We spent our day watching the French countryside roll past our window as or train sped from Tours to Toulouse, in France’s South-West. After 6 hours in transit we arrived tired and decidedly uninterested in the sights here, which is a pity as Toulouse no doubt has some lovely features. Instead of venturing out for more sightseeing, therefore, we’ve spent the afternoon catching up on “admin stuff” instead and preparing ourselves mentally for tomorrow’s move away from French-speaking lands (we’re catching a bus from Toulouse to Andorra tomorrow, where the lingua franca is Spanish). We’ll be swapping “merci” for “gracias” for a while, which is really exciting! Not that we’re keen to leave – France has been amazing fun and we have absolutely LOVED the scenery, the history, the food, and the people. The best part of today, in fact, was spending some time reviewing the 2,700 photos we’ve accumulated during our time here in France, and remembering all the places we’ve been and sights we’ve seen.


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One of the things that first struck us about France was how varied and pretty the scenery is. From the mountains around Chamonix, to the crystal clear waters of the alpine lakes around Annecy – the French Alps are stunning.


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In the South of France we were mesmerised by the impossibly blue waters, rugged cliffs, and dramatic scenery of the Côte d’Azur.


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Around Bordeaux and in Alsace (near Strasbourg) we learnt the joy of wandering through vineyards and learnt a little about French wines.


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And, of course, the rolling hills and fields of Provence are famed for their beauty. Turns out we were not immune to the charms of Provence…


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Most of all in Provence we fell in love with the villages. From the rusty red homes of Roussillon, to the hill-top beauty of Gordes, the region of Provence has more than its fair share of beaux villages.


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France has a bounty of gorgeous Medieval towns to explore – as we found out. Some of favourites (outside of Provence) were Perouges, St Emilion, and Eze.


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Even in the bigger towns and cities we often found ourselves captivated and lost in the streets of the vieux ville (i.e. old town). The narrow streets and alleys of Nice’s old town, the old part of Tours, Annecy’s old town, and, of course, of Strasbourg’s Petit France, were all wonderful places to get lost.


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Often in these bigger cities the old Medieval town centre sat alongside much grander palaces and public buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The combination of all that history and architecture creates some of the most beautiful cityscapes we’ve ever seen – especially in Bordeaux and Lyons.


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And of course, if we’re going to wax lyrical about beautiful cities, Paris has to get a mention. France’s capital is, without a doubt, one of the most charming cities in the world (despite the hordes of tourist, crazy traffic, and business).


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Paris’s museums and art galleries are, of course, part of its appeal. For us the Louvre stands out as a highlight – both as a museum and as a building. Just magnificent!


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We got to visit many wonderful museums and art galleries, actually. Aside from the Louvre, the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon (Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon) was the most memorable.


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In almost every city, town, and village we visited there was a church to explore. Some of them were small and touching in their simplicity….


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…whereas others were spectacular and extravagant. Like Notre Dame in Paris, Notre Dame in Dijon, the Cathedral of Tours, and the incredible Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyon.


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If the churches and cathedrals were extravagant, then the palaces and castles of Frances were magnificent. From the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, to the majesty of the Louvre (which was once a palace), and the extravagance of the chateaux of the Loire Valley, France has more castles than we thought was possible. Our favourites would have to be the enormous Chambord, once the king’s hunting lodge; the “Ladies’ Chateau” of Chenonceau; and the simple beauty of Cheveney.


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More about function than form, France’s citadels and fortresses also wowed us. The strength and scale of the fortresses in Villeneuve le Avignon, Carcassonne, Besançon, and Koeningbourg will forever be etched into our memories.


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As will the history and wonder of some of France’s most ancient historical sites: L’Arena de Nimes, Pont du Gard, and the great Roman temple in Nimes.


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Less grand but no less memorable for us were all the great little markets we stumbled across during our time in France. From the large under cover market in Dijon, to the smaller fresh food markets we wandered through in Lyon, Nice, and Aix-en-Provence. Markets here are wonderful places, even if you don’t have a kitchen to stock. They’re alive with smells, sights, and sounds, and are a wonderful reminder of how much joy good food can bring.


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Speaking of good food, that has ABSOLUTELY been one of our favourite things about France. We were worried the food here would be too rich for us – the flavours too intense. Certainly there are lots of foods available if your palette runs to those flavours, but for us we found the best food was often the simplest. Rustic and flavoursome, but wholesome and nourishing – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We learned to love the fact that everything (and we mean EVERYTHING) stops for lunch, and that everyone takes time to enjoy their food. We will miss the food in France quite a lot…


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Last, but most certainly not least, the French people themselves deserve a mention. We were a little concerned that we would find the people here rude, abbrasive, and unhelpful (we’d been warned to expect as much from other travellers). Instead we’ve found people to be friendly, funny, and more than willing to help us out when we needed assistance. Sure, there have been a couple of instances where we’ve had some surly service, or encountered some cranky people; but no more so that we would encounter in Aus (especially in the cities). We’ve found French people to be very proud as well, and very confident, which may be why they get the reputation for being arrogant. But generally we would say that the people of France are amongst its greatest asset!


