“Yes, I want to show you inside here”, says our affable American guide, Scott, who is showing us around the royal city of Blois.
The theme of our press trip to the Loire Valley was “Secrets of the Valley”. Only a hop, skip and a jump away from the UK (or rather a Eurostar, Metro and TGV train), the region is much loved by British tourists but we were trying to go beyond the well-trodden tourist trail and uncover new jewels in the Loire Valley’s crown. And having lived here for the best part of 30 years, Scott seems to know a thing or two. But we certainly weren’t expecting this.
Walking around the shopping district of Blois, admiring the chic clothes and fine foods in the windows, we suddenly stop in front of a little lingerie boutique.
“Just wait here for a second”, he says, “I’m going to ask the shopkeeper if she’ll let us take a look inside”. And with that, he’s off. I look round aghast at the group and quickly grab out the programme from my bag – I’m pretty sure this wasn’t scheduled. But before I have chance to open my mouth, Scott is back and gesturing us into the shop.
Walking through the small shop and opening the door to the stock room at the back, we find ourselves in a beautifully preserved Renaissance courtyard, complete with timber framing, ornate friezes and a well. We learn that in the 16th century, the ground floor of shops were simply showrooms, displaying a small selection of the merchant’s goods, and if you ever wished to take a look at further stock or make a purchase, you would be lead through the courtyard and taken up to the upper floors where there was more space. One of François I’s courtiers owned the shop and the elaborate courtyard was a dramatic display of his wealth. Set back from the street, it hasn’t suffered as much wear and tear as the façade.
“It’s like walking through the wardrobe to Narnia!” someone squeals. It was certainly very fitting with our “Secrets” theme.
But it wasn’t the only one to discover. After a private guided visit of Château de Chambord, which is located in grounds the size of Paris and looks like Cinderella’s very own Palace, we escaped the crowds (though it’s not hard to see why this is one of the most visited châteaux in France) and headed to the Château de Beauregard, just a short drive away. It was a lot quieter than Chambord but still had as much character and as many charms.
Originally a hunting lodge for François I, the Château is now a privately-owned family home and we even caught a glimpse of the owner walking round his home in his slippers! The Château is full to brim with both the weird and the wonderful; at face value, Beauregard is a traditional noble mansion, but digging further, we managed to find the most magnificent grandfather clock I’ve ever seen, a whale’s jaw, an igloo and two sheep which eyed us up very suspiciously.
At the Max Vauché chocolate factory and outlet in Bracieux, we were transported to the island of São Tomé and Principe to see how the man himself, Max, turns the beans into bars. His highly-skilled team also create chocolate sculptures, which are so locally renowned that they often get special requests for birthdays, weddings and other occasions. When we asked Max what was the most unusual request he’d ever had, he said it was a rat; but when Max made his farewells, his assistant let us into another little secret and told us what it really was. Keeping in the spirit of the press trip, I’ll keep it a secret and let your imagination run wild instead.