The Western Loire

Go Ouest Young Man

There's really no reason to move home bases in the Loire. It is compact enough that all the major sites are within easy reach of each other. Part of the fun of travelling, however, is finding new experiences and meeting different people. So, we leave Cormery this morning, headed for a little place named Cheille, near Azay le Rideau, in the valley of the Indre, thirty miles or so to the west of Cormery. The underwear situation is getting critical, and we waste a couple of hours trying to locate a lavarie with no success at all. Part of the problem again is language, but they just don't have a lot of facilities in these small villages. We try Veigne and Montbazon and then, giving up for the time being, we decide to wait and ask our new host for help once we meet him. On a scary note, we fill Little Green's tank this morning to the tune of $57. Ouch!

The first stop on today's itinerary is the chateau at Azay le Rideau. It is truly a must see, built out of the water on pilings and surrounded by the river and a pond, it is very much a fairy tale picture. The interior is much like the others we have seen and sports nothing spectacular but the castle itself is grand. Naturally, the back side relecting off the pond is half covered in scaffolding. Guess they knew we were coming.

The village itself is very nice and probably the closest I have seen to what I imagined a small French village would look like. There are lots of narrow winding streets, shops with produce on the sidewalk, old houses, an old cathedral, a gentle flowing river with a small lock and old mill, and an assortment of street side restaurants. There are actually little old ladies walking the streets carrying baskets with baguettes sticking out of them. It is really neat for tourists without looking like a tourist trap. We aren't going to check in at our new B&B until late in the day, so we head off for some more of the same old thing with a different slant. Our picnic for today features a bunch of goodies from a charcuterie, which is like a deli, in Azay le Rideau. The lady is really helpful and we play the game where I point and she fills up little container and says ok?, and I say Oui! and we go on to the next item.

Villandry boasts not only a large chateau but an extensive formal garden reputed to be the best in the entire valley. This is where we realize the price we pay for coming to Europe before the full onset of spring. The gardens are huge and feature a pond as well as several different plant and flower jardins. Alas, it is only the first week in April and the temperatures are still in the forties and fifties and most of the flowers just aren't ready to bloom. This place must be fabulous in about three weeks, because it is already nice. However, it is obvious we are missing the big show of flower power. Nothing we read gives us any reason to tour the castle, but we do take a leisurely picnic on a bench by the pond watching the swans and the ducks squabbble over territory. While we are eating, two guys come out with a lawnmower to cut the grass on a steep slope on the other side of the lake. Remember the joke about how many Pollocks it takes to change a light bulb? Well, these two Frenchmen tie two ropes to the lawnmower which is at the bottom of the hill. One guy takes his rope to the top of the hill. The guy at the bottom pulls the mower horizontally while the other guy pulls his rope vertically to change the heighth of the cutting row. So, how many Frenchmen does it take to.....oh well.

A little disappointed about the flowers, we move north toward the town of Luynes, directly on the Loire. Since grammer school I've seen pictures and read about aqueducts and I'm not getting this close to one without actually seeing it. On the way we blunder upon a great looking suspension bridge across the Loire just outside of Langeais. (see pic at upper left frame) Obviously not ancient, it still is noteworthy. From here to Luynes, the northern river bank is pock marked with scores of troglodyte dwellings, some modest, but others quite nice on the exterior. At Luynes, we pass on touring the chateau, although it is now open to the public for the first time; the owner apparently feeling the pinch of mounting upkeep costs. Never thought I would tire of looking thru medievel castles covered in towers and turrets, but we are actually reaching the overkill point. The market barn is not memorable but the combination library/tourist office is an old half timbered house with elaborate carved wood cornices. Back on the road, we are terminally lost for the next hour trying to find the aqueduct, which we know is nearby, but seemingly is invisible. There are practically no directions to this minor site. We do finally locate it thru a combination of dumb luck and persistence and it is impressive just because it is 1800 years and still standing, though only a couple of hundred feet remain. You have to consider the size of this thing and the length it had to run to reach present day Tours to appreciate what they did with the technology, or lack of it, of the day. Carol yawns and gives it three ho-hums.

