Weekend Trips

Extended Weekend: Prague

Posted by Strainu on June 11, 2010
From Bucharest / 3 Comments

Versiunea română aici.

The road
Map

Because we are talking this time about a more distant destination, the transport will be made by plane. The Czech airlines, CSA, has 2 flights daily from Bucharest Otopeni to Prague Ruzyne, one early in the morning and one in the afternoon. Prices are usually pretty high, but you can get a “City break” package from tourist agencies at excellent prices (for details, see the accomodation section below).

From the airport, there is a bus to the nearest metro station, which costs 26 CZK (the usual fare for Prague). From there, the metro should take you anywhere your hotel is.

Rating: ★★★★½

Accommodation

The best price to visit Prague is by choosing a “City Break” offer from tourist agencies. All of them sell the same package, from OK tours, which start from 199 EUR for flight + 3 nights in a hotel + breakfast. Of course, prices vary by the hotel. The hotels in the offer are:

  • Hotel OLYMPIC TRISTAR ***
  • Hotel ORION ***
  • Hotel SIBELIUS ***
  • Hotel U KRIZE ***
  • Hotel CHRISTIE ****

We chose the Olympic tristar, which is a little far from downtown, but with excellent public transport access. The building itself is a “classical” communist block, much like Romanian University dormitories, with small rooms and old furniture.

However, the rooms were clean, there was a TV and shower in the room and the breakfast was decent.

Rating: ★★★★☆

What to see

There is a whole lot to be seen in Prague, except the major tourist attractions. You should go through the more modern neighborhoods, like the 18th century buildings around the television tower with kids climbing on its side. They give you a different perspective on the city than the downtown. Or perhaps you would want to go follow on the footstepts of Kafka, the famous Czech writer, or the infamous soldier Svejk.

Turnul de televiziuneDSC07381

Of course, you shouldn’t miss the Prague Castle, the Jewish quarter (where you will find quite a few different nations actually, perhaps more than in other parts of the city) or Staré Město (the old city), including the astronomical watch.

Castelul PragaCeasul Astronomic

The Carol Bridge is a city on it’s own, with it’s many painters and souvenirs vendors. It is also the place to start if you are looking for a river trip. They’re a bit expensive compared with other European cities, but it’s well worth it. I recommend the small wood boats from Carol’s bridge instead of the large, impersonal metal boats that depart from other places on the river.

DSC09073DSC07536

On the other hand, you should avoid the museums, as they are unusually empty. For instance, the National Museum is a monster building, but the permanent exhibition would probably fit in the Military Museum from Bucharest.

DSC07562DSC07415

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternatives

Wien and Budapest seem likely replacements for those of you who already know Prague. The Hungarian airline, Malev, has an offer much like CSA’s, but the price is a little bit higher.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

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Extended weekend: Băile Tuşnad

Posted by Strainu on September 12, 2009
From Bucharest / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

The road
Map

The quality of the roads are very different. Until Braşov the DN1 or DN1A are pretty good. So is the road from Braşov until Sfântu Gheorghe, although this portion has an unusually noisy overcoat. After that, there are plenty of potholes and the average speed is very low. The trip takes 4-5 hours by car.

By train, the trip takes 4.5-6 hours. There are a few direct trains from Bucharest, but most of the trains getting to Tuşnad leave from Braşov.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

There are plenty of private homes that offer accomodation, both in Băile Tuşnad and in neighboring villages. Most of them offer mediocre quality, but there are some good places to stay. There are also a few hotels left from the communist era for the most picky clients.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

What to see

There are a number of tourist trails from Tuşnad and the neighboring villages. You can go to the Sfânta Ana Lake by foot (3.5-4h) or to a sightseeing tower (15-30min.) from where you can see the whole Olt valley. There is also a cross you can visit, but the trail is pretty steep, so make sure you’re fit before going there.

In the city you have the Tuşnad sources, famous for their healing capacity and the Ciucaş Lake, which is little more than a poorly-maintained park with a pond in the middle.

