Predictably, I again woke before dawn and was unable to sleep longer. After watching some bad gameshows on French TV, Bingley finally awoke and we rugged up for a pre-breakfast stroll again. It was colder on this morning than previous, so we walked briskly through the deserted streets, with no particular direction in mind, just criss-crossing and exploring as we felt like it. Almost all the shop fronts were closed, so we licked the windows instead, as we spied artisan pastry shops and delis filled with amazing meats. After an hour or so walking, we began to feel hungry and looked for a cafe to take our fancy, but none seemed quite right. It probably took another hour of aimless wandering before we had to stop and find something to eat, settling on a tiny bistro with a proper zinc bar in the 6th. Breakfast was simple and we decided to head back to our hotel, to pack our bags for our Loire adventure.
About halfway home my feet were so sore I was wincing with every step and we had to stop for occasional breaks so that I could let the blood flow back in. I had been warned of this uniquely Parisian affliction, however having worn relatively sensible shoes for me and being a good walker usually, I hadn't anticipated the sheer pain involved. But after our 10km morning constitutional, I was looking forward to jumping in our car for a while.
On return to our hotel, we had our bags packed quickly and headed down to reception to check out. I was a little sad to do this, as our hotel had been perfect for us - quiet, well located and very very friendly. But adventures were calling as we left our bags and walked around the corner to the local Avis. There, we took possession of an impossibly tiny Toyota, one of the "mid-range" vehicles for Paris having a back seat, and became comfortable with Irene, our talking Tom Tom who was to navigate us out of Paris.
Bingley looked distinctly uncomfortable in the front seat, and sitting in the passenger seat where there is usually a steering wheel is surreal. We then headed back to our hotel, picked up our bags, and without incident headed towards the Peripherique, the circular highway that encases the city. It was a nerve wracking time - even without the bizarreness of left hand drive, one had cobblestones, Parisian traffic and more importantly Parisian drivers to contend with. I would have laughed had Bingley not looked so grimly serious. But surprisingly, with only one wrong turn, we managed to arrive at Versailles in one piece, feeling rather smug as we parked out the front of the massive castle.
As we wandered up, the first thing we noted, other than the ornate gilded gates were the queues. We had been spoiled in Paris, both through early starts (and I suspect good luck) with minimal queues anywhere and these were surreal. We soon found out why they were so massive, even for Versailles - there was a legendary strike happening and there was only one gate open for visitors. I looked at our 30E tickets in my hand and looked at the 2-3 hour line to get into the castle and decided that we would do the gardens instead.
The grounds at Versailles are spectacular - truly. The size and the scale, like everything else connected with French royalty need to be seen to be believed. We got lost in one of the hedgerows and walked on the grass through a cathedral of trees - their overlapping branches forming a verdant vault from which golden leaves would occasionally loosen and fall to the ground. We meandered along a moat and marvelled at the marble statues down the main avenue before finding a little cafe near the canal. It was touristy and overpriced, but beautiful at the same time, filled with natural light. I had mussels in white wine sauce and Bingley had a roast chicken with mustard while gazing out at the trees and the gardens, sipping wine.
After our lunch we planned to head to Marie Antoinette's hamlet - I had read somewhere that it was a completely different experience to the other castles, so we headed in the general direction. On the way, we visited the Petit Trianon, which, owing to the strike, was opened to visitors for free. It was an interesting insight into the life of the Royals, but with so many trees and flowers outside, we were soon back out in the mist again to explore the gardens of the Trianons before finding the path that lead to the hamlet.
This place was seriously the cutest place I have ever seen, a little farming village of thatch roof homes that seemed held up by fairy magic, brimming with blooms and ensconced in beautifully laid out vegetable gardens. In amongst it roamed geese and ducks and we meandered through vine covered arbors with late harvest grapes darkening in the sun. Whether because of the strike, the slightly misty weather or because it was such a long walk from the main castle, we were mostly alone as we explored further, finding the grotto and a secret lookout along a tiny pathway on a hedged knoll.
Realising that we would have to leave at some point, we headed back in the direction of the Grand Trianon, which, unsupervised owing to the strike, we slipped into as well, marvelling at the tiling and the opulence and the pink marble columns of the covered portico that looked out on the gardens. The beautiful mix of French and English style flower beds so lovely that one could spend a whole day just lying on the grass surrounded by them. We were now becoming a little tired, and knowing there was still a two hour drive ahead of us, we elected to wait for the little shuttle train that operates between the Trianons and the main castle, where a small vendor cart was making fresh praline and nougat which we nibbled on as the train bounced along.
