As we rode out of Paris to the Loire Valley, I sat poised in my seat, notebook out, pen in hand. I was ready to jot down tidbits of details, memory joggers, for when I returned to Paris to write this blog. After all, I had no choice. For the first time, we had accepted a free trip from City Wonders in exchange for a blog post. Pat and I approached the day as a job.
With that expectation top of mind, ninety minutes into the ride and exhausted by my focus – after all, I hadn’t blinked in nearly an hour – I scribbled “power lines, wheat fields, poppies, clusters of bright yellow flowers – (which I later learned produce canola oil). If the Loire River is the Mississippi, it appears we are in Iowa.” Moments later, Pat turned to me, “Julie, it looks just like Iowa.”
Then, we passed a brown sign designating we had entered the Loire Valley – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had just exited Iowa. Two hours into the trip and I felt a glimmer of hope that something big was about to happen.
I like to tell stories. That’s why we are in Paris, for me to study story writing. Our adorable guide, Violette, appeared as a character in a Renaissance play – snug jeans tucked into knee-high, brown boots and auburn hair pulled back into a casual braid. She proceeded to weave her own stories, a meandering of historical facts peppered with colorful tidbits and personal observations. I found her tales of the kings, queens and mistresses of old France riveting. It filled in the gaps of my own reading. Plus, I respect a good storyteller.
To understand the Loire, you need to understand a bit of French history which Violette covered during the ride out. During the Hundred Year War (1337-1453) the British controlled land in northwestern France. French kings decamped to the Loire for safety. (It would be entirely unrealistic to think the kings would pull off I-80 near Davenport and hole up at the Hilton with a box of Stuckey’s peanut brittle as their sole sustenance.) The Loire was further influenced by an appreciation for the the architecture of Italy – a country the French knew from the first hand perspective of war. The French replicated the Italian Renaissance in the loggias, gardens and huge windows of the Loire castles.
Today, over a thousand chateaus still stand in the region, of which we sampled three: the enormous Chambord, the tiny Chateau de Nitray, and my favorite, the lovely and feminine Chateau de Chenonceau. In Paris, I discovered a dessert, Le Cafe Gourmand. – a tiny espresso with a mini sweet sampler. This trip was the chateau equivalent of the Cafe Gourmand – a chateau tasting menu of sorts. And in a single day, let’s face it, a taste is all you should expect.
The first chateau, Chambord, is enormous, a hulking testament to the excesses of the European monarchy. Built by King Francis the First, the estate of Chambord contains 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces, 426 rooms and 1000 tapestries. Yet, this is merely a hunting lodge, an escape from the stresses of chateau life down the road in Amboise. Over the course of his life, Francois spent a mere 72 days in Chambord. His son, Henry the II and the subsequent king who was fond of hunting, Louis the XIV, completed the chateau and morphed it to its current size. But over time, the sheer size and inaccessibility of Chambord proved unsustainable as any sort of frequent home.
In keeping with its role as a hunting grounds, the chateau is surrounded by the largest enclosed forest in the world and ringed by a 20 mile fence. As we stood on the balcony, groups of bikers set off to explore, knights jousted on horses in the fields, and a concert played someplace off in the distance. Gazing out into the horizon as far as we could see, we peered out onto a never ending green forest.
But my favorite part of the chateau was found inside, the king’s bedroom. With the bed tucked behind a balustrade and standing capacity for a hundred aristocrats, Louis woke each day to an audience. One person might hand him his comb. Some lucky aristocrat manned the chamber pot. The king existed in a lair of self importance supported by his team of sycophants. To bring this more into 21st century context, life here played out pretty much as it does today in the Kardashian household.
From the massive Chambord, we proceeded to a lunch at the tiny Chateau de Nitray. The Loire Valley is one of the lesser known, yet important, wine regions of France. Here we found grapevines tucked in random smidgens of free space, including in a tiny parcel in the center of a roundabout. Nestled in a large field was the local high school for those students interested in studying winemaking. I never considered how a country like France, with wine at the center of both its culture and industry, created a pipeline of vintners and sommeliers – now I know.
At Nitray, we didn’t tour the chateau, but rather wandered the grounds, pet the farm cats, and sampled the wines with lunch. For under five euro, I purchased a bottle of a particularly nice red.
Lastly, we arrived at the Chateau de Chenonceau, an architectural masterpiece built over the Cher river. This was the home of Diana de Poitiers, the mistress of Henri II. Upon his death, Henri’s wife, Catherine de Medici, reclaimed the mansion. Today, the chateau is privately owned and beautifully furnished; the surrounding gardens are immaculate and further underscore the Italian Renaissance influence on this region. The stories of the French kings and their wives and mistresses provided an interesting backstory to the chateau. In the below picture, the intertwined Ds (Diana) are still evident over the door replaced by intertwined Cs (Catherine) in the mantel.
At this point, we headed back to Paris. The return followed the same route as the outbound trip. The reality of a Loire Valley day trip is that it is comprised of six or more hours of bus ride, four hours of which pass – more of less – through Iowa. Most of us napped during the return to Paris.
For us, the tour turned out to be a good option. Violette brought the region alive for me. Her commentary provided the necessary color and historical backdrop to understand and appreciate the area. I concluded the day happy to have visited the Loire but with no yearning, at least for now, to return. It was, for me, a perfect Cafe Gourmand.
We offer our since thanks to City Wonders. They were great hosts. However, I have reconsidered my willingness to write sponsored content in the future. Like the stone fortress of Chambord, what seemed like a good idea was, in fact, too weighty to sustain. After all, I am in Paris to learn to tell my stories. For now, it’s back to the pre-reading. School begins soon!
Categories: Western Europe