With friends on the Loire

Friday 13th February 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse
We have had friends Rosemary and Peter staying with us over the past week, seeking refuge from the recent ice and snow of Wiltshire. We may not have had such extremes here but we have still been subject to wet, mizzling rain, storm force winds, fog, and clammy penetrating damp. It's not been the time to see the Loire at its best though we have also had a few dry and sunny moments when, despite the cold, we have managed to visit three of the local châteaux. Our friends left us after lunch today for the long damp drive back to Ouistreham for tonight's ferry to Portsmouth.

The history of the French monarchy is incredibly complex and we have been grateful to discover a summary in the form of a family tree glued at a suitable height inside the toilet door. Over the past few weeks we have made considerable progress at this seat of learning and, combined with our visits to the ancestral homes of some of these monarchs we now have at least some understanding of the complex interrelationships between the Houses of Valois, Bourbon, Orleans, Angoulême and Brittany. We can unravel François I and the influence of the Italian Renaissance from François II and the Scottish monarchy and even remember that Diane de Poitiers was the mistress of Henri II while Gabrielle d'Estrée was the mistress of Henri IV and mother of César de Vendôme. We still find the various King Louis' confusing but at least we seem to have a clearer idea than the hordes of Japanese visitors we encountered at Chenonceaux. We overheard one of them, gazing at the label on an impressive gilt-framed portrait of Louis XIV, solemnly claiming that it was of "Louis Ziv"!

Genealogical tree of the French monarchy

On Tuesday we finally visited the Château d'Amboise. The weather was icy cold with a wind that chilled to the bone. Not an ideal day to linger on the exposed battlements taking photos of the impressive views down onto the Loire.

Château d'Amboise showing gothic embellishments to the left and renaissance ones to the right

Peter, Rosemary and Jill in the castle gardens, Amboise

Château d'Amboise showing renaissance façade

Amboise directly beneath the battlements

Castle walls, Amboise

Looking towards the Loire from the castle wall, Amboise

The history of Amboise is primarily associated with Charles VIII, son of Louis XI. He was born in the castle in 1470 and died there 28 years later when he hit his head on a low door frame! In between he ordered the construction of the stunning St. Hubert chapel on the battlements, developed the château in gothic style and married Anne de Bretagne, leading towards unifying Brittany with France. As Charles' unexpected death meant he left no living heir he was succeeded by his cousin Louis XII who then married his widow Anne de Bretagne as her marriage contract with Charles had dictated.

St. Hubert Chapel, Amboise

Entrance to the St. Hubert Chapel, Montlouis

François I succeeded Louis XII and further developed the château, embracing the architectural style of the renaissance. It was François I who surrounded himself with the artists and writers of the age and invited the genius of the Italian renaissance, Leonado da Vinci, to France where he lived as the king's guest in Amboise in the nearby house of Clos Lucé. His supposed grave is now in the St. Hubert chapel.

Supposed grave of Leonardo da Vinci, Amboise

Later the château was occupied by the young François II, married to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Much power rested in the hands of Mary's repressive Catholic uncles from the powerful Guise family and in 1560 an attempt was made by French Protestants to kidnap the king from the castle at Amboise to remove him from the influence of his Catholic relatives. The plot failed and the perpetrators were executed by being publicly hanged from the castle battlements.

Gradually the kings deserted Amboise for Paris until eventually, during the Napoleonic era, the castle was systematically destroyed so that today only one fifth remains.

We were frozen cold and windswept by the time we had climbed the ramp up the castle walls to the battlements and made our way across the exposed gardens to the castle entrance. Inside there was no heating at all despite the huge, elaborately carved and decorated fireplaces and piles of logs. There were magnificent coats of armour and huge carved oak chairs aplenty but with our numb toes and fingers we soon lost interest in translating the captions. Coffee in one of the little bars down in the town was a far more appealing prospect!

