Pretend to be a noble at a French châteaux in the Loire Valley

France will have you fantasizing…

Just two hours southwest of Paris, lies the Loire Valley, an enchanting countryside ablaze with colours of green and gold, filled with vineyards, farmlands, hunting forests and ancient towns. Christened Loire after France’s longest river, which was a highway for transporting food and building materials in flat boats during the Greco-Roman age. An exceptionally fertile land that enticed 15th-century French royals and nobles to hire Italian architects and artists to build hundreds of palatial Renaissance-style chateaux.

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All 300 kilometres of this lush region that dazzled poets and novelists for ages is now a UNESCO-protected national park. The Valley of a Thousand Châteaux has a mind-boggling range of regal residences to explore: stately homes, mansions, castles, fortresses, even palaces. Save yourself some heartburn, go with my top three recommendations.

Chambord: Flamboyance gone overboard

Driving through a seemingly unending lush park filled with wild deer and boar, you’re forced to question what you know about Chambord. Chateau or town? Put your doubts to rest as you alight in the massive parking lot, facing an elegant castle as large as a palace. Can you believe that this royal weekend retreat was originally a simple hunting lodge, rebuilt during the 16th-century by French monarch François I, using an army of 1,800 workmen over 15 years!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Talk about flamboyance…this castle has 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 85 staircases, stables for 1200 horses, and a park surrounded by a 22-mile long wall. An address befitting all the kings who made it their home, even Louis XIV. While away a couple of hours exploring the theatrical interiors…second-floor vaulted ceilings, enormous corner towers, and a 100-foot tall lantern supported by flying buttresses. Forbidding dungeons too? Chances are.

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Surprise highlight? The huge double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, himself! So they say. Two staircases winding around a central illuminated well, twisting up to the roof. Two of you can test out the mystery construction (or optical illusion) by going up the two staircases simultaneously…you’ll be visible to each other only in glimpses through tiny windows. On the rooftop, surrounded by countless spires, chimneys, turrets, domes and balustrades, send a silent message to Gaudi. Its his kind of quirky, well almost.

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Peer down onto the expansive green grounds, imagining your men hunting deer in the woods ahead. And is that your horse carriage there? Nah. As you drive away, keep your eyes hooked on the majestic castle and its empty grounds till the grey silhouette disappears. The brooding, timeless beauty will stay etched in your memory for a long time.

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Chenonceau: Feminine grace meets war intrigue

Slow down as you walk through the half-mile long canopied avenue of immensely tall plane trees, over a crunchy carpet of gold-red autumn leaves towards the symmetrical French gardens. Serenity, yes? Feel your eyebrows raise as you get closer to the exquisite chateau stretching across the river Cher, its 60-meter long gallery built over a series of arches, reflecting in the languid waters. Close your eyes and recreate the scene…house guests in fluffy gowns and top hats paddling canoes for entertainment. And hey, that’s you…as Catherine of Medici, Regent of France, hosting one of your infamous parties! Have a ball!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Something tells you this residence was designed by women…the splendidly furnished rooms, airy chambers, fine paintings, tapestries, book-lined libraries and gorgeous views from the terraces, all have a distinctly feminine feel. Wonder if they had even more unusual and elaborate flower arrangements on the fireplaces and consoles back then. 

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Notice with sadness, how the pattern and colour of the floor tiles have been worn away by hundreds of visitors. And chew on this….Chenonceau marked the border between free and Nazi France in World War II and dramatic prisoner swaps possibly took place here. Somewhat inappropriate for such a fairytale location. Huh?

Cheverny: A matter of family pride

Familiar? This 17th-century stately hunting palace was the inspiration for Herge’s famous castle of Moulinsart in the Adventures of Tintin. The most sumptuous of all Loire chateaux has been with the same family for nearly seven centuries and they still live on the property, while one section is open for public viewing. Family pride shows in the flawless preservation and the intimate feel. The chess table in the sitting room, children’s room with its oakwood cot and miniature velvet high back chairs, book-lined library with a grand piano, ornate furniture upholstered with floral needlework, damask and gilt-panelled walls and portraits of aristocrats adorning them…all speak of a highly formal lifestyle. A time and place for everything in this home. Do they ever put up their stockinged feet on these exquisite sofas and relax?

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Pause at a lady’s bedroom, where a headless mannequin stands poised in the centre. It is fitted with an elegant ivory brocade gown, with a wide scoop neck, long sleeves with gathers at the shoulders, an embroidered yoke, tiny buttons all the way down the back and full fluffed skirt with a small waist…maybe 24-25 inches. On the wall behind, is a family portrait of (her?) four children, twin girls in white taffeta frocks, their younger brother in a formal brown two-piece and bow tie, and the youngest sister in a pale teal frock holding up a white lace umbrella.

