An amazing, extravagant day

By now, we had made peace with a slower, more thorough pace than originally planned. We toured only one chateau, but we chose well – Chenonceau, billed as “The Ladies’ Chateau,” influenced over the centuries by the women who lived there. In the 16th century, there was Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henri II, and later his wife, Catherine de Medici, who ousted Diane when the king died and she became Regent. Then, in the 18th century, came Louise Dupin, a brave, enlightened promoter of writing and learning, who cleverly protected the chateau during the French Revolution.

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The history doesn’t end there, as Chenonceau also had a role to play in both world wars. We decided to rent audio guides and again found them a wise choice. In room after room, I would listen, then go back to hear again the more interesting tidbits. The chapel’s stained glass was destroyed by bombs in 1944, but has since been tastefully replaced.

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Visitors walk on the original floors, where in some places the design remains only at the edges of the room. This carefree hare was protected by the nearby furniture. Although some corners were roped off, we were free to wander more than I would have expected.

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The stately arched bridge that reaches out over the River Cher was Diane’s creation, but it was Catherine who later built on it a long, elegant ballroom. It’s possible to rent a canoe and paddle downriver and underneath the chateau, if you have time.

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By World War I, Chenonceau was owned by the Menier family, of Paris chocolate factory fame. They transformed the ballroom and another gallery above it into a 120-bed hospital at their own expense. Simone Menier served as matron of the facility, which was equipped with a state-of-the-art operating theater and one of the first X-ray machines. From the windows, convalescing soldiers would fish in the river below, tying small bells to their lines to signal a bite. Then, during the second world war, the chateau found itself sitting on the line between the occupied and free zones, allowing the Resistance to spirit many people through these same rooms to safety.

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In honor of baby Prince Louis, whose birth was announced while we waited in Charles de Gaulle airport for our flight home, I am including this incredible portrait of Louis XIV. The massive ornate frame draws the eye and dominates all else in the room. The Sun King reigned for over 72 years, the longest of any European monarch. He visited the chateau in 1650, at age 11, and later sent this portrait to commemorate his visit.

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Every room had fresh flowers, often many arrangements in one room, all changed twice weekly by the chateau’s florists. Here are some from The Five Queens’ Bedroom.

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Don’t you just love this photo of Mom and Dad, patiently waiting for us to finish?

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Of course, Diane and Catherine both had their gardens…Diane’s was my favorite.

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Next time you are in France, I hope you will go to the Loire Valley and see Chenonceau. It’s worth the trip. Now, though, it’s time to say au revoir, after one last story.

To make our adventure complete, we wanted to visit a winery and not just any one. In Charlottesville last fall, Megan had been impressed by a red wine from Domaine Fabrice Gasnier, from the nearby Chinon region, and had taken a photo of the restaurant menu. As we drove, though, vineyards lined every road and there were countless signs with grapes and bottles on them. How would we find Fabrice?

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Luckily, we soon came across a large, helpful map on a display board near the river, showing the location of all the local wineries.  After one small wrong turn, we found the right place and squeezed into the crowded driveway. By the doors to a large barn, a couple was sitting outside, but there were no signs to indicate where to go or if the place was even open. They came right over, though, smiling. “Come, come,” they said, drawing Megan and I through a door into a dark, crowded room, filled with voices and music. In the dim recesses ahead, a long row of barrels faded into the darkness.

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Incredibly, we had stumbled on a party, been welcomed into a gathering of friends, to celebrate the first bottling of the new year. Before long, we each had a glass in hand and were tasting different red wines, while chatting as best we could in both languages. Then Dad got up there and sang “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” with his new friends.

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Afterward, we all agreed that this had been a highlight of the trip. Eventually, we even found the retail area. In the photo above, Megan and Dad are making a few purchases from Fabrice himself. I plan to save the bottle that I bought for when Megan comes up in August and we’ll drink a toast to serendipity! So, a la prochaine, until the next time.

 

 

 

 

The humblest and grandest of dwellings

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Mention of the Loire Valley brings visions of exquisite châteaux, but there are other living spaces here, that couldn’t be more different. In the Loire Valley, winding our way up along France’s longest river, we would experience both.

As we left Carnac, I was navigating, tracing our route carefully to find the smaller roads that would hug the river. Driving in France, unless you are on the large toll roads, is slow and picturesque. If there is a village, it seems, you will pass through it, with a sign as you enter with the village name and another as you exit, showing the same name with a slash through it. Just past Angers, we found the river and followed it toward Saumur.

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Dad had been telling us the history of the area’s sparkling wines, when suddenly we came upon the grand facade of Gratien & Meyer, the cellars that he had visited long ago. They offered tours to see how their wines (not called champagne because we weren’t in the Champagne region) had been made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Their cellars, like the many troglodyte cave homes around Saumur, were originally quarries. When the soft limestone called tuffeau was dug out in this region, the caves left behind were inhabited and still are. Often, part of the structure would be in the hillside caves and part would be outside, constructed of blocks of the pale yellow-tan tuffeau that had been quarried there. Tomorrow night we would sleep in rooms like that.

