Thursday 5th February 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
We seem to be for ever commenting on the weather! In Britain we hear reports of snow blocking routes, councils running out of salt and people unable to get to work. Generally here it's been nowhere near that bad. True it has been very cold but nothing like the bitter conditions when we first arrived. Indeed, for the last couple of nights it has been well above freezing and at times it has been quite pleasant during the daytime.
On Monday the expected snow failed to arrive though the fields were covered in a hoar frost and in the shadow of the hedges it lingered all day. We decided to explore the island, known as the Ile d'Or in the middle of the Loire. The bridge into Amboise links it to the bank at either side.
It was larger than we had realised and even has a few short streets of tightly packed houses leading from the bridge, upstream towards the campsite - closed until the spring. Beyond we found a muddy path to the 11th century chapel of St. Jean. The path continued through woodland to the upstream tip of the Island. Here we amused ourselves throwing sticks into the river trying to identify the precise point at which the waters divides to pass either to the right or left as it flows around the island. The afternoon sunshine was brilliant and the sky a cloudless blue, though it felt bitterly cold.
Ian continues his relentless pursuit of manhole covers but since being here he has found nothing but the standard ones produced at Pont à Mousson. This foundry really is to sewers what Coca Cola is to the soft drinks industry - a perfectly satisfactory product but all pervasive, forcing other companies out of business. At last, on the Ile d'Or he discovered a lone treasure so far overlooked and forgotten. Such was his joy he begs to be allowed to share it here! In this world of disappearing independent iron foundries his unique electronic collection will become the Bible for future local historians and sewerage aficionados.
Yesterday, convinced any risk of snow here was over, we were up and out early, determined to visit the town of Vendôme, about fifty kilometres to the north of here. No sooner had we set off than the snow began! Forty minutes later we were parking on the edge of Vendôme in an area that resembled an ice rink.
It's strange the way you can often sense immediately if a town is going to be special. Vendôme most definitely is. We've never visited it before but even in the freezing weather and swirling snow we liked it immediately. There were few people around as we crossed the Loir (not the Loire) and passed through the impressive St. George gateway, the last surviving of five such entrances to the town.
Vendôme is an ancient city, overlooked by its ruined castle and naturally protected by the Loir which surrounds it. Near the centre of the town we found the public library housed in its own charming 19th century building. Its loan collections were excellent and its local history department boasted over 200 mediaeval manuscripts and numerous incunables.
Nearby we found the tourist office where the staff fell over themselves to be helpful and friendly, piling us up with leaflets and maps. They asked where we'd parked, explaining that it is free if places are marked out in white but restricted if marked in blue. We said it was definitely white as it was covered in snow. This caused amusement but they assured us the police didn't have the same sense of humour and gave us a special disk we could leave on our windscreen if we needed to use a blue zone. We've eyed these with envy for some time and wondered how to acquire one. Apparently they are useable in most French towns.
Notable names connected with Vendôme include the 16th century poet Ronsard and the writer Honoré de Balzac who was an unhappy pupil at the high school (now the town hall) for seven years. Maréchal Rochambeau was born in the city and fought at the side of George Washington at the battle of Yorktown in 1781. Also from Vendôme was Duke Caesar, the illegitimate son of Henri IV. He was an influential figure during the 16th century, involved in intrigues and scandals. His Paris home once stood on what is now the Place Vendôme.
The pedestrianised shopping area within the city walls was full of smart little shops, bakers and patisseries selling Vendôme confectionery, namely Carrées Ronsard – filled with nougatine and Praline, Croquignolles balzaciennes – pretty pink and green almond meringues with a sticky filling, and Rochambeaux – chocolate cookies. Another curiosity are sugary white sweets known as Saintes Larmes or holy tears. These refer to a reliquary once held in Holy Trinity Church, said to contain a tear of Christ shed when he beheld the body of the dead Lazarus. The tear was collected in a glass phial by an angel and given to Mary Magdalene – of course.
Some of the town's major buildings include the 13th century Islette tower, forming part of the town's defences on the river; the Holy Trinity Abbey Church with its stunning flamboyant gothic façade, its 12th century stained glass window, its charmingly carved 16th century misericords and its heavy 12th century bell tower. Also of note are the Abbot's lodgings and the cloister garth while around the centre of the old town are many timber framed houses.
