayed at a perfectly located Airbnb apartment just a 5 minute walk from the Louvre and had a great weekend exploring the city.  Since my mom has a hard time walking for miles, we did the Hop On-Hop Off bus one day as a way of seeing what we wanted to see without as much walking.  Even with the metro, there are lots of stairs up and down, so the bus was an ideal way for people with limited mobility to get around.

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I think there’s clearly no bad time of year to visit Paris, but fall was especially beautiful.  We had mostly good weather and the leaves changing color all over the city were gorgeous.  Since Lukasz and I had only visited Paris on our own before, I did a bit of research and was surprised at just how much kid friendly stuff there was to do.  Here is a list of some of our favorites:

  1. Pictures and Posing at the Louvre-

Since our guys are just too little to drag through the crowded museum, we settled for showing them the famous pyramid and letting them have a little run around one of the courtyards.  We have a few books about Paris, so they were excited to see this iconic sight.

2.  Jardin des Tuilleries-

Our two little wild men had a great time strolling running through this famous park, drawing with sticks on the dusty paths, riding the carousel, and stopping for hot chocolates with a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.  There is also a small playground (more for older kids) and a paid area with mini trampolines.  Definitely a great place to burn off some steam when your littles need a break from sightseeing!

3. Being Mini-Foodies-

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While you generally won’t find kids menus at most restaurants (French kids eat what their parents eat), we found everywhere we went quite receptive to kids and perfectly willing for them to share a full size entree.  When we would stop for a drink and a snack, the waiters would bring the kids a syrup to drink along with a small snack of popcorn or bread which was much appreciated!  Generally the brasseries are more casual, thus making it a laid back option to dine with kids in tow.  And what’s not to love about crepes, pastries, and croissants as big as your head?! The other thing to note is that most restaurants don’t open until 7 or 7:30 for dinner, so staying in a self-catering accommodation is a nice option if you don’t want to have lots of late nights out with the little ones.  If you have older kids, there are some food tours that sound amazing…Paris by Mouth is one I’ve heard great things about.

4. Stepping Stones at the Palais Royal-

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We stayed close to the Palais Royal, so we had to check out the famous black and white stepping stones, which the kids enjoyed hopping and climbing on.  The palace is also supposed to have great gardens, but unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to check them out this time as we had other things on our agenda!

5. Notre Dame Cathedral Playground-

Although it’s small, the playground between the river and the Notre Dame Cathedral is a perfect place for the kids to burn off some energy-especially if they had to wait in line to get into the cathedral!  If the weather is nice, you could pair it up with a boat ride along the Seine as there are several tour companies docked just across the bridge.

6. Eiffel Tower-

Of course no visit to Paris is complete without a stop at the Eiffel Tower!  It was certainly the highlight of the trip for the kids and for my mom too.  We went around 4:30 pm along with some snacks and champagne we picked up at the store on the way there.  The nice thing about visiting in the fall is that it gets dark earlier so the lights were turned on at 6 pm, which left us plenty of time to check it out and then head back for dinner.   The kids had a great time playing at the playground (with the most amazing Eiffel Tower views), and they were mesmerized when the lights came on and then even better the twinkly light show.

7. Jardin du Luxembourg-

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My favorite part of the trip was whiling away a sunny morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg, just like the Parisian aristocrats used to do.  The park itself is incredibly beautiful and there was so much for kids to do.  From sailing miniature boats on the little pond, to pony rides, to playgrounds, there are lots of options to spend a whole day here.  All the activities, even the enclosed playground, comes with a fee so be prepared, but fees are minimal.  Our kids had an absolutely magical time riding ponies through the fall leaves and sailing boats along the pond.  If you travel with kids to Paris, make sure you put this park at the top of your itinerary!

Paris is a great city to visit with kids and ours certainly had a great time.  What are you favorite kid friendly tips for Paris?

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La Belle Vie on the French Riviera

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Seeing the French Riviera was an absolute must for us before we move on from Geneva, but we didn’t want to fight the crowds in the summertime.  So for the second holiday weekend in May, we decided we would check it out and see what the hype is all about!

