Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, in celebration of my just-finished cycle trip across France, I’m sharing an interview from my new France guide for one of my own favorite cities in the Loire Valley: Amboise.
Today’s interview comes to us from Stuart of amboisedailyphoto.blogspot.com.
First, tell us about yourself.
My wife Elizabeth and I are Americans who decided to retire to France. We lived in a small apartment in Paris for four years, but being Americans, we wanted more space. So we bought a little house in Amboise, renovated it, and moved in at the end of 2011.
I had a 33-year career in software development. Elizabeth was a French teacher in high school and later earned her doctorate in Education and spent the rest of her career doing educational research.
These days, I spend my time now doing house projects (re-finishing doors, etc.), woodworking (I am an amateur furniture maker), cycling, running, and, of course, doing some photography (I run a blog called Amboise Daily Photo, among other things). Elizabeth has evolved from quilt making to textile arts in general and is currently spending her time perfecting dyeing techniques. We both enjoy cooking and traveling.
What should first-time visitors do and see in Amboise?
The two big attractions are the Royal Château d’Amboise and Clos Lucé (Leonardo DaVinci’s home in his final years).
The château, while not on the scale of some of the more famous castles in the region, is charming and has a great view of the town and river. The chapel there is reputed to have the remains of Leonardo da Vinci entombed there (though there’s some controversy around that). Crowds aren’t usually a problem, but if you arrive at the same time as a busload of tourists, take a walk around the gardens before heading inside.
The mansion of Clos Lucé is in great condition and tells the story of Leonardo’s last years there. In the basement, you’ll find models and videos of many of his inventions and, while not all of them were practical at the time (due to engineering limit-ations), they still inspired later working devices like the heli-copter, the parachute, and various movable bridges. The grounds host larger versions of some of his ideas that kids can play on. In high season, the mansion can get a bit crowded.
The main square, Place Debré, and the main shopping street, Rue Nationale, are great for shopping, eating, and people watching.
What are some of the city’s more hidden gems?
For history buffs, the old Hôtel de Ville (town hall) is now home to a small museum open in the high tourist season. The catholic church, Saint-Denis, dates from the 12th century and still conducts services, as well as frequent Saturday weddings.
Where should people stay in Amboise? What are the most interesting or nicest neighborhoods?
The area within walking distance of the château is considered old town and since it’s best to do Amboise on foot, I recommend you stay there.
Let’s talk about day trips. What nearby places should we visit?
There must be a zillion tourist books about the châteaux of the Loire Valley. There are over 50 and most are open to the public. Amboise is very centrally located and you can visit most of them as day trips (that is to say, each one in a day). One of my personal favorites is Chenonceau, which is fabulously furnished and features three different gardens and a re-created 16th-century farm planted according to season. There’s also a carriage museum and a maze. For history buffs, it’s not to be missed.
The largest château is Chambord. It’s not as well furnished as some, but you can’t beat it for scale and majesty. I love to climb to the top-level terraces for a view of the rooftops and surrounding countryside.
The other popular château is Villandry. The château itself is nice, but its big draw is the over-the-top, formally maintained gardens (which appear on many of the Loire Valley tourism ads). The grounds are huge and you could spend hours wandering around snapping photos.
Finally, I must mention a personal favorite that isn’t quite as grandiose or popular: Château Chaumont. It’s just down the road from Amboise and is also known for its gardens. They are, however, not the formal French gardens as seen at Chenonceau and Villandry, but are modern and creative, even fanciful, gardens that change every year. The grounds also host outdoor art installations. The château is nicely maintained and furnished. And I especially like the stables. The horses back then lived in nicer digs than I do now.
There’s a zoo about an hour away (Beauval) that’s considered one of the best in Europe. There are also a number of hot air balloon operators that offer a bird’s eye view of the area in the early morning or late afternoon.
And, of course, there are many, many vineyards where you can taste and buy the local wine. Our favorite is Domaine Huet in nearby Vouvray, which has wonderful whites (but no reds). It can be a bit tricky to find, so I recommend checking the map on their website (huet-echansonne.com) before you go.
Another favorite is the Cave des Producteurs (also in Vouvray) with its wine-making museum, video on how vineyards work throughout the year, and, of course, tastings of a variety of whites and reds from local producers.
Where are the nicest places to go for a walk in the area?
It’s always a pleasure to walk along the banks of the Loire River to watch the birds, the boats, and especially the sunsets. Also, after visiting Clos Lucé, I recommend returning downtown by taking Rue Léonard Perrault uphill until you arrive at a view-point next to the château overlooking the town. From there, take the steps down to return to town.
Let’s talk about food. What local dishes should we try while in Amboise?
The Loire Valley is one of many famous winemaking regions in France. In my view, the white wines are the most special. While Touraine (the area around Tours) wine is not really in the same class as those from Bordeaux and Burgundy, there are many quality wines at very reasonable prices. This area is also famous for its goat cheese. My favorite (among many delicious options) is the pyramid-shaped Valençay.
There are several shops on Rue Nationale that sell a wide variety of regional products and wines. And Amboise hosts two open-air street markets (marchés) each week. The Friday market is mostly food-oriented and the choices are almost overwhelming. The Sunday market—which has not only food stalls but also clothing, jewelry, kitchen supplies, furniture, garden equipment, bedding, and home goods—is the largest in the region and attracts people from a wide area. It was recently voted the favorite market in France. It’s great cheap entertainment and comes with lots of photo opps.
What are your favorite local bars or restaurants?
Our favorite restaurant for reasonably priced, high quality meals is the Crêperie Anne de Bretagne (1 Montée Abbel-Kader). If you want authentic Brittany crêpes, this is the place to go. Service is continuous, so you can eat anytime you like.
For a more formal, classic French restaurant, we like l’Epecerie (46 Place Michel Debré; phone: +33 2 47 57 08 94). And for a really intimate meal in a small restaurant, we like La Pause du Temps (80 Rue Nationale; phone: +33 9 81 97 55 57). Reservations are recommended for both.
Finally, the bar La Cave à Bulles (44 Rue de la Concorde) offers live music.
What’s the best way to meet locals and make friends?
It’s admittedly difficult if you speak no French whatsoever. But when meeting the locals always start with the obligatory bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?, then plunge on in whatever language works. They understand if it is a mix of French and English. But they definitely appreciate when you try to speak some French. (We’ve actually found that people generally are surprised when Americans can speak some French.)
Overall, making friends here takes time. Compared to Americans, the French are bit more guarded and it takes awhile to earn their trust and confidence. Having said that, I have found the locals to be very welcoming.
Where are the best places in your town to take a photo?
One of my favorite places is from the château looking down over the town, the Loire, and the Pont du Maréchal Leclerc. In reverse, the best place to shoot the château itself is from the bridge or the island it connects to (Île d’Or…island of gold).
And anyone who follows my blog knows I love to take photos of the sunset over the Loire from the château side of the river.
Anything else you want to share about your town or region?
The area has become a magnet for cyclists. There is a large network of bike routes and there are embellishments to them every year. Many tourists cycle from town to town to see the châteaux and other sights. And I have seen a number of American bicycle touring companies operating here (e.g., Vermont Bicycle Touring and Backroads).
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