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Deep in the cellars, we were introduced to the wine-making process, from the careful blending of grape varieties, through the labeling of the bottles. Labels were applied up the neck of the bottle to hide the inconsistencies in how full the bottles were. Men turned the bottles 1/4 turn each day and could do 50,000 in one day. Then there was the innovative change to metal wire to hold the corks, rather than the hemp cord that rats would sometimes chew through. Note the knight-like face mask above, that the workers wore to protect themselves from carbon dioxide-fueled accidents!

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From Saumur, we drove to our B&B in Amboise, whose chateau towered above the city. We enjoyed the family feel of Les Collones de Chanteloup, located along a quiet lane. Our breakfast there included some dainty local strawberries very close in size and taste to wild ones and tiny individual pots of chocolate mousse, served in antique flowered porcelain as old as the recipe. Of course, there were also the typical cheeses, meats, breads, cakes, croissants, yogurt, and freshly-squeezed orange juice, too.

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That day, we visited the chateau at Chenonceau and had our most surprising adventure, a true serendipity and the subject of tomorrow’s post, most likely the last for this adventure. We’ve been home now for almost a week – time to finish up!

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The experience of cave dwelling for a night did not disappoint us. Megan and I had the interior room. The curving walls, damp and rugged, set off the clean bed, which was bravely made with crisp white sheets. Crusted on the rough walls were bits of rocks, tinged green with moss or lichen, that mysteriously made their way into our hair. The cooler sleeping temperature (naturally around 54 degrees Fahrenheit unless the heat was on) was a nice change after several sweltering nights in much fancier rooms.

The hotel’s restaurant served dinners centered around bread baked in the traditional troglodyte manner, with various toppings, but we opted for burgers a short walk away at a restaurant by the small village church instead.

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Carnac’s mysterious standing stones

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I wish we’d had more time to devote to the old walled city of Saint-Malo. Familiar to Megan and I as the setting for the second half of the captivating WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, we felt honored just to be there. This was also the home of Jacques Cartier, who, in 1534, sailed from here to explore the St. Lawrence River, claiming (and naming) Canada for France. We spent our too-short time in the many high quality shops, buying gifts.

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Carnac, which we reached after driving south across Brittany, was one of the areas that Dad most wanted us to experience. Think Stonehenge, but with nearly three thousand prehistoric megaliths, the largest number anywhere in Europe, scattered throughout the countryside. These mysterious, giant standing stones date from as early as 4000 B.C.

 

We loved our small hotel, Lann Roz, which had a nice patio area and stellar cuisine. Dinner started with three amuse bouche, which we’d first encountered at Le Spinnaker. These surprise treats, courtesy of the chef, included a miniature cup of savory mousse, a cube of smoked salmon and a tiny pastry. From the fixed price menu, I chose langostine cream soup, lamb with new potatoes, and a chocolate, coffee, caramel tart. Heavenly!

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The next morning, we were (or mostly I was) determined to see some of the stones without company. No little trolley trains or fenced in areas for us. So off we went, map in hand, for a driving loop in the country. The route, we discovered, consisted mostly of walking paths and narrow overgrown drives. However, we felt right at home after years of exploring dubious logging roads in northern Maine.

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Dad headed our low clearance Opal sedan down a steadily dwindling farm lane, one of its warning sensors dinging in outrage. We saw two not-very-skittish partridge, gorse in full yellow bloom and, at last, three of the vertical standing stones known as menhirs. (The table-like configuration of three stones, as in the top photo above, is a dolmen, often a burial site.) Though their origins are shrouded in mystery, the Carnac stones are believed to have both religious and astronomical significance.

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This small chapel is typical of Breton architecture, clean and white and simple. The weather, as you can see, continued to be totally unlike the rainy cold we’d anticipated. The temperatures around 80 degrees F. were near record highs, and I was glad to have brought some sleeveless tops. Leaving Carnac in the noon heat, we headed east toward the Loire Valley, where chateaux and wine awaited.

 

A millennium ago in Normandy

Coronation of Harold

The 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry is a remarkable work of art and storytelling. Embroidered with richly dyed woolen yarns on a 224-foot-long strip of linen, it is not actually a tapestry at all. Tapestries are woven, not embroidered. Its colors, primarily blues, greens, gold, and russet, still hold true after more than nine centuries.

Going to see this treasure is a must; the visitor experience is so well done. Before entering the darkened room, each person is given an audio guide, like a telephone handset, that narrates the tale and keeps everyone spaced out and moving at the same pace. The subtle lighting enhances the colors and you can move up close to see the details of the stitching. No photography is allowed; these photos are from Wikimedia.