Lacul CiucaşLacul Sf. AnaPe drumul dinspre Lacul Sf. AnaValea oltuluiTurnul

(Pictures made by Cathy and used with permission)

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Alternatives

  • Sighişoara is a little further, but better known than Tuşnad.
  • In the same area, you can visit any number of hungarian towns or Târgu Mureş

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Weekend Trip: Buzău – Meledic, Muddy Volcanoes, Siriu Dam, Eagles’ Lake

Posted by Strainu on October 28, 2008
From Bucharest / No Comments

The road
Map

The quality of the roads on our path are very different. Until Buzău there is a European road, with 1.5 lanes. No problems there, most of the slower drivers go on the emergency lane, so you can overtake them without passing the middle of the road. Beware of the fixed and mobile radars.

From Buzău up until 10 km from the Meledic Plateau, the road is narrow, but in pretty good state. The same can be said about the road to the Siriu Dam.

The rest of the way is bad to desastrous. You have everything from country tracks to (theoretically) paved roads, where the asphalt is just a distant memory. If you want to get to the Live Fire (near Meledic), I strongly recommend a 4×4, even if any car will get you there if you hate it hard enough. 😛

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Accommodation

You can find hotels in Buzău and cabans and local homes on the rest of the road. The prices range from affordable to medium, but the quality is poor to none.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

What to see

Starting from Buzău, you can go to the Meledic plateau, home to some interesting salt formations, several salt caves (which hold some length records) and the only sweet water lake in the world to be formed on a salt mountain.

MeledicMeledicMeledicMeledicMeledic

From there you can go to the Muddy Volcanoes. It’s perhaps the best known tourist attraction in Buzău County. Beware not to fall in one of them. 😛 They’re not hot, so you’ll probably survive (if there is someone to pull you out), but you’ll have to be hosed before the mud dries.

Vulcanii NoroioşiVulcanii Noroioşi

The Siriu dam is one of the biggest rockfill dams in Romania. It’s placed on the Buzău River, near Siriu. From there, you can escalate the Podu Calului, Siriu and Monteoru mountains. It’s also the starting point to the shortest road to the Eagle’s Lake.

Barajul SiriuBarajul Siriu

Rating: ★★★½☆

Alternatives

A weekend at Horezu, in Oltenia, could be more to your liking.

Overall Rating: ★★½☆☆

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Weekend Trip: Transfăgărăşan and Bâlea

Posted by Strainu on October 04, 2008
From Bucharest / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

The road
Map

The fastest way to get to Bâlea from Bucharest is through Piteşti, Curtea de Argeş and Transfăgărăşan (DN67). However, we wanted to go all the length of the Transfăgărăşan, so we went through Braşov, then on DN1 to Sibiu, and we turned left on DN67 near Cârţişoara.

To return from Bâlea, we continued over the mountains to Curtea de Argeş, Piteşti and finally Bucureşti.

The roads are all right, if we ignore the never-ending works on DN1 between Braşov and Sibiu. DN67 is in excellent condition considering the fact that it’s a mountain road closed for 5 month a year.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Accommodation

If you want to sleep at Bâlea, your best chance is to bring a tent with you and hope it doesn’t rain. If you’re not the nature type, there are 2 cottages at the lake and 1 hotel at the waterfall.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

What to see

Some of the trails can be dangerous, and some are closed during winter. You should always have proper equipment and respect the warnings signs. It’s for your own good! If you need help, you can call 0-SALVAMONT (0725826668 – the mountain rescue HQ) or 112 (emergency services).

If you come from DN1 like us, you can leave your car at the Bâlea Cascadă hotel (you can’t miss it, there are lots of cars around). From there you can go to the lake by foot (only if you’re in good shape) or by cable. The ticket is 15 lei. By foot, there are 3 different routes: 2h30, 3h30 and 4h30 long.

Once you get to the top (over 2000m), you can admire the glacial lake and the impressive mountains around it. If you still feel up to it, you can go on another trip, for example to the Capra (Goat) lake.

