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To Loire or not to Loire, that is the question

Hi all. I am taking my first trip to France in June with my family of six (four children ages 10-18). We will have 6.5 days in Paris. Prior to that, we have 4 days in London, and after Paris, 3 days in Switzerland. My current itinerary is: Day 1) Arrive in Paris by Eurostar from London early afternoon; spend rest of it exploring the city. Day 2) Paris sights. Day 3) Day trip to Normandy by train with guided tour of various WWII sites. Day 4) Versailles with bicycle tour. Day 5) Paris sights. Day 6) Day trip to Loire Valley via TGV to see Chambord and Chenonceau. Day 7) Paris sights. My dilemma is this: Should we do the day trip to the Loire valley on Day 6 or should we instead stay in Paris, giving us 4.5 days in the city versus 3.5 days if we go to the Loire. This being my first time to Paris, the last thing I want to do is "over schedule" our trip and thus not get to truly experience the pulse and feel of Parisian life. We don't want to rush around to see as much of the museums and sights as we can everyday (though I personally wouldn't mind it); as a family we'd like to meander about, enjoy the cafes, my girls want to shop, etc. On the other hand, I have heard from many that the Loire is not to be missed and it's relatively easy to get there by TGV (1 hour). I have reserved a private minibus tour that will take us to those two chateaux (I don't want to try to see more than that or it will be a blur). Any advice from you seasoned travelers?

Posted by
6484 posts

I've been to the places you mention and they're all great, but I wouldn't try to see them all in the time you have. Especially with kids whose interests and energies may be different from yours. Paris can easily absorb all your time and energy for a week, not only the major sights but also the meandering, cafes, and shopping your family wants to do. Versailles is an easy day trip, Normandy and the Loire I'd save for the next time. For me, even traveling alone, your itinerary seems to risk becoming a blur in memory. But of course everyone is different. You may want to see some of the country outside the big city. Chambord and Chenonceau are in rural settings, though hardly typical of rural France. If you're going to Switzerland by train you'll see a lot of countryside, though at high speed, and maybe you'll have a more rural experience in Switzerland. I haven't traveled with kids, but others on this board suggest splitting up once in awhile so the older ones can do some things on their own, or maybe each parent taking a pair of kids somewhere. That can enliven the trip for everyone, I'd think, including comparing notes at the end of the day. Maybe some could go to the Loire or Normandy, some stay in the city to shop or hit another museum or whatever. This is your first trip to France, but if you enjoy it why should it be your last? Which goes double for your youngsters, right? "Assume you will return" (per R. Steves). Anyway, whatever you do, have a great time, all six of you!

Posted by
9530 posts

Wow, that is a LOT you are fitting in during your time in Paris. Essentially three full-day 'away' trips. I personally think the two chateaux in the Loire are much easier as a day trip than WWII sites. I guess what I'm saying is that it sounds like too much,but I understand your desire to pack in as much as you can, and hate to discourage you.

Posted by
11507 posts

Allen, everyones travel style is different, I personally think you have a VERY full itinerary , especially with four kids in tow. I personally would skip the Normandy daytrip, thats a reallly LONG day, I mean , how old are kids, because I have visited Europe with two of my three kids ( one on one seperate trips, one dd 11yr , and one son 13 yrs) and would find your schedule of three daytrips out of Paris too much. The Loire Valley trip will be easier then the Normandy one.

Posted by
2393 posts

Allen - like Pat said - everyone's travel style is different - for me your itinerary looks like a good mix. Sure there will be some long days but I know for me, I did not go all the way to Europe to sit in a hotel room! Only you know what your kids can handle - my kids were ALWAYS up for an adventure. Make a list of all of the sights that are MUST see in Paris - see how much time you will need to see them. Buy advance tickets for the Eiffel Tower to save some time waiting in line.

Posted by
4132 posts

How about this. See Versailles as planned and if it leaves you hungry for more go ahead with your Loire tour. If however you find yourself surfeited with Renaissance chateau you can spend your time elsewhere. Personally I find that a little of this goes along way. This doesn't work obviously if you have to reserve more than a day or so in advance, but perhaps you can identify some flexible options and hedge your bets.

