France - Loire Valley - Playground of Noblemen
Jun 19, 2004
|Royalty was quite fickle back in medieval days. And busy too. When they weren't storming castles, fighting battles and killing each other off, they were claiming new lands and building elaborate pleasure palaces in the beautiful countryside. And it wasn't just the men who were jostling for power. Sometimes the king's mistresses owned chateaux that were larger and more beautiful than the queen's, a fact that apparently upset the queen because sometimes mistresses mysteriously disappeared ...
And one thing I want to know is ... what's with the clothes during medieval days? Women wore more layers than an onion and collars around their neck that resemble those cones you put over your dog's head to make them stop licking things. And the guys ... okay so maybe I read too many historical romances in my youth, but I expected medieval men to be strong and manly, not some short little fat guy wearing a long curly wig, fancy embroidered jackets, pantihose and high-heeled shoes with big lacey bows. Not exactly my picture of a knight in shining armour!
Travelling further south from Chartres, I arrived in the city of Tours, right in the heart of the Loire Valley and a good central point for visiting chateaux. But before visiting chateaux, I had a more important mission for the day: I had to get a Hepatitis B vaccination (more prep for my next trip), and this time I was going to have to deal with this all by myself (gulp!).
Now, in Canada they have a bit of a system ... you phone the travel clinic, make an appointment, go in on your scheduled day and get your vaccination. From what I've seen, France has no similar system.
So I went straight to the Tourist office, conveniently located across the street from the train station. They phoned a few medical clinics for me, which were unfortunately all closed as it was Saturday, and that was basically the extent of their knowledge and assistance on the matter.
Spotting a pharmacy across the road, I headed there to make inquiries. 5 minutes later I walked out with the Hep B vaccine (no doctor's prescription required) and directions to a doctor's office just 4 doors down the street (open on Saturday, no appointment necessary). Another 5 minutes later I walked out of his office, vaccine injected in arm ... mission accomplished. And all of this was handled in French, not bad huh?
I had planned on renting a bike and pedalling myself from chateau to chateau, but ominous rainclouds and frequent showers soon had me reconsidering. Now, I know a true backpacker would have taken 5 buses to get to each chateau, or simply walked around, but there's a lot of chateaux in the Loire Valley, spread out across the land, and I just wasn't that energetic. So I did the sensible thing ... I went back to the Tourist Office and booked a couple of tours for the following day. That left the rest of the day to explore Tours.
Tours is a big city, and quite honestly I'm not all that keen on big cities, but what made it a bit more charming were its lovely cafe-lined pedestrian boulevards and the Loire River running through it. Of course it has its requisite old town area, yada yada yada, but I think my best memory of Tours was when I went to have a look at yet another cathedral, arriving just in time to see the bride arrive in an old classic car and walk down the aisle of this magnificent cathedral. How strange it was to see a crowd of tourists watching from the back of the church!
The next day I was off into the countryside. Ahhh ... the Loire Valley, where beautiful chateaux were built and kings and noblemen played. Here we found chateaux that were built between the 10th and 17th centuries, and every architectural style imaginable from medieval fortresses to Gothic, Flamboyant, Renaissance and Classicism ... sometimes all within the same chateau!
Not only were the chateaux themselves large, but when you add in the surrounding keep, gardens and games forest, it makes for a very huge estate. And a huge cost to maintain, which probably explains why a lot are for sale or state-owned these days. By the way, you can probably buy a decent sized chateau for only around €500,000, not bad ... but maintenance fees would probably double/triple that amount each year!
In total, I visited the following chateaux from Tours:
1) Villandry - chateau in a bit of disarray but truly magnificent gardens,
2) Azay-le-Rideau - with surrounding moat in the midst of a large park,
3) Chenonceau - straddling the Cher River, owned by Henri II's mistress until the king died and the queen kicked her out,
4) Amboise - favorite chateau of royalty, where Leonardo da Vinci is buried, and
5) Clos-Luce - where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last 3 years and died.
I won't bore you with flowery descriptions of each, but suffice it to say that all chateaux were magnificant, either for their amazing architecture, elaborate design features, furnishings, gardens, etc.
I also visited the Cave des Producteurs de Vouvray ... in other words, a wine tour! What makes Vouvray unique from other vineyards is that their wine is bottled and then matured in troglodyte cellars ... caves. These caves were created in the days when limestone was dug out of the hills to build chateaux. People used to live in these caves, some still do in fact, some are even hotels these days, and they also make excellent wine cellars as temperature, light and humidity are consistent. And the wine tasted pretty good too!
Still on the chateaux circuit, I travelled a little northeast to the medieval town of Blois. Much smaller than Tours and much more charming with its twisting steep medieval streets and buildings, it was the royal residence and second capital of France in the 16th century.
The hostel in Blois deserves an honourable mention as well. It's an old converted farmhouse, one huge separate dormitory for girls and boys, showers and toilets are outside (brrr), and this is the first time I've had bed check and lights out at 10:30pm! Felt like I was a teenager back at summer camp!
Blois and surrounding area have some of the Loire Valley's most attractive chateaux (in my opinion). Again, sparing you great lengthy detail, I visited the following chateaux from Blois:
1) Blois Chateau - in the heart of Blois, with 4 wings of distinctly different architectural style around a centre courtyard,
2) Chaumont - real fairytale castle perched high on a hill,
3) Chambord - one of my favorites, the largest and most visited chateau in the LV, with beautiful chimneys and turrets, and the famous double spiral staircase said to be created by Leonardo da Vinci, and
4) Cheverny - my other favorite, still privately owned by the original family, less ornate design but more elaborate furnishings. Cheverny also has a Trophy Room with close to 2,000 antlers mounted on the walls and ceiling, and a kennel with around 80 hunting dogs (their 5pm feeding called "soupe des chiens" was quite interesting to watch!).
There are many more chateaux in the Loire Valley, but by this time they all starting to look the same, I can only "ooh" and "aah" so much, and I guess I'm now "chateaux-ed out" and ready to move on again.