It was about 4 in the afternoon now, and I looked wistfully at the castle as we approached it, wondering if maybe we could just do an abbreviated dash through the hall of mirrors, however this thought was quickly squashed by the lines that were still hundreds of people deep, so I sighed, figured we'd do it next time, and headed back to our car.
This was to be the start of the next adventure, as I keyed in our coordinates to Irene, who dutifully gave us directions onto the Autoroute which we found without difficulty. Bingley was finding freeway driving horrendously stressful however, with the 130km speed limit and the moderate traffic causing him to have to concentrate far more than he would normally need to while driving. This was exacerbated with our first experience of a French toll, which had no instructions, not in any language at all. We approached it with trepidation, looking desperately for a sign anywhere, of which there were none. In the end we went with the gate that looked like it would have a toll booth operator, only to find that the place was unmanned, and that there were no instructions anywhere. We had NO IDEA. Of all the things I had researched for this trip, "how to use a French Autoroute Toll" was not one of them. In the end, finding no way to be able to pay a toll, we figured it must be similar to the electronic tolls we have here in Brisbane.
You know how when you do something wrong, or a bit naughty, and you wait for a siren to suddenly sound and a helicopter to turn on its spotlight overhead etc? Well it was pretty much like that. Think blinding lights and a siren. But with no one running out to yell at us we figured that there was nothing we could do now but keep driving. Bingley even more tense and agitated as we drove through the dull landscape, wondering when we'd see the trees and the valleys of the Loire. It didn't really come. Autoroutes being what they are, we cut a grim, grey line south to Tours where we were confronted by yet another #@$@ing toll booth. This one, we were determined to understand, however it appeared to want us to give it a ticket. There was no way to give it money - it just wanted our TICKET. Of course we had no ticket, having not understood how to use the previous toll booth.
Luckily for us, we had a cranky, middle aged French woman manning this toll booth, who maintained that she spoke no English while yelling at us to give her our ticket. I explained, again, that we had none. She shook her head, she quavered, she muttered loudly, and told us that because she didn't know where we'd entered the toll road that we would have to pay the maximum cost - 63 euros. At that point I didn't care, I just wanted to get off the bloody toll road and awaaaaay from the whole hideous mess. Then my credit card wouldn't work because apparently French tolls only like European credit cards (this was a recurring issue all over France with 3 different types of credit card). Finally she started filling out the paperwork and tersely asked for Isaac's passport so that she could finish filling it out. But for some reason, maybe it was continued pleading French, or because she had a secret fondness for Australians, she was suddenly all smiles, asked us where we'd entered the toll road and only charged us the correct toll. The Jekyll/Hyde change so stark that after getting through we were so bewildered that neither of us spoke as we made our way through Tours and into the tiny town of Montbazon where our hotel, the converted mini Chateau Domaine de la Tortiniere lay.
Here, finally, after turning off a small industrial road we found ourselves amongst trees with wild cyclamens sprouting in a ghostly carpet. The road meandering so that we did not see the castle until we arrived, and nearly cried with relief at getting out of the car. There in front of us was a mini turreted castle, overlooking a valley cloaked in golden leaved trees and the meandering river below. We were greeted at the front by a deliciously camp concierge who chatted away in French and praised Bingley's bravery in having driven all the way from Paris on the autoroute. He arranged to have our bags taken up the main stairs, and then up the tiny rickety staircase that took us to the top where he showed us our lovely room. I had only booked the smallest room they had available, and yet it was perfect, with 2 dormer windows and a separate toilet and bath with a complimentary drink of a port like spirit on the antique writing table.
Best of all, the hotel had a restaurant underneath, so Bingley was encouraged to have a hot shower and a bracing swig of the liquor before we headed to the restaurant for dinner. Taking the first opportunity since we'd been in France to actually eat a meal at night, we both dressed up and pretended to be grown ups while eating lovely food. The food itself was beautifully presented but not Michelin worthy, but made up for by the attentive waiter who chatted to me throughout the meal in French, with me translating for a mute Bingley when he left. We enjoyed the wine and our desserts, before making our inebriated way up the winding, creaking stairs for our beautiful room in the castle.