Posted by
3682 posts

Allen,
This sounds like a lot to me. I have only two children (7 and 15) and one thing that I have learned is that we move only as fast as our 7 year old moves. That is my way of saying that if the children are game for all the trips and willing to cooperate, you should be able to do it. Please do not forget about wait times for Paris attractions in late June through July when planning what you will be able to get done in one day in Paris. For example, on our first trip to Paris (6 days), we did not climb up to see the gargoyles at Notre Dame because there was a 90 minute wait. Although I really enjoy Normandy, I would sacrifice that so that you have more time in Paris to meander about, enjoy cafes and shop. It also depends, of course, on your families interests. My son loves the DD Day beaches -- not for any historical reason but for the freedom to run around outside and my daughter loves the gardens and castles so again if your children are game, I think that you can do the planned day trips, but your 3 full days in Paris will be a bit hectic. One thing to keep reminding yourself is that there are always things that you will miss but to stay in the moment and really enjoy the places that you do get to explore and not worry about the places that you did not have time to see. You'll get them next time.

Posted by
9420 posts

My 2 cents... Yes on everything :) Sounds like a great trip and a lot of fun.

Posted by
7244 posts

I'm not an authority on large families. But I think that your schedule (very, very busy) overlooks some subtleties: Especially for the younger children, there is a value to getting up in the morning and going to the same bar (or the basement of the hotel ... ) for a, briefly, familiar breakfast. I'm thinking also of stand-up bars, with a display case of hot pastries. The point is, you're presenting the kids with the equivalent of "If this is Tuesday, This must be Belgium" tour, but you put it together yourself. It can be really nice to feel "at home" in a strange place. I mean, instead of, a vacuum cleaner tourist trying to suck up as much strangeness as possible in two weeks. France isn't strange, it's just different from the U.S. Think how valuable it would be if your kids had a hint of why there's a current fuss over French labor hours; How they have chosen life and family over wealth and visible success. (I'm not saying we should be like the French, only that we should have an informed understanding of why our life style is not the only one on the planet.) One Rick Steves principle is, "Assume you will Return". And he's addressing poor students, as well as (possibly your case) families that have scrimped and saved for a trip. Walking the neighborhood and seeing how people live in another country (another Rick Steves principle) can be very rewarding. I urge you not to include the Loire, which has even more travel time involved than the other destinations you have listed. My two cents.

Posted by
1501 posts

I'd also skip the Loire and do the Normandy tour. Can you possibly spend one night in a hotel in Bayeux? I think this would be very educational for the kids and they'll enjoy seeing the beaches and museums more than they will even enjoy the Versailles. I'm a Mom of 3.

Posted by
1501 posts

Actually, you might want to stay in Paris for the whole trip - except maybe that day trip to Versailles, and on Day 6 take the train up to Normandy, spend the night there, and return to Paris only for your train to Switzerland. This would be a more time-wise way to do the trip.

Posted by
343 posts

I'll be the odd one out and say to skip Versailles, as we found it to be nowhere near as wonderful as visiting the chateaus in Loire. We we there in the middle of summer, the height of tourist season, and the Loire Valley was beautiful, and relaxing. We visited Chenanceau and it was not that crowded and we just had a wonderful time. Versailles, by contrast, was a crowded nightmare. So, that's just us. We did the Fat Tire Bicycle Tour of Paris at sunset and had a blast. So...just something to consider...give yourself an extra day somewhere else but don't miss Loire!

Posted by
8 posts

That's all some great advice, thank you everyone! One follow-up: one of you suggested skipping Versailles and doing Loire instead. I had thought of that before but then again, it IS Versailles and this is our first time there in France. What do the rest of you think? We are doing a bike tour there with Bikeabout Tours.

Posted by
7244 posts

Loire/Versailles: It's a judgement call. Considering the importance of the French monarchy, and of the Revolution to the United States (not to mention European history!), Versailles is pretty darn important. And the proximity to Paris is a big plus. The crowds are maybe a minus. But the big Loire spots are crowded all summer. We went to the Loire and Normandy last summer. But in a life of travel (including about ten Paris visits, including business), my favorite city is Paris. You can't plan too much time there. And since most places are getting more Americanized, against their best efforts, you can't go too soon! So I place value on coming back from Versailles for dinner in Paris, and an evening walk.

Posted by
3313 posts

The Loire is dull. It's like the San Joaquin Valley but with castles. And nuclear power plants.

Posted by
9420 posts

The Loire is not dull. It is fantastic. Love Versailles, love Normandy and above all, I love Paris. I would stick with your original plan. Hopefully you'll return again someday, like so many of us do.

