July 28, 2010 Chenonceaux, France

Mary writes-

Knowing that we had seen enough of the excesses of the 16th century ruling class, today we go in search of medieval churches. We also know that the chances of their being crowds at the churches we want to see are very, very slim. With our trusty Dorling Kindersley guide in hand, we know we can see several churches all within a small radius. Unfortunately as we program TomTom, he has no idea what we are seeking. No problem, we just set him for the centers of the towns where the churches are supposed to be.

As we approach the first town, I notice an old looking church. We pull in and yes! it’s the first church on our list and there is nobody except us visiting.


Eglise St. Martin
Eglise St. Martin

Parts of the Eglise St. Martin are from the 11th century, right up our alley. The church is built in the Romanesque style and has a square tower. Inside are fragments of frescoes. One is about St. Nicholas and the three boys he saved. The frescoes are pretty much red and yellow which is really the original cartoon outline. Time and the process of recovery has removed much of the original colors. I imagine what this little church must have looked like with its brightly colored frescoes filling the walls and ceiling. What a miraculous place it must have been for the simple folk who lived here.

Jolly really old St. Nicholas
Jolly really old St. Nicholas

Our appetites are whetted now to see more of this early art. Not too far away, once again by luck, we find the 12th century church, St. Jacques-des-Guerets. Once again we are the only people visiting.

St. Jacques-des-Guerets
St. Jacques-des-Guerets

Wow, there are way more frescoes here – Christ in Majesty (many of the Christs we see are in mandorla, kind of an oval womb type thing), the Last Supper, the resurrection of the dead, and many more. The colors are brighter here too.

Early Last Supper
Early Last Supper

We are feeling pretty smug at our ability to find these churches. But you know they say, pride goeth before a fall. Our next quarry is the chapel of St. Gilles in Montoire. We find Montoire and even find the alleyway leading down to the chapel. But how to get there? I suggest John drive down this tiny alley which turns out to have no exit. He backs a ways out and then tries a K-turn. Oh uh, he scrapes something. This could add a great deal of expense to our vacation. Finally we find a parking space and get out to walk to the chapel and also to see what damage has been done. It’s divine providence! The scrape has left almost no damage just a little paint that can be wiped off!

So out of the car and down the alley to the chapel. No luck. It’s locked. But there’s a sign (in French) saying that if we go to the Cafe de la Paix they have the key. This reminds us of a chapel we once got into in Germany to see a Riemanschneider carving. You had to go the nearby package store and get the key. Since we don’t want to appear rude, we also have lunch.

St. Gilles
St. Gilles

Armed with medieval-looking keys we go back to the chapel. Dedicated to St. Gilles in the 12th century, it is tiny. It has three Christs in mandorlas. The drapery of Christ’s clothing is very pleated in the V’s you see in the paintings of this time. Also there is some anatomical detail on the surface of the skin. Italian paintings and frescoes from the 12th and 13th century are the same. There’s an interesting Christ with his hands outstretched and the symbols for alpha and omega on either side.

I am the alpha and omega
“I am the alpha and omega”

Although we have a bunch more planned for today, it is getting on towards three o’clock and I am wearing down. All this cold medicine makes me tired. We decide to visit one more 12th century church, St. Genest in Lavardin. What, there’s other people here?! Yes, there were two other people looking at the church, obviously kindred spirits.

St. Genest in Lavardin
St. Genest in Lavardin

This church is very decorated. Most of the color is gone, though. I especially liked what looked like a conga line to hell. The artist made a point of showing that kings go to hell too.

We’ve enjoyed our time in Chenonceaux. The Abbaye du Fontevraud, wine tasting, the Chateau of Chenonceau, French dining and the medieval churches were all worth our while. Tomorrow, on to Beaune!

Conga line to Hell
Conga line to Hell

July 27, 2010 Chenonceaux




Bon Labourer gardens

Originally uploaded by marymompics

John writes – We set out to see the Chateau of Chenonceau, just about a kilometer away from our hotel here in Chenonceaux. Note that the chateau’s name has the singular form, while the town appears to be a plural. We are given to understand that this is deliberate, to emphasize the uniqueness of the chateau, perhaps?

Just before getting into the car, we notice that just beyond the parking lot is a beautiful flower, herb and vegetable garden. Perhaps some of these are ingredients used in the restaurant.




Chateau Chenonceau

Originally uploaded by marymompics

Just ahead of us is a tour bus from Romania. Perhaps not such a good omen. We park the car, buy our tickets from an incredibly confusing ticket machine (rivaling BART for all you Bay Area folks out there), and walk down a beautiful tree-lined path to the chateau and gardens. A lot of other people seem to have same idea. As it stands today, the chateau spans the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire. Initially, though, it was a smaller but nonetheless grand residence of the royal chancellor, Thomas Bohier.




Replacement windows

Originally uploaded by marymompics

In one of the rooms, there is striking stanined glass that replaced that destroyed by German artillery in WWII. Apparently, one side of the chateau was in occupied France, the other under the jurisdiction of the Vichy government.




The river Cher

Originally uploaded by marymompics

To improve his standing with the crown, Bohier deeded the chateau to King Henry II of France, who, although married to Catherine de Medici, gave the house to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers in 1547. She was the one who extended the chateau by building a bridge to the other bank of the Cher.




Catherine de Medici

Originally uploaded by marymompics

On Henry’s death in 1559, Catherine forced Diane to swap houses. Catherine then went about running the country as Regent for her son Francois II and imposing her mark on Chenonceau. One can almost feel the battle of wills between Catherine and Diane in every aspect of the house and grounds.




