One happy rider describes the joys of exploring "off-the-beaten-path" areas of France's Loire River Valley on horseback.
I have always longed to ride in France from chateau to chateau, to be greeted at the door by a count or countess, and to pretend for a few days that I was part of the country's centuries-old history of horses and grand living.
My dream came true when I joined nine other riders from the U.S. and Europe for a week-long horseback tour in the picturesque Sologne area of the Loire River Valley, far from the tour buses and crowds.
This region is a patchwork of fruit orchards, wheat fields, and huge fields of bright yellow sunflowers crisscrossed with vineyards -- a flood of color spilling down to the banks of the Loire River and surrounding its main city, Sancere. It is France's bread basket, fruit bowl and winery, all in one.
We rode four or five hours a day through great national forests, stopping for gourmet French picnics of pate fois gras, cheeses, French bread and wine -- usually next to the moat of a family-owned chateau. After lunch we toured the chateau-of-the-day before mounting up again.
After one long, delightful day we caught a first glimpse of our night's lodging across a spectacular lake -- a fairy tale vision that did not vanish as we rode into the chateau of the La Verrerie, an elegant Renaissance palace built by Bernard Stuart of Scotland.
The present countess greeted us and showed us to our sumptuous suites overlooking the lake. Later we joined her and the count for cocktails in the parlor before a delicious dinner.
This vacation had it all -- history, beauty, architecture, food, wine and horses -- and certainly exceeded my expectations. The company that arranged the trip, furnished a great deal of background and history beforehand about where we would be staying, and our guide Patrick brought that history to life in his impeccable English.