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It’s been an awesome 5 weeks, and we’ve seen so much! There’s so much more to enjoy in France however – we still feel like we have barely scratched the surface of everything there is to see and do here! Ah well, just gives us the perfect excuse to come back again someday soon…


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Today is our last day in the Loire Valley and we wanted to end our château sight-seeing with something special, so we set out to visit Château de Chenonceau and Château d’Amboise today – two of the regions best known castles with the most fascinating histories. Like many in the region, both castles were ransacked during the French Revolution, after their noble owners were deposed. Fortunately both were then bought by wealthy citizens and rescued, their beauty restored for castle-buffs like us to enjoy.


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First stop today was Château de Chenonceau, the most popular castle in the Loire Valley and the second-most visited château in France (after Versailles).  This château is often referred to as “The Ladies Castle”, because its history is inextricably linked with that of 5 women, all of whom loved the castle and left their mark on it. The end result is a château that is beautiful and graceful, and more than a little feminine in design.


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The castle was built in 1522 on the foundations of an old mill which once sat astride the River Cher. The castle was built by Thomas Bohier, Chamberlain to King Charles VIII of France. As his courtly duties often meant Thomas Bohier was away, the building of the château was primarily overseen by his wife Katherine Briçonnet. It was Katherine who had the building’s first graceful arches installed, ensuring the modest castle was beautiful as well as functional.


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In 1535 the château was seized from Bohier’s son for unpaid debts to the Crown, passing into the possession of King Henry II of France. King Henry II offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diana de Poitiers, who became the second lady to intertwine her life with that of Château de Chenonceau.


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Diana de Poitiers became fervently attached to the château and, in 1555, she commissioned the building of an arched bridge joining the château to the opposite bank of the river. Diana also oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens, which are still there today and known as Diana’s Gardens.


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After King Henry II died in 1559, his strong-willed widow, and regent, Catherine de Medici forced Diana out of Chenonceau and moved into the palace herself. Catherine de Medici was the third mistress of Chenonceau; she added a new series of gardens to the estate and had the arched bridge covered over, turning it into a beautiful 2-storey gallery.


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Catherine de Medici spent a fortune on the château, ensuring its kitchens were expanded and that the castle was luxurious enough to play host to spectacular royal parties. In 1560, the first ever fireworks display seen in France took place at Chenonceau during the celebrations marking the ascension to the throne of Francois II, Catherine’s son.


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On Catherine’s death in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine. Louise was at Chenonceau when she was told of her husband’s assassination in 1589. Having been deeply in love with her husband, when Louise heard of his death, she fell into a state of depression and refused to leave Chenonceau again. So profound was Louise’s grief that she wore mourning clothes for the rest of her days and even had her bedroom decorated in black, covered in motifs of death. Thus Louise de Lorraine became the château’s fourth mistress.


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The château was sold to a wealthy squire named Claude Dupin in 1733; his wife, Louise Dupin, became the fifth mistress of Chenonceau. She oversaw restoration works and saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution by arguing that the castle was “…essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.”


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In 1913 the château was acquired by Henri Menier, a member of the Menier family who are famous in France for their chocolates. The Menier family still own it to this day and maintain the castle in beautiful condition, paying homage to each of Chenonceau’s mistresses in the displays and decorations arrayed throughout the château. The castle’s history is beautifully told through these displays and really helped bring its story to life for us.


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The gardens around Château de Chenonceau are just as beautiful as the interior, and we happily spent hours strolling through it, enjoying the sounds of the birds around us and views of the River Cher. What a stunning castle!


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From Château de Chenonceau we went to the village of Amboise, a small market town, that was once home of the French royal court. Here we went to see our final Loire Valley castle: Château d’Amboise.


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Château d’Amboise was built on a rocky outcropping above the River Loire, atop a much older Gallic fortress. The strategic advantages of the site, some 500m above the Loire River, are obvious, and explain why the French royal family lived there for almost 100 years. Even today the views from the castle are incredible, both across the river and across the town of Amboise which has grown at its feet.


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When the royal family moved its court away from Amboise in the second half of the 16th century, the château fell into decline. The majority of the interior buildings were later demolished, but a few survived as have the outer defensive circuit of towers and walls.


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The pinnacled gables and grey-coned towers overlooking the Loire of Château d’Amboise are certainly grand, and the interior gives a good impression of the life of the time. Drawings inside the castle show, however, that the château is a shadow of what it once was – 80% of the palace was been destroyed over the years.


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Even though much of the castle is gone, there were still interesting things to see. Our favourite parts was the spiral ramp built through the hill, up to the castle, to allow horsemen to arrive at the castle on horseback; and the 19th century royal apartments where King Louis Phillippe lived with his family for a time.


