The IKEA experience

Thursday 29th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Today France has been gripped by a one day strike. Striking is the main national sport and they are always happening in one or other sector of the workforce. Yesterday's however was a co-ordinated affair with several million workers from various public service sectors uniting in a co-ordinated strike. Feelings are running very high against the economic effects of the current financial melt-down. Here the citizens are furious with the government for the failure of the banking sector and the fact that ordinary people are left to face the consequences. They are also vociferously unhappy with Sarkozy as President, claiming he is totally unprepared to delegate responsibility to his ministers and has taken complete personal control of the country. "L'etat, c'est moi" is his philosophy, just as it was of some major French monarch, probably Louis XIV. Added to this it is felt that civil liberties have been eroded and state involvement in the personal details of its citizens has become dangerously intrusive.

Over the last few days the weather has remained below freezing but it's been dry and sunny. On Tuesday Geneviève decided the bathroom needed a new stool. It was not coincidental that there is a huge IKEA in Tours she had never visited. We of course were eager to extend our research into the proliferation throughout Europe of the Swedish culinary experience and headed straight for the restaurant. Yes! meatballs with cranberry jam are available in France, just as in Sweden and Germany! The menu is identical! Our delight rather embarrassed Geneviève but she accepted her pile of little brown kottboller with a Swedish flag on top with gracious resignation.

Everything else in the store was identical too. Ian refused to drag round with the two of us and went off to discover the "Exhibition" marked on his map. Had IKEA turned cultural? Disappointed he rejoined us to say he were already in the exhibition, it was just a pompous way of describing the store. Meanwhile we'd found a suitable bathroom stool and headed for the checkout, following the endless arrows right around the store on the way. (We've already discovered IKEA stands for It's Knowing the Exit Arrows.) At the till we were told we couldn't have the stool as it was part of the "Exhibition". We needed to take it all the way back, note its code number and go to the flat-pack sales department at the far end of the store! Our protestations fell on deaf ears. "Non non monsieur-dames," growled the security guard, "you cannot take things from our exhibition! You would not arrive at the exit to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa beneath your arm, requesting a discount because the surface was cracked and the smile rather strange? No, you would buy a copy in the shop ready packed to take away! IKEA is just the same." We were left with no option but to return all the way back through the store for a flat-pack one, our only revenge being to leave the "exhibit" stool upside down in the wrong section with a colander from the kitchen department on one leg and a label saying "Don Quixote's horse"!

Tours is an impossible city in which to park. We cruised the streets for ages without success, eventually parking by the river and walking back in. Here we found the Musée de Beaux Arts closed on Tuesdays! (They must see us coming!)

At the splendid, ornate town hall, with its huge marble staircase inside and gigantic caryatids outside, Ian discovered an exhibition of rubbings made from man-hole covers!

Man-hole rubbings, Tours

Staircase in the Hôtel de Ville, Tours

At the Office de Tourism in Tours we spent a small fortune buying cut-price entry tickets to several of the châteaux. For some inexplicable reason Tours is able to offer tickets significantly cheaper than they can be bought at the châteaux themselves so the savings were considerable. The office confirmed opening times and dates, even phoning Azay-le-Rideau to double-check for us.

However, today, after well over an hour's drive, we arrived at the gates of Azay-le-Rideau only to find the curtain had figuratively been drawn! Fermeture exceptionelle because of the strike! Not only had we had a wasted journey, we now have three unused tickets we've paid for with no chance of getting a refund! The tourist office in Azay was open but even they hadn't realised the castle was closed for the day! They did however phone the nearby, privately owned, Château de Saché for us and that at least was open.

Mill on the Indre at Azay-le-Rideau

Azay-le-Rideau, surrounded by water

Saché is not really a château so much as a rather lovely 15th century country manor attached to a farm. It was here the writer Honoré de Balzac spent many summers enjoying the tranquillity of the house as he wrote several of his novels that together form his Comédie humaine. Here he wrote Le Père Goriot and La Cousine Bette, and here too he gathered material from the surrounding villages and countryside to be used in his novel Lys de la Vallée. The house is furnished as it would have been when Balzac stayed and many of his personal effects are there including his bed and his desk. There are also displays of his correspondence, early drafts of his manuscripts, publishers' proofs, family portraits and prints, engravings and caricatures connected with his writings. We now feel inspired to start reading his works again – something we've neither of us done since our school days!

Château de Saché

Trompe l'oeil wallpaper in the salon, Château de Saché

Balzac's writing desk and bed, Château de Saché

Balzac's corrections for a new edition of one of his works, Château de Saché

Printing press in Château de Saché

Copperplate and engraving of Honoré de Balzac, Château de Saché

River Indre at Pont de Ruan, mentioned in Lys de la Vallée

Today too we discovered yet another château of interest - the Château de Candé in the village of Monts where the Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson in 1937 after abdicating as Edward VIII, prior to moving to their home in the Bois de Boulogne on the edge of Paris. The château was closed but a bit of acrobatic clambering by Ian on the surrounding fence produced a reasonable blog photo. In summer guided tours are offered and the rooms are reputedly sumptuously decorated in the style of the 1930s. The grounds were covered in an icy frost and the fields beside the entrance gate flooded and frozen. In the little stream nearby a couple of ragondins (coypus) were swimming and diving for their breakfast as if it was high summer!