Our new home and host for the next few days turn out to be one of the most memorable parts of the entire trip. Cheille is just a bump in the road and we never even stop at what serves as the town. La Vaujoint is a sort of a poor man's farm or country estate. It is in the boonies, but less than 10 minutes from Azay. There is an old two story stone homeplace with a nice courtyard for catching some sun occupied by the host . There is also a fenced in one acre pasture behind a small barn housing his horse, chickens and goats. Several cats patrol the entire area including your room if the door is ajar. The rooms themselves are in an adjacent renovated outbuilding and are on the upstairs level. Ours is decent sized with private bath and shower and a private entrance. It is simple, but more than adequate for our needs. Downstairs is a common room that is really great. It has a fireplace and a woodstove as well as huge table for breakfast. Exposed wooden beams and an eclectic mixture of furniture,paintings and architecture make the room quite interesting. In the mornings the table is set beautifully, classical music is playing, and either the fireplace or stove is burning away. There is a small kitchen and a second patio on the opposite side of the building for afternoon sun. The whole setting has a feel of grander days long past.

The owner, Bertrandt, is a true character. He is openly striving to be the true renaissance man with his fingers in everything he can reach. He has some knowledge (and certainly, opinions) on any subject that is brought up. He is capable of long, verbose dissertations on many subjects, especially wine and politics. He scoots around in an old open air roadster wearing goggles looking like a WW1 flying ace. He shows up on Easter morning wearing a brocaid vest and leather riding britches. A beret is his headware of choice. He attended university in Britain and is trained as an architect. He is partners with a wine grower whose wines are offered in all the local restaurants. He tries to live off the barter system when possible to deprive the government of taxes. The homeplace is decorated with everything from a 1920's gas pump to WW1 helmets to statues of Caesar. People like this are supposed to exist only in movies, but the guy is really harmless and a lot of fun to watch and talk about. He treats us like we are special.

He meets us the first day and shares a bottle of wine with no lable which he says comes from his friend across the hill. The shed next to our stairs must have two hundred empty, lableless bottles stacked in crates for recycling. I imagine this is the French equivalent of moonshine, but the wine is very good. Our host is a fountain of information, whether you want it or need it or not, concerning everything within 50 miles, because, as he reminds us again, he is the sixth generation of his family to live in his house.

The very first conversation turns into a discussion on the qualities of wine and when I tell him I can't drink much wine without getting a headache, I open the door to a lecture on good and not so good wine (there apparently is no such thing as bad wine in France). Bertrandt, the wine doctor, explains that good wine has all the impurities filtered out and will not give you a headache. It is the impurities of lesser qualities which get into the bloodstream and go to the brain producing the headache. I don't know if this is all BS or not, but the whole time there we drink wine like fish drink water and not once do we get hungover.

Bertrandt will not be satisfied unless we dine at a cave restaurant about twenty miles up the road. Having read about these in the guide books, I am hesitant to do anything so touristy, but once arriving at Les Caves St. Antoine, I am glad we took his advice. In addition, I am afraid he will quiz us at breakfast tomorrow to see if we followed his suggestion. This restaurant is actually underground, not just in the side of a hill. Descending the stairs from the parking lot, we end up about twenty feet beneath the surface and its quite unusual. The floors are smoothly finished and the place is very nicely decorated, but the walls and ceiling are the rough cut surfaces of the caves hollowed out to get stone blocks to build the local chateaux and lesser dwellings of the area. The language barrier gets us here big time. I can converse a little with the German couple next to us, who are dining with their Irish setter, but I can not get anywhere with the waitress. The Germans speak no French either and we all, including the waitress, get a few wine induced chuckles out of our situation. Three nationalities in a 10 square foot area and we might as well be from different planets.

Following my credo that I will eat anything which doesn't eat me first, I order something called 'andouilettes' and Carol chooses an item that we are sure is some kind of French treatment of beef. The risk of eating beef from a bovine with the suddenly raging 'mad cow disease' seems slight to Carol as opposed to ordering something that is totally unknown. My andouilettes are something like meat filled pastry or egg roll and while the stuffing is a little strange in consistency, it's really not bad. It is a few days later that I am told that andouilettes are basically all the pork parts that are leftover from normal butchering. Things like pig lips and snouts and hooves. I guess its sort of like tripe which is consumed regularly here in France, though we view it as being a hillbilly or appalachian treat, normally eaten only in a last gasp effort to avoid starvation. Following a long leisurely dinner with too much wine, we are just about stewed and when the waitress offers a long discourse on dessert choices that we don't understand, Carol just holds up 3 fingers and gets the number three dessert on the list. I am too crocked to do anything but laugh for the next few minutes and pass on dessert.

We get a couple of pictures as proof of this escapade and since only three couples are dining this evening, no one is disturbed or offended by this blatant act of tourism. Neither one of us should drive; but, since everyone in rural France stays inside after 9 PM, we have the roads to ourselves. Little Green's automatic pilot takes us home uneventfully.

