A detailed account of my first delightful journey through France’s Loire Valley, accompanied by Michael Logan and Rufus…
Part One: From Reims to Berry
Although it is an area we had been interested in exploring for some time, the Loire trip happened almost by accident. Michael Logan was planning one of his periodic visits to us in Amsterdam, but found that airfares to Paris could be had at a substantial discount. He proposed taking the train to Amsterdam, but, at the same time our landlords were eager to do some renovations in our flat. Logan did not want to spend 10 days in Paris, so I proposed a trip through the Loire Valley. We would rent a car and drive down from Amsterdam. To avoid an extra drive into Paris, it was arranged that Logan would take a train from Paris and meet us in Reims, the capital of the Champagne country and a very pleasant small city that we all had some familiarity with.
Logan and I visited Reims in 1991 on a day-trip from Paris, visiting the Cathedral and the Veuve Cliquot cellars. Rufus and I spent two days there last summer as part of a driving tour through northeastern France.
We left Amsterdam mid-afternoon on July 10, planning on stopping somewhere along the way in Belgium. After an overnight stay in Leuven, a University town east of Brussels, we headed off, arriving in Reims by 12:30 on Friday afternoon. We deposited the car in what may be France’s best designed and most immaculately maintained underground car park, at the Place d’ Erlon in the center of town. We checked into the Hotel Crystal, a charming old ‘typically French’ hotel we had discovered on our last visit. We then staked out a strategic sidewalk table in café between the hotel and the train station and awaited Mr. Logan, who arrived from Paris about 2.
That afternoon, we took a tour of the Pommery cellars—they have a huge network of tunnels connecting ancient chalk pits that were originally excavated for building materials. It is one of the more impressive of the big champagne houses and they take visitors without advance reservations. In the early evening—still bright daylight in mid-June—we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, one of France’s most elegant Gothic Cathedrals, despite the damage of the first world war which laid waste to much of the city.
We had a good dinner the first night at Au Petit Comptoir, a place Rufus found in le guide du Routard Hotels et Restos de France. (This is an invaluable guide for travelling in France—especially smaller cities and towns. It lists good value, high-quality hotels, inns and restaurants in a variety of price ranges. This French guidebook has been translated and published in and English edition by the publishers of the Rough Guides. This book also led us to the Hotel Crystal, as well as a number of fabulous country inns.) I had a starter of four kinds of salmon; Rufus had a cold vegetable soup with a mustard ice-cream and Logan had foie gras. Logan and Rufus both had fish as a main course (monkfish and char) which both declared fantastic. I had a spit-roasted steak, which although it had a delicious charred crust and a great wine sauce and a little piece of marrow, was a ‘rump’ steak and just about the chewiest piece of meat I’ve ever eaten! As we were in Champagne, Logan ordered a really good one, a Krug grand cru, and then a Fixin from Beaune. I had a tasty chocolate cake with a warm center that I had to order at the beginning of the meal.
Saturday morning, we had a really good tour at Moët et Chandon in Epernay, with a college girl from New York as our guide! We had three glasses of three different champagnes in the tasting room at tour’s end. The 40 franc tour gets you one glass of the basic non-vintage brut—but we opted for the 65 franc tour. This admits you to the “special” tasting room where you are supposed to get to taste two of the vintage wines. (We’re nothing if not big spenders!) We had our two wines, and then because everyone got so chatty and friendly and enthusiastic, they poured us a third type. This was mostly due to an amusing couple from Philadelphia who now live in Brussels who gamely requested (our did they slyly insist?) they we be poured a third glass. There were also a couple people from the Netherlands. Finally they had to throw us all out. We had a simple lunch at a nearby brasserie and spent the whole afternoon driving around the Route du Champagne, past the fields and vineyards and through the charming little towns each with its miniature cathedral and dozens of small champagne houses.
It was nice to stay once again at the Hotel Crystal. Madame Jantet was not there on this visit. (It was she, the charming proprietress, who showed us room after room in this pleasant old-fashioned hotel on our visit last August.) The pleasant, rather younger, lady at the reception said that Madame now often spends the weekends visiting her son in Grenoble. I had to ask after her—Madame is quite elderly and I was glad to hear she is doing well. They are doing some renovations to the hotel—new bathrooms and carpets—but it still retains plenty of old-fashioned charm, with the open cage elevator running up the center of the staircase, and big French windows opening onto the courtyard. A very friendly welcome too, despite Madame’s absence. And all this for 290 francs a night. It’s amazing—and they even have Canal+ !!