When you’re done exhausting yourself, you can continue through the tunnels to Muntenia. If there is still time, you can stop in Curtea de Argeş to see the remains of the first capital of Valachia.

BaleaBaleaBaleaBaleaBaleaBaleaBaleaBalea

Rating: ★★★★½

Alternatives

From Râmnicu-Vâlcea you can go left in DN67 to Târgu Jiu and visit some monasteries and some caves.

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Weekend Trip: Sibiu and the Olt Valley

Posted by Strainu on September 23, 2008
From Bucharest / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

The road
Map

To get to Sibiu from Bucharest you need to follow the A1/E81 to Piteşti (115km), pass on the newly built ring road and continue on the E81 to Râmnicu Vâlcea (68km), Cozia (17km) and finally Sibiu (90km), for a total of about 200km. The road is quite good, except for some parts of Dealu Negru where the road has collapsed and is currently being rebuilt. From Cozia to Sibiu there are another 100km of not-so-good roads. There are also some sections where the circulation takes place on 1 lane, controlled by traffic lights.

The trip takes about 4 hours without speeding. You could probably do it in 3h15-3h30 with a radar detector.

If you go by train, the trip takes about 5h30 and costs from 45 to 60 lei.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

Accomodation in Sibiu is expensive and quite bad. I can’t really recommend any place, except the Old Town Hostel. It would be much better if you searched for hosting in the villages near Sibiu. You could try getting some hosting from Antrec, the Romanian branch of Eurogites.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

What to see

The pedestrian area of Sibiu is interesting. You can see numerous old houses from the 16th and 17th centuries. Piaţa Mare and Piaţa Mică (The Big and Small squares) are linked by small streets and stairs. In the same area you can find the famous Podul Minciunilor (The Liars Bridge).

All the city’s museums are there: the Bruckental Museum, the historical museum, the Lutheran Church, etc. The Towers and citadel, which limit the old town are also nice to visit.

If you’re in town for a little longer, you might want to visit the Astra Museum, near Sibiu.

DSC04763DSC04755

DSC04760DSC04754

Rating: ★★★★½

Alternatives

From Râmnicu-Vâlcea you can go left in DN67 to Târgu Jiu and visit some monasteries and some caves.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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Weekend Trip: Lyon

Posted by Strainu on August 21, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport
Map

There are TGV trains from Paris to Lyon every hour or so. You also have planes and a highway between the two cities.

Rating: ★★★★½

Accommodation

There are many low-cost hotels in the city, including in the city center. Because we were three, we chose one of the low cost hotels (Premiere Classe or Etap). With the city tourism fee, this got as to 22 euros/person for a modern, air-conditioned room in downtown Lyon. This solution has only one disadvantage: one of the three beds is above the other two.

Rating: ★★★½☆

What to see

The first thing to see is the Fourvière hill, part of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. You can take the funicular to the Roman amphitheater or to the XIXth century cathedral. At the bottom of the hill you have the Old Lyon (Vieux Lyon) – famous for its traboules (small passageways between buildings). A guided tour could be useful here, because you can easily get lost or miss some cool traboules.

Near the old city there is the Presqu’île, home to the shopping quarter, the city hall, opera and some museums.

Another hill worth seeing is the Croix Rousse, home to the world famous painted walls. If you are at the right distance, you might even mistake them for a real street. There is an interesting story about respect between taggers and the painters who made the walls. In one of the walls there was a real postal box that integrated in the painting. After a month from the inauguration, the box was full of graffiti, but the wall was clean – and it still is. It’s a good example of how modern art can prevent degradations in the modern cities.

If you have time, don’t miss the Film Museum – Lyon is the city were the Lumière brothers projected the first movie over 110 years ago.

If you want more info on what to see and where you can find good food, check out the second link below.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Alternatives

Think Bruxelles, Toulouse, Marseille or Strasbourg.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

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Extended Weekend: Côte d’Azur

Posted by Strainu on August 14, 2008
From Paris / 3 Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport

Map

The Côte d’Azur is far from Paris (about 1000 km), so if you leave by car, make sure you have 2 drivers. A much easier way is to go by train – 6 hours by TGV or 10 hours by night train. I chose the latter solution as it allowed my to save a day.