Château de Candé, Mons

Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Château de Candé, Mons

Ragondins, Château de Candé, Mons

Friday 30th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
The radiator in the bathroom has broken! Crisis! Five degrees below zero for the last couple of mornings and we shiver in the shower! This morning our saviour arrived mounted on a while charger – actually a white Citroën van. After handshakes all round he disappeared upstairs, wearing his winter padded workman's jacket and flat hat, with a tool kit under one arm and a new radiator under the other. We have to say for courtesy, cheerful charm and efficiency he wins hands down over any British plumber/electrician we've ever encountered. The complications of paying though are amazing. Impossible to pay cash because of the French fiscal system. Fortunately Geneviève could pay with a French cheque but she still had a huge form to fill in – and that after reading the massive document explaining how to do so! The price was less than it would have been in England, in part because the government allows customers a re-imbursement of tax for any home improvements undertaken, but they carry out spot checks on the enterprises carrying out the work. Any hanky panky that comes to light carries heavy fines for both the company and the customer. All this was happily explained to us by M. Eléctrique while Geneviève was filling out the form and signing it as nervously as if she were signing her own arrest warrant.

Once he'd gone we walked down into the village, depositing a rather larger than decent number of empty wine bottles in the central recycling bin on the way. The post office was closed for lunch from 11.30 until 2.30. We always find them either closed or with a massive queue. In a village the size of Pocé, which doesn't even have a proper bar, it seems to be the general social centre. At the newsagent's we were told there were no papers today because of yesterday's general strike! How does France survive? So many businesses and municipal buildings seem permanently closed, either for lunch, until April, or on strike!

Returning along the village street we were waved to by M. Eléctrique parked by the gates to the château. Still dressed in his padded jacket and flat hat he'd replaced his toolbag with a long lead attached to a large white poodle which was happily investigating, and adding to, some of the interesting smells along the base of the castle wall!

During the afternoon, despite sub-zero temperatures, we drove along the Loire towards Blois as far as Chaumont. We'd already seem around the castle on our previous visit in 2007 but fancied a walk in the grounds with its charming views down onto the Loire. However, the unsmiling attendant told us we'd have to buy a ticket for the castle as well as they no longer allowed people to wander around the grounds without visiting the house. This would have cost 24 euros for the three of us. As we were probably the only visitors all day it seems bad economics as we'd willingly have paid a couple of euros each just to stroll through the gardens. A lady in the village told us later that they have even stopped the local people going in which has upset everyone greatly as it made a lovely stroll on a summer evening. She told us to complain at the tourist office. However, we found it shut for the season!

The village street was cold and miserable with the wind whistling across the river. Wondering what to do next, we saw a lady watching us from her cottage window. She opened the door and invited us inside. Taking up most of the space in the tiny room was a hand printing press while around the walls hung copies of the different copperplate engravings she had produced! The room was snug with a wood burning stove roaring in the corner and best part of an apple tart sitting on the top to keep warm. The lady was charming and very talkative, particularly when she realised we actually knew a fair bit about print making. Wearing a hat to keep warm she allowed us to watch as she worked on the copper plate she was cutting by the light from the window, explaining the different tools she was using, how she inked up the plates and where she got her rag paper. She told us she ran workshops and lectured on print-making in the summer and produced special prints on a gardening theme each year to coincide with the summer festival at Chaumont castle. She was enjoying the audience all squashed into her tiny room and, as we were intrigued as to how she could do colour printing from a single pull of her hand press, she volunteered to show us.

First we selected a copper plate we liked, this she left to warm on the stove while she adjusted the platen on her press, put on her printer's apron and wet her hand-made paper so it would absorb the ink more readily. Inking the plate first with a sepia brown she polished off the excess before adding green and yellow to different parts of the plate. This was placed on the bed of the press, the paper carefully laid over it, a thick felt added, the platen lowered and the bed rolled slowly under and back again. The ink was pressed hard into the paper producing a deep, crisp image once it was removed from the press. There was no mention of us buying anything but once we asked she was more than happy to sell us the print we'd just watched her making. She wrapped it, still damp, in blotting paper for us to bring home and after further chat we ended up back on the icy, inhospitable main street of Chaumont.

Inking the plate, Chaumont-sur-Loire

Taking a print, Chaumont-sur-Loire

Removing the print from the press, Chaumont-sur-Loire

Our print with a view of the Château de Chaumont on a watering can and boats on the river, Chaumont-sur-Loire

The River on a winter's evening, Chaumont-sur-Loire

Saturday 31st January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Geneviève left mid-morning to return to Caen. It's still icy cold everywhere but at least it's dry. During the afternoon we drove to the little town of Montlouis, above the south bank of the Loire roughly midway between Amboise and Tours. It seems a pleasant place with its church overlooking the river, the façade renewed around the time of the Revolution, inscribed with République Française and Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. A chilly bride stood shivering in her white dress at the entrance to the mairie. There was little else of interest so we drove down to river level and stopped at the Maison de la Loire which had an interesting exhibition on the life of the fishing buzzard. We have seen hundreds of buzzards around this area but these are a special, endangered variety that nest mainly in Scandinavia. The Loire would seem to be on their migration route to Africa for the winter months.

Church of Montlouis-sur-Loire

WW2 commemorative window, Montlouis-sur-Loire

Nearby we found the Montlouis wine co-operative, deep inside a spectacularly large cave, was open. We explained we just wanted to be nosy and keep warm and were left to browse around the wine making equipment and the racks of local wine for sale. There is also a museum in the adjoining cave which we may visit on a future occasion.

Sunday 1st February 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Despite the cold and the looming threat of snow we have had a lovely day. We were invited for lunch with English friends Susan and Ray who live in the pretty village of Chédigny near Loche. We have never visited them in winter before. Usually it is so hot we fry on their sun terrace but today we toasted ourselves in the warmth radiating from their wood-burning stove as we sat around the lunch table until late afternoon enjoying warm hospitality and a delicious lunch. The afternoon flew by. It was a sorry surprise when their neighbour phoned to say snow threatened and they'd best move their car under cover before it arrived. We drove home through the gathering gloom, the sky heavy with promised snow. We'll see what tomorrow brings.