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The gardens were quite extraordinary as well, though quite compact as they sit entirely within the original defensive walls that encircle the castle.


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By far the most extraordinary part of Château d’Amboise, however, is the tiny flamboyant Gothic chapel of St Hubert. Perched on the edge of the hilltop, this lovely church is beautiful and serene. It is also believed to be the burial place for Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Amboise for the last 3 years of his life as a guest of King Francois I* (after riding across the Alps on a donkey, no less!).

*It was during this time that da Vinci is believed to have designed the double helical staircase that King Francois I had installed at his immense hunting castle, Château Chambord.


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After an afternoon exploring Château d’Amboise we descended into the town of Amboise and stopped for a coffee, admiring the view up to the castle from our street-side vantage point.


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From Amboise it was easy trip home, back to Tours. We’re back here now, exhausted but content after an extraordinary day of exploring châteaux here in the Loire Valley. Having seen just 6 of the 300 castles in this area, we’re feeling completely besotted and overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. What a lovely part of the world this is, and what a great way to end our stay in France!


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When King Francois I moved his court to Paris in the late 1500s the Loire Valley was no longer the centre of French power. However, most of the French nobles still liked to spend time in the Loire due to its pleasant climate, bountiful food, good wine, and clean air. The valley became THE place to spend the summer, or to have a hunting lodge, and ALL the wealthy bourgeoisie (or at least anyone IMPORTANT) had a château in the Loire Valley. Foremost amongst these was the king himself, of course. A number of the castles in the Loire were once royal châteaux, including the monumental Château de Chambord, which we visited today.


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The royal Château de Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley. The sheer size of this castle took us by surprise as we walked up to it this morning. It’s just HUGE!


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It was built to serve as a hunting lodge for King Francois I, but the king spent just 7 weeks there in total. As the château had been constructed with the purpose of short stays, it was not practical to live in on a longer-term basis. The massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings meant heating the immense structure was difficult and expensive. Similarly, as the château was not surrounded by a village or estate, there was no immediate source of food. This meant that all food had to be brought with the arriving royal party – no mean feat considering this typically numbered up to 2,000 people at a time.


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After King Francois I died of a heart attack in 1547, the château was not used for almost a century. King Louis XIV had the great keep restored and furnished the royal apartments. He also added a 1,200-horse stable, enabling him to use the château as a hunting lodge and a place to entertain a few weeks each year. After that, however, the colossal château sat empty for many years.


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Following the French Revolution the castle became the property of the French state and many of the its furnishings, wall hangings, and even its wood panelling were removed and sold. This left the castle in a sorry state of disrepair that, to a certain extent, still persists to this day. Many of the rooms we visited were virtually empty, with dust accumulating in the corners and cobwebs in the cornices. It must be an almost impossible task to maintain such a large edifice, even with the revenue garnered from the 750,000 people who visit Chambord every year.


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Unsurprisingly not all the rooms of Chambord are open for visiting, and only a select few of the ones that ARE open have been renovated and decorated in the lavish style that the king would have once expected.


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The massive château is composed of a central keep with 4 immense bastion towers at the corners. Four rectangular vaulted hallways on each floor form a cross-shape, linking the 4 towers to the central keep. Within its walls there are 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases. The ceilings across the entire structure are 5-6m high, and the rooms immense; all of which combined to make us feel very, very small. This was, no doubt, the intended purpose – to instil awe and wonder in visitors to the palace, ensuring they understood how very wealthy and powerful the King of France was!


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One of the architectural highlights of the building is the central double helix staircase that is believed to have been designed by Leonardo de Vinci. The two helices of the staircase ascend 3 floors without ever meeting, which is really cool.


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Climbing da Vinci’s staircase all the way to the top, we got to walk around the rooftop and admire the unique roofscape of Chambord. There were dozens of spires, turrets, and chimneys, and everywhere there were salamanders.


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The salamander was King Francois I’s personal emblem – which is why there are more than 800 of them carved into the stones of Chambord. Supposedly he chose the salamander as totemic animal as at the time it was (erroneously) believed that the salamander had the ability to live in fire without being consumed and to extinguish flames with the coldness of their bodies. The emblem was, therefore, said to describe a king nourished by the “good fire” of faith and love, who strived to extinguish the “bad fire” of injustice and greed.


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The views from the rooftop across the surrounding landscape were pretty amazing as well. The château is surrounded by a 13,000 acre wooded park and game reserve maintained with red deer, enclosed by a 32km long wall.


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On the grounds there is also a small chapel, once used by the king and his retinue for prayer before they set out on a great hunt, or giving thanks after a successful outing.


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We spent hours at Château de Chambord, losing ourselves in its huge rooms, expansive hallways, and vast grounds. Along the way we found out that in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the art collections of the Louvre and Compiègne museums (including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo) were stored at the Château de Chambord. And apparently Chambord was the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in the 1991 animated Disney film “Beauty and the Beast”.