Between the resorts you have bus services (slow but cheap – 1 euro) or local trains (more expensive but much quicker). For instance, between Cannes and Antibes you make almost 1h by bus and 12 minutes by train.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

You can find accommodation for all budgets on the Côte d’Azur. However, you should consider booking at least 2 to 4 weeks in advance during the summer, as there are many tourists in the area.

If you’re looking for a low budget restaurant, don’t bother looking near the beach. Instead, try near the fishing ports – you might have pleasant surprises. 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

What to see

Cannes, Antibes and Nice are all alike, except for the “Croisette”. The “Croisette” is almost the ultimate in showing off. In one end you can also see the famous “Palais des Congres” where the film festival is held. Further down the street, you have the 4* and 5* hotels on one side, the private beaches of those hotels on the other side, and in the middle, 100k+ euro cars. 🙂 However, you can also find some lower-budget restaurants on the beach, but their prices are still above average. The beach is from sand, which is very unusual in France. This is not the case in Nice and Antibes, where you have to stay on rocks.

The rest of Cannes is just an ordinary resort, with shops, hotels and all the rest. There are some museums, like the Musée de la Castre, sitting in the former Castle of Cannes (photo 1) or the Musée de la Mer (Sea Museum). From the tourist port of Cannes you can visit the Lérin Islands, that were protecting the port in the Middle Ages – Saint Marguerite and Saint Honorat. I went to the larger one, Saint Marguerite (photo 3 and 4). It’s covered with a pine forest and hosts a village and the Fort Royal, home to the Sea Museum and a youth hostel. The museum is not very large nor very interesting. The good part is that it’s free for students. If you missed the last morning boat and need to spend some time on the island, you can visit the natural reservation on the eastern side of the island or the WWII bunkers.
Chateau de CannesDSC04613DSC04662DSC04654

Nice is known for the half-moon shape of it’s beach. I can’t really understand the fun in spending the day laying on rocks, but hey…France is a free country 🙂 The main attraction except the beach is the Colline du Château, a mountain top at the end of the Angel’s Bay where the town’s castle and cathedral once stood. From the top, you can see the port, with the ferries to Corsica (photo 5) as well as the whole bay, as far as the airport (photo 6).

The pedestrian district, comprising the Promenade and several inland streets is home to some interesting buildings like the enormous Acropolis convention center/multipurpose hall and the very odd Louis Nucéra Library (photo 8). Another place to visit in Nice is the Garibaldi Place.
NisaNisaNisaNisa

Antibes was once as important as Cannes or Nice. Nowadays it seems a little “sleepy”, the main interest spot being the port.

Even if Monaco is generally considered as a single city, that’s not true – the northern part is called Monte Carlo, while to the south there are other cities. Due to the lack of time, we only made a half-day walk in the country, looked at the Prince’s Palace then left back for Antibes.
Rating: ★★½☆☆

Alternatives

If you don’t have 3 days, you might consider going from Paris to the Atlantic Ocean. Another destination could be the Northern Sea or even the African seaside if you go by plane.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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Extended Weekend: Benelux – Luxembourg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Bruges

Posted by Strainu on August 13, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Versiunea română aici.

Transport

Map

There are 3 ways to get around:

  • a car – which we choose; we rented a car from Sixt and left for the “Autoroute du Nord”; the highway is expensive and not as good as you’d expect in France (still better than the ones in Romania, of course) and pretty much “average” in Belgium and Holland.
  • a bus – Eurolines has routes between all this cities; the trip takes forever – count 7 hours between Paris and Amsterdam.
  • Thalys – the high speed train that liks Paris, Bruxelles, Koln and Amsterdam + regional trains from there.