Nice is about a 5 1/2 hour drive from Geneva (without construction or traffic, which never happens!), so we decided to break up the drive and stay in Provence.  We headed out right after school on Friday and still managed to hit quite a bit of traffic, but wound up at our charming B&B in Orange in time for a welcome jug of wine (!) and a run around the garden for the boys.  We stayed at Les Tilleuls and while it was nothing fancy, we liked the fact that it was on the outskirts of town in the beautiful Provence countryside and the hosts were incredibly kind and accommodating.  They also had a family room which was huge and perfect for our one night stay.  And a cherry tree right outside our room, just about ready for picking!

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On Saturday, the forecast for Nice was partly cloudy with showers, but Provence was beautiful and sunny so we decided to spend the day exploring.  Our first stop was the Roman theater in Orange, which is one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the world and dates back to the 1st century AD.  The theater was incredible and it was so hard to believe that something as old as that could still be intact.  So impressive!

The guys were ready to take the stage!

Next stop was the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct that is really an amazing feat of engineering.  The aqueduct was used to carry water and it is the highest of all elevated aqueducts and the best preserved.  The setting on the Gardon River is really beautiful and people kayak and swim in the river to get even better views of the aqueduct.  You can park on either side of the aqueduct and walk across and there is a children’s playground, indoor play area, and a restaurant on site.

Our final stop was in Avignon, one of the most popular towns in Provence, with its famous Papal Palace.  We saw the impressive palace from the outside, but didn’t go inside since we read there isn’t much in there.  The highlight in Avignon is walking up the hill beside the palace to the park called Rocher des doms.  The views of the town and the Pont d’Avignon were beautiful.  The kids loved riding the toy horse and chariots they had for rent and playing at the playground, and afterwards we enjoyed coffees/ice creams at the cafe next to the little duck pond.

We were so glad that we spent the day exploring Provence.  Just driving through the countryside was stunning with lots of yellow flowers in bloom everywhere.  We finally made our way to Nice and drove through a huge rain storm.  Just as we arrived in Nice, the rain let up and by the time we checked into our VRBO apartment, it was nice enough to enjoy dinner outside.  We tried some delicious local specialties (fried zuchinni blossoms! pesto! rosé!) and crashed after a full and exciting day.

Sunday morning we woke to a gorgeous, sunny day so after a leisurely breakfast at our apartment, we set out to explore.  We stopped first at the super playground on the way right next to the Old Town, then we had fun wandering the streets of the Vieux Ville and the busy market at Cours Saleya.

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Of course it didn’t take long for us to hit the beach and even with the pebbles, we were quite impressed!  We had a lovely lunch at Castel Plage (of course we had to try the Nicoise Salad-definitely tasted better in Nice).

One of the things that was recommended to us in Nice was the Castle Hill and it was amazing.  You can walk, take a mini train, or take the elevator up to the top of the hill where a castle once stood.  Now there are just stunning views and nice playgrounds for kids and it was a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

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On Monday we wanted some beach time and we had read that the best place for sandy beaches near Nice was Antibes, specifically the little village of Juan-les-Pins where the millionaires and celebrities have their mansions.  We took a quick 15 minute train ride and arrived in paradise.  The weather was perfect and although the sea was still quite cold, it didn’t stop my crew of guys from testing the waters.  We set up shop at Juanita’s and rented chairs (at a more reasonable rate than available in Nice), ordered drinks, and ate lunch, then parked ourselves there for the afternoon.  It was perfect and the kids were in heaven.  Ok and we were too. 😉

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We had fun yacht spotting and looking for celebrities, but I think they were all in Cannes for the film festival!  Or maybe just hiding out on those yachts…

By late afternoon we decided it was time to move on so we walked to Antibes with some stops in the cute shops along the way.  We had debated about walking or taking the train, but walking was definitely the best decision because the views on the walk in were just stunning.  We wandered around the town and had dinner, marveling at how quiet and empty it seemed…then after doing some reading I learned that there had just been a huge star studded event at one of the restaurants in town just a couple of nights before.  Exciting!

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On Tuesday it was sadly time for us to say Au revoir to the beautiful Cote D’Azur, but we planned for one more stop on the way.  After a brief adventure of almost running out of gas, we arrived in Monaco and had fun checking out this swanky city-state.  Lukasz was thrilled to step inside the famous Monte Carlo casino and to see all the preparations being made for the Monaco Grande Prix held at the end of May.  I have to say I was probably least impressed by Monaco, but maybe that’s just because I had really high expectations for it.  It was definitely worth seeing, but I’m glad we only spent a morning rather than a whole day there.  The highlight for me was the amazing view of Monaco on the drive out of town-it’s definitely most impressive when you see it from above!

