Rural France in Winter

Saturday 17th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
The pace of adventure really slows down when we stay in one place rather than move on every day as we have done in Modestine. It takes some effort to adjust to it and in some ways it seems rather a frustrating waste of time with so much still to discover. However, it does mean Ian can work on his French book trade papers and I can at last find time to read a few books. Unfortunately I'm tending to do this in bed in the morning which means it's nearly lunchtime by the time we are remotely ready to go anywhere.

Thursday was my birthday and despite having reached that critical age, Ian is fortunately still needing and feeding me. To celebrate we drove along the banks of the Loire to Tours where we spent a chilly day exploring the streets of the old town with their brick and timber-framed buildings, housing dozens of little restaurants. The one we selected for our birthday treat was very pleasant though the plates were large and the contents small. We both selected dorade with rice as fish is something I very rarely bother to cook even at home. We are not sure what dorade is - possibly John Dory? It was delicious but like most fish, expensive for what it was.

Old town, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

House where Joan of Arc received her armour from the Dauphin, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

Dorade seen on sale in the town, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

Next we visited the cathedral with its stunning mediaeval stained glass windows and discovered something of the ecclesiastical history of the city. We have often wondered why so many places in France are connected with St. Martin. We knew he'd been born in Pannonia in Hungary during the fourth century, we knew too that he had served as a soldier in the Roman army and that he has gone down in history as having shared his thick military cloak with a beggar at the gates of the town of Amiens in France. We had not realised that he eventually became archbishop of Tours and his remains are venerated in the city. We discovered them in a reliquary housed in the crypt of the specially constructed 19th century basilica, though this replaces part of a far larger building dating in part back to the late Roman period.

Stained glass in the Catherdral, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

19th century basilica of St. Martin and Charlemagne's tower - which survives from the mediaeval basilica, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

To finish our tour of Tour we made our way to the very attractive railway station. It almost rivals the one in Helsinki for stunning design! Our way back to Modestine took us through the main shopping streets, crowded with hunters is search of sale bargains. The shop windows were quite glitzy in their way. Certainly French taste in interior design is very different from English. The more we see of it the more we dislike it. There is a strong emphasis at present on blacks and greys. Furniture styles still hark back to the 18th century but using ultra-modern fabrics which just do not work, particularly when matched with modern glass bowls, extruded plastic knick-knacks, dyed dried flowers and repro' crystal chandeliers!

Railway station, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

French chic, seen in a shop window, Tours, Indre-et-Loire

Yesterday the weather had improved sufficiently for us to take Hinge and Bracket for a bike ride to the internet shop in Amboise. It made a very enjoyable change from walking or driving and we felt really fit and glowing by the time we reached home again in the evening. Amboise is only a few kilometres from Pocé but we spent the entire day exploring the town. When we arrived we discovered it was market day on the banks of the Loire. It was a tiny affair compared with many but as fascinating as most similar markets. The stall holders all had their long queues of regular customers and knew each of them by name. Presumably it's the same at all the other markets in the surrounding towns as they travel on a weekly circuit. Primarily it's a food market selling fresh farm produce. Prices are at least as high as in the supermarkets, frequently far higher, but the produce is all "bio" or organic. Despite being miles from the sea, stalls were selling freshly caught fruits de mer, live crabs and lobsters, oysters and coquilles Saint Jacques. Meat stalls were hung with yellow skinned chickens, strung up by their feet, their floppy dead necks dangling down. One stall was stocked almost exclusively on things we'd rather not consider eating in England. Trays were artistically laid out containing every imaginable kind of offal – cows' tongues, sheep's brains, calves' kidneys, bullocks' hearts, bulbous grey tripe, goose gizzards, pigs' guts and other unmentionable pieces of bovine anatomy. No wonder the French have such a reputation for their cuisine. You need to be pretty good to produce a culinary masterpiece from such materials! The adjacent charcuterie sold prepared dishes of the end results – rillettes, andouillettes, pâté de tête de veau, pied de cochon en gelée, tripe à la mode de Caen, confit de canard et charbonnard de rognons. Both stall holders were doing very brisk business.

Unable even to contemplate cooking or eating such food we bought mushrooms to make an omelette for supper and stopped at a nearby café for ham rolls. British and unadventurous, that's us!