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Suddenly, the mannequin comes to life and its you. Surrounded by 3-4 maids doing up the tiny buttons on your gown, putting flowers in your hair and sprinkling floral eau de toilette, before you join your family in the sun-washed breakfast room. Brief ceremonial greetings, followed by dignified clinking of silver, and children proceeding for their horse-riding lessons, while you move to the study to finalise the guest list for the ball you are planning later that month. (Got carried away there, didn’t you?)

Outside, follow the trail to the kennel of 70 carefully-bred hunting hounds, where  a signboard cautions, “Priere de ne pas exciter les chines” (please do not excite the dogs). They’re preening and posing for pictures, and barking in sync for their next meal. Excitement enough.

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Finally, before exiting the grounds, relax on one of the delightful benches on the satin-smooth grassy grounds, scanning the picture-perfect chateau grounds one last time. Can’t get enough of it. Wait, didn’t that curtain just move?

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3 must-see French chateaux in the Loire Valley

12 insider secrets from my first year of travel blogging

Clumsy to confident…

Time flies when you’re having fun. Just a year back, on this day, I was a nervous wreck, biting my nails at the prospect of launching my travel blog. Its been a thrilling ride over 365 days, made sweeter with the support and encouragement of my constant, Vikas, my partner in (life-n-travel) crime, my cheerleader friends and doting family. And here I am today, dishing out 12 insider secrets as 100cobbledroads celebrates its first anniversary. How many of these can you identify with?

1. Blogging has no working hours. Only ‘waking hours’: The moment I launched my literary rocket into virtual space, my life got a brand new speedometer and gears. Brakes? Redundant. I work longer hours than I did when I was publishing my own HR magazine. See, its not ‘work’ the way you call it ‘work’. Blogging is like breakfast. Essential, everyday. And blogging is boundless, unaffected by time, space and geography. My only tool…my mind. Oh, and wifi!

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2. The brain has a bandwidth: I jumped aboard every online forum possible, started accounts on all social media platforms that could share my content and joined dozens of travel communities, until I was cross-eyed. With knitted brows. And a woozy head. Then I filtered. Deleted. Logged out. Restored sanity. Limiting my interactions with a decent, manageable social presence. Yeah, yeah, they told me so, but it could only be drilled in the hard way 🙂

3. The route goes from clumsy to confident: Last year, my  neighbour’s little boy had just started to learn how to play the flute. Suspecting where the faint strains were drifting from, when I checked with her, she said apologetically, “Hope you’re not getting disturbed, he’s a little rusty.” I was pretty rusty myself then, having just launched my blog. Learning the ropes is a process, and there are no short-cuts. No one is exempt, no matter how brilliant they are. Newbies are newbies, and they do what newbies do. There’s a generous share of ‘oops’ moments, ‘scratch-my-head’ moments and ‘how-do-I-fix-this’ moments. And then, there’s the ‘Eureka’…so it all evens out. Have started churning out book-cover quality Pinterest pins and honing my hashtags skills. Eventually.

4. For every iota of information you have, someone has a pile: Someone discovered a new travel destination (read: lesser known travel destination). Someone has a new way to explore the same destination, or new information about it, or a new perspective to describe it or a new technology to share it. Everyday I see pictures of spots in my own city that I never knew existed. Hey, which roads am I NOT driving on? Stop keeping score. Its futile.

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5. Your growth is directly proportional to your effort: I admit it. I was lured by tantalising headlines that promised recipes on ‘How to crack the code of getting a gazillion followers’. I spent hours poring over mysterious formulae and downloaded tutorials. Until I was cross-eyed again. With the same knitted brows and the woozy head. Let’s face it. Broad guidelines will only get you so far. Theory to practice, people! Make things happen. Count each opportunity you waste, and you can turn into a soothsayer yourself. Enough said.

6. Set your own rules and timelines. Why follow the crowd? Okay, I am not denying it. We all want blog traffic and we all crave followers. In multiple digits. Fast. It’s like gymming…no pain, no gain. Just knowing the rules is not enough, you have to sweat it out. So, I’m being practical for a change. I have my own pace and my own milestones. I get to define my personal parameters of success and celebrate every small victory. That is happiness!

7. Not everything in life is about commerce: So, when are you monetising your blog? That question pops up every once in a while. I will, when I am prepped and ready to offer brands what they want. Hopefully, soon. Meanwhile, I’m reminding myself constantly, that likes and comments are indicators of an engaged audience, not my life’s motto. Staying on track with my passion for writing. Never disappoints.