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There’s no doubt that Château de Chambord is an amazing castle – a monolithic, gargantuan structure designed to amaze and intimidate. It’s also a ridiculous building that is as impractical as it is impressive! Still, it’s definitely one of a kind and well worth a visit.


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Far less awe-inspiring, but far more comfortable to live in no doubt, was the second castle we visited today: Château de Cheverny.


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Château de Cheverny was built in the 17th century by the Comte de Cheverny, a General in Louis XIII’s army. The castle has remained in the family ever since and the Comte’s descendant, the Marquis de Vibraye, still lives in the castle with his family*.

*The family occupies about a quarter of the castle, the rest is open to the public for visits.


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The château was, in fact, the first of the Loire Valley castles to be opened to the public for visits; it has been open since 1914 and remains one of the region’s most popular châteaux.


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The interior of the castle was absolutely spectacular, housing an incredible display of furniture, tapestries, and art pieces.


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The drawing room featured antique musical instruments and a wonderful array of old books, whilst the King’s bedroom* boasted magnificent artwork from wall to ceiling.

*Every noble residence was expected to have a bed chamber set aside for the King, just in case he showed up for a visit. These bed chambers were, of course, also expected to be exquisite in design and richly furnished. Seems like an awful lot of expense to go to for a guest that may never show up!


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Throughout the castle there were numerous stone fireplaces, beautiful canvas paintings, and a variety of furniture pieces kept in impeccable condition.


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The outside grounds of the Château de Cheverny are equally beautiful as the building and interior, with impeccably manicured lawns, colourful flowerbeds, and groves of tress hundreds of years old.


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With its extraordinarily symmetrical design and stark white colour, Château de Cheverny really is a stunning castle, set in beautiful grounds. We spent pretty much our whole afternoon there before deciding we had seen enough grand castles for the day.


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The Loire Valley really is something quite unique – a beautiful natural setting, dotted with magnificent man-made structures that are so extraordinarily beautiful that they really do seem to belong in a fairy tale. Seeing the opulence and extravagance of châteaux like Chambord and Cheverney makes us realise just how very, very wealthy the French nobility were. We didn’t get to see Versailles while we were in Paris (too many people), but we can only imagine that the splendour of THAT palace would put these earlier castles to shame! It’s just incredible, but all just a bit surreal too. Seeing these castles makes us feel like we’re peering through the looking glass, into a world so far removed from our own that we could never understand how they really used to live. Still, it’s great having the chance to peer into their world, even if it’s just for a day!


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The Loire Valley once marked the edge of the Kingdom of France, with the Loire River an important boundary between rival territories. So important was this region that the capital used to be situated in the valley. Even when the capital moved to Paris, however, the Loire remained a crucial territory. The valley’s exceptionally fertile land and strategically important location meant it was closely guarded by France’s nobility. This required lots of fortresses and citadels to built here during the early Middle Ages; and what began as defensive fortresses were then expanded, reworked, and renovated repeatedly as France flourished. In an over-the-top game of one-upmanship, the châteaux of the Loire Valley gradually became more and more extravagant, until the end result is a region peppered with an incredible array of magnificent stately homes, castles, palaces, and manors. France’s lavish royal past is everywhere in the gentle landscapes of the Loire Valley – as we saw today.


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We began our explorations of the Loire Valley today with a visit to 2 of the regions châteaux: Azay le Rideau and Villandry. Both these castles lie to the east of Tours and, on our way there this morning, we found ourselves passing through storybook scenery: small Medieval villages clustered around small churches; woodlands and forest where rabbits, boar, and deer still run wild; and fields of wheat, barley, sorghum, corn, and millet – their crops already harvested and the rich soil left to run fallow for the winter.


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Along the way we also saw a few châteaux nestled in amongst the fields. Many of these are privately owned estates and not open to the public (only 75 of the 300 or so castles in the area can be visited), and of those that ARE open to the public, only a handful are accessible by public transport. This helped make our decision of which castles to visit a bit easier and we do prefer to see things at our own pace and on our terms, starting this morning with Château de Villandry.


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The Château de Villandry is a large castle famous primarily for its gardens. A defensive fortress was built on the site in the 14th century, but this was later expanded by the ruling family of the area and turned into the magnificent palace we saw today. Only the tower from the original fortress remains and has been incorporated into the 17th century château.


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After its construction the chateau and gardens at Villandry passed through various hands including, at one point, those of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. By the 19th century, however, the castle had fallen into disrepair. Fortunately it was saved from complete devastation when a Spanish-born doctor named Joachim Carvallo purchased the property in 1906. The doctor poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing Villandry and creating what many consider to be the most beautiful gardens in France.


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Château de Villandry is still owned by the Carvallo family, though these days the family lives in a relatively small villa, housed in the former stables, whilst the main castle and its gardens are open to the public for visits.