Amboise has an old fortified ruined castle overlooking the Loire. It also has an intact Renaissance castle attached. It offered us an impressive perspective as we pedalled across the river towards the town, its walls rising vertically from the river bank and the delicate tracery of the tower of the St. Hubert chapel silhouetted against the sky. As yet we have discovered little of its history as we have decided not to visit the castle until some friends arrive to join us here for a few days. The town though seems very pleasant and we passed the afternoon on a walk around the old narrow streets and up to the park of Clos Lucé, the picturesque house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last four years of his life as the guest of the French king François I. In the grounds are models of some of the many inventions he worked on during his lifetime. A man four hundred years before his time they included armoured tanks, parachutes, a helicopter and a moving staircase! We will find out more on a future visit.

Clos Lucé, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Clos Lucé, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Clos Lucé, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Clos Lucé, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Above the town we discovered Roman remains, a Celtic defensive embankment and spectacular views down onto the grey roofs of Amboise with the silver-grey Loire sliding off into the distance through the wide bare fields of the winter landscape.

Back in the town we treated ourselves to a small cafetière of coffee in Bigots. This is such a famous café it is known throughout France and it is priced accordingly. Admittedly Ian had an éclair with his coffee, oozing with French chocolate cream, but 10 euros did seem rather excessive when the bill arrived! Still, it was an experience with a special atmosphere, and for the French that is what really matters.

Celtic defence works, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Amboise and la Loire seen from the castle walls, Indre-et-Loire

Castle walls, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Main shopping street, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Bigot's famous coffee shop, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

Entrance to the castle, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

St. Hubert's chapel on the castle battlements, Amboise, Indre-et-Loire

We'd planned on a bike ride to explore the Ile d'Or in the middle of the Loire, but the day had passed so enjoyably we risked arriving back home in darkness if we lingered. So we rode happily home along the back roads where we met and made friends with a couple of tiny ponies, a goat, a duck with a wonky foot and two very dirty sheep. They all live together in a muddy field beside the river Cisse.

Continuing our recent theme of troglodyte housing, we discovered an entire section of the local journal devoted to caves and their hobbit-like residents. Apparently the cliffs into which these homes are built collapse periodically. One has just crumpled onto a village mairie somewhere in the area around Amboise. The caves are now supposed to be regularly inspected for safety and heaven knows how the owners get insurance. Perhaps they don’t! Of course they are not all as dilapidated as the ones we saw in Montrichard and some in Amboise and Pocé must look quite attractive in summer with tubs of flowers at the entrance. They all have street numbers on the front door and their own letter boxes! The journal article says the recent rains have caused water to flood down the inside walls of the caves and residents have got together to form protest groups. They all blame the local wine growers claiming they are failing to keep the drainage ditches between the vines properly maintained causing the water to gather, permeate the soil and drip onto the sideboard of the Flintstone family living 14 metres below, deep inside the cliffs!

Troglodyte home, Ambois, Indre-et-Loire

Today has been grey and damp and we have done very little. This afternoon we drove to the supermarket where there are still a few bottles of quality red wines for sale at half price. They really are a bargain, cheaper than the plonk we usually buy. Unfortunately the computer charged us the wrong price for some of the bottles and it took some time before we could convince the store their computer was wrong. Still, it was good practice for our French and all very amicable. It also got us 10 euros back.

Next we drove to Bleré on the river Cher. It is nothing special being just another grey French town like any other on a damp, grey day. Still, tomorrow looks like even more fun! According to this evening's metéo we will have continuous rain and high winds. I've just discovered an article in a French journal about retired people going off to North Africa for the winter in their camping cars. Next time ….

Monday 19th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
The French countryside in winter is a dreary and unexciting place, we have to confess. In summer this area is so pretty and warm, the vines, cattle, crops and woodlands covering the landscape and light reflecting from the silver surfaces of the abundant lakes and rivers. In January however the fields and villages are deserted, shutters are left tight shut all day, there is nobody to talk to and almost anywhere of interest is closed until the start of April. Having spent three years changing our location more frequently than our socks it takes a lot of getting used to. We now know for certain that there is no way we would consider buying a French property anywhere outside a town at least the size of Bayeux with lots of social activities happening all year round.

Our days pass pleasantly enough but lack sparkle and our learning curve is almost horizontal. Of course this is really our own fault. The region is so steeped in the complex history of the French monarchy that it is too difficult to be easily understood. Each château has its own story to tell of births, intrigues, assassinations, battles, crusades and marriage contracts with the English, Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. If more places were open out of season there would be an incentive to learn more of all this. It takes on meaning when you can walk the same rooms as the French monarchs, surrounded by the luxury and furnishings of their age. The pages of a guidebook in our house here don't have the same appeal.

