Sunday, July 3, 2011
Heat Waves, Chateaux and Wine
We spent two nights in the Loire valley last week, the first time we had been there in many years. This is part of our campaign actually to leave Paris once in a while for other parts of France. It's hard for us to do for some reason; probably a combination of laziness and our mad love for this city.
An American friend married to a Frenchman and raising their two kids in a small town in the countryside told us she'd welcome a visit, if only to break up the rural regularity, and when we discovered a pretty manoir with a Michelin-starred restaurant in the same tiny village we thought the stars were correctly aligned for our little outing.
Well, some of the stars were. We left Paris in a heat wave and three hours in an air conditioned car relieved us of the heavy heat we would have felt in Paris. On the other hand, when I had closed the door of our apartment behind us and put my key in the lock to turn the bolt, the key wouldn't go in. Gene's key was still in the lock on the inside and wouldn't allow mine into the opening. We'd never had this problem before, but there it was. How were we going to get back in when we returned late Wednesday evening?
A call to my landlady at her country house wasn't returned, a very unusual thing. I called the cleaning lady and told her the problem and asked her to see if she could do anything about it when she came the next day. If we needed a locksmith it was going to be really, really expensive, as they charge two arms and a leg for anything. I've known people to be charged nearly 1000 euros to get into the house when they've locked themselves out. I think all those chateaux in the Loire belong to retired locksmiths.
Two days of worry while I waited to hear were relieved when I learned my landlady had had time while in Paris on her way to England to stick a skewer in the lock and push Gene's key out of the way! Take that, you lurking locksmith!
Meanwhile we made the most of our visit. Gene went off for an afternoon of wine tasting and came back with several bottles for our tiny wine collection. A dinner with our friends at their converted farmhouse that included quite a bit of wine tasting as well, a swim in the pool at the manoir, and a couple of days of driving to visit Fontevraud Abbey, Chinon, the Chateau of Langeais, Saumur, the Chateau of Ussé, Clos Lucé in Amboise, and a village or two with the odd 13th century church kept us pleasantly occupied.
I had been wanting to visit the Abbey for years. An enormously influential place in the early centuries of the second millennium, it was ruled by an abbess rather than an abbot and sheltered hundreds of nuns. The monks lived outside the walls in their own quarters. The tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband Henry II of England, along with that of their son Richard the Lion-Heart are here. This is where Eleanor retired once she had finished interfering in the rule of her husband, her son Richard, and her son John (you remember, the Magna Charta guy? Robin Hood's nemesis?).
The tombs retain some of their polychrome decoration, and here and there in the church you can see the remains of painted walls and ornament. We never seem to remember that the clean stone churches we visit today did not look like that in their heyday. Blues, reds, golds, were everywhere. I must admit I prefer clean stone, particularly the lovely white tufa that is the primary building material in the area.
Lots of charming details in the cloisters and halls of the Abbey remain, like this chubby little nun. I love her little hands clenched in front of her.
The tile floors in the great hall have the coats of arms or initials of the aristocratic abbesses over the years. Naturally they came from the best families and wielded a great deal of power. It was one of the few ways for a woman to have power in those days, unless you were the wife or mother of kings.
We managed to get lost a time or two and we hit a few traffic jams along the river in the larger towns, but a thunderstorm the first night cleared the air and dissipated some of the heat and all in all it was a lovely country outing. We may even manage to leave Paris again sometime in the not so distant future.
And it was an incredible relief to get back to our front door late Wednesday and find our key worked. It was reason to open one of those new bottles of wine.