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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