Douce Loire

We are treated to magnificent hospitality from Rosine and Emmanuel – a delicious Caribbean fish dish, plenty of cuddles for Eliza, some rather potent rum cocktails and plenty of local white wine; we feel so welcome.

Thursday morning, it’s completely gorgeous sunshine, a real summer’s day! We set off on foot up the vine-covered hills behind Rosine’s house.

There are vineyards as far as the eye can see, actually, and on the horizon blueish hills and little church towers in the morning sun. It smells of warm pine trees and wood smoke, people are working in the vines and I am working on my first sunburn of the year (I only forgot a tiny bit of skin!). We reach the little village of Monthou, which is totally unremarkable, but pleasant nonetheless, go around a little lake and over some little bridges, it’s all very quaint. On the way back up the hill there is a shop showcasing the production from one of the village’s winemakers; we stop for a taste and end up with two bottles clinking in the basket under the pram courtesy of my parents. A shortcut through the fields takes us back to Rosine’s village – but not before we have to deal with a “code brown” and change Zaza’s entire outfit right there in the vines, as she has managed to cover herself in poo (again). A naked baby on the earth in the vines seems almost like a French pagan ritual – and she of course works up quite the appetite after this “ordeal” – and now Heather in flowing summer clothes and a straw hat is breastfeeding the baby mid-field like some sort of symbolist painting.

Back to Rosine’s house for a lunch of guinea fowl with mushrooms (delicious), then it’s time for a whistle stop tour of (it seems) every tiny road around the place – up and down the hills with their rows of vines and the green valleys with streams at the bottom; past all the farmhouses with goats and geese and chickens everywhere; past the first lambs of the season; past the local honey producer; past some crazy Renaissance manor houses in creamy white stone. We finally stop in Saint-Aignan sur Cher, which is dominated by a magnificent and slightly bonkers castle on top of a hill; you can clearly see the remnants of the medieval building with loads of extra turrets / windows / terraces which have been added along the way. The view from up there is great; the castle is still inhabited but the people are cool with us visiting the courtyard. Cue lots of carrying the pram up and down super grand flights of stairs while the baby is furiously trying to get rid of the summer hat we’ve stuck on her (the baby sunglasses have been promptly given up on).

Rosine also leads us to Saint-Aignan collegiate church, an imposing Romanesque building at the foot of the castle. Inside there are amazing ornate carved column tops, a “chapel of miracles” with 16th century paintings and lots of little plaques that people have placed there to say thank you to the Virgin Mary for making their wishes come true, and the most astonishing crypt underneath. In the semi-darkness in there, we can see the remnants of medieval paintings all over the ceiling:the dead rising from their graves to join a glowing Christ surrounded by angels; medieval saints in black outlines and block colours, and strange column toppings with carved faces.

Rosine is driving my parents’ van courageously through frankly terrifyingly narrow and contorted streets, and I can hear my mum’s sharp intake of breath from the back a couple of times as we round particularly tight corners. Our next destination is the chateau of Monpoupon – but as we drive past it, it becomes evident that it is in fact closed. Nevermind, we have a good look at it from the road and move on to plan B, the chateau of Chenonceau (I prefer plan B, as Chenonceau was definitely one of my must-sees). But as we reach it, we quickly understand that it too has just closed for the day! We are now feeling slightly dejected, if I’m honest. To top things off, we’re now dealing with yet another baby bowel disaster in the parking lot of Chenonceau castle. Suddenly, as the sun is going slowly down behind the trees, my aunt and dad remember a little pathway they remember from years ago, from which you can apparently see the castle anyway – off we go back in the car and up the road, and I am imagining some sort of dismal argument about the route and a far off glimpse of the castle in the dusk. But the pathway is only a couple of minutes away, and it’s a magnificent tip which I will share with you all because frankly I don’t know why anyone would pay 15 euros each to enter the castle when you can see it in such a magnificent way for free (OK, unless you want to see the inside, yes). So as you exit Chenonceau village and you cross the Cher river at the bridge right at the end of town, immediately after the bridge there is a tiny white road to the right that goes down to the river. You go down and park your car in some trees, follow a beautiful fragrant path through the forest and along the river, and pop! Here’s Chenonceau castle, elegantly straddling the River Cher with its gorgeous ballroom atop its white arches. So here we are on this secret path, breathing in the scent of the river and the beautiful smell of the fresh spring buds from the forest, taking in the view in the setting sun. Totally glorious end to our day. Interestingly, we also learn that during WWII, the Cher was the border between occupied France in the North and the Free Zone in the South – so Chenonceau was a physical bridge between the two, which people used to take to escape the Nazis – through the Royal ballroom in its magnificent Renaissance splendor, to safety.