Posted by
11507 posts

I wouldn't skip Versailles, my kids were 11 and 13 when they visited, and both benefited educationally from it. My daughter was only 11 so hadn't gotten up to that in school yet, but my 13 yr old was covering the revolutions in school that year ( American , French and Industrial) and was excited to recall some things had learned and see where some real history occurred " hey mom thats where the Swiss guard was slaughtered,, must have been a lot of blood on these stones" ( morbid a bit but hey he was a 13 yr old boy!) .

Posted by
719 posts

I don't think that I would ever go to Paris and not see Versailles. The gardens alone are worth the trip, as well as the Trianons. My daughter's playhouse is modeled after the buildings in the Hamlet...
Your trip does seem a bit full. I would save Normandy for another trip, since the Loire is easier to get to from Paris. Remember, you'll want to relax on this trip, and those full days are going to make that difficult. Sure you can sit on a train for two hours, but that feels cramped and stressful. Two hours in a café? Priceless. Either way, you'll have a great trip, but if you pare it down a bit, I expect that it will be more fun.

Posted by
2393 posts

@Darren - you ever try to entertain a 10 yr old in a cafe for 2 hours?

Posted by
1334 posts

Loire! Do it! You know you want to! :) Unless you have special ties to WWII, I would skip the beaches of Normandie for another time.
Honestly, every time I go to France I find an excuse to visit the Loire Valley. It's fascinating and beautiful. There's something about the region that sets it apart from others. There's a special glow and feel to it at dusk. If you're not going to get back any time soon,I would say AT LEAST take one day and see Chenonceau. Paris is FANTATIC, but there's more to France than the Normandie beaches and Paris.

Posted by
4149 posts

Warning: glass totally dry about Versailles. We were there the first week of June last year. We went on a supposedly less crowded day. We still had to wait at least 45 minutes in line to go through security. Hopefully, your bike tour has some special access to avoid that. The sheep herd palace tour takes about 90 minutes. The smaller English language one takes about the same amount of time, but you see totally different rooms, no overlap. So to see the whole thing would be 3 hours. We opted to not do either. If anyone hates crowds more than I do, it's my husband. Even the trains from Paris were SRO. There were waves of school kids of varying ages everywhere. It was POURING rain. It had been (and was) so cold and wet that the gardens were devoid of flowers. I am not fond of the Versailles style of architecture, but our daughter said it was fabulous and I do love bling and excess. I was very disappointed. The major thing we learned is that it's big. We could easily see how hunting parties could happen there and trysts could occur among the labyrinth of pruned and shaped foliage. I finally got why carriages took people between the buildings. An information person told us it would take about 20 minutes to walk from the palace to Marie's digs. Forty is more like it, on our day, through mud. Did I mention that the cobblestones in the courtyard where you enter and exit are round and very slippery when wet and that there is nowhere else to walk? I'm sure it is amazing in good weather, but I'd cancel if it's raining. We saw absolutely no dependable outside shelter that didn't leak in heavy rain and no place to get inside. I would only go back if I spent 2 nights right there in town and used the solid day between to see Versailles at a leisurely pace, and IF the weather was good.

Posted by
1501 posts

Final comment! Do you have boys or girls? Girls -- Versailles. Boys, Normandy.

Posted by
9530 posts

Tara's not alone -- I, too, would prefer to go to the Loire Valley over Versailles. the trip would not be any longer. The TGV to Tours is quick, and if you've made arrangements for someone to pick you up and toodle you to the two castles, that sounds like a much easier day than especially Normandy (which simply can't be done justice with anything less than one overnight). I know Versailles is an important sight, but don't underestimate the effect of the crowds on your visit (see Ina Caro's latest book). Two hours in a café with kids does sound a bit longish, I'm afraid.

Posted by
719 posts

You have 4 children, right? I can only assume that the 18 yo (or the two that are older than 10) may be responsible enough to take hold of the 10 year old and play around in the tuilleries while you sat in a café there... Luxembourg gardens and some tennis with said café? Sailing some radio controlled boats? All that I'm saying is 2 hours in Paris would be far preferable to 2 hours on a train, where the kids will have no place to go. And I'm a huge fan of train travel. Since I've spent two hours in a café with a 6 month old and a 3 year old together, I can only assume that a 10 year old with a book would likely be simpler. But hey, maybe I'm wrong, so please accept that disclaimer.
I agree with earlier comment about Versailles, but the Chateau isn't my favorite part. The gardens are the place to be, and the crowds are much less impactful out there. Your plan sounds great as a baseline, but I think that dropping something will only make it better. Have fun!