Another Day, Another Castle

At breakfast Bertrandt gives us directions to a lavarie in Azay. Its a shame to waste time in France doing laundry, but we are really hurting for clean socks, etc. We get some detergent at the Stoc market (another pun) and head to the lavarie. The machines totally confuse Carol but the huge lady that operates the shop speaks enough English to show us how to wash and dry clothes in France. God, aren't Americans stupid! Even our detergent is the wrong type for the machine. Anyway, this lady is really nice and she keeps an eye on our clothes while we buy groceries at the Stoc and do some window shopping at a store in this little shopping strip. Between laundry and our lecture at breakfast we have killed half a day.

Our next stop is for gas and at a little station in Azay we meet the wicked witch of central France. She doesn't like where we parked at the pump,and she doesn't like us paying with a credit card. She doesn't like going back in the station to write up the sale and she refuses to bring it back to the car for signing. She does not like foreigners at all. This old bat finishes in a tie with the two little twerps at the Rodin Museum in Paris for most rude and obnoxious French person we meet on our trip.

Today's agenda includes Chinon, Richelieu, and Champigny sur Veude. At Champigny is La Sainte Chapelle, a very interesting chapel from the outside and reputed to have some extraordinary stained glass inside. It is the only survivor of a mammoth castle that once occupied the site. Alas, it is locked up when we check it out on our way to Richelieu and still locked on our return trip. There are some exterior signs that it is not in very good shape structurally and perhaps that is why it is closed to us. A few of the buttresses are being held together with two by fours and baling wire and most of the local gargoyles have seen better days, but it is really a beautiful building. A really bad dog behind the gate does an excellent job of rejecting visitors. Another few miles down the road is the town named for Cardinal Richelieu and supposedly planned out by him as well. We walk the streets for a while and find a nice little memorial chapel hidden off the main street and eventually we discover the Cardinal's statue and the gardens. The flowers are not in bloom and the garden is honestly more of what we would call a park, with wide open grassy spaces. Not a town I would recommend after some of the other places we have been and seen. It's just too ordinary. At a tiny restaurant on one of the squares we eat some sandwiches and have a couple of beers before heading back north toward Chinon.

The city of Chinon begins at the Vienne River and works its way up the slopes of a cliff to the fortress that runs the entire length of the cliffs. The ruins are quite impressive and the city is nice for walking. The view from the bridge is super. There are several old half timbered buildings and cobbblestone pathways thru the town and a long rampway leading up the the castle entrance. The keep is very unusual in shape. We manage to spend what is left of the day window shopping and walking around. The river is quite nice here and locals are out fishing. We pass on touring the castle since we've seen so many already that it is becoming a little redundant. This place is reknowned for its red wines and there are many little wineries and vineyards in the area.

We make a slight detour along the roadway to see a couple of windmills, which turn out to be quite dissimilar in construction and snap up a couple of pictures before leaving the area for Azay. Our groceries from this morning make for a nice meal and we down a bottle of wine with dinner back in the kitchen of the B&B. After dark we make another attempt to find some of the chateaux lit up after dark, but come up empty once again.

Today the planned highlite is the town of Saumur and the urgency of the day is cash, as we are down to traveler's checks and plastic. This will be no easy task since it is Saturday and most everything will be closed.

On the way to Saumur we drive thru Usse-Rigny in which lies the chateau that is supposedly the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty tale. It is quite nice, but nothing like Chenonceau or Chambord, or even Azay. There is a nice chapel and the chateau is set on a hill across the road from the picturesque Indre river. Continuing toward Saumur we pass the giant nuclear power plant and turn across the Vienne river. Here is the Kodak moment of the trip. Lining the river bank is the whitewashed town of Candes-St-Martin relecting its mirror image onto the river. The view from the river bridge is really something and the town itself ,along with Montsoreau which begins where Candes-St-Martin ends, has troglodyte dwellings, an ancient cathedral, a medievel chateau and windmills to boot. It truly seems unchanged from the distant past and is a quiet and peaceful place to roam thru on foot.

At Saumur, we park downtown and find it to be bustling with activity surrounding the Saturday traditional market and the preparations for Easter. The streets and cafes are packed and the market area crowded with shoppers. Produce, flowers, clothes, general merchandise; all on sale at portable carts and out of the back of trucks and on the sidewalks in front of shops. The only thing not available is money. The banks and bureaux de change are all locked up tight for the Easter weekend. We have tried our credit cards in several atm's in and out of Paris with no luck, but I try again to convince Carol that the problem is matching the correct p.i.n. to the proper card. She argues as usual and swears our BankSouth card will never work either because it is not a Visa or Mastercard. However, faced with empty pockets, she relents and tries it and voila!, we see franc notes pouring from the mouth of the machine. We stroll around the town visitng the Cadre Noir stables where a horse show is in progress and an old cathedral and pay a visit to the tourist info center looking for brochures. When we return to the village center it is 12 noon and the town looks like a vacuum sucked everyone off the streets. The place is deserted. No traffic, no shoppers, no vendors.

