Not everyone can choose to come to France during the warmer months. Australians in particular often come at Christmas time during their summer holidays, willing to trade over-30-degree temperatures for under ten degrees. Many hope to find snow.
Snow falls in the Loire Valley are highly variable. They rarely arrive for Christmas but there are exceptions such as in 2015. The most likely month for snow is February.
While spring, summer and autumn may be more pleasant seasons to travel in, they do have the major drawback of being full of tourists and accommodation is usually more expensive and harder to come by.
The main Loire Valley Châteaux are all open in the winter, but with shorter opening hours (usually 10 am to about 5 pm rather than 9 am to 6 pm). The wonderful thing is that you can visit without the crowds! The “four C’s” – Chenonceau, Chambord, Chaumont and Cheverny – as well as the royal castles of Blois and Amboise usually have Christmas decorations which adds to their magic. All are open on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day with the notable exception of Chambord and Chaumont.
Although you’ll need to dress warmly, you can still walk around the gardens which are designed to be attractive all year round. Villandry is closed from mid-November to mid-February with the exception of the two-week period surrounding Christmas and New Year which corresponds to the school holidays in France.
They may not have the proportions of the markets in Alsace, but the Christmas markets throughout December in Blois and Orléans (which includes a carrousel, big wheel and skating rink), those on weekdays in Tours in December and in Amboise on the 3 days leading up to Christmas are full of hand-made objects and seasonal food and drink.
Other traditional visits in the area include its many vineyards, a chocolate factory in Bracieux which also has workshops and troglodyte mushroom caves in Bourré.
Although temperatures can go below zero, especially at night, they are typically between 4 or 5 and 9 or 10° C during the day. December and January are the darkest months, which means the sun rises between 8.30 and 9 and sets between 4.30 and 5 pm. Shops and restaurants are always heated and some of the châteaux have wood fires. All are sufficiently heated for comfortable visiting.
My advice is to find warm cosy accommodation that is close to shops and restaurants and plan a visit in the morning, followed by lunch indoors next to a fire if possible, then a second visit in the afternoon. You can then warm up and relax before venturing out again for dinner.
The Loire is an easy 2 or 3-day visit from Paris. It is simplest by car (about 2 ½ hours) with convenient parking at all the main venues. However, Blois, Amboise, Tours and Orleans can be accessed by direct train and there are either trains or buses to Chambord, Chenonceau and Chaumont although the service is more restricted in winter.
We haven’t had a break since we went to New York in September what with having to fill the coffers again after our three months’ holiday in 2016, digging the trenches for the automatic watering system and Jean Michel’s varicose vein operation but he’s now up and about again so we’ve chosen to spend two nights in Angoulême, which is 280 K south-west of Blois. Sunny weather is predicted with temperatures around 11 or 12°C during the day.
By the time we leave it’s nearly midday so we plan lunch at L’Embarcadère in the troglodyte village of Rochecorbon, not far from Vouvray. We’ve been there twice before and enjoyed it. I book a table but needn’t have bothered as there are very few people. The February “ski” holidays are in full swing which means that local tourism is down. We have a pleasant lunch with real chip potatoes, always a good way to start a little holiday.
After another couple of hours’ driving, we arrive at our apartment-hotel in Angoulême at 5.30 pm. We nearly had to give up the idea of Angoulême altogether as the local hotels were either too expensive or too “modern” with garish coulours that I could never have slept with. Angoulême is the “comic book” capital of France and a lot of the interior decor caters for the annual comic book festival held at the end of January each year.
In the end, we decided to try Appart’City at the bottom of the hill leading up to the old town. The building, which we later discover is an old abbey, is not very attractive, but the one-bedroom apartment, with a separate kitchen and bathroom, is excellent value for money at 70 euro a night (optional 8.50 for breakfast). It’s clean, with white walls and sober colours, the bed is comfortable, the kitchen has everything we need, even a mini dishwasher, it has a decent shower and it’s not noisy. Excellent choice.
After a short rest, we take the zigzag path up to the old town, with sweeping views across the newer part of the city which has a total population of 42,000, much less than I would have imagined, but “greater Angoulême”, created in 1989, has 141,000 inhabitants. The Charente River is below us.
We wander through the old town which is surrounded by ramparts. All the streets have paving stones. We find it quite animated with many shops and bars. The comic book influence is everywhere but we are also surprisesd by the large number of beautiful old façades.
The sun is starting to set over Angoulême’s main monument, the Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Peter, built in the 12th century and renovated several times since then.
After a glass of wine on one of the town’s many squares we walk back down to our hotel, taking the direct route this time. On the way, I am intrigued by a building which has a comic strip projected onto it, one panel at a time. Not being an adult comic fan, I don’t know who the characters are, but the result is very effective and there are several sequences.
We are perfectly happy with a platter of bread and cheese with a good glass of red wine in our little apartment.
Next day is sunny and not too cold. We walk up the hill again and have a cappuccino at the François I opposite the impressive-looking Law Courts built in 1826 in the neo-Classical style by the architect Paul Abadie who seems to have been involved in the construction or reconstruction of most of the main buildings in Angoulême.
We continue our walk through the city in search of the “last haberdasher’s shop” in Angoulême. This is a dying race in most towns in France these days. A little chat with the owner confirms this. She will be retiring in three years’ time. The shop belonged to her parents. She explains why the shank buttons keep coming off my jacket. It’s their concave shape, it seems, so I buy some straight ones.
Our path takes us around the ramparts until we reach the cathedral whose dome and bell-tower we keep seeing in the distance.
The inside is somewhat disappointing, mainly due to all the reconstructions that have taken place.
By now it’s nearly lunchtime so we wander back to Le Saint André which I reserved when we went past earlier. As n° 1 out of 176 restaurants on TripAdvisor, I thought I should. It quickly fills up. At 14.90 euro for a three-course set menu, it’s good value for money. The leek and conté cheese tart is excellent, the kefta meatballs aren’t bad and the apple and pineapple tatin tart is very good. Jean Michel has the pork mignon and moka and praliné sponge roll. He says they are simple but refined. The restaurant is obviously a favourite with the locals and the two owners explain the menu and chat with their regular patrons.
After coffee, we walk back down the hill for an after-lunch siesta. We would like to visit the paper museum across the other side of the Charente in the afternoon. There are many old water mills and reconverted factories along the banks of the river, including the international comic book centre in a series of old wine and spirit stores.
Only the bottom floor of the paper museum is open. The museography is not very good and gives little idea of what was once a huge industry.
We take a different path up to the old town. Jean Michel takes me straight to a Salon de thé he noticed during our morning walk – Parfums Sucrés Daniel Hue. The cakes and tea are both good.
We finish our rampart walk in the other direction and return to our hotel from the other side as the sun sets over the city. We settle for yoghurt and salad in our apartment. We rarely eat out at night when we’re on holidays. You can have too much of a good thing!
Next day, it’s cold and overcast. We chose our two days well! More photos below if you’d like to have a more complete idea of Angoulême.