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April 23, 2002
France: la vallée de la Loire (Russell)

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The château and gardens in Villandry

Between the time that we left Bonn, Deutschland, on April 15th and have to return our leased car in Paris on April 25th, we have found ourselves with a week and a half of completely unstructured and unscheduled time in France.  We have taken advantage of this time to explore the northern regions of France that we missed during our first sejour here during the winter: Normandie, Bretagne, and la vallée de la Loire.

The Loire Valley has long been on Gail's list of dream-destinations.  Created by France's largest river (and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and enriched by centuries as France's Atlantic shipping trade route, the region features numerous châteaux (castles) that were originally built as defensive fortifications.  For our home base on our arrival here on April 21st, we chose the town of Amboise, best known as the city in which Leonardo de Vinci died (Amboise is a sister-city to Vinci in Italia).  Our arrival was less than spectacular; we accidentally drove to the busy south side of the river before realizing that our accommodations were on the north side.  We learned later that we had driven into a combination of election day, market day, and a weekend festival.  We barely survived one of the most dangerous intersections in our entire driving experience, when we had to pass through a carrefour where the people going straight must yield to the people making turns.

We finally arrived at Le Petit Clos, a charming converted farmhouse run by Madame Rousset and her seldom-seen (at least by us) husband.  Cameron and Joss immediately made themselves at home in the large garden with their ropes and sticks.  For dinner we walked back over the bridge to the now-deserted downtown, where we found a restaurant chinois and Russell got to use a combination of his English, French, and Chinese.

The Roussets used to run a boulangerie (bakery), and on the morning of April 22nd we were treated to the best breakfast we've had in nine months.  At 8:30 AM we were the only guests in the breakfast room, and Madame Rousset treated us to a half-dozen homemade breads, pastries, and cakes, including her grandmother's secret recipe.  We ended up spending a good hour and a half at breakfast chatting with Madame.  She remarked that when we had arrived yesterday, we seemed very different from her usual American guests, by the way we instantly and comfortably made ourselves at home.  She was thrilled to meet Americans who spoke French (she barely speaks English), had worldwide travel stories to tell, and seemed to be in no hurry at all (most of her guests want breakfast at 7:30 AM, barely touch her wonderful food, rush off to the châteaux by 8:30 AM, cram five or six châteaux into one day, and can't remember where they went or what they saw).

We ended up concentrating on only two châteaux that day.  Our first stop was Chenonceau (the castle) in Chenonceaux (the town), once the home of Henry II, his second wife Catherine of Medici, and his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers.  The château is also famous for straddling the border between Nazi-occupied France and Vichy (Free) France during WWII; we visited a hallway where prisoners were once exchanged.  We also toured the rest of the castle's interior, where we especially enjoyed the gigantic kitchens, still furnished with 15-century cooking apparati.

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Swordfighting with Oliver at Chenonceau

While playing with their Carcassonne swords in the gardens, Cameron and Joss encountered Oliver, a four-year old boy with a sword of his own.  We met his parents, a British couple now living in France, who recommended that we take a look at the château in Villandry for even better gardens.  After stopping at a petrol station for directions (and talking to a chatty monsieur who obviously doesn't get enough visitors), we drove southwest to Villandry.  Here we saw massive acres of meticulously manicured renaissance gardens.  Cameron and Joss got to play in a labyrinth and playground, and Joss was bitten and attacked by a swan when he ventured too close to the edge of the lake.

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Villandry's "Garden of Love"

Overall, Gail's reaction to the vallée de la Loire was one of disappointment.  In her mind, she had pictured wonderful drives along the banks of the Loire River amid forests and greenery, where we would see picturesque châteaux perched high upon the cliffsides.  In reality, most châteaux are on the lowlands, at busy town intersections surrounded by parking lots and tourists.  We passed by the châteaux at Azay-le-Rideau and Chinon but didn't bother going in.  We had much more fun driving down the deserted, peaceful, and scenic country roads away from the crowds and noise, where we saw forests, meadows full of wildflowers, and bright yellow mustard fields.  We stopped at a supermarché in the afternoon, and for dinner we had a picnic back in the garden of Le Petit Clos, including strawberries with vanilla pudding on waffles for dessert.

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A picnic dinner in the garden at Le Petit Clos

Our best memory of our visit to this region will be the sumptuous breakfasts, and on April 23rd we enjoyed more of Madame Rousset's pâtisseries (she gets up at 5:30 AM every morning to bake).  Madame enjoyed our company so much that she gave Gail her grandmother's secret recipe.  We also met Janie and Dan, an American couple from Boise, Idaho.  We laughed when they related their experiences of driving in France for the first time -- they were so shaken up after encountering Amboise's dangerous intersection the previous day that they almost returned their car.  Hearing their horror stories, we realized how far we've come in our own comfort levels.

With our departure from the vallée de la Loire, it was also time to part with all of the sticks that the boys have accumulated over the past several months.  Joss didn't even want to look at them, so Russell found a nice area to set them down in.  As we drove off, Joss cried and cried -- he hasn't been this distraught since the night before we left California last July.

We made two more stops before leaving the Loire Valley.  Our first was at the château in Cheverny -- famous as the model for Tintin's Moulinsart (Marlinspike) mansion -- but again we didn't bother going in.  We did spend a lot more time in Chambord, where the huge château features 365 chimneys.

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At the huge forest estate of Chambord

We will have one more night -- which we will spend in Chartres -- before we return to Paris and turn in our leased car.  The Renault Mégane has been our only constant "home" for the last six months, and we expect even more tears when we walk away from it for the last time.


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