The gallery

Originally uploaded by marymompics

Catherine built a huge gallery atop Diane’s bridge. Catherine’s monogram is placed to obscure Diane’s in many of the rooms. Both were apparently remarkable women (as opposed to Henry II, who seemed pretty random to me).




Boar-ed with dinner?

Originally uploaded by marymompics

Got to hand it to Catherine. Although an incredibly wealthy Italian, she was still a commoner. Snagging the future King of France was quite a catch, although of course arranged. Furthermore, she brought a great deal of Renaissance Italian culture to France, including teaching the French to cook! In viewing the kitchens of Chenonceau, we imagine the introduction of the first Nouvelle Cuisine, including exciting ingredients from the New World.

Did I say that there were a lot of people? Did I mention that it was hot? It was difficult to keep up with the comprehensive audio guide, what with the Avogadro number of tourists crowding the passages between rooms. But the furnishings and decor are interesting, the history is welcome, and the personalities of the women (not just Diane and Catherine) who owned the chateau are compelling.

We come away with the feeling that the French monarchy was even more of a soap opera than the English crown (which we encountered yesterday at Fontevraud)




Salmon and potatoes

Originally uploaded by marymompics

Finishing the tour of the chateau, we decide to skip the gardens and strike out in search of lunch. Nothing is open in Chenonceaux. We find a place a couple of towns down the road. It is approaching 2pm (apparently a significant hour), but the place is willing to serve us. We have the plat du jour: a salad (yay!) followed by salmon and lyonnaise potatoes. A glass of wine and we are refueled.

Later that evening we dine at the hotel again have exactly the same menu that we had two days earlier, this time without being hidden behind the scraggly oleander. Once again, delicious.

July 26, 2010 Chenonceaux 2




Our former dining spot

Originally uploaded by marymompics

Mary writes – After having breakfast at the hotel this morning, we decide to check on our unusual dining space of last night. There is no table and chairs behind the oleander anymore. It’s like we never existed. I really feel that we were in some sort of spy movie and were watching the movements of the other guests incognito. A report will be sent to headquarters concerning the annoying family with whiny little kid and smoking parents and middle aged couple who hold hands and kiss.




Abbaye du Fontevraud

Originally uploaded by marymompics

But we have a full day ahead and must get going. We set Tom for the Abbaye du Fontevraud, a 12th century cloister. The Abbaye housed both nuns and brothers under the control of a powerful abbess. Tom takes his time getting there because apparently there has been a freeway constructed that the GPS does not know about and we take innumberable backroads instead.




Cloister

Originally uploaded by marymompics

We are always happy to see that there is an audio tour. This audio tour, though, is a little confusing to follow but we definitely enjoy the kitchen, the gardens, the cloister, the refectory and the church.

In the main church of the abbey are the tombs of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitane, Richard the Lion Hearted and his wife. They still have most of their original paint! Henry was the first Plantagenet king of England and Eleanor outlived him by a bunch, not dying until she was 82. There is a family tree in the church. It is very complicated.




Bavette de boeuf

Originally uploaded by marymompics

Havng spent several hours touring the abbey, we went for lunch in the pleasant square outside the complex. We both have the special of the day, Bavette de boeuf and some corgettes (zucchini.) It’s pretty filling and will probably be the main food of the day.

After lunch (yikes, it’s 3 PM already) we head over to Chinon and take a quick look at the Fortress and pay a visit to the Couly Dutheil wine tasting room. We like most everything we taste including an unusual blanc franc. With bottles in hand we head back to the hotel stopping at the supermarket for some cheese, bread and pate to round out our dinner.

July 25, 2010 Chenonceaux




Amboise

Originally uploaded by marymompics

John writes – Today we leave Normandy for the Loire Valley. The drive is pleasant: secondary roads at the beginning, autoroutes for the majority of the trip. We see the orchards and dairy farms of Normandy (think Wisconsin) give way to the wheat and corn fields, sunflower fields and hay fields of the Loire (think Iowa and Kansas), and of course, vineyards.

We speculate on why other countries have wanted to possess France: the Vikings, the English and the Germans. Well, this country can feed itself and a whole lot more. It also has sea access to the north, west and south, and has plenty of navigable rivers, including the Rhine on the east. What’s not like? And once the Italians taught them how to cook, the proposition became irresistible.

But the French never successfully colonized the New World. Maybe they, like the Spanish, were content merely to extract wealth from the New World, whereas English refugees had no choice but to emigrate as entire families knowing full well that they would not be returning to their mother country.

Almost at our destination, we stop for lunch in the town of Amboise, notable for being Leonardo da Vinci’s last residence, in the employ of the king of France. We choose a restaurant along the banks of the Loire. Mary has a filet of sandre aka pike-perch aka walleye for all you Minnesotans out there. I have andouillette, which has be the ultimate fifth quarter food. It consists of pork chitterlings flavored with onion and salt, and stuffed into a casing, smoked and grilled. Chef Chris Cosentino would be proud: innards in innards. And damned tasty, too.




Le Bon Laboureur

Originally uploaded by marymompics

We arrive at our hotel, Le Bon Laboureur (the good plowman) in Chenonceaux, which we will use as our base of operations in the Loire Valley. We arrange a dinner reservation at the hotel restaurant. All is going smoothly. The bed is king, the suite is air-conditioned, there is an enclosed shower, and the Internet works!