Driving up the hill, we locate a place to park just behind the bridge that leads over the now dry moat to the castle of Saumur, a huge multi-turreted tufa stone structure high above the village. Of course, the castle also is closed for lunch, so we take our picnic supplies to a little parc to the side of the castle and lunch on a bench overlooking the city rooftops. Once they reopen at 2 pm, we decide to take the guided tour after walking around the inner grounds for awhile admiring the dungeon, the courtyard well and ramparts and speculating about the obvious renovations in the original structure. The tour turns out to be in French and we get little out of it except that it is the only way to get inside the castle 's rooms. They are nicely furnished and have lots of paintings, sculpture and ceramics to admire and the castle has magnificent fireplaces and beams as well as some nice stained glass windows. Language problems included, it is still a nice leisurely tour. It is interesting that they have several non-uniformed castle guards or guides, depending on how you see them, walking with and following the tourists, closing doors behind them and making sure no one gets left in a room by himself where he might do some damage or walk out with more than he had when he arrived. The courtyard and grounds are nice with a little shop, a restaurant and great views out over the town below and down to the river Loire. Saumur has the old and the new and is easily walked in a long half day. A good city to visit.

While in Saumur we run into the guys from San Francisco we stayed with back in Cormery three days and 120 miles ago. This is strange. They are not happy where they are staying so I give them Bertrandt's card.

We take a slightly different route on the way back to Cheille and decide to stop at the Abbaye of Fontevraud. Quite an interesting place, it houses both an 11th and a 13th century cathedral and is the resting place for the Plantagenets. The Abbaye has housed monks, nuns, a leper colony and hospital along with a house for 'fallen women'. There are formal gardens, the nun's cells and a sort of solitary confinement area for bad little nuns along with several rooms of artifacts and paintings. The medievel kitchen is of paricular interest with its many open air spires serving as chimneys to relieve the smoke of the cookfires below. Very interesting.

Of primary interest here are the tombs of the Plantagenets. Richard I, Couer de Lion and Henry II along with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabel of Angouleme all lie here in painted burial tombs and in amazingly good condition in spite of their age and the damage done to them during the revolution. The cathedral itself is not in good shape and not surprisingly under repair inside and out and covered in scaffolding. Today there is a concert being held at the Abbaye featuring that tedious ancient music that is mostly flutes,tambourines and related instruments. That kind of monotonous chirping music makes my skin crawl and I believe it to be one the primary causes of migraine headaches. It is being carried live on the French radio so we can't escape it even in the car on the way home.

Back at the house, we feed the horse and play with the cats for awhile, drinking wine in the little jardin out in front of our room, and planning the next days trip. Sure enough, the couple from SF shows up. They have called ahead and booked one of the other rooms on our recommendation.

Like a twister roaring across Kansas, Bertrandt literally flies into the courtyard in his roadster screeching to a stop near his antique gas pump. He insists we all go with him to his friend's vineyard for some wine tasting. Off we go in a three car caravan racing to keep up with the roadster driven by the WW1 ace wearing his flying goggles. The friend is Marc Badiller and the winery is secluded back in the hills and is really rustic in setting though the operation is technologically up to date. No one stomping grapes in open barrels here! M. Badiller speaks no English and Bertrandt gets to be translator, which he loves, because he can control the entire conversation and stick in whatever he wishes as part of the translation. We learn thru lecture and Q and A quite a lot of interesting information about grapes, wine in general, and what to look for in wine. We taste the rose, the white, an aged red and a newer red. Then we all drive over to an area of caves where Marc has a lot of wine stored underground and give it a try. It is obvious that the government tax authority is not aware of these cases of wine or where to find them and it is a big joke to Marc and Bertrandt. This wine is appelation controlee Azay le Rideau and not just some backyard brew. We find later that it is on the wine list at the fancy local restaurants though he does not export or sell on the retail level. After two hours of wine tasting and some silly and pretentious questions about wine growing, few of us are able to drive. Finding our way back to the house, we crash without thinking about dinner. A very nice day and an experience to remember at the vineyard of M. Badiller. Between Marc and Bertrandt, all the rude people we encounter on the trip are cancelled out.

The Eastern Loire / The Photo Index