Tag Archives: Loire Valley

Château d’Amboise

Because I’ve bemoaned the fact that I’ve lived in the Loire Valley for nine months now without visiting all of its picturesque castles—and because I’m constantly trying frantically to have it all in 2011—I decided to squeeze in another castle adventure today.

Bright and early this morning, my ami Adrien and I hopped on a train to nearby Amboise, a charming town on a gorgeous stretch of the Loire and home of a rather impressive castle.

This is what the interior looks like from the ramparts, but there's a ginormous mostly man-made butte underneath you.

This is what the exterior and the surrounding town look like from the ramparts--the biggest I've seen yet!

This is what I look like kinging.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Amboise is that Leonardo da Vinci spent his final three years there. He was buddies with the king, so his remains are interred in the castle’s chapel. You’d think Italy would want them…

Maybe this isn’t the most appropriate response, but to me, the cool thing about seeing Da Vinci’s grave was thinking, “You know, just for funsies, I could stomp on the skull that housed one of the Top 10 most incredible minds of human history.”

Instead, I put my ear to the ground to confirm that he is indeed rolling over in his grave, humiliated and infuriated that his legacy became "The Da Vinci Code."

After that, we rented bikes and took a long ride past about 100 vineyards and some incredible trogolodytes. Now I have an unfortunate sunburn on my arms and a Band Aid tanline on one foot, but I suppose that’s not so bad, considering I got to hang out with LDV today.


Abbaye de Fontevraud

As promised yesterday, I give you the end of our Loire Valley road trip.

Our final destination was the Abbaye de Fontevraud. While Fontevraud lacks the jaw-dropping, rocky tidal isle setting of Mont St. Michel, it’s actually about 100 times more interesting.

Fontevraud was the favorite hangout of a woman you may have heard of a time or two in history class: Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was once the queen of France, and later the queen of England, and one of her ten children came to be known as Richard the Lionheart. After donating riches and the final years of her life to the abbey, Eleanor was buried there. (Wait, is buried the right word when it’s an above-ground tomb inside a church? What’s that called? Entombed? Laid to rest?)

In your history class, did you happen to learn that Eleanor of Aquitaine was a badass? As if running two nations and giving birth to ten children weren’t enough, she did a lot for women’s literacy—just by dying! Before she died, she designed her own tomb, picturing herself reclining with a book. According to the Abbey, it was the first notable example of the outrageous, revolutionary image of a woman reading, and it started a trend: Woman Reading came to be a popular motif in the art of the time.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Pretty Good Woman in History and a very Classy Broad. I'm considering name a beer after her. Literate Lager? Bookish Broads Brew? Double Queen Double Hopper?

Turns out, the whole abbey was a proto-feminist hotspot. Its founder, Robert d’Arbrissel, had the radical idea that women should be welcome in the church…albeit for some sketchy reasons. The man  is also notorious for advocating a practice of [commence exaggerated air quotes + eyeroll] testing one’s self-restraint [end airquotes + eyeroll] by lying naked with the opposite sex without touching.

Nonetheless, it was revolutionary for his time to welcome such scandalous figures as repentant prostitutes. Before his death, Robert even put women in charge of the abbey. Women continued to run it for as long as it as used as an abbey.

Pretty, right? You might not think so if you were there during the century or so that it was used as a prison. (Most of the old abbeys and castles have been used as prisons at some point in their long histories.)

That weird building to my right was the kitchen. No one knows why they made it so complicated. I blame it on the women.

Gorgeous scenery, huh? We were lucky to be there on such a perfect spring day.

And now I’m back to being desperately bored in Angry Town.

Loire by car

After a mostly boring week, I lucked out yesterday.  Two of my friends invited me along for an adventure in—get this—a car!

We headed upriver alongside the picturesque Loire to the even more picturesque town of Saumur.

First stop: the castle of Saumur, clearly strategically located for a fantastic view of scenery and invaders.

After admiring the view from the castle, we wandered around Saumur’s market, where we stopped to look at these crates full of live ducklings, hens, and rabbits.

The vendor handed Barbara a just-laid, still warm-from-the-ovary egg, thereby condemning us to carry around a delicate egg all day.

Outside of Saumur, we stopped to picnic in a lovely little park that turned out to be full of magical wonders.

It looks simple enough from here, but look closer.

Magical Wonder #1: a squirrel you can ride! (Also, please admire my new sandals.)

Magical Wonder #2: this marvelous unlabeled sculpture. I was briefly annoyed that I couldn't sit on it (too wobbly), but I'm a sucker for bike art, so I decided I liked it even if I can't ride it. And, no joke, mere seconds after I said, "Methinks Marcel Duchamp was here,"

I turned around and saw this wheel. Marchel Duchamp was definitely here. (Or, you know, someone else who a thing for wheels on posts.)

We were surrounded by incredible troglodytes. I had never seen anything like them. What, praytell, are troglodytes?

Why, just kajillion-year-old caves people managed to carve homes into so they could ferment wine, cultivate mushrooms, and, in more recent years, hawk tourist art.

Easily the most impressive cave dwelling I've ever seen.

Our final destination of the day was an abbey that turned out to be even more interesting than I had expected.  I have quite a lot to say about it, though, so I’ll save that part for tomorrow. Stay tuned for Classy Broads in History!

