The summer holidays were almost there, and I sat with all my travel books spread around me. Should it be Austria? Salzburg and Vienna sounded inviting. Why not Eastern Switzerland? It was as yet unexplored by us. But francophile that I am, the call of France was again the strongest, and I zoned in on the Loire Valley, dotted with interesting Châteaux, beautiful rivers, rustic farmhouses, elegant churches and vineyards (and wine 🙂 in plenty. Our teenaged son, Nushk, was quite interested when he learnt that this was the playing ground of the characters in the Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, books he was quite fond of. I found a nice place to stay in the outskirts of Tours, quite central to the area. Then one nice day in August, we set off in our car to castle country.
Our first stop was Nevers for lunch. A charming little town on the river Loire, it has a nice church, a good looking ducal palace, cobblestoned streets, half-timbered houses, and the elegance only European towns have.
After lunching there, we drove to Bourges. I was especially interested in its 12th century St Etienne’s Cathedral. I have a weakness for religious edifices….and a theory. Art and architecture used to be mainly patronised by the church and the royalty, and even the royalty often spent their money on religious edifices and art. That being the case, the best masons, the most talented artists, the most gifted and innovative architects all worked on these creations, be it churches, temples, mosques or anything else. So where better to see the heights of man’s artistry than in such places? St. Etienne’s was beautiful, a soaring and impressive structure, well worth a visit. Bourges was settled in Roman times, and was a player during the Gallic Wars. Nushk and I, who are unfortunately more familiar with the adventures of Asterix and Obelix than with the real people who were involved in the war, were quite happily recounting tales from Gallic-Roman battles as per Mr.Goscinny and Mr.Uderzo. We went to peer at the remnants of the Gallo-Roman walls, wondering what stories the stones would tell if they could only speak.
From Bourges, we meandered our way beside the river to our hotel after having a very nice dinner in a wayside restaurant, which was surprisingly elegant. But then, this was France! Our rooms were in the outhouse of a minor château, now run as a bed-and-breakfast. The hosts were friendly, and Nushk and I happily put our basic French to good use.
Our first château was also the most romantic one. The 16th century Château de Chenonceau, also called the Château de Dames, was built by a woman, and improved upon by a number of other women. Built over the river Cher, its turrets reflect alluringly in the gleaming water. It was interesting to see the furnishings, the art work, and even the huge kitchen area. Beautifully laid out gardens completed the picture.
Our next stop was Amboise, a very charming town with a huge fort like château. If we go to the region again, this is the town where I would choose to stay. We walked leisurely through the town to see the Château de Clos Luce where Leonardo da Vinci died.
From Amboise, we went to Blois to see its imposing 13th century château which towers over the town. Being the seat of important counts, Blois played an important part in French history. It has a most impressive masonry bridge over the river built in 1717, with beautiful views of the city. We dined on Chinese food in Blois and then called it a day for our sight seeing, quite satisfied with what we had achieved.
The new day started with a long drive to Angers. Home to the Angevin kings of England, Angers has an old and impressive fortress of a château and a beautiful 12th century Cathedral of St.Maurice. After a nice wander through the town and a light meal, we passed through Saumur, where the château was closed for renovation.
Next we headed to the Abbaye Fontevraud, founded in 1101. It was a most interesting visit even though the Abbey itself was mostly destroyed and then rebuilt later. For me, what was interesting was that Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and Isabelle d’Angoulème (widow of King John), whose stories I am familiar with, are buried at Fontevraud.
Our last stop for the day was Chinon, where we admired the château on the hilltop from far, and wandered through its beautiful old streets, and dined at a wonderful little Pizzeria. Joan of Arc had wandered once through the same streets, and Richard the Lion Hearted is rumoured to have died there. While trying to to find the house where he was said to have breathed his last, we met a couple of backpackers whom we lassoed into the search as well, but could not quite find the building.
A new day and another château. We started the day with Azay le Rideau, a well preserved country mansion from the 16th century. The interior was well furnished and we could get a good idea of how it all looked in its heyday. Next stop was Chartres, to see the famous 12th century Notre Dame Cathedral. On the way, we stopped at Vendome to admire the church and have some lunch. There is only one word to describe the cathedral at Chartres – Glorius!! The stained glass windows, for which it is famous, are worth every superlative used to describe them. And the carvings on the rood screen reduced me to tears..I stood for ages, looking at what some strangers had carved so many years ago. And for a tiny moment, the centuries between the artists and their admirer disappeared, and the tips of my fingers stretched across the divide in time to briefly touch those of the artists before whose creations I stood transported. For me, it was indeed the highlight of the trip. We rounded of the day with a wonderful Italian dinner in a restaurant close to the cathedral and then headed back to our hotel, tired but satisfied.
Richelieu is an important character in the books that Nushk had read, and he was very interested in seeing where Richelieu’s château had stood, even though nothing remains now. So we started the new day with a visit to the site. Standing on the grounds and looking at the plan of the châateau which would have been bigger than the Versailles, destroyed by looters during and after the revolution, I felt a deep sense of shame in being part of the same human race which is capable of such rape; what else would you call the destruction of beauty by hooligans incapable of creating it?
We then drove through Usse to admire the turrets of the château which inspired the tale of the sleeping beauty, then through Langelais to see another fortress of a château. We then stopped at a small winery and enjoyed a personalised tasting experience provided by the vintner, loaded the boot with the bottles chosen with care, and then had a walk through Tours to end a rather quiet day.
Last day. We packed our bags, loaded the car, and headed towards the magnificent Château de Chambord, a hunting retreat of Louis XIV. A great and draughty castle, its guests were said to have been very uncomfortable in winter!! The château’s amazing double-spiral staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, its roof line of multiple turrets, its immense size, all added to a rather stunning impression.
We then continued on to Orleans, to see its beautiful but relatively new cathedral, and admire the memorial for Joan of Arc. With that, content and sated, we headed back home and our very own personal château!