Sunday 25th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Thursday is dustbin day in Pocé-sur-Cisse. All around the village the grey bins wait on the street for emptying while the yellow bags are full of recyclable materials. Rubbish bins are a great leveller. Mme la Boulangerie has exactly the same kind of bin as M. le Maire, Mlle la Coiffeuse, and even les Anglais avec leur petite camping car! Just around the corner even Sir Mick puts his bin and yellow plastic bag outside the gates to his château! Now, I have been wondering whether we might subsidise our travels by carrying out an early morning raid on his bin! A little clandestine Jaggery pokery in his yellow bag might make us a fortune on E-bay! What price for an empty soup can once used by a Rolling Stone, or a lolly stick, guaranteed to have had "forty licks"?!
It may not have passed your notice that there is not a great deal happening on the Loire at present and I'm really scraping the bottom of the bin here to provide entertainment.
Over the past few days we have alternately taken local walks or bike rides, or driven further afield with Modestine. We have found the recent heavy rains have flooded the fields along the banks of the Cisse and even the usually tranquil Loire is flowing fast and furious, its waters swirling around the arches of the bridges and overflowing its banks leaving trees stranded way out in the fast flowing current.
Amboise sits on the Loire roughly midway between Tours and Blois. You can drive along either of its two banks in each direction. So a round trip makes a pleasant drive passing through the little villages supported almost entirely by viticulture, each with their quota of troglodyte dwellings, caves and subterranean restaurants. Everywhere though is closed and desolate until April.
On Thursday we drove along the southern bank to Blois. Smaller than Tours we found it far more appealing despite the almost continuous rain. We left Modestine outside the town and crossed the Loire on foot over the wide and windy bridge. It brought us immediately into the heart of Blois with its many carved and decorated half-timbered ancient houses. Here a wide flight of steps led to the upper town with the cathedral and the magnificent château. On the steps we discovered a statue of Denis Papin, 1647–1712, inventor of the first pressure cooker, known here as a cocotte minute. Blois seems to have been an inventive place as up beside the château we found the house of Robert-Houdin, 1805-1871. Apart from being an outstanding conjuror and magician he produced many inventions such as an electric lamp, fifteen years before Eddison, a robot to rake his lawn, doors that opened automatically and much more. This would have been fun to visit but was closed until April.
The massive renaissance castle was open but we couldn't do it justice in the hour or so of daylight left to us so we will go again later. Over the gateway stands an equestrian statue of Louis XII while from the entrance square and various terraces there are impressive views of the town, the Université François Rabelais, the Baroque church of St. Vincent and the Orangery, now an exclusive and very expensive restaurant.
In the impressively terraced Bishop's garden, near the cathedral, stands another equestrian statue, this time of Joan of Arc, who passed through the town in 1429. The Bishop's palace is now the town hall.
The following couple of days have been spent pottering locally and preparing for the imminent arrival of our landlady Geneviève. We are delighted that she is able to join us for a few days but I have been quite nervous doing the shopping for a French lady! Have I bought the right brand of pâté? Were the andouilles produced in Vire? Are we in the AOC of Touraine or Anjou? Do I choose crottins de chèvre or select a pavé Pont l'Evêque? Or maybe a slab of Cantal and a wedge of Rochefort? Will she really notice the difference in taste if I buy an oven-ready chicken in Intermarché rather than queuing on the market for one still complete with head and entrails?
On Saturday afternoon the sun was shining though the wind was icy. Wrapped up like a couple of Michelin men we followed footpaths through the woods up onto the plateau where we could almost lean into the wind. We were lucky here though; in other parts of France winds reached 140 kilometres and hour and areas have been seriously flooded by the torrential rains.
We explored the neighbouring hamlet of Fourchette, a pretty place built above the flood plain of the Loire but protected from the winds by the steep white cliffs behind. We discovered one little house of note, having been the home of the early 20th century author and writer Robert Morin. Here he wrote Mélie Buttelière, a novel set in the hamlet of la Fourchette and recounting the hard, peasant lives of the inhabitants and the agricultural history of grape production, cereal and vegetable growing and animal husbandry. Crops grown here were transported to the railway station at nearby Limeray and sent for sale in the Paris markets. The soil became increasingly difficult to cultivate and after the First World War people drifted from the land to work in industries established in the neighbouring towns.
This morning, after exploring the Sunday market we crossed to the PMU café for a hot chocolate to warm up in preparation for the chilly bike ride back home for lunch. The PMU is really a betting shop and we are always fascinated to sit in a corner watching the local men arrive, woolly hats or flat caps on their heads. They all make a tour of the bar shaking hands with everyone – including us – before collecting their p'tit verre from the barman and settling down to fill in their betting slips – usually with the aid of the barman who does far more than pour drinks and make disgusting hot chocolate. Running one of these places must be a gold mine. As fast as anyone left the bar he'd be replaced by two more punters. Should anyone have the good fortune to win anything, they'd almost certainly spend it all in the bar on drinks anyway so the barman is on to a winner all round.
By the time we left it had started to pour with rain so we slipped into the back of the surprisingly crowded church where Mass was in progress, to wait until the rain stopped long enough for us to cycle home.
After lunch we drove to Montrésor along routes marked as particularly picturesque on our map. Perhaps M. Michelin was having an off day as they seemed fairly ordinary open countryside to us. Montrésor however was well worth the journey and is another of France's most beautiful villages. We saw nobody as we wandered the steep, narrow mediaeval streets, reminiscent of some of the little hilltop towns we discovered down in the south of France in 2005/6. Down on the flooded river Indrois were the old water mill and the lavoir. In the lower town was the market place with its ancient timbered Halle aux Grains while high above was the ancient castle. Midway, in the heart of the upper town, was a disproportionately large and beautiful church.
The castle was supposed to be open but nobody was around. So we wandered the surrounding gardens unchallenged, taking photos down onto the town and along the castle walls. Lord of the castle in 1492 was Imbert de Bastarnay, counsellor to several of the French kings and grandfather of Diane de Poitiers. Today the castle is privately owned by a Polish noble family, the Branickis, who purchased it in 1848. They have become local benefactors, the Comtesse opening a school for the education of girls back in the 19th century.
There is, not surprisingly, a legend surrounding the name Montrésor. A handsome prince and his servant stopped nearby to rest, exhausted from much travelling. The servant dreamed of marrying a beautiful princess, far above his station. He woke to find a lizard crawling over his master's face. Just as he went to kill it, the prince awoke and realised the lizard had a message for them. It disappeared into a crack in the rock to reappear a moment later covered in gold dust. Widening the crack the two men discovered gold beyond the dreams of avarice. The prince was able to build a castle on top of the rock, calling it Mon Trésor and putting his servant in charge. The servant was now rich enough to marry the beautiful princess of his dreams and they all lived happily ever after. A somewhat more probable derivation of the name is that one of the original lords of the little town was treasurer of the chapter of the cathedral at Tours so the place was known as "mons thesauri," or the mount of the treasurer, and thus eventually Montrésor.
Monday 26th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Morning temperatures have dropped to below freezing again and the garden was covered in frost when we opened the shutters. Our friend Geneviève took five hours to drive here from Caen because much of her route was through dense fog. Here though we have enjoyed bright sunshine all day. After lunch the three of us went for a walk around the village, something Geneviève does every time she returns here, each corner filled with memories of hot summers spent here with Alain and their children. It is the first time she has stayed at the house in winter and finds dining round the radiators rather less agreeable than enjoying the cool of a July evening in the garden with a glass of the local wine.
Some views of Pocé-sur-Cisse