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The drive home was filled with jaw dropping beauty as we took the route up the coast of France and into Italy.  Every tunnel we went through brought us past one more lovely beach side village and it was so hard to resist stopping.  Right past Monaco, we couldn’t get over the staggering views of Menton and now we’ve added that to our list in hopes that there’s a next time for us to visit this area!

I have to say that despite the fact that the sea wasn’t warm enough for a proper swim, this was a perfect time of year to visit.  I think it was a completely different experience without the hordes of tourists and the weather was ideal-not too hot or cold, just perfectly comfortable.  Definitely a successful trip and hard to believe it’s just a half day’s drive from where we live!

 

How to Spend 24 Hours in Lyon

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Lyon is the second largest city in France and if you should find yourself there for a weekend, there is plenty to keep you entertained!  We went for our last weekend away without the kiddos and had a great time trying to see and do as much as possible in just a little over 24 hours.  So if you go to Lyon for a weekend, here’s what we suggest:

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-When you arrive, DO have lunch at a bouchon-a traditional Lyonnais restaurant serving local specialties.  Lyon has been called the “Gastronomic Capital of the World” and it is a foodie paradise.  Some of the smaller bouchons had similarly small menus and were a bit too “meaty” for me (rabbit, pigeon, blood sausages, strange animal parts, etc.), so we went to the historic Brasserie Georges which is the oldest brasserie in the city and one of the largest in Europe.  They have a big menu, brew their own beer, and the food was good.

-DO visit the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere and admire the gorgeous views.

-DON’T walk up the hill (unless you want a workout!)-Take the funicular up.  It’s easy and included in the public transport ticket.  We bought an all day public transport pass that was only 5.50 Euros…a great deal!

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-DON’T miss the inside of the basilica.  Like castles, we’ve seen about a million churches in Europe or so it feels, but the inside of this one is really beautiful and impressive.

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-DO stroll through Place Bellecour on your way back to the hotel before having  a little rest before dinner and an evening out.

-DO make a reservation for dinner in this foodie haven.  This is a city where people come just to eat, so you definitely need to do your research and book ahead.  This is the restaurant we were planning to try out in Croix Rousse:  Balthaz’art.

-Whatever you do, DON’T make a reservation at a restaurant by the same name in Toulouse, France. Wah wah.

-DON’T be stuck without a dinner reservation on a Saturday night the weekend of Valentine’s Day…

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-But if you are, DO thank your sweet Valentine for not holding it against you and head over to Place des Terreaux to make the most of it and listen to music while drinking wine and being grateful for that big apero snack you had at your hotel before you left.

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-DO wander down to Rue du Garet behind the Opera House if you need something a bit more substantial and you are reservation-less.  The Japanese noodle place is great!

-On Sunday morning, DO visit the fantastic market along the Saone River.

-DON’T pass up some of the Lyonnais specialties including the Lyonnais brioche, cervelle de canut (translated as brains of the silk worker but really just a delicious cheese made of fromage frais mixed with herbs, vinegar, garlic, and olive oil), wine, fresh produce, and DO as the locals and share a late breakfast/early lunch of fresh oysters and wine!

-DO stroll through UNESCO heritage site Vieux Lyon and admire the gorgeous architecture.  Wander up stairways, through alleys, and

-DO look for hidden archways and secret doors that lead to traboules, passageways that were designed for the silk workers to keep their silk dry in inclement weather.  If you stay for longer, there is a whole walking tour of the traboules that you can learn more about at the tourist info center.

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-DON’T miss La Tour Rose off the Rue du Bouef-we were perplexed as we saw this on the map and saw the hotel of the same name, but couldn’t find the actual tower.  It’s through a closed door and when you go in you walk to the back of the courtyard, turn around, and voila!

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-DO just enjoy wandering through this beautiful city-the old town, along the rivers, up the hills.  It’s lovely.  If you stay for longer, there are of course tons more things to see and do…a Roman amphitheater, the Musee des Beaux Arts, along with other museums, the modern part of the city known as Confluence, the big park called la Tete d’Or, fun shops-there’s lots to explore!

Colmar at Christmas

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The day after Christmas we headed to Colmar, which may just be the most adorable town in France.  Colmar is in the Alsace region of France near the German border and has been on our travel list for a while.  When we found out that their Christmas markets were open until New Year’s, we decided that it would be a great way to finish off our holiday season!

