Nantes and beyond
A luxury cruise along the Royal Loire River threw up lots of surprises, not least a unique paddlewheel boat, the gourmet hospitality on board and the beautiful French scenery.
But no-one expected an enormous, lumbering mechanical elephant, complete with flapping leather ears, a cheeky wink and a trunk that squirted a shower of water at the unwary.
The engineering masterpiece as big as a house is the star attraction at the magical Les Machines de I’île complex on the site of the old shipyard in Nantes, just across the river from the home mooring of CroisiEurope’s sleek vessel the Loire Princesse.
We had spotted the elephant on our first evening on board, before we sailed to Saint-Nazaire (read Part 1) but didn’t really appreciate its sheer size — and then we had the chance to get up close and personal on a guided excursion when we returned to Nantes to begin our adventures upstream.
The Machines project is like an explosion of artistic expression, as if Jules Verne had teamed up with Leonardo da Vinci and William Heath Robinson to pool their ideas and create the most off-the-wall, almost living contraptions.
And Le Grand Éléphant is the tour de force, carrying 50 people the height of a four-storey house on a slow, majestic tour of the site, giving great views of Nantes and another star attraction, the towering Carrousel des Mondes Marins.
No prancing horses on this massive roundabout, but all manner of sea creatures and the odd boat, with plenty of interactive bits and pieces, mean that you just have to have a go. Then a trip around the Galerie of automated creatures, plus a glimpse of the work in progress on the next, hugely-ambitious project, puts this attraction firmly on the ‘must see’ list for any future trip.
Local tourism guide Bernat Comas enthused about this new face of Nantes, but also took us on a short tram ride to show us the heart of the old town, where we explored secret passages off tight cobbled streets, leading to hidden courtyards and historic multi-storey apartments built for the rich traders and merchants who made their fortunes when the city was one of the greatest ports in France.
Lots of lovely anecdotes, too, as well as fascinating history on our way back to the Princesse, via the colourful street markets and pavement cafes, giving us all the more reason to pay an early return visit.
Once back on board, time for another splendid lunch (pork tenderloin, crepes Suzette) and then we made good use of the sun deck to mentally work up an appetite for a sumptuous buffet dinner and then entertainment by a talented band from Brittany.
Next day was a coach trip on the Muscadet Wine Route, taking in a refuelling stop at historic Château Cassemichère, where owner Philippe Ganichaud introduced us to some of his award-winning wines, including a cheeky little fizz, La Muse du Chai, which put a smile on my face, for a start. Pleased to note for the future that he also does bed and breakfast.
Our taste buds tickled, we dropped in at the pretty mediaeval town of Clisson, famous for its imposing castle and church, as well as the unlikely-sounding Hellfest, a heavy metal music festival in midsummer. Quite by chance, there happened to be a weekend arts festival and market in full swing and this was a surprise treat before we headed back to the Princesse in time for lunch (succulent cod, potatoes and ratatouille, with lemon tart to follow) and an afternoon sailing towards Ancenis, Chalonnes and our eventual turn-around destination of Bouchemaine, with an informal cheese and wine tasting before a delicious dinner, which featured perfectly-pink rump of lamb with buttered beans and then a dessert of roasted apple on a brioche base.
Monday was our first major château, the home of the Dukes of Brissac, still in private ownership and a taste of the châteaux grandeurs to come with its imposing facade and showpiece rooms. We rejoined the Princesse for another memorable lunch, remarkable because the kitchen managed the feat mentioned in Part 1 of serving a salad with a perfectly-poached egg for everyone at one sitting.
Couple that with a nicely-rare slice of duck magret as a main course and a chocolate fondant-style cake for dessert and it paved the way for a very relaxed afternoon. And yes, dinner starring veal blanquette was again delicious, followed by a jazz concert in the lounge for even more relaxation.
Tuesday was a full day of regal splendour, taking our time to visit three breathtaking châteaux, starting with the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, a French national monument built on a small island in the middle of the Indre River and lauded as one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in the whole of the Val de Loire, which rejoices in its UNESCO World Heritage status.
We wouldn’t argue with that, either, because the castle and its moated setting is indeed beautiful, even when the sun decided to play hide and seek behind some rather threatening clouds.
On to the Château de Villandry, famous for its manicured and quite magnificent ornamental and kitchen gardens, where we had a feast for the eyes as well as a very tasty lunch of local produce including, of course, excellent local Chinon wine, which pleased our table no end.
Last on the list was arguably the prettiest stately home of all, the Château d’Ussé, sounding even more pretty in its French description as Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant — the Castle of the Sleeping Beauty. Rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries, this turreted gem is said to have fired the imagination of Charles Perrault, who wrote the famous fairytale, and it’s not hard to see why when you marvel at the architecture and interiors and climb the stairs to one of the picturesque towers.
Back on the river, dinner was an impressive Princesse buffet, cutting the hard-working staff a bit of slack (but not much!) before they presented an enthusiastic, fun cabaret in the lounge to show that they were even more hard-working and versatile than most passengers thought.
All smiles, it was a good sign for what was to come on our last couple of days, both on and off the boat.
CroisiEurope offer 6-day and 8-day Loire cruises from £1,166 pp and £1,522 pp respectively. Price includes all meals and drinks, onboard entertainment and port fees. Call CroisiEurope on 020 8328 1281 or visit www.croisieurope.co.uk
Flybe operates flights to Nantes from Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton, with fares starting from £29.99 one way including taxes and charges. Book at www.flybe.com
Next in Part 3 – Gala return to Nantes
Silver travel Advisor recommends CroisiEurope