Loire by bike

I’m currently on spring break, which is a mixed blessing. It should be wonderful to have two weeks of vacation with all of Europe at my fingertips. Oh but wait. I ran out of money last month, so I couldn’t book tickets anywhere, and the places I’m most excited to visit are all (a) prohibitively expensive during vacation periods and/or (b) no fun to visit alone, and my friends in France are dropping like flies (that is, leaving).

I realize that someday (with any luck, soon), I will wish I could have two weeks of vacation in France with absolutely no responsibilities. On that day, EJ, please remind yourself that vacation is no fun when you’re alone in Angry Town with an extremely limited budget. First World Problems, right?

Trying to make the best of a bittersweet situation—and battle my pastry belly, you know, two birds, one stone style—I made a resolution to avail myself of the extensive Loire by Bike path that runs from the Atlantic all the way to Germany.

Like most things in this country and life, my opinion of it vacillates rapidly from high to low.

I’ve passed through some scenery lovely enough to inspire me to become an Impressionist painter, if only I had paints and a canvas and knew how to paint.

A village dripping in wisteria, for instance,

the convergence of the Maine and Loire rivers,

and this lovely lane that made me gush like Anne of Green Gables.

As wonderful as it is of France to provide such an extensive bike path, however, I’m afraid I must look a gift horse in the mouth for a moment. What kind of bike path has stairs? Only a slick, squillion-dollar mountain bike could charge up and down them safely. I have to climb off my clunky three-speed and drag it up and down steps and sharp bumps. (If I do that section of the path again, I’ll get a picture of it.)

Even more frustrating, most of the path isn’t easily accessible to me, and in addition to the ridiculous stairs, the closest segment is, frankly, not that interesting. Technically, I’m not supposed to take my municipal-issue bike out of Angers. I think it’s fair for me to take the bike as far as I can ride it, but my dear bike is kind of a fattie. She’s just not cut out for a very long trip. I like her as a friend and all, but I get irritated because she just can’t move very fast.

But she does look pretty cute against the backdrop of the Loire, doesn't she?

Of bikes and bonnets

Caitlin and I just returned from a magical adventure.

The Loire Valley is littered with castles, yet in our seven months here, we had visited only one castle each (the closest one) and hadn’t even laid eyes on the Loire River. For the sake of stories and photo albums, we decided to rectify that situation by biking to the nearby village of Ponts-de-Cé. When we got there, we were devastated to discover that the Loire had disappeared. “How will they make wine?!” we cried in disbelief.

Scenic overlook of the Low-ire.

False alarm! A few meters farther, we got a real view of the Loire, which does indeed contain water.

This is the real Loire.

After snacking on bread and apples in the park, we had over an hour to twiddle our thumbs until the castle museum opened. Ponts-de-Cé itself was fairly nondescript, but Caitlin had a great idea. “This would be more fun if we pretend it’s another country,” she said. So we did.

Like France, Ponts-de-Cé was still in Easter Sunday mode—that is, closed—so our only possible option for entertainment was a tabac that sold wine for —not kidding—1€10/glass. A country where wine is as cheap as water? Yes, please.

After a glass or three, we headed to the most ridiculous(ly wonderful) museum in the world.

From outside, Pont-de-Cé’s castle doesn’t look like much. It has neither moat nor ramparts, and kind of looks chopped in half. Because theirs lacks the grandeur of so many castles so very close by, I think the good people of Ponts-de-Cé knew they needed an edge. So once upon a time, someone said, “Hey I know! Let’s fill our B-list castle with bonnets!”

Inside, therefore, now lies the Musée des coiffes et des traditions—no joke, a museum full of hundreds of white lace bonnets.

France has a thing for putting glorious creepy mannequins in museums. This one was no exception.

Room1, in which our bike trek to this foreign land was rewarded with creepy mannequins in funny hats.

Room 2, in which there are bonnets, bonnets, everywhere, yet not a one to wear.

The Ponts-de-Cése (the way I pronounce their nationality in my head, just by the way, sounds like “pond disease”) taught me an important lesson on my role as a woman. Most of the bonnets featured some motif (flowers, leaves, bells) in a set of seven, to symbolize the Seven Virtues of Women.

Work, constancy, fidelity, courage, beauty, patience, and purity. I've got courage and beauty down, so maybe it's time to focus on my constancy if I want to be the perfect woman...

Throughout the museum, we pretended we were shopping for my wedding veil.

We chose this one.

Room 3, in which there were even more creepy mannequins. I'm sure they come to life when we're not looking.

It got even better. Mindful of its castle setting, the bonnet museum invites you up the tower. On the way up the winding stairs, you pass the ominously-labeled “Room of Discipline.”

I didn't feel like reading the explanation provided, because it was more fun to guess discipline involved being made into a wig.

The “Room of Women’s Security” housed an impressive collection of dolls and some unlabeled pottery. Most of the dolls came from France, but also elsewhere in Europe, and just for fun, Guatemala.

The dolls were also wearing bonnets.

What I loved about the museum, other than its obvious ridiculous factor, is that I’ve always loved old-fashioned clothes. My mother will gladly regale you with tales of the Laura Ingalls Wilder costumes she made me for Halloween. Seriously, it’s fascinating.

I mean, can you imagine dressing your toddler in this get-up and then having to clean it after they poop?

To visit a whole museum of old-fashioned accessories—set in an ancient castle, no less? What a day!