Friday, December 21, 2012

A Postcard from Loire

Amboise on the banks of the Loire River

After 4 days in the City of Light we left Paris in the early morning on a “bullet” train for Tours. But what a rush it was to get from the Marias to Montparnasse on the other side of Paris in morning rush hour. Although we gave ourselves two hours to get there with the metro we boarded the TGV train with 2 minutes to spare. It was close or we would have missed it.  After an hour’s train ride we arrived at the outskirts of Tours.  

 Chenonceau: The road from the entrance to the Chateau

We rented a tiny Renault Modus at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps train station and figured our way out of Tours and while driving the back roads to Francueil where we rented a gite, M observed that we are almost like two young continental backpackers that have just finished school and are embarking on a “Gap Year” exploration: “Even though our luggage is more than just a backpack and we walk slower than youngsters, we have no idea where we’re going except going from roundabout to roundabout and wherever the road takes us.” It was great to feel that freedom!
 Gardens at the Chateau de Chenonceau

But we had help. We had Samantha, the insistent GPS voice instructing us where to go and she proved to be most valuable even though she sent us to a farmhouse once and at another occasion down a one way street. How people traveled by car without GPS in years gone by I honestly don’t know. Maps are good for general driving in the countryside, but once you get into a city like Avignon, especially the walled portion of the city with its maze of ancient narrow streets we learned that Samantha is very good in the cities. She knows her stuff, so to speak. But we also had Michelin maps as a backup and we needed it on the 2nd day of our visit to the Loire Valley. On our way to Chambord we discovered the Renault’s power outlet packed up and the internal battery of the GPS went flat and the rest of the day we had to rely on maps and M’s excellent navigational skills to get us to Chambord and to the Chateau of Cheverny and back home again. We made it!       

The word “hamlet” arose in English around the 1300s, borrowed from the Old French hamel, which means “village”. “Hamlet” is simply a diminutive of hamel, emphasizing the small size of a hamlet. Our rented gite was in the small hamlet of Francueil, 3 km south of the picturesque village of Chenonceaux and the Chenonceau chateau. The house used to be a boulangerie, a bakery, on the small square in front of the village’s church. I don’t know when the bakery was converted to a 2 bedroom house, but today a tiny and modern Cocci Market anchors the opposite side of the square and sells bread, groceries, wine and most things required for a short stay. Opposite the church is The Lion D’Or, a bar-cum-brasserie-cum-snooker hall-cum-tabac (a store that sells anything from cigarettes to lottery tickets). Judging by the number of cars that stopped there early evenings it is the get together place for villagers to grab a quick beer or glass of wine before heading home.

 Stables at the Chateau de Cheverny

Our plans for the next three days were simple: See as many castles as possible (we ended up visiting 4 castles: Chenonceau, Chambord, Cheverny and Amboise), enjoy the sights of the Loire Valley (the countryside is mostly low country, flatlands, beautifully green and in the process of turning to autumn), and eat good food and savor the local wine (but we had terrible food at an Italian restaurant in Blere (the only bad food we had on the whole trip). However, the next night we had absolutely excellent gourmet food at Le Cheval Rouge in Chisseaux, a neighboring village).

And we did that while it rained quite a lot. Sometimes it was nothing more than a drizzle and at other times it poured as if the proverbial biblical flood was playing out in Western Central France. At night thick mist and a wet cold would cloak the valley and the smell of wood-burning fireplaces permeated every particle in the air.

 The moat at Chateau de Chenonceau

Although the Loire Valley doesn’t have any of the dramatic Provencal countryside or the concentrated grandeur of beauty of a Paris, it is, notwithstanding the rain, a beautiful easy-going region to visit. I loved driving the Loire country roads that snake through the grape and vegetable farms and wine estates. We avoided any form of highway and never travelled any of the toll roads. It was back roads travelling all the way. It was leisurely loitering in the Loire.
Amboise, France
Chateau de Chambord - Workers' village

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