Friday, 11 November 2011

Loire Valley

Day 4 was the first morning that I slept beyond dawn. Whether it was the lovely plump pillows, the bed being the perfect softness, the bottle of wine or just pure exhaustion, we woke in our yellow room to see thin sunlight bouncing around the walls. My first thought, after I had thrown open the windows and gazed at the beauty outside that I had woken up in a Castle!! A real one! It was every little girl fantasy come true. 

 Our comfortable, regal bed also came with breakfast, and after a luxurious stretch and the knowledge that we didn't have to go anywhere to forage for food, we elected to take it in the restaurant where we'd eaten the night before. It was then, in daylight, that we realised just how beautiful the view from the castle was. From the previous entry you can see how it was carefully excavated into the hill, but there is something so wonderful about eating your morning yoghurt facing out into a sea of green. 

It was also nice to have some variety for breakfast. As much as I love the taste and idea of pastry, it invariably disagrees with me strongly, such that for the previous mornings my meals had been consisting heavily of bread, which I normally don't eat in any great quantities. So to have fresh fruit and yoghurt with a cup of tea was quite magic. I know that's blasphemy in the land that invented a million uses for butter, but unfortunately true. 

After our breakfast we took a quick stroll around the grounds before jumping in our car to visit the first stop on my pink foldered itinerary - the castle of Chenonceau. After the disaster of the day before, we elected to take the "long way" avoiding all toll roads, and were immediately rewarded, when our path took us through woodlands. Vast tracts of gold tipped trees whispering over the road as we dipped and curved through the landscape. We pottered through tiny towns with cobblestoned streets and quaint limestone farmhouses and everywhere overflowed flowers from window boxes and kitchen gardens. By the time we'd reached Chenonceau, I would have been quite happy to stay in the car and to continue to explore had it not been the allure of its beautiful forests. 

The castle of Chenonceau is obviously very well looked after, and was spotlessly clean from the free car-parking to the moats to the graveled entrance. Knowing some of the history of the place, we wandered through the many rooms of the castle which were beautifully appointed and preserved. The castle itself was built in the River Cher, as both a strategic and defensive manoeuvre and was extended during the reign of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici and I could not help but envy these two women, who had their sitting rooms off their bedroom, with a writing desk overlooking the river and gardens. After leaning out over the front Juliet balcony, we watched the first busloads of tourists arrive and elected to wander the gardens. 

The small garden to the left of the castle, belonging to Catherine was being replanted with pansies and violas while we visited, while the larger, more famous garden to the right, belonging to Diane was in the last faded stages of bloom. We meandered through the carefully planted and geometrically planned garden beds, before crossing a small drawbridge and heading into the forest filled with wild cyclamens. Hidden on one side of the main walk, was also a full sized hedge maze, where Bingley and I raced each other like small children to get to the middle (he won... just, we then raced to see who could get out the other side the fastest, and I beat him by a mile). 

On the other side of the main walk, once through the grand avenue of trees, was the kitchen gardens, where the concept of companion planting, and planting flower beds intermingled with pumpkin and vegetable crops were shown to beautiful effect. Many varieties of peppers were ripening on their bushes, silver beet and chard were turning brilliant colours and the stand of dahlias in full bloom were incomparably lovely. I pointed to things and asked Bingley to make me a garden bed exactly like it when we were home, so that I could kneel against the cool Earth in my own little eden and pull up stubborn weeds. 

Heading back to our car, we set the next destination as Amboise, one of the ancient seats of France and again visited the many tiny hamlets in between towns. All with personality and character and completely justifying the extra 20 minutes drive as we arrived. Not sure exactly where to park, I looked up, and saw the castle towering above us, so we pulled in alongside the Loire river and made our way through the Medieval town to the entrance to the fortress. The town of Amboise was utterly captivating in its age and stateliness. It felt like a fairytale set, with winding cobbled streets that lead to the sloping ramp up to the battlements. It took no imagination to hear the clopping of hooves on the cobblestones of the horses and carriages that must have made that journey as we climbed up to the visitor centre on the edge of the fort. 

Knowing very little about Amboise, we decided to hire audioguides to give us a tour around the place, having seen them used by enraptured tourists at Chenonceau, and were rewarded instantly, by the hilarious scripted banter of the English professor who narrated the visit and his offsider. He saw the chapel where Leonardo da Vinci is buried, we were given the history of the kings and queens who lived in Amboise, and their various attempts at renovation. But there were little personal stories too, of the childhoods of some of the princes, and the games that they used to play. The guide carefully taking us through each room, and explaining the importance of all that was within it. 