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The gardens are huge and include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, and vegetable gardens. All of which we explored, despite the drizzle and cold autumnal weather. The gardens are divided into terraces, with long avenues of linden trees separating the 4 levels of gardens. Along the edges of each terrace, grape vines provided us with shelter as we strolled between the themed gardens.


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The Sun Garden in the upper terrace is designed to capture the colours and effervescence of a sunny day. There wasn’t much sun about today, but we got the idea none-the-less.


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The water garden, situated on the next terrace, is a classic creation based around a pool representing a Louis XV mirror and surrounded by an avenue of linden trees.


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Numerous canals and waterways carried water around the gardens, adding another element of beauty to the arrangement.


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On the lower levels the decorative gardens were bright with flowers, framed by box hedges and yew trees.


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One of the gardens was designed to represent the many facets of love, including tender love, passionate love, fickle love, and tragic love.


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Our favourite garden, however, was the edible garden. Colourful and aromatic, the entire garden was made up of medicinal and edible plants, including vividly purple cabbages, bright orange pumpkins, and green banks of herbs. Interestingly the plants in the edible garden are all grown organically, and food harvested from there is donated to a local charity group that provides food for the poor and homeless. What a great use for all that marvellous produce!


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Having explored the gardens of the Château de Villandry we continued on to the Château d’Azay le Rideau, a small castle built in 1527 and set on an island in the middle of the Indre River. (We didn’t realise until we got there that Azay le Rideau is currently under renovation, which meant most of the castle was “under wraps”!)


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The current château of Azay le Rideau occupies the site of a former feudal fortress. The original defensive structure was built on the site during the 12th century, to protect the road where it crossed the River Indre. In 1518, however, the property was bought by Gilles Berthelot, the Treasurer of the King’s finances. Desiring a residence that reflected his wealth and status, Berthelot set about reconstructing the building in a way that would incorporate its Medieval past alongside the latest architectural styles of the Renaissance.


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As with Villandry, the château of Azay le Rideau fell into disrepair after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In 1905 the estate was purchased by the French state and was used as a base for the national Ministry for Education during World War II when they, like many other French ministries, withdrew from Paris. The château of Azay-le-Rideau is now one of many national monuments under the protection of the French Centre des Monuments Nationaux, and also forms part of the Loire Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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Despite most of the building being enshrouded in canvas due to renovations currently taking place, the château of Azay le Rideau is definitely one of the prettier castles we’ve seen in our travels. Its pointed, conical turrets, and ornate sculptural decorations make it seem like something out of a fairy tale. And the high ceilings, grand central staircase, and monumental fireplaces, lend it an air of grandness that is unexpected given how small (relatively speaking) the castle is.


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Most of the rooms in the castle are open to the public for visits and are decorated in a 19th century style. The rich furnishings and ornate furniture certainly gave us a sense of how the noble who once lived at Azay le Rideau might have lived.


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For us the gardens around Azay le Rideau made it even more charming. The waters of the River Indre surround the castle on all sides, creating ample opportunities to enjoy reflections of the castle in the stream (even if half of it looked like a canvas-wrapped box!). And the large garden, though much simpler than those at Villandry, made for a lovely place to amble.


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After our tour through Azay le Rideau we made our way back to Tours for another quiet night in our sleepy little town. It was a little dreary today, so perhaps not the best day to go exploring fairy tale castles, but we still had a great time and are looking forward to seeing a few more of the Loire Valley’s best châteaux over the next couple of days. Join us tomorrow for more castles!


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The Loire Valley is just 250km South of Paris, but this fertile river valley is a world away in terms of pace of life and atmosphere. Where as Paris was busy, bustling, and overwhelming in almost every way, the Loire Valley is quiet, peaceful, and a great place to enjoy life at a leisurely pace. Famous for its historic towns, pretty scenery, wines, and castles, the valley has been inhabited since the prehistoric times. The richness of the soil here allowed and abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards, and vegetable gardens to grow here; for centuries the Loire Valley fed Paris and hence came to be known as The Garden of France. The area also has Europe’s densest concentration of castles – there are more than 300 in this 300km stretch of valley! Which is why WE’RE here – we love a good castle, and the opportunity to see some of France’s most extravagant châteaux simply could not be passed up.


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We didn’t actually get to see any of the famed châteaux of the Loire today, however. We got in from Paris around lunch time and spent the afternoon exploring our home-away-from-home for the next few days: Tours.


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Home to about 150,000 people, Tours is the region’s largest city and its commercial centre. It’s also a transport hub for the Loire Valley and makes a good base for exploring the castles of the area, which is why we decided to base ourselves here. It’s not the most scenic city we’ve stayed in, but has a nice feel to it that makes it seem very liveable.


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Tours is located between two rivers, the Loire to the north and the Cher to the south. We started our foot-powered tour of Tours this afternoon with a stroll along the Loire River, admiring the colours of autumn on display along the river banks.