None-the-less, we have not been hibernating and have made the most of the daylight hours. On Sunday we drove along the deserted north bank of the Loire, passing through several pleasantly crumbling white stone villages, to Vouvray, famed for its AOC wines. The vineyards do not seem enormous in the Loire, compared with the Champagne, Languedoc and Bordeaux regions at least. Those around Vouvray were no more than a few hectares of black stumps bristling with broken black twigs at the moment, with no sign of buds yet. Generally the vineyards lie up on the flat land above the cliffs of white stone through which the Loire has worn its course. The villages are generally below, on the valley floor, with wine cellars and houses built into the cliffs. Most of the villages have impressive houses, centuries old, in various stages of decay. Some 17th and 18th century ones have been beautifully built with round towers, mullioned carved windows, high black slate roofs and magnificent doorways with exquisitely carved lintels. Sadly, on closer inspection many are in the last stages of crumbling decay, their carvings almost indistinguishable. In the streets of Vouvray their charms are hidden, crowded in as they are amongst the narrow streets, existing cheek by jowl with small shops, bars, garages, abandoned sheds, and the usual litter of broken drains, pavements and detritus. Above the town we found the village church – where we studiously looked the other way as we passed one of the villagers urinating against it – and made our way up to the vineyards and the cemetery on the top of the cliff. From here the beauty of the rooftops and embellished upper stories of many of the older buildings showed to advantage. It was once a wealthy, affluent little town. Actually, it probably still is, certainly its vineyards are renowned, but rural France takes its rich cultural heritage completely for granted. The inhabitants of such villages are indifferent to its obvious charms, interested only in cultivating their vines and producing a quality wine. They don't seem to have aspirations for nice homes, clothes, holidays or any of the things that matter to most people once they can afford them.

We returned home across the flat plains above the valley. They are vast and empty, mainly grassy fields waiting to be ploughed for crop planting, and scattered vineyards. We passed a couple of hamlets of old stone farm buildings and several smaller châteaux, all privately owned and generally used as hotels or restaurants.

Confusingly there are two rivers in the region with very similar names, distinguishable only by their sex. There is the large, feminine Loire (with an e) where many of the more magnificent châteaux are to be found, and there is the smaller, masculine Loir (without an e) with its more wooded valley, pretty villages and smaller châteaux. There are also the rivers Indre and Cher, each with their own châteaux and natural attractions.

Yesterday we headed for the valley of the Loir. First we visited the town of Château-Renault, about twenty five kilometres north of Amboise. When we arrived we recognised its château from a brief stop in the town several years ago on our way home from Bordeaux. It stands on a promontory above the main street of the town, surrounded by a small parkland open to the public. The original fortified mediaeval gateway later had an incongruous but not displeasing clockface fitted to the top and the ruined tower of the original castle overlooks the attractive Renaissance château which is the current town hall. The town itself we did not recall. One French provincial town looks very like another really. On the river there was a 16th century tannery, now defunct but with a museum – closed until April. Beyond that its charms did not rate highly on the Maxtedometer of interest.

Castle gate, Château-Renault

Château-Renault seen from the castle

Castle ruins, Château-Renault

So we continued north to Montoire-sur-le-Loir, a town of some 4,500 inhabitants, where we picnicked in Modestine on the banks of the river while a hailstorm clattered on our roof. Once both we and the hail had finished, we set off to explore the streets. There is a huge square at the centre, flanked, amongst other buildings, by the Hotel de Ville, the church of St. Laurent and a couple of large Renaissance houses. Many of the side streets still bore witness to their mediaeval origins with their huge, barn-like buildings and gateways, broken cobbled streets and ancient pipes and gulleys for storm water. In common with so many other French towns, the old and the new were completely integrated with no planning control or interest in aesthetics or history.

Home built into the church, Montoire

At last! An attempt to shame people into cleaning up after their dogs! Montoire

Renaissance building with "modern enhancements", Montoire

The bridge across the Loir is certainly picturesque, even in winter. To one side is the old town lavoir while the houses to either side are in an attractive half-timbered style commonly found in the region. Apparently in summer they are hung with wisteria while the river bank is shaded by weeping willow trees.