Friday morning, somehow we sleep for ages and ages! Well rested, we set off for the market in nearby Montrichard, the town we’d been so taken with when driving to Rosine, with its ruined castle and pretty stone bridge across the Cher. The day is grey and dull, a sharp contrast to yesterday’s summer sun and a reminder that it is in fact March. The market is similarly a little dull, and the town seems subdued – a few beautiful half-timbered houses, painted in bright colours, can’t quite make it look attractive and jolly; the effect is perhaps accentuated by the ruined medieval keep dominating the town, which is swarming with hundreds of cawing crows. We pick up some presents to share with Rosine and Emmanuel, then head back to theirs for another Caribbean classic of salt cod with rice and beans. My parents have decided to leave after lunch; but Rosine and Emmanuel launch an impressive campaign to convince them to stay another day; by the time we set off for the chateau of Chambord around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, they have relented (my mum with considerable glee at the prospect of spending more time with Zaza).

In what is fast becoming a new family tradition, we arrive at Chambord as the castle is closing for the day; but this time we fight it. Picture an imposing, enormous and intricate building surrounded by an equally enormous park. Now picture four people running all the way around it to make it to the cash register in time before 4:30pm, one of them (me) in the most silly run you can imagine in order to preserve the happiness and cervical vertebrae of a small baby in a sling. Seeing the difficulty of this, my mum shouts at my dad who’s slightly ahead: “Run, Jean-Marie, we’re not going to make it!”. It’s all very dramatic. My dad sprints around the corner of the ornate facade through the huge wooden door which is being pulled shut by a guard right under our noses! Roaring, my mum launches us all forward and we make it past the frankly astonished guard. Inside, we smile at the security dude like it’s totally normal to enter such a place like it’s the finish line of a marathon, and he dubiously pats our bags while saying: “Erm, you do know that the cash registers are probably closed now, it’s 4:30”. I confidently state that we “sent someone ahead” like we have valets or something, and he lets us through. My dad has indeed secured the last four tickets of the day; we now have thirty minutes to visit the enormous building but we are all really delighted and kind of smug, much in fact, I imagine, like marathon finishers.

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The inner courtyard is pretty fabulous already, and as we push through the door to the chateau proper we take in the high ceilings (Zaza would love the beams if she wasn’t fast asleep – because apparently being shaken to and fro like mad in a gallop is very relaxing), the huge fireplaces (there are 365 of them) and massive tapestries. But what steals the show for me is the central staircase, an extravagant double helix of marble, all carved up with windows and fantastic creatures, and everywhere the “F” and crowned salamander of king Francois I, whose “hunting lodge” this was.

The visit it quite cool because there isn’t anything that tells you to go here first and there next, you just roam wherever you like – with the time limit, it’s like exploring some sort of fancy level in a video game! We spread out and up the marble marvel to the upper levels (more magnificent ceilings, of carved stone this time) and out to the balconies to admire the crazy chimneys, all different, all carved and decorated with black slate to give a very Italian extravaganza feel.

All over, just like we’ve seen in the whole region, there are graffiti carved by people all the way back to when the chateau was first open to visitors (I spot a glorious calligraphic graffiti from 1835!). I am, as usual, much more taken by the architecture and crazy proportions of the castle than by the stuff on display inside, apart from a massive, floor to ceiling Dutch ceramic stove (good luck heating this mega huge floor), and the fact that Francois I’s bed is twice as big and long as every other bed in the place (he did gift the place to his mistress, so I’m guessing he spent quite a bit of time in that bed). There are more glorious Renaissance staircases spiraling down to the courtyard below, more majestic tapestries, more salamanders all over the place.

By now we’re ignoring the audio messages telling us the castle is closing and dodging the people in green whose job it is to flush people out (what a job! There are 440 rooms!). But in the end we do have to leave; we are happy to find, however, that the sun has come out for the first time today to provide a fitting illumination for the magnificent facade, which we had to run past earlier. We take a stroll back to the car park and take in the front of the castle reflected in the purpose built water feature, and get back in the car happy and a little dazzled.

On the way home there is a chocolate factory; of course by now the visits are closed, but the tasting area and shop are still open, so we go in and gorge ourselves on all the free samples of chocolate from around the world – Zaza even has a little feed in a side room while Heather stands calmly hoovering free samples while the impeccably polite staff say nothing at all. We do purchase quite a lot of chocolate however, so correctness is maintained. The evening ends with another bidet bath for Eliza (bidets really make excellent baby baths, FYI) and another feast for us!

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