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The tapestry’s more than fifty scenes tell of the events leading up to the Norman Conquest, culminating in the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066. There’s a Norman spin to the story. The scene at the start of this post shows the coronation of King Harold after the death of England’s King Edward, despite Harold having previously pledged allegiance to William of Normandy. Much like a comic strip or graphic novel, the scenes are action-packed, depicting treachery, heroism, and humor. The audio guide pointed out details we might have missed, like Hailey’s Comet, seen as a portent of the coming invasion.

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Mont-Saint-Michel is even older than the Bayeux Tapestry. Clinging to the top of the island of Mont-Tombe, this monastic enclave has grown over the centuries and has long been a place of pilgrimage. Early in the 11th century, the abbey church was built.

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The simplicity of the architecture and stained glass, the glorious weather, and the silent presence of the nuns and priests who still serve here, made this a very meaningful time for Megan and I, who climbed to the top for the full self-guided tour.

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The Benedictine monks ate in silence in the refectory, shown below, while one read scripture from the pulpit in the right wall.

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The wheel below was used to haul provisions up to the abbey in the years following the French Revolution when it was used as a prison.

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Below the abbey, the narrow streets were packed with shops and tourists. We settled for a quick picnic lunch before hurrying to catch up with Mom and Dad. We tried two types of galettes or buckwheat crepes, vegetable (filled with spinach, mushrooms, and tomatoes) and a cooked apple and cheese variety. We loved them!

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A freedom dearly won

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Men would have to come to France by sea, and many would have to die.

It was simply a question of where to land and when. Tens of thousands of lives depended on finding the best answer. At the Musée Memorial 1944 Bataille de Normandie, which we visited in Bayeux, it was sobering to learn that an entire department of the military was fully prepared to handle all the fallen soldiers before the first had even landed.

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Two alternative plans were considered for Operation Overlord, the initial sea-borne invasion that would liberate France. The first, crossing the Pas-de-Calais, where Great Britain and France lie closest, seemed intuitive. There, in northeast France near Belgium, the Allies would be far closer to friendly air support and supplies, and within striking distance of the heart of Germany. The strait, though, was heavily defended.

The beaches of Lower Normandy, forever memorialized now with the simple code names Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, were also well protected,. There were mines, physical obstacles (Dad stands by one above), and artillery batteries hidden in bunkers. But there was also a weakness. If the bridges across the Seine and the Loire were destroyed, the German troops would be cut off from reinforcements. So, on June 6, 1944, the Allies cast the die there.

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This museum’s focus was the entire battle for Normandy, up until the liberation of Paris in late August 1944. I wish we had more carefully researched which museum to visit. The town of Bayeux was a good choice for us, though, as we also saw the Bayeux tapestry, part of a future post. We opted for a quick lunch in town, ham and cheese crepes with some of the fabulous Normandy cider, then returned to the museum for the English showing of their film, which did not even include any footage of the beach landings.

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At the museum, the woman at the information desk grew very emotional as she told me that veterans still often return to visit the area. I was moved, too by the photos of town after town where homes and churches were reduced to rubble.

My greatest wish had been to visit one or more military cemeteries. In fact, I’d seen a documentary about German cemeteries still carefully tended by the French. So it was a huge disappointment to arrive at the American cemetery near Omaha Beach literally as the entrance gates swung shut, 15 minutes before the posted closing time. Almost crying, I was tempted to try to wiggle through the ornate gate that barred the way, but didn’t.

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Today, Omaha Beach looks much like any other beach, even down to the running children and lipstick-pink umbrellas. This sculpture, called Les Braves, was commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. What happened there may seem invisible, but after a visit to France, I know that it is not forgotten.

Someday I will come back, to walk among the headstones of the fallen soldiers and pay my respects. After finding our hotel in Saint-Malo, one of an excellent chain called Ibis Style, we enjoyed our best dinner yet at a harborside restaurant called Le Spinnaker.

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First impressions of rural Normandy

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Normandy’s countryside made for a picturesque day of driving, the most we would have this week. Quilted fields of yellow-flowering rapeseed and white-flowering orchards bordered pastures where cows of all colors grazed by half-timbered barns.

The sun was warming the air beneath deep cobalt skies as we arrived in Giverny. Here was where Monet had lived for exactly the second half of his life, from 1883 until his death in 1926. At 80 rue de Claude Monet, we found ample free parking in a spacious lot just across the street from his house. The ticket was a bargain at 9.5 euros.

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The large rectangular flower garden behind Monet’s house was a riot of brilliant hues. Having just left the dull brown landscape of wintery Maine, I drank in the color. Bright green grass, tulips, azaleas, poppies, and pansies lined the walkways, while vines climbed trellises, arches, and ancient stone walls.