Our guide book told us not to miss the 12th century frescos in the little chapel of St. Gilles, belonging to a former Bendictine priory where the famous 16th century poet Ronsard had held religious office. The doors though were locked. A message told us the keys were at the tourist office on the main square, right back where we'd come from. Returning to the square we discovered – surprise - that the tourist office was closed until April.

Montoire has a curious connection with the Second World War. In August 1940, during the early days of occupation, the town was overrun by the German military, people were confined to their houses, and roads and the railway line were closed. Hitler arrived by special train for a meeting on board with the politician and vice president of the French Conseil, Pierre Laval. Two days later he also met at Montoire with the head of the French government, Maréchal Pétain. The result of these two meetings was an armistice between France and Germany and the establishment of the Vichy Government, headed by Pierre Laval. France was thus divided into two zones, the German occupied zone based in Paris, and the "free" zone where the French were nominally permitted to govern themselves in exchange for agreeing completely with German dictates - in other words, Collaboration. In 1945, after the war, Laval was shot by the French while Pétain, who had been honoured as a hero of France during the First World War, had his death sentence commuted to life on the Ile deYeu. As he was already eighty four in 1940 when he met with Hitler he did not have long to wait in exile before he died in 1951.

Station at Montoire where Hitler held his meetings with Pétain and Laval in 1940

Ironically, we discovered that the field immediately behind the historic station platform is now occupied by a gypsy encampment with caravans and grazing horses! What a pity Hitler could never know that despite his efforts to annihilate the Romanies, they continue to thrive whereas his plans for a pure Aryan race in Europe have thankfully been consigned to history.

So we left Montoire, generally satisfied with our visit and made our way to Lavardin, listed as one of France's most beautiful villages. Certainly every one we have seen, and there are probably a couple of hundred scattered across France by now, have been exquisite. They are everything such villages should be and show just how picturesque and pleasant so much of the countryside would be if properly maintained. Lavardin is no exception, but on arriving we realised we had already discovered it during March 2006, returning from our first travels with Modestine on our way back from Spain. The unlocked Church alone is exquisite with more than enough 12th century frescoes to make up for what we had missed in Montoire. See entry for 10th March 2006, the frescoes are stunning!

Castle ruins at Lavardin

In the evening I finished reading an intriguing book that may be of interest to our English blog followers now living in France. Our French friends are generally remarkably tolerant of my frequently vociferous comments about certain aspects of their country, generously regarding it as British eccentricity. The French think the British are obsessed with hygiene, sanitation and street mess – particularly dogs' mess. So I have been given a novel written by an Englishman, Stephen Clarke as a Christmas present. Originally published in English as A Year in the Merde the copy I have has been translated for the French market and is called God Save La France. It seems the French find it as hilarious as the Brits do and are quite prepared to enjoy reading about themselves through the eyes of their "Anglo-Saxon" neighbours. It has become a best seller here and amongst our friends there is agreement that many of the witty observations are actually well founded. Read it in English unless you have become really French. English slang has been replaced by French slang and while it was generally understandable, I found it a bit difficult to follow at times. I have though worked out the meaning of lots of words I'm unlikely to find in Larousse!

Tuesday 20th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Today we've pottered, tidying up blogs and reading, but it's been pleasant. After lunch we went out for a walk through the woods, up onto the plain above the valley and round through the vineyards returning through a part of the village we'd not yet discovered. Again there were many troglodyte buildings but those used as homes looked cared for and picturesque. In the grounds of the château we discovered yet more cast-iron statues left over from the iron works of J.J.Ducel in the 19th century and learnt that further ones could be seen in the village church. This was locked but when we crossed to the village paper shop the owner told us he had the key but couldn't take us round today as he was alone. We agreed to return when he could leave the shop for a while. He was cheerful and chatty, offering several leaflets about local walks and selling us a couple of postcards of the village. From him we have learnt that Mike Jagger is still living here and any plans he may have had moving have been shelved. He's currently carrying out a new restoration project on his château using local artisans from the village. We left with a couple of postcards showing his château but making no mentioning of its illustrious owner.

House extending back into the cliffs and rather nice iron gates, Pocé-sur-Cisse

19th century iron sculpture from the J.J. Ducel foundry, Pocé-sur-Cisse

19th century iron sculpture from the J.J. Ducel foundry, Pocé-sur-Cisse

19th century iron sculpture from the J.J. Ducal foundry, Pocé-sur-Cisse

Castle and its grounds after the thaw, Pocé-sur-Cisse