France (2001)

                                 The Valley of the Loire

Madeleine and Michel Lucas are old Parisian friends of more than thirty five years. Michel is a retired 3Mer and a student of architecture. Madeleine is a recently published author of an historical fiction novel. We could not have had two more knowledgeable guides or pleasant companions for our week together touring the Loire Valley.

Loire Valley. The Loire River is the longest river in France running from the central mountains of France to the Atlantic. It is a non-navigable, meandering river with constantly changing sand bars and shorelines and is world-renowned for its magnificent chateaux which dot the river’s edge every few miles.

The early castles of the region were built for defensive reasons and marked the borders between the France and their English invaders who, along with their Bergundian allies, occupied Paris and all of France north of the Loire River in the 15th Century. It was at Orleans on the Loire River where Joan of Arc in 1429 led the French troops in a miraculous victory over the English and returned the French throne to Charles VII. In the 16th Century, the moats, keeps and turrets of the castles were abandoned in favor of comfort, aesthetics and sheer elegance in the construction of Renaissance palaces for the kings and nobles of France, who appreciated the region for it’s pleasant climate and excellent hunting. If the early castles were built on hills for military reasons, the chateaux were located on the river’s edge where they are reflected in the slowly flowing waters of the Loire. Elaborate, formal gardens became an important part of the landscape as well.

Chateaux. We followed the river for several hundred miles from Orleans to Angers and probably saw over twenty chateaux each one magnificent in it’s own right. Of those that we visited, some of the most notable were: Chambord - the largest by far of all the chateaux and the forerunner to the more famous palace of Versailles near Paris; Chenonceau - the most beautiful of the chateaux with it’s graceful arches straddling the Cher River. It served as a military hospital in WW I; Azay-le-Rideau - less grandiose than Chenonceau but every bit as elegant, set of the banks of the Indre River; Usse - the fairy tale like appearance of this castle inspired one of it’s guest to write the well-known children’s story about Sleeping Beauty while visiting the palace; Serrant - still in use by one of the descendents of it’s original owners, it’s magnificent furnishings give one a sense of the lifestyle of its early occupants.  During WWII, it was used by the Germans as the communications base for their submarine fleet.

france1.jpg (85570 bytes)   Guedelon Castle under Construction                                                                                                                           Chateau d' Azay-le-Rideau

But the most fascinating castle of all was the one that hasn’t yet been built. At an abandoned stone quarry a hundred miles from Paris, a friend of Michel’s named Florian Renucci along with a small group of French historians, archeologists and architects are building an authentic, full scale 13th century castle using only the materials and tools available to the castle-builders of that era, with each stone quarried and cut to size and each timber felled and sawed on site along with local fabrication of all the rope, pottery, baskets and other necessities of everyday life in the middle ages. This construction of the Guedelon castle was begun five years ago and is expected to take twenty five years to complete.

Other Sights. But the Loire Valley offered much more than the famed chateau. We visited the Clos-Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last four years of his life. His gracious home is now transformed into a museum housing an astonishing collection of models of his inventions reconstructed from his drawings. We inspected a unique canal bridge built by Messr. Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) in which the canal passes over the Loire River as part of an integral system of waterways used for transportation in the 19th century. We visited several of the famous cathedrals of France at Tours, Angers, Le Mans and, the most splendid of all, the cathedral of Chartres.

And . . .we were among the 15,000 spectators at a sound and light show at Puy du Fou near Angers chronicling the history of that region. This amazing spectacle features a cast of 1,800 locals using sound, lights, lasers, holographs, computerized fountains and pyrotechnics all set around a reflecting pond with an old castle ruin as a backdrop. It was a unique experience and perhaps only matched in its scope and grandeur by the opening ceremonies of some of the recent Olympic games.

Other Pleasures. Of course, the real pleasure of spending a week traveling the French countryside lies in the chance to enjoy the local food, sample some of the regional wines and to stay in some great, little hotels . . . for example, an old carriage house with the rooms were located around a central court yard so guests could arrive  by horse and carriage directly to their doors several  hundred years ago. . . and an even more  unique hotel called "les Hautes Roches" in which the guest rooms are carved out of a limestone rock face and look out over the Loire River below.

france2.jpg (121022 bytes)   A Damsel in Distress                                                               Chateau de Serrant                                                                 Breakfast at the Priory

Perhaps, though, our most enjoyable stay was in a B&B in an old 13th century priory in the countryside operated by a charming French couple , who showed us around their home and prepared wonderful breakfasts of fresh-baked pastries and homemade jams. The owner, Bernard, presented a fresh cut rose each morning to Valerie and Madeleine accompanied by a kiss of their hand. With a wink and a smile on the final day, he took me aside and told me that "from now on it was up to me". Bernard’s act is a hard act to follow . . . just as the entire week in the Loire Valley will be a hard experience to beat for a long, long while.

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