We had some problems with the GPS in Utrecht, due to the road works in progress which were changing the look of the city. The rest of the road was smooth. You should consider about 4 euros/h or 30euros/day for parking in Holland.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Accommodation

The initial idea was to spend 1 night in Liege, 2 nights in Amsterdam and one in Bruges. Due to the lack of time, we gave up on the nights in Liege and Bruges. In Liege we found a Premiere Classe hotel downtown and in Bruges a small hostel, both at about 20 euros/person/night.

Amsterdam was a whole different story. The hostels were both expensive and fully booked 2 weeks ahead. As a back-up solution, we decided to stay in Utrecht, about 35 km from Amsterdam. We chose the Strowis Hostel, which delivered all the promises from the site. We particularely liked the back yard and the hosts. 🙂

Rating: ★★★★☆

The cities

Luxembourg is a mix between a tourist and a business city. It tries to do both roles as good as possible and in my opinion it works. However, not everybody agreed – some of my friends found it too “official”.
Luxemburg in a strange light on deviantart

Amsterdam is of course known for its canals, bikes and drugs. I personally found it to be a dirty city (the only one in western Europe who could be compared with Bucharest) and hard to live in if you have any kind of prejudices – and how many of us can honestly say they have none? On the other hand, I just loved the museums; perhaps was it because I am attracted to Flemish painters because of their choice of colors or because of the nice contrast between the old artworks and the modern layout.
DSC03829DSC03830

Utrecht was much more “quiet” than Amsterdam. Despite the same active night life, the city seemed to always me asleep. I’m sorry we only had a few hours to explore it.

Bruges is the medieval city by excellence. Between the old churches and houses you walk on small stone-paved, car-free (at least in the city center) streets. The downside is that once you see one of those, the rest are pretty much alike.
DSC03833DSC03840
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Alternatives

Choose 1 city from Holland, 1 medieval city and a very small country (like Lichtenstein, Andorra, San Marino or Vatican) and you’re all set. Pretty cool, huh? 😀

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

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One day trip: Atlantic Coast

Posted by Strainu on July 13, 2008
From Paris / 1 Comment

Versiunea română aici.

Transport
Map

The road from Paris to Rouen and further to Le Havre is on highway. Unfortunately, we went on a holiday so the road was packed. To get to Etretat and Fecamp, two resorts on the Atlantic coast, you need to get off the highway and onto secondary roads. In the resorts there were insufficient parking places compared with the number of cars.

If you want to get to the Atlantic by train, you can get to Le Havre by Corail trains. There are some TGVs to Rennes and Brest, in Bretagne.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Food

Like anywhere in France, you can find good food and excellent wine just about anywhere. However, unlike other cities, the prices were quite high. As we were on a budget, we settled for supermarket food. 😛


Rating: ★★★☆☆

Sightseeing

Rouen, once the capital of Normandy, is a city famous mostly for it’s cathedral. The area around it is full of interesting old houses. What we couldn’t quite understand is why there was a 60s glass-and-concrete building doing just in front of the cathedral?

The city also has some interesting museums and other churches, but we skipped them due to the lack of time.
Oceanul AtlanticOceanul Atlantic

The small roads between Rouen and the seaside are worth the detour by themselves. Old stone houses and windmills are common in the region.

In Fecamp, there isn’t much to do besides sunbathing. Unfortunately, the beach is made of stones, so you should bring a mattress instead of a towel.

Etretat has, besides the rocky beach, some old WW2 defenses now eaten by the ocean when the tide is high. When the water is low, you can visit them and even go through a passage in the rocky cliffs to some “hidden” beaches. You can (if you’re in good shape) then climb up the cliff for a spectacular view of the coast.

Casinos are an important attraction in both cities, although the look a bit “rusty” and can’t be compared to the palaces of the Cote d’Azur.

Oceanul AtlanticOceanul AtlanticOceanul AtlanticOceanul Atlantic

Rating: ★★★★½

Alternatives

The Mediteranean Sea is quite far from Paris compared to the ocean, but it remains nevertheless an important alternative.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Links

No links here, sorry.

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Extended Weekend: Loire Valley

Posted by Strainu on May 14, 2008
From Paris / No Comments

Transport

Map

To visit the Loire Valley, you’re better off to stay in one of the big cities, Tours and Blois.