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Much of Tours was destroyed during World War II, but some half-timbered Medieval houses were left standing. These have since been restored and made for some good photo-fodder as we roamed the streets of the old town.


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Place Plumereau, the central square in town, was especially pretty. Lined with cafés and restaurants, the square was quiet this afternoon but will no doubt fill with students from the local university come the evening.




As well as its photogenic Vieux Ville (i.e. old town), Tours also has a rather resplendent Gothic cathedral that we got to explore.


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St Gatien’s Cathedral was built in 1170, atop a much older church that burnt down. The church is named after Gatianus, the first bishop of Tours who, around 250AD established a place of worship here. The cathedral’s façade is incredibly ornate and its stained glass windows fascinating.


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Attached to the cathedral is a small cloister that dates back to the 15th century. In its time the cloister was well known throughout France for its extensive library, one of the richest in France. Unfortunately it was dissolved during the French Revolution in 1793, and the contents of the library disappeared. Not much remains of the cloister today, but what IS left makes for an interesting visit.


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Tours also has a small château of its own. Built in the 11th century, the castle is very modest by Loire standards and is really more of a fortress than a castle. Currently the building houses contemporary exhibitions of paintings and photographs which we weren’t too interested in, so we had a quick look before continuing on our tour of Tours.


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Not far from the Château de Tours is the town’s Musée des Beaux Artes. Located in the bishop’s former palace, the museum has an extensive array of paintings on display. Unfortunately it’s closed on Tuesdays so we had to settle for admiring it from the outside. We got to wander through the museum’s gardens too, admiring the magnificent Lebanon Cedar there.


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Beyond those few sights, there’s really not much to Tours. It’s an easy little town to navigate around and, after Paris, an easy place to relax for a few days. We’re staying in a lovely little family-run auberge while we’re here, and are really looking forward to spending the next few days traversing the Loire Valley in search of epic castles. Join us tomorrow to see how our hunt for France’s Best Château goes…


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As we’ve seen over the past few days, Paris has more than its fair share of palatial buildings, leafy boulevards, and grand public squares. But there is a quainter side to this beautiful city too; pockets of the Medieval town remain, where the streets are narrower and the atmosphere more charming than magnificent. Montmartre is one of these areas.


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Montmartre is a large hill in Paris’s 18th arrondissement which, at 130m high, is the highest point in this largely flat city. The hill provides a great vantage point from which to enjoy views across the rest of Paris, as you can see…


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We got the best views of Paris from the steps in front of Montmartre’s famous church: Sacre Coeur. This shining white cathedral dates back to the late 19th century and is quite beautiful in its own right, both inside and out (no photos allowed inside). The tourist hordes that congregate here and the accompanying circus that follows the crowds is less appealing, however, so we didn’t linger around Sacre Coeur and instead made our way into Montmartre proper.


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This modern-day enclave of art studios, boutique shops, bars, nightclubs, and wealthy residences was once a quiet village outside of Paris proper. It only became part of the French capital in 1860, engulfed by the growing city as it expanded.


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During the Belle Époque, from 1872 to 1914, many painters, singers, songwriters, dancers, poets, writers, musicians, and artists moved to Montmartre. Attracted to the area by its low rents and avant-garde atmosphere, free spirits of all sorts made Montmartre their home, thus shaping the area’s unique Bohemian character. Most famously the district was home to artists such as Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh.


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Art studios, galleries, nightclubs, and bars opened up, and the area gained a reputation, not only as an artistic enclave, but also a nightlife hotspot. Montmartre became synonymous with drinking, dancing, and debauchery. To this day the area remains Paris’s entertainment hub and includes the city’s Red Light District, though by day it’s more touristy than tawdry.


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Some of the cabaret clubs opened here in the 1800s became famous and, in fact, are still targeting visitors today. The Moulin Rouge, for example, is a cabaret bar best known as the spiritual birthplace of the can-can dance. Originally introduced as a seductive dance performed by the courtesans who operated from the site, the can-can dance evolved into a dance that is now seen in musicals and cabaret shows world-wide. Today, the Moulin Rouge is still a cabaret bar where tourists pay their €165 per head to have dinner and watch performers dance the modern, less risqué version of the can-can.


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The original Moulin Rouge (i.e. red windmill) was one of many in Montmartre; it was originally used to produce flour back when the area was just a village. Artists gathered at the windmills for bread and a glass of wine on the terrace overlooking Paris, and later the owners added dance halls and cabarets to keep them entertained – and spending money. Other windmills that got converted into clubs this way include the Moulin Arafat and Moulin La Galette. Le Moulin de la Galette was known for its popular balls of the mid-19th century. Parisians came here to admire French cancan dancers and to dance themselves. Renoir immortalised this ball in the painting Le Moulin de la Galette.