Vendôme was badly damaged by a fire resulting from an air attack on 15th June 1940 when a quarter of the city was destroyed. Near St. Georges Gate an admirable timber framed building, dating only from the mid 1940s and replacing one destroyed by the fire, has been built out over the river on an ancient stone bridge.
The TVG stops at the railways station providing a rapid link to Paris, just 45 minutes away. The town has several attractive parks and grass area and is renowned for its floral displays during the summer.
During the afternoon we warmed ourselves up with a look around the town museum, housed in a part of the old cloister garth behind the Holy Trinity church. Of particular interest here was a room devoted to the 12th century frescoes to be found on the walls of many of the churches in and around Vendôme. The ones we recently saw at Lavardin are typical. It would seem there are dozens more but most are locked for the winter. The museum also held excellent displays of ceramics and wooden armoires from the 17th to 19th centuries, paintings by local artists and a beautiful harp that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
Before leaving the town we climbed up to the remains of the ruined 12th century castle. Nobody else had bothered to struggle up there in the snow but it was worth the effort for the excellent view afforded over the town's rooftops. One of the towers and part of a wall collapsed as recently as 2001 leaving the top of the tower balanced precariously half way down the bank! In 1807 what is now a massive Cedar tree was planted to commemorate the opening of the castle grounds as a public park.
Today, in complete contrast to yesterday, we woke to find it was warmer outside the house than it was inside! So we threw back all the shutters and opened the windows to warm the house and provide it with a good airing. During the morning somebody rang in a state of anxiety needing the police station in Tours. It seems our phone number is only one digit different. Poor people, in urgent need of help and instead of the gendarmerie they end up with a couple of vague English pensioners saying "'allo, 'allo, 'allo."
In Amboise recently we bought a tiny heater for Modestine, designed to run off the leisure battery. As it turned out to be completely useless and we felt the need to exercise our verbal French we took it back and indulged in an interesting discussion as we explained about electric currents, turbo fans and amp ratios! We had no idea what we were on about but as the shop assistant knew even less on the subject she gave us our money back to get rid of us!
During the afternoon we went for a muddy country walk from the nearby village of Nazelle, getting rather lost and returning very wearily to Modestine shortly before it got dark. The sun shone all afternoon and it was so warm we ended up carrying our coats! Temperatures have been 21 degrees higher than they were when we first arrived here and 13 degrees warmer than yesterday!
Friday 6th February 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
We woke this morning to a sunny day with an outdoor temperature of nine degrees. On the news we heard that an unexpected fall of snow in Devon had left many drivers stranded on Haldon Hill near Exeter overnight and they had to be rescued by the army and police!
Fired by our success at getting our money for the car heater refunded yesterday, we drove into Tours after lunch and tried something similar at the Tourist Office. We explained that our tickets for Azay-le-Rideau had been wasted as the château was closed due to the national strike. Both we and they were charming and after filling in a form stating we thought they were wonderful we left 20 euros the richer!
Unlike last week, today we found the Musée des Beaux-Arts open. It stands beside the Cathedral and it is very impressive for a provincial city. It took us most of the afternoon to wander through the galleries of what was once the Archbishop's Palace. Most of the paintings sculptures, ceramics and furnishings were by French artists and the galleries arranged in chronological order, thus we progressed from the 14th to the 21 centuries. Many of the items appear to have come from the Château de Chanteloup near Amboise, forcefully removed during the French Revolution. It seems to have been normal practice at the time. Others were captured and brought to France by Napoleon whilst on his campaigns. Later many of these treasures were distributed to museums, galleries and libraries through out the country. Nowadays there also seems to be a scheme of permanent loan from the state reserve collections to the provinces that has benefited major museums throughout France, and even smaller towns are often able to provide surprisingly rich and varied collections. Many of the artists whose works we saw displayed today were unknown to us. Frequently there were works by local artists or of local views, including a panorama of Tours from across the river. Often 18th century paintings were based on ancient legends and produced to a format and style as studies for admittance to the French Academy of Arts. There were also a number of works by major European painters including Monet, Mantegna, Rembrandt, Rubens, Degas, Delacroix and Pieter de Hoog. There were considerably more staff than visitors today and we were closely monitored throughout our visit.
As we drove home along the riverbank the sun was setting behind us, bathing the castle of Amboise on the opposite bank in a rosy glow.