The road from Paris to Tours is quite good. The downside there are many route changes and the itinerary has some toll portions. It will probably take you about 2 hours to get there. Blois is on this route, about 1h30 from Paris.

We have chosen to stay in Tours and get there by TGV. The trip takes little over an hour from Paris Montparnasse and 59 minutes from Massy. Unfortunately there are only a few trains that go in the Tours main station. Most of them stop in a small station on the outskirts of the city, and from there you have to take a regional train. Besides, the trains are a little old. It’s not particularly pleasant to hear the outer shell strongly vibrate at 300km/h.

To get to Blois, and even to Tours if you would like to save some money, you can take some classic trains from Paris Austerlitz. The trip takes about 2h to Blois and 30 more minutes to Tours.

To get around the valley the best is to have a car. If you don’t, you have to get around with local trains (TER) or with local buses. The trains are fast and quite expensive, while the buses are slow, cheap and few and far apart. Be careful, in the weekends the transport sucks (there are fewer trains and no buses).

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Accommodation

The Loire Valley has accommodations for all the budgets, from campings and the cheapest hostels to 5***** palaces and even reconverted castles. Tours is in the center of the region so it will probably be your first choice, but Blois has its own charm and nothing compares with the experience you will have if you decide to spend some days in one of the villages in the region.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The castles

I grouped the castles by their region. You should be able to visit all the castles in a group during a single day, without running to much.

Chenonceau and Amboise

Chenonceau and Amboise are placed more or less on the route between Tours and Blois. The first castle I visited, Chenonceau remained my favourite. It was built in the 16th century and it is called “Le chateau des Dames” (The Ladies’ Castle) because it was owned by the wife (Catherine de Medicis) and the mistress (Diane de Poitiers) of the French king Henri II. The castle spreads over the Cher River, so the view is guaranteed from the ball room, which is over 60m long. The domain and the gardens are pretty impressive, although not comparable with the ones at Versailles.

Amboise is different. It was built from an old fortress and the successive kings added new buildings or destroyed old ones, so the current castle is formed from 2 very different wings. This castle gave me a very pleasant surprise, as it was the only one which had a brochure in Romanian. Unfortunately, neither the castle nor the domain were impressive.

Entry fees were 10 euros in full, 7,50 euros for students at each castle.

ChenonceauxAmboise

Rating: ★★★★☆

Blois, Chambord et Cheverny

The Blois castle is the most intriguing of them all. It’s made from 3 different wings, of which the most beautiful is unfinished. It has an impressive side on the road and an interesting collection of weapons.

Chambord is arguably the most famous castle of them all. It’s a huge royal palace surrounded by an endless park. The village of Chambord is practically a touristic attraction in itself, being pretty much unchanged from the 17th century. This castle houses the famous double helix staircase, by which 2 people could see each other but never meet.

Tickets for students are 5 euros at Blois and 7,5 at Chambord.

BloisChambord

Rating: ★★★★½

Chinon et Langeais

Chinon is more of a fortress than a castle. It’s made of three distinct parts separated by ditches. It’s currently undergoing a huge restauration which will see the main tower rebuilt from scratch. This decision is unfortunate, in my opinion, as it takes most of the charm of the castle. Chinon also has a museum dedicated to Jeanne d’Arc.

Langeais is a small castle not to far from Chinon. It’s the castles where Charles II and Anne de Bretagne married, making Bretagne a part of France. The most interesting thing here is the drawbridge, which is lowered each morning.

ChinonLangeais

Rating: ★★★½☆

Luynes et Tours

Luynes is a private residence and can only be visited with a guide. Its charm is given by the small histories told by the guide and the many family pictures. It’s placed in a suburb of Tours and you can get there by bus.

The Tours castle is the city’s art museum. I personally found it totally uninteresting.

Luynes

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Alternatives

Well, there isn’t really an alternative to the many castles in the Loire Valley. Perhaps the English countryside? If you know an area with such a high concentration of castles, please let me know.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

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