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After 2 days of marvelling at Paris’s big sights, it was nice to wander the narrow, cobbled lanes of Montmartre and soak in some of its atmosphere. It may not be as edgy, artsy, and Bohemian as it once was, but there’s still a creative side to Montmartre than we loved. It’s there in the way the shop fronts are decorated; in the random pieces of artwork we found in tucked away corners; and in the creative graffiti.


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Every time we turned another corner we were rewarded we with some new piece of quirky artistry. One of our favourite finds of the day was the famous Le Passe-Muraille (i.e The Walker through Walls), a larger than life bronze statue representing a man half trapped in a wall. The French sculptor Jean Marais created this unusual bronze patina sculpture in 1989 to pay tribute to Marcel Aymé, a popular French novelist, screenwriter and playwright.


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We had a great morning exploring Montmartre’s streets, looking out for random pieces of street art and enjoying the peace and quiet. Away from the main touristy strip and the Basilica de Sacre Coeur, the neighbourhood was remarkably serene. Strolling around the streets of Montmartre was a real pleasure, and the views across Paris were stunning.


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We stopped for lunch in a typically Parisian café before continuing on to our final stop for the day: the Montmartre Cemetery.


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The Montmartre Cemetery was opened on January 1, 1825. It was built below street level, in the hollow of an abandoned gypsum quarry as part of a city-wide campaign to improve sanitary conditions. Because, you see, in the mid-18th century, overcrowding in the cemeteries of Paris had created numerous problems, from impossibly high funeral costs to unsanitary living conditions in the surrounding neighbourhoods.


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In response the Cimetière des Innocents was officially closed and citizens were banned from burying corpses within the city limits of Paris. During the early 19th century, new cemeteries were constructed outside the precincts of the capital: Montmartre in the north, Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east, Passy Cemetery in the west and Montparnasse Cemetery in the south.


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Today Montmartre Cemetery is the final resting place of many famous artists who lived and worked in the Montmartre area. Many people visit the cemetery to see these graves; for us it was more about enjoying the atmosphere and taking quiet pleasure in the autumn colours around us. We’ve been to a few cemeteries in our travels around the world and they tend to be beautiful places, perfect for moments of peaceful reflection. Cimetière de Montmartre was no different.


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After a comfortable hour or so wandering through the Cemetery of Montmartre we headed back down the hill and caught the bus back across town to Montparnasse and our Parisian home-away-from-home. Tonight is our last night here in Paris and, though we haven’t seen everything there is to see in this town, we’ve had a great time here and can’t wait to return. À bientôt Paris!


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Continuing our explorations around Paris we decided to focus on the geographical heart of the city today – around the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrindossments. Here, where the Medieval city of Paris was born, lie some of city’s most historical sights. It was an action-packed day as we went from the mighty Catedrale de Notre Dame de Paris, to the romantic Pont Neuf, and, finally, to the most amazing museum in the world: Le Musée du Louvre.


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At the heart of Paris, linked to the banks of the Seine by a series of bridges, are two small islands: Ile St Louis and Ile de la Cité. This is where the earliest settlement in Paris began, and where we started our day.


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Surrounded by the waters of the Seine both islands are charming in their own way, though Ile St Louis was more so, mainly thanks to the lack of tourists. Once it was just the malodorous bastion of fishermen, but today the narrow streets of this tiny island are today lined with fancy apartments, boutique hotels, cozy restaurants, and expensive specialty shops.


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The larger Ile de la Cité is the historical and geographical epicentre of Paris. Here, some 2,500 years ago, a muddy town was established along the banks of a muddy river; that village grew to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.


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No vestige of that early settlement remains; today Ile de la Cité is a busy hub that’s traversed by millions of people on their way between banks of the Seine. It’s also home to one of Paris’s most famous churches: Notre Dame Cathedral. Building of the cathedral began in the 12th century and took 300 years to complete. As the building took shape, changes to the original design were made; the end result is a mixture of architectural styles that is quite unique, and fascinating.


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Over its vast history the cathedral suffered considerable damage, not least during the French Revolution in 1786. For many years it lay virtually in ruins until Victor Hugo published his famous book “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, which inspired the restoration of the church.


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These days Notre dame attracts millions of visitors, keen to experience its beauty for themselves. Unfortunately the queue to get into the church was already stupidly long by the time we got there so we forwent a tour of the interior and enjoyed what we could of the building’s exterior (taking care to avoid the groups of Roma women and children, and other shady looking characters loitering around which seem to be an unescapable feature of every major tourist site around Paris).


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Also on Ile de la Cité is the Conciergerie, a majestic building that was once part of the royal palace and then became a prison. During the French Revolution hundreds of prisoners were kept there before being taken to be executed by guillotining. An ignominious history for such a grand building!