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Colmar is an absolutely gorgeous small town with its German style half-timbered houses and canals that remind you of Venice.  In fact, the neighborhood on the canals is called Petite Venise and in summer you can rent boats and paddle around town!  Colmar is about 3 1/2 hours from Geneva and after we settled into our hotel, we had a magical time walking around the 5 different markets all around town.

The setting was so festive with all the lights everywhere and lots of vin chaud flowing!  The kids enjoyed hot chocolate, the pens with animals, the Christmas lights, and the rides.  They rode a carousel and then found the highlight-life size horses that galloped around a track.  There was a snow machine that blew foam snow out and Christmas carols playing…it was great!  Except for the fact that we sent Jonah on his own and my husband (the overprotective one) convinced me that he was going to fall off.  I had a minor panic attack for the first lap as he went around and I envisioned him falling off this high horse onto the bricks (of course this attraction would never fly in the US…no safety belts, no age limits-just parental judgement, and no soft landing aside from some pine branches strewn over the bricks!).  But Jonah did great and loved it so by the second lap I was able to relax.  The boys loved the horses so much that we rode them at least once every day we were there!  I hope they will remember it forever, but if not I’ll be happy to show them the pictures and tell them the story.

The next morning we walked the markets again to see the town during daylight.  And we also found the most delicious breakfast spot.  Bagelstein had American style bagels with a French twist (fois gras bagel anyone?!).  It was a super cool little cafe and very friendly staff-we may or may not have had breakfast there the next day as well. 😉

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I would love to visit this town again in the summer, but truly it is gorgeous anytime!

In the afternoon, we drove along the Alsace wine route.  This region is famous for its German style rieslings, gewurtzraminers, and also pinot noirs.  We stopped and walked through one little village that was having its own Christmas market and then stopped at another village to do a tasting and buy a few bottles.

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Riquewihr

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Dambach-la-Ville  

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Colmar is only 30 minutes from Strasbourg, so we drove over and enjoyed walking around the lovely Old Town.  The Christmas market in Strasbourg is very famous, but unfortunately it was already finished for the season.  By this point, we had gotten our fill of Christmas markets, so it was nice to just wander around a bit.  We had a delicious dinner at Hotel Rohan where we tried one of the local specialties, tarte flambee, basically a very thin crust pizza.

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We were so impressed by the huge, Gothic style cathedral that was constructed from 1176 to 1439.  Until 1874, it was the world’s tallest building and even today remains the sixth tallest church in the world.  The building is really beautiful and you can view it from the inside as well.

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On our last morning, we wanted to go ice skating and ride what was apparently the largest indoor carousel in Europe, but unfortunately neither opened until late afternoon so we decided just to head back home a bit early.  We had a really great time and absolutely enjoyed this part of France.  We’d love to go back sometime in the summer, there are even more things to see and do including a stork sanctuary in one of the towns on the Alsace wine trail.  The region is famous for their resident storks and many of the towns build nests on the tops of the buildings for the storks.  We drove by the sanctuary, which is closed in winter, and we were lucky enough to see some storks in their nests as well as in some of the nests on top of the buildings!  It was a great trip, for sure.

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More Castles

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Since our family has lived in Europe for almost 5 years now, we have seen our fair share of castles.  In fact so many that although we still find them pretty and interesting, we don’t really go out of our way to see them.  Castles and churches.  Europe has a lot of them to say the least.

So when I first heard about the Loire Valley, “The Valley of a Thousand Chateaux,”  it was not really at the top of my travel list.  Luckily for me, I kept hearing about this area and became intrigued enough to check it out.  I’m so glad we did because it was certainly impressive!

The Loire Valley is definitely not the typical castle scene.  We’ve been in many a crumbling castle trying, but failing to envision its grander days.  But this was not the case in the Loire!  Many of the chateaux in the region are on such a large, grand scale that they command your attention.  Some of them were filled with so many antiques and beautiful furnishings that it was hard not to imagine myself as a lady of the court with scenes of The Tudors and Downtown Abbey running through my head.  Lukasz was quick to remind me that I would have been more along the lines of the help instead of a member of the family, but hey-it’s my day dream!

