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.

P1010859

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.

P1010797

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.

P1010793

P1010844

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.

P1010848

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.

P1010809

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.

P1010828

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.

P1010842

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

P1010836 (2)

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

P1010872

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?

P1010885

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.

P1010889 (2)

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.

P1010896

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

P1010742

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.

P1010746

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.

P1010758 (2)

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!

P1010774 (2)

P1010776

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.

P1010766

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!

P1010914 (2)

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.

P1010919

P1010905