Armour in the castle, Amboise

Frozen vistors at the castle, Amboise

Unlit fireplace in the main hall, Amboise

Detail showing carved rope effect decorating yet another chilly fireplace, Amboise

Carved chair giving an impression of perspective, Amboise

This was followed by a drive along the Loire to Montlouis to visit the wine cooperative. Here, inside a huge cave that felt significantly warmer than outside, we watched a video explaining the process of local wine production and bottling. We were then left to wander around a labyrinth of tunnels and side caves deep inside the white cliffs of sandy tufa. These were piled high with thousands of bottles of Touraine wine maturing, sometimes for years, in the darkness and an unvarying temperature. Back in the cave we were offered tastings of several cépages from which we selected a couple of bottles each.

Wine maturing deep inside a cave, Montlouis

Some wines take a while to reach their best! Montlouis

Cleaning the bottles, Montlouis

On Wednesday we drove across a flat deserted landscape of empty fields to Pontlevoy in the naïve hope of discovering a chocolate museum! Poulain chocolate is a well-known brand and its founder, Auguste Poulain was born in this little town in 1825.

We never found any surviving connection with chocolate though there was reputed to be a museum in the Abbey grounds. What we did find was an intriguing little town that had definitely seen better days but at lunchtime mid-week it was no more than a ghost town. We saw virtually nobody in the streets during our visit and the huge abbey complex and its surrounding gardens were completely deserted and rather creepy on this chilly winter's day. Almost every building in the town was old and crumbling from many years of neglect. On the walls though we were fascinated to find what the town called its "museum of the street". Photos and text in English as well as French guided visitors around the town revealing a fascinating history for such a tiny town that had obviously been much livelier in the past. Photos from 1900 until the 1930s showed Pontlevoy to have been a thriving place, the streets filled with children playing, housewives chatting with neighbours, the tiny market square bustling as farmers arrived with their produce and live animals for sale. In the days before petrol-driven vehicles, goats and chickens were pushed in to the market from the surrounding countryside in old prams! The town boasted a college – now an abandoned ruin overgrown with weeds, a military academy and, before World War I, even an airfield where pilots learnt to fly! Along the straight flat road out of town towards Chaumont cycle racing was a regular activity.

In the gardens of the old abbey, Pontlevoy

The old abbey church, Pontlevoy

Decaying tower in the Abbey complex, Pontlevoy

Quintessential French taste! Decayed and abandoned recent building linked to the 14th century abbey, Pontlevoy

We continued to Chenonceaux where we stopped at a bar, the only place we could find open in the village for lunch. It was a necessity rather than a pleasure where the choice was of overpriced pizza or overpriced quiche accompanied by overpriced half-cold coffee. However, on the bright side, the heating worked and the loos were clean.

On our last visit to Chenonceaux it had been high summer with the sunlight reflecting from the surface of the river Cher, the terraced gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici, bright with flowers in their symmetrical beds and the château a white, stunningly beautiful and highly feminine renaissance building with its long gallery built out across the river. Please read our account for Saturday 21st July 2007 as it describes the château at its best.

This time we were disappointed to find everywhere so dismal with the exterior largely swathed in scaffolding and with heavy machinery blocking many vistas. The two formal gardens were being excavated and the view from the river was blocked off. The 17th century farm gardens were a muddy quagmire and all three cafes were closed. A 3,000,000 euro restoration programme is underway to preserve what is normally this most exquisite Loire château, but 2009 may not be the best year to visit.

The best angle we could get. The gallery added by Catherine de Medici spanning the Cher, Chenonceaux

Despite the freezing weather, everywhere was overrun with hardy Japanese tourists and school coach trips. Inside however the château was as charming as ever with its pretty vistas over the river, well proportioned rooms with their decorative stone fireplaces – several with huge logs blazing, decorated ceilings with carved or painted beams, paintings, four-poster beds, chests, cupboards, chairs and heavy brocade fabrics.

Ahh! Warmth at last, Chenonceaux

Carved wooden ceiling, Chenonceaux

Yesterday, Thursday 12th, the sun was shining, the wind had gone and it was marginally warmer. Our guests were intrigued to see some of the troglodyte houses around the village but Peter has some difficulty walking. He's found an ingenious solution and carries a lightweight folding tricycle in the boot of the car which he used to accompany us as we strode quickly around the village in our attempt to stay warm.