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Having been thoroughly impressed by the castles we had seen in our first two days, we woke up on Monday happy that everyone was feeling healthier and ready to tackle some more chateaux.  We headed to Villandry first, a chateau most famous for it’s beautiful gardens.  While the chateau was lovely on the inside and interesting because it felt a bit more modern, the gardens definitely stole the show.  There are 6 hectares of gardens including a huge vegetable garden with over 150,000 plantings.  In the fall, the pumpkins are the main attraction of the vegetable plantings.

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But the gardens a la francaise were our favorite with their symbols of love-so romantic!  Climbing to the top of the keep, which was the only remnant from the castle’s medieval days, provided the best views of the French garden.

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There was also a labyrinth and a wooded path to wander through.  We had a really nice morning walking the grounds here and it helped that the weather had turned into a perfectly sunny and crisp fall day.  After a break for lunch, we drove to the other castle that was reportedly can’t miss in the area, Azay-Le-Rideau.

IMG_6164We had wanted to see this castle because it is surrounded by a moat, the Indre River, and was created to resemble a gothic castle.  Since the boys are in the phase of castles and knights, we thought this one would be fun to see.  Unfortunately, Azay-le-Rideau is currently undergoing extensive reconstruction which is not set to be completed until next summer so it was covered with scaffolding on all sides except for one.  There were nice grounds to walk around here, but since the boys were losing steam we decided to skip the inside and outside tours of this one and head for some ice cream instead.  A wise decision, I think!

Lukasz and I were celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary this week and so I had asked our VRBO host if she might know a baby-sitter for us to sneak out to a nice dinner one evening.  She kindly offered to watch the kids for us herself and luckily, our part-American children go to bed early so it was not a big deal for anyone.  So that evening, Lukasz and I went out for a romantic, multi-course French dinner at L’Alliance.  And it was amazing!  We enjoyed some regional wine, fish, scallops, the fromage course, and some very impressive desserts.  We had initially been a bit disappointed because our first choices and recommendations were closed since it was a Monday, but this place was really wonderful.  One of my top meals ever, I think!

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Love that fromage!  I think I might be turning into a Francophile!  It was a great celebration and we spent the evening feeling truly lucky to be able to spend our anniversary in such a fun location.

We were heading back the next day, but planned to make a couple more chateau stops on the way.  We were planning only to stop at Chambord as that was the one castle I really knew before researching our trip.  I knew it was impressive and didn’t want to miss it.  However, our host advised us that we could see Chambord from the outside for free and that we really should not miss the interior of Cheverny, which in her opinion was the most beautiful of all the chateaux.  So we headed first to Cheverny to check it out.

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We were really glad that we didn’t miss this one-it was beautiful!  This is one of the few Loire Valley chateaux that is still occupied by a noble family and there is a room in the entry dedicated with wedding photos and a family tree.  The furnishings were beautiful antiques and artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries.  We especially liked the hall of arms and the king’s bedroom.

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The interior was stunning and really very interesting.  The chateau also had a large forest park where you could go for electric boat or car rides.  We would have loved to do the boat, but sadly didn’t have enough time.  We did also enjoy walking through the vegetable garden and stopping by the famous kennels where the hunting dogs are kept.

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After this, we headed to our final stop of the trip, Chambord!  It was just as impressive as I had imagined and while Mason had a little nap in the stroller, we enjoyed a picnic with a lovely view of the castle and a stroll around the outside.  It took a while because the chateau is huge!  It was established as a hunting retreat and is set in the middle of a royal game forest.

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We did wish that we had time to tour the interior to see the famous double helix staircase (rumored to be designed by da Vinci) and the view from the turreted rooftop.  There is also an interesting guide to the castle you can download on your ipad, which looked like it would be fun for older kids.  You could rent electric cars to tour the grounds or go on a guided 4×4 ride.  There were also horse and carriage rides available.  Chambord is probably the most famous chateau in the Loire and as such, was definitely the most crowded.  It was understandable to see why it was so popular, but we preferred the more private, relaxed feel of the other castles we visited.  That was probably only possible though because we toured in the off season-I’ve heard that in summer the whole area is pretty packed.

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We had heard that the Loire Valley was gorgeous in the fall and with all the trees and forests, it was easy to see why.  I think we arrived a bit before the peak colors, but we still enjoyed some lovely autumn scenery.

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It was a great trip, and we felt like we just barely brushed the surface of what the area had to offer.  We really enjoyed everything we saw and felt that Amboise was a great base to explore the region.  The boys came home with a souvenir-a castle and some knights-and have been playing “castle” every day since the trip.  A success all around, I think!