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What I’d been dreaming of seeing, though, was Monet’s water garden, which has been recreated in its original design. A passageway took us under another road and toward the Etang des Nympheas, the lovely French translation of “water lily pond.” And there it was, with the curving bridge and the rowboat and mysterious carp hovering near thick lily pads not yet in flower.

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There were plenty of paths to wander. All of the bridges had been painted rather a shinier, brighter green than I would have chosen, but the other touches blended easily into the garden’s natural design. Bamboo railings were lashed together with dark brown twine and rustic wooden borders lined the tiny, fast-moving stream.

This was a garden of textures, merging with colors, creating the living painting that Monet had intended.  People strolled, their voices hushed, as if around the next bend they might come upon Monet intent upon his work.

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Inside, the house overflowed with art, as Japanese engravings mingled with the paintings of Monet’s contemporaries and his own. The yellow dining room and blue kitchen made me feel right at home; they were my favorite rooms.

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Our next stop, a detour to Etratat, on Normandy’s north coast, was well worth it. White cliffs bracket the beach on either end like encircling arms and tower high above mere humans. The sea in places has carved out arches and tiny caves. Mom and Dad sat on a bench looking out over the English Channel, perhaps remembering early days on a beach on the other side of the Atlantic.

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We ended our day with dinner in the scenic town of Honfleur, where tall narrow houses, some 2 windows wide and 7 stories tall, marched along the far side of the harbor. We will have one more day in Normandy, then head to Brittany.

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Just a peek at the grandeur of Paris

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We walked home late Sunday afternoon, with Île Saint-Louis bathed in sunlight that had finally won free of dark clouds. We’d sampled pungent blue cheese and local wine and walked a timeline from the very roots of the city to the fall of brave heroes in World War II. It had been a full day, and yet just a bit of all that Paris has to offer.

That first night I hadn’t gotten much sleep, couldn’t sleep, and didn’t even feel tired when morning came. Paris energized me with her tempo that never seems to stop. It was invigorating, pulsing, embracing, but also required our commitment not to linger. We didn’t. I’ve fallen in love with French butter and tried it this morning on a croissant, though Mom and Dad’s crepes looked awfully good, too.

Our day began at the Musée d’Orsay, a treasure trove of Impressionism, with lovely exhibits of art nouveau, architectural models, and more that we didn’t see. We traveled by metro to this museum which resides in a former train station.

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We spent about four hours there and absorbed so much that we never ended up (at least this weekend) going to the Marmottan. I was particularly drawn, logically, to the natural landscapes of the Impressionists, who strived to capture moments in time by working quickly in the ever-changing light. “The brushwork is rapid and visible,” said one display. “The framework is often off-center; the colours are light, seeking to capture the atmospheric effects outdoors.” The two works below did this well, I thought.

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Both of these paintings were in a gallery focusing on the early years, following the first Impressionist Exhibit in 1874. Renoir’s painting above (1876) shows the banks of the Seine at Champrosay. Alfred Sisley’s painting below (1877) is of the Seine at Suresnes.

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Then there was the fun of discovering paintings that I knew, from art history class or a book…moving close to scrutinize the brushwork, then moving back to see the whole scene. Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette and Van Gogh’s first Starry Night (not the one painted later after he was confined to a mental institution) both reside at d’Orsay.

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My favorite work in the art nouveau exhibit was the delicately- colored stained glass of “Cygnes sur la lac d’Annecy,” created in 1890.

Our Seine river tour was not particularly noteworthy, although it did help me understand the layout of Paris a little better. The overcast sky and crowded quarters dampened our moods or perhaps we were still jet-lagged. I did enjoy the motley assortment of houseboats moored along the banks; some are older working canal boats repurposed for habitation, with patio sets and umbrellas out on the decks.

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From the Hotel Abbatial, it was just a short walk across one of the bridges to Île de la Cité. This island in the Seine is the oldest part of Paris, first populated by Celtic tribes in the third century B.C. and home to the cathedral of Notre-Dame. A bride and groom were just emerging from a shiny white Rolls Royce to take wedding photos, so I took one, too.

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As we walked across the small island, we passed two plaques honoring the places where men of the French Resistance had died during the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. You could just hear the emotion and respect in Dad’s voice as he explained their significance to Megan.

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Nearby was Sainte-Chapelle, whose towering stained glass windows are framed by the thinnest of columns, curving into the heavens. This marvel of Gothic architecture was constructed in the mid 13th century by Louis IX to hold Christ’s Crown of Thorns and fragments of the cross, which the king purchased from the Emperor of Constantinople. These holy relics cost three times as much as the chapel’s construction!

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With our aesthetic and historical minds full, we headed to another excellent restaurant that Dad remembered from long ago, called La Rotisserie d’Argent, where I had superb confit de canard. We enjoyed the food so much that we made a reservation to return in a week on our last night in Paris. In the interim, our next stop will be Normandy.