Posted by
343 posts

The gardens of Versailles are lovely. Just don't have to ever use the restroom because there is one in the main garden area that is closer to the mansion and it has two toilets. Two. I waited for 45 minutes in that line. It did have lovely marble countertops, though. Also, don't get hungry because the line for a sandwich is long, too. And don't even think about getting anything to drink, as you might have to partake of the 45 minute line to use the bathroom. So, as I wrote on my blog about the experience when we went, if you do go, (1)don't go on a Sunday - even more crowded due to fountain show, (2) buy your tickets ahead of time - but remember that you'll still have to go through the separate security line, (3) bring snacks, (4) don't have to use the bathroom. Loire boring? It wasn't for us. We strolled through the lovely town of Amboise, enjoyed Chenanceau (crowded here is nothing to crowded at Versailles and go later in the day), drank some wine, had a lovely dinner, enjoyed the drive through the valley with its vineyards and fields and fields of sunflowers.... So, I can see the need to go to Versailles to "check it off the list" but lower any expectations you might have. It is the French renaissance meets Disney world (hordes of tourists with their camcorders standing between doorways so you can't advance to the next room), with no crowd control (by contrast the Loevre has excellent crowd control) and no fast passes.

Posted by
8 posts

Thanks for the responses. Another piece of info: I am locked into the Normandy trip as I have a private tour organized as of two months ago that came highly recommended and I cannot get my deposit back if I cancelled it. That being said, I am personally looking forward to it, as is my 18 year old; it will be something completely different from everything else we will do in Europe and will satisfy a desire to see the war history of the region. So far I haven't heard many applauding my choice to go there; are there any Normandy lovers who can make me feel good about this unchangeable itinerary segment?

Posted by
7025 posts

Allen, here's my opinion (for what it's worth). After seeing some of the unbelievably rushed itineraries on this board, I think yours is excellent and I wouldn't change any of it. I like that you've interspersed the day-trips with sightseeing days in Paris and 3-1/2 days is a good time for a first trip. Those days in Paris can be as hectic or relaxing as you want - you don't have to see everything (it's impossible in one short trip so why try). Also, since you have 2 adults and older children you can split up and see different things according to interests. I think you did a good job planning and I like that you're doing private guided tours of Normandy and Loire Chateaux (with only one day each you'll probably see more and learn more about these places than you would doing it on your own). Don't change a thing! Have a wonderful trip!

Posted by
9530 posts

Allen -- if you've taken the time to reserve a highly regarded WWII historical tour at the D-Day sites, absolutely, I'm here to tell you you've made a good choice. It truly is an experience not to be missed, and it's wonderful that your 18-year-old is interested. It will be a long but memorable day, and you'll be so glad you've done it.

Posted by
1501 posts

Allen, Yes yes and Yes!! You will love the Normandy trip. WWII was a long time ago, and other than "Saving Private Ryan" there haven't been even any good movies made about it in years. My husband and I spent a week in Paris and 2 days in Normandy, and the area, the people, the history and even the food (buckwheat crepes) were incredible. The brilliant flowers, lovely old castles, and topography are also amazing. It's wonderful that your 18 year old is interested, and he/she will note that many of the the soldiers climbing that hill after wading through icey water that day were his/her same age! Great Sacrifices made to defeat Hitler.

Posted by
4149 posts

I've been to the D-Day beaches twice. Once on my own in my car. Once on a very small van tour out of Bayeux. The latter was by far the better experience and was well worth the money. Keep that reservation and take it all in. You will enjoy every minute. If you had the time to see the Bayeux Tapestry, that would truly make your experience perfect. The kids would probably love it because it looks like a cartoon. They give you a headset that explains everything as you walk along it.

Posted by
719 posts

Allen-
The d-day beaches in Normandy are spectacular, so you will not regret them. Not realizing that you were locked in, I was recommending that you save them for another trip, when you could spend a few more days in Normandy. With that being said, while it will be a long day, it will be a good one! Yes, Versailles is crowded, but don't make the mistake of getting your food there. Tara's right, it will take forever. One of the best parts of a Versailles day is wandering through a Parisian market in the morning, picking up some baguettes, cheese, prosciutto, fruit, wine, juice, or whatever suits your fancy, then heading to the Gardens for a picnic. Consider the Paris Museum pass, as it includes tickets to Versailles, if you're going to hit other museums during your stay.