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8. Your blog, your style, your way: 100 countries? 100,000 miles? All UNESCO heritage sites. Every National Park. Each island? Records are great. Numbers impress. But me, I never had a head for numbers. Mountain hiking, bungee-jumping, Disney Parks, deep sea dives. Admirable. Just doesn’t click for me. Blogging, like travel, is about who you are inside…each to his own. So, cheers to us all!

9. No one understands your journey like you do: After all, its your journey to live and experience, not theirs to understand. The first time I read this quote, a bell rang inside me. So, a friend didn’t jump with joy at my little victory. Or someone did an eye-roll when I mentioned another trip to Europe. Or they drew a blank expression when I shared that I’m a history geek. It’s all right…everyone doesn’t need to understand! Except the ones who you believe really care about your feelings. (Is that a contradiction?)

10. All in due time, all in due time: Good things come to those who wait. Focus. Focus. Quality content and distribution in relevant forums. Looking, seeing, learning. Not being pressurised by ‘well-wishers’. Waiting for it. Patience! (Not my middle name, by the way. But trying!) One year and a 20,000-strong engaged audience across social media. A few offers, some proposals, many possibilities. My first article published in a travel tabloid. (DB Post Vibe, http://m.epaper.dbpost.com/bhopal/14/06082017/2/) Getting there…

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11. Travel bloggers are a great tribe: When I started out with Instagram, someone pointed out that my account was ‘private’ and it needed to be ‘public’ to be visible. A fellow member of a travel forum messaged me with an invaluable tip to rename my blog pictures (instead of the camera serial numbers) for improved google search. Incredible. Who does that? What a feeling it is to be part of the online travel community…so deeply collaborative, mutually encouraging and supportive.

12. Blogging itself is the reward: Every time I’m drained to the core from staring at my screen without a break or bogged down with endless promotional agenda on a lazy weekend, I remind myself…this is the life I always wanted. It’s good for my soul. And that, is my intrinsic reward.

 

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Flashback to the gilded age of beautiful Budapest

Still as glamorous and grand…

Life seems uneventful along the peaceful road winding up to Gellért Hill, lined with posh residences and embassies. But one look at the Habsburg Citadel and the Budapest Statue of Liberty commemorating defeat of Nazis…and you can sense the reverberations of an unsettling past. From this vantage point, resist the urge to proclaim aloud…“A river runs through it”. Practically the entire map of Budapest stretches across your vision. Bridges over the great Danube stitch Buda on the left river bank, atop leafy hills hiding natural cave systems and hot springs with Pest on the right, crowned with a scene-stealing Gothic Parliament building. Timeless splendour of a timeless city. Best viewing mode: Sepia. So, dive right in.

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Drown in all the colors of the rainbow at Porto

Don’t you dare overlook Portugal’s second city…


This 4th-century port and commercial centre founded by the Romans at the mouth of the river Duoro, actually lent its name to its country, and rightly so. Look deeper and you know how Porto (or Oporto) is the very essence of Portugal. Its a hilly town sans the elan of European cities. It gives the impression of being old and neglected. But its magnificent mansions, opulent churches and a picture-perfect riverside captures the heart. Old Portuguese women cheerfully advertise roasted chestnuts outside colourful building facades, classic tramlines run through broad hilly boulevards and iconic black-white mosaic calcada (flooring) adorns streets and there’s ornamental tile-work everywhere you look. So how about a colour theme to explore this quintessentially vibrant Portuguese city?

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Why Rothenburg is the epitome of German romanticism?

Dollhouse town in Germany…

Factoid: Germany’s second largest city in the middle ages, with 6,000 residents (mammoth for those times) was reduced to poverty during the 30 years war, and virtually faded into oblivion. But life comes full circle. Today it has regained its glory as Germany’s best preserved medieval walled town. Rothenburg ob der Tauber seems like the perfect name for this fairytale place until you translate it into English…red fort on the River Tauber). Mmmm…something less practical, maybe?

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Why you will fall madly in love with Meghalaya?

Wild romance with nature…

The love affair begins in the flight to Guwahati as your gaze is transfixed at the snowy outline of the Himalayan peaks in the far distance. You ignore the silent protest your neck makes from being subject to a weirdly obtuse angle. Its the only way you can successfully trace the entire length and width of that unbelievably massive waterbody miles below you. No, being called a river just doesn’t do her justice, you conclude decisively. Brahmaputra is in a different league altogether.

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Stroll in a cemetery that is worth a thousand pictures

Zagreb’s most surprising architectural gem…

Lovingly encased within seven acres of lush landscaped gardens, Miragoj Cemetery figures as one the top 20 must-visit places in the Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. The final resting place of 300,000 souls from diverse religions, created by architect Hermann Bollé, is one of Europe’s most beautiful cemeteries. 

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