Being perched on a hill overlooking the Loire river, the main castle of Amboise was cold and the wind was quite fierce. But the rooms were well designed, so that it was easy to imagine families and young princes around the massive fireplaces. The gardens were beautiful as well, as sculpted and rigorously maintained as the marble mantlepieces; the vineyard at the top of the garden heavy with grapes that kept the local birds very happy. Watching them we were starting to get peckish, so after the ceremonial purchase of the golden souvenir medallion, we wandered back into the cute market street to find something to eat. Not being ravenous after the big breakfast, I had a sandwich while Bingley ate the first crepe of the trip, smothered in Nutella. 

After lunch, we walked hand in hand up the hill, along a tiny passage to the Renaissance mansion of Clos Luce - the home of Leonardo da Vinci for his last years. The house was gradually being made over into a museum to showcase da Vinci both as an artist, but also as botanist, scientist and inventor, complete with full scale replicas of his most famous inventions. Bingley truly enjoyed it, while I walked around and wondered why anyone bothers trying to invent anything, being as clearly da Vinci already thought of everything. I also enjoyed the secret passageway out of the chateau which legendarily connected with the castle so that da Vinci's close "friend" the king could come and visit in secret. They were apparently very good "friends". 

The grounds of Clos Luce were also spectacular in and of themselves. The lake and stream where da Vinci painted and described in detail the structure and formation of leaves, the wide sloping lawns and the beautiful trees. There were also cute little outbuildings which clearly hold seasonal restaurants and cafes that were not open during the colder months. We found the vending machine for our souvenir medallion and then headed back down the streets of Amboise, trying to decide what to do next. The day was getting later and I was not sure if we could fit anything else in. We decided on a whim, to drive to Chambord, so that I could at least take photographs of the massive castle, and then we would drive home. 

As we drove along the Loire however, I spied across the river the fairytale turrets of Chaumont, and the unbelievably charming village at her feet, and we decided to head there instead, parking at the bottom of the hill and walking up the long path to the grounds. Even Bingley was impressed when we reached the top, to see the smooth round turrets and general Cinderella castle appearance of Chaumont. We were almost alone as we wandered through the castle, which unlike the others that we had visited was clearly not in receipt of as many tourist dollars. To prop up their revenue, the castle had opened various wings as art galleries, and we took in a few displays including one that used the decrepit, unrenovated rooms in the upper floors to great effect. I absolutely fell in love with this castle and wanted it for my very own. It had, as Anne so famously put it, so much scope for imagination. 

The enclosed Juliet balconies overlooking the Loire were closed, but you could still see through the windows the original parquetry flooring and glimpses of the view beyond. At the end of the rooms open to the public, we headed for the central courtyard and well and overlooked the Loire valley as the sun began to sink behind the trees. On the far shore, hot air balloons were setting up for the afternoon, and we watched their whimsical forms as they lifted gracefully from the ground and began to drift in the currents, seeming to skim the water of the river as they did so. I wish wish wish that I had booked a trip - I had been planning it, but had balked at the last minute over the 200E per person prices. At that point though, on that wonderful, golden afternoon, it would have been perfect. 

Filled with the beauty of a day spent pretending to be a princess, and going back to my own castle to sleep, we backtracked through the tiny villages again, marvelling at just how pretty one place can be, so completely unselfconsciously. Then we drove back through the gates, the gravel crunching under the tyres, as we climbed back up the tower to our room. 

View from the driveway of Domaine de la Tortiniere

Grounds, Domaine de la Tortiniere

First moat, Chenonceau

Cathedral of branches, Chenonceau

River Cher, demarkation of occupied France

Diane's garden

The famous gallery - as this stretched across the river, this path was used to traffic supporters of the French resistance during the war. 

The meticulously presented kitchens, amazing

From the centre of the maze

Kitchen gardens

Shiny greeting, Amboise

First glimpse of the Chateau Amboise from the ramparts

Chapel wherein Leonardo da Vinci is buried

Rooftops of Amboise

Battlements facing the Loire banners flying

Amboise town square

Secret tunnel

Clos Luce

Lamp post in Chaumont-sur-Loire

Walking up to the castle

Surreally pretty - the Chateau Chaumont

The chateau above the township of Chaumont-sur-Loire 



Averil said...

I want to copy your exact itinerary Jenn, and I want to leave TOMORROW.

Stunning stunning photos and fabulously descriptive stories. Coming into your blog at the moment makes my heart ache with the gorgeousness of it all.

I want it, all of it. xx

Jenn said...

The problem is, once you've had a taste, it's all you can think about. Am such a glutton.


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