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After exploring Paris’s river islands we crossed Pont Neuf and headed across to the North bank of the Seine. Paradoxically Pont Neuf (i.e. New Bridge) is the oldest bridge left standing in Paris (it was built in 1607). From Pon Neuf we could see across to Pont D’Artes, the bridge more commonly known as the “Love Locks Bridge” – it’s here that lovers from all over the world come to attach padlocks (with their names engrave don them) to the railing, throwing the key into the Seine as a testament to their eternal commitment to each other. There were a million padlocks attached to Pont D’Artes before it became a hazard and most of the locks were removed. Wonder how many of those lovers have managed to make the commitment last?


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Across the river we passed by the Palais Garnier, Paris’s incredible 2,000-seat opera house, which was built in 1875. It was originally called the Salle des Capucines, because of its location on the Boulevard des Capucines. Its opulence, however, garnered it the title of “palace”, and in honour of its architect, Charles Garnier, it became colloquially known as “Palais Garnier”.


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Our primary goal for the afternoon, however, was the famous Louvre Museum, so we did not linger and continued past to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel* to the museum.

*Like the OTHER Arc de Triomphe, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was built to celebrate war victories. This time it was to commemorate Napoleon’s victory of 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors.


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The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums and holds more than 35,000 display items; it’s also the world’s most visited museum and the crowds are notoriously bad. Luckily we had a tip that entering via the Carousel de Louvre shopping centre was a good way to short cut the queues and so barely spent 10 minutes in queue before getting in. All the more time to go exploring across the acres of displays on offer…


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The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to store his royal collection of artworks. Things remained this way until, during the French Revolution, the Louvre was declared a museum and opened to the public. It was opened on 10 August 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, the majority of the works being confiscated royal and church property.


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The number of items on display at the Louvre is mind-boggling and with just an afternoon to explore we knew we couldn’t see it all. Rather than exhaust ourselves trying, we instead chose to 2 goals for the afternoon:

1. To see the “big ticket items” and decide for ourselves whether they live up to the hype.

2. To see the Napoleon Apartments, where we could admire the opulence of life as a French royal.


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Our pick of the “big ticket items” would be:

• The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This beautiful marble sculpture dates back to the 2nd century BC and shows the Greek goddess Nike (Goddess of victory) with her wings outstretched. It’s incredible to see how much life can be wrought in stone!


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• The Seated Scribe. Having been to Saqqara in Egypt we were intrigued by the sculpture of the Seated Scribe, which shows a figure of a seated Egyptian scribe at work. The sculpture was discovered at Saqqara in 1850 and dates back to about 2,500 BC. What made the statue so fascinating were the richness of the colours and the intensity in the scribe’s eyes.


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• The Assyrian Lammasu. A lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human’s head, the body of an ox, and bird’s wings. They were often found at the entrance of temples and palaces, protecting those within. The lamassu at the Louvre were discovered by French archaeologists in an area that is now part of Iraq and were once guarding the entrance to the Palace of Sargon.


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• The Venus de Milo*. Another masterpiece of marble, this beautiful statue is more than 2,000 years old and shows Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (Venus to the Romans), in all her beauty. Even without her arms she was so graceful and beautiful that it was easy to understand why there was a crowd at her feet.

*The statue is named after the Greek island of Milos, where it was discovered.


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• Last but certainly not least, the Mona Lisa. If the Venus de Milo had a crowd of admirers, the Mona Lisa had a legion. So many people crowded around one small painting! Sure, she’s interesting, with that enigmatic smile and all, but is the painting really worth all the fuss? Not really in our opinion, but that’s just our opinion…


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In getting from one gallery to the next to see these works of art we passed through gallery after gallery of paintings and sculptures. We couldn’t just walk past these and not stop, especially given how beautiful many of the artworks were.


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The lofty sculpture galleries were especially enthralling, with the building itself becoming part of the art display.


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There were many rooms, in fact, where we spent more time looking at the rooms themselves, rather than the displays within. The frescos on the ceiling, the decorations and detailing, and the sheer beauty of many of the galleries was incredible.


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As beautiful as the interior is, the exterior is also pretty nice. The ornate detailing of the original palace is beautifully complemented by the famous glass pyramid added in 1988 as part of the museum’s renovations.


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After a couple of hours of trawling through the art and sculpture galleries we had a break, fortified ourselves with a coffee, and then set off for the Napoleon Apartment. These rooms are decorated in a style exemplary of the style that would have used during the time of King Louis XIV, and were absolutely glorious in their splendour.


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Not since the Hermitage in St Petersburg have we seen such luxury and magnificence. Hardly surprising that the French peasants revolted really, when you see the richness of the lives the French royals enjoyed whilst people starved in the streets! (Not to get too political here, but does anyone else see a similarity to the state of affairs in some parts of the world today, where corporate fat cats live in ridiculous luxury while the “peasants” starve in the streets below? Time for another revolution maybe…)


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We emerged for the Louvre 4 hours later foot-sore and defeated. Even for hard-core nerds like us that was way too much art and history in one place. We’d need a week to see it all! Still, what an awesome museum – definitely our favourite museum EVER and one we have already put on our list of places to come back to. Wow Paris – just WOW.


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