Tricycle ride, Pocé-sur-Cisse

After lunch back home we drove to Clos Lucé on the edge of Amboise, within sight of the castle. This became the home of Leonardo da Vinci from 1516 until his death in 1519 at the age of 67. Built in 1471 in red brick faced with white tufa stone, the house is set in its own extensive parkland. It is a house rather than a castle and has a very personal feel to it. On the walls around the interior are many of the philosophical sayings of Leonardo and the basement is given over to models constructed by IBM from his original designs and notes. A man ahead of his time he was fascinated by science, technology, mathematics, geology, natural history, philosophy, engineering, architecture, painting and art. He was the embodiment of the Renaissance.

Clos Lucé, Amboise

Amboise and the castle seen from the garden at Clos Lucé

A walk through the house passes first along an external gallery, through his bedroom with its view across to the castle, home of his friend and patron François I, and then through his study. Downstairs is a small chapel, originally created by Charles VIII for his wife Anne de Bretagne. Here she came to mourn the death of her two children who died in infancy. (We saw their shared renaissance style tomb recently in Tours Cathedral.)

Tomb of the young children of Charles VIII and Anne de Bretagne, Tours Cathedral

Next come rooms decorated according to the designs of 18th century residents. On the floor below is the large, simply furnished Great Hall where Leonardo would entertain the king. Originally his painting of the Mona Lisa hung here, brought with him from Italy. Nearby is the kitchen with its long oak table, heavy wooden chests and the tall stone fireplace. Here Leonardo's vegetarian meals were prepared for him.

Finally in the basement are facsimiles of his writings and plans. Leonardo was left-handed and wrote in mirror image. Designs he produced as military engineer to the king included pontoon bridges, artillery for attacking castles, a folding ladder for scaling walls and an armoured tank. A man of vision, other plans included machine guns, an improved design for a printing press, a parachute, a bicycle, an aeroplane, a helicopter and an automobile, almost all designed to work using cogwheels. There is also a working model of a set of ball-bearings! Nearly 500 years later modern versions of all of these are in everyday use!

The house was warm and the gardens very chilly. We'd completely exhausted our poor guests, unused to being dragged around icy French villages and châteaux. They went on strike at the thought of trudging around the gardens looking at scaled-up models of Leonardo's designs. We are made of stronger stuff though and will return to finish our fascinating visit in a day or so.

This morning, Friday 13th, it was pouring with rain as we dragged our friends off to the Friday market in Amboise. It is held on the banks of the Loire and today it was covered in puddles and mud. It was bitterly cold and within minutes our guests looked decidedly blue. Risking hypothermia they tried to look interested in the various charcuterie stalls and waited while we watched a Breton fisherman opening and cleaning coquilles St. Jacques which he explained he'd caught himself at sea. What a life! Out in the stormy winter seas off Brittany fishing in this weather, then driving half way across France to stand with bare wet hands on the icy Loire riverbank in pouring rain, prising open their shells with a knife and cleaning them all in the hope of a customer!

Our friends could take no more so we adjourned to the Café des Arts for hot drinks followed by sausages with lentils and a croque madame before returning home for them to collect their cases and set off towards home.

Sausages with lentils and croque-madame

During the afternoon we went for a long walk around the village and up through the woods and around the vineyards of Saint-Ouen-les-Vignes, working off some of the overindulgence of eating during several happy days in the company of friends. The woods had snowdrops shining white against the dark leaf mould while the vineyards looked like a choreographed ballet of little black dancers each with their arms raised above their heads. At the entrance to the village school we discovered the week's menu for school dinners pinned up. How would young British children react to four course lunches that included grated beetroot in a vinaigrette dressing, spinach, broccoli purée and minced meat in blue cheese sauce?

Church and Mairie in the centre of Pocé

Winter vines near Pocé-sur-Cisse

Snowdrops, Pocé-sur-Cisse

Four course menu for children at the village school, Pocé-sur-Cisse