We left Reims Sunday morning just before noon, after another visit to the cathedral during high mass. We drove south to Epernay , then further south thorough some very pretty Champagne country. We made the entire trip from Champagne to the Loire (near Sancerre) on two-lane roads through vineyards villages–a very pretty drive. It was a Sunday so it was very quiet everywhere. No farmers out and nothing open. We stopped for lunch—just before two—at a “Logis,” chosen at random (just because it was there, and we were there–in rural France, if you don’t eat lunch by two you don’t eat.) This was a hotel-restaurant called L’Auberge du Regain in a tiny village outside of Sens and it was fantastic. We have found that you can really depend on places in the French countryside that are members of the Logis de France organization. They display a green sign with a yellow fireplace on it and specialize in good (and good value) regional cuisine and, like this place, are often excellent. We had the four-course set menu—a huge lunch at a very reasonable price.
Starters were 12 escargot with puff pastry hats for Logan and melon with local ham for Rufus. I had an amazing house-made rillette in a little ceramic crock (no idea what all was in it). Then came a palate cleanser(!) a sorbet in some kind of liqueur. Then we all had lamb chops—just two each, very rare and very delicious and just the right amount when accompanied by potatoes gratin and potatoes fried with bacon and green beans. The next course was a slice of local cheese served with a small salad of greens and walnuts. Dessert was a really yummy lemon tart for me, ile flotant for Rufus, and a rhubarb tart for Logan. There were two gentlemen running the dining room, both very nice. All the other diners were locals out for their Sunday lunch. And although we ate inside there was also a pretty garden courtyard out back.
We drove on through the quiet and remote countryside into the Berry region, the easternmost edge of the Loire. Our Eyewitness Guide to the Loire describes Barry as “off the beaten track.” Our experiences here—the scarcity of other tourists and the emptiness of the roads would confirm this—though given the beauty of the area and the many things to see, I’m not sure why this is so.
Our stop that night was a magical introduction to the region and to the whole of the Loire Valley. We had reserved rooms at an historic chateau that also takes overnight guests. We had read about this one, the Chateau La Verrerie, in an article in Travel and Leisure—but as nice as the article made it seem, the reality of the place was breathtaking. After finding our way past a couple of very small villages, a road took us into deep countryside to a turn onto a private road with a gatehouse. And there, at the end of a long road, sitting in splendid isolation the edge of large lake, stood the ancient chateau.
Located on the easternmost edge of the Loire near the small village of Aubigny-sur-Nère, Château de La Verrerie is a gem. The chateau is quite magnificent and our suites were rather grand. The rooms were large and elegant. But also quirky—seeming very much like bedrooms in a grand manor house rather than hotel rooms. Most of the second floor is given over to large high-ceilinged guestrooms with expansive views, while the main floor contains the historic rooms and art treasures and the owners live in a wing connecting the main house and the chapel. Logan was in the Rose room and Rufus and I were in the Felix room. The chateau is mainly of a Renaissance style, with some bits of leftover Gothic—a grand Gothic private chapel and fortified front wall with gate. There’s a large lake to one side, and the fortified wall on the lakeside collapsed some time ago and was not rebuilt—affording the courtyard a magnificent view. Our nominal hosts are the Comte and Comtesse de Vogüé. Shortly after arriving, we thought we saw the count out strolling with his black Lab behind the family wing of the house. A very nice young woman greeted us on arrival and showed us our rooms—we were not sure if she is a member of the family or an employee.
We arrived about six and after settling in, we spent the early evening exploring the grounds. There are cottages, horses, a forest and incredible views of the chateau from everywhere you wander. We made, that evening and again the following morning, what was, even for us, a huge number of photographs.
We had our dinner at La Maison d’ Hélene, the little restaurant in a cottage on the chateau grounds. There we got a look at the other guests of the chateau. There were eight parties at dinner (including us) corresponding to eight cars parked in the court of the chateau, so all the diners would seem to be overnight guests. There are the two old ladies who Rufus has dubbed “the Miss Alans”, and older couple with a large dog under their table, a quite attractive young couple and, most intriguingly, an elderly one-armed Englishman accompanied by his younger (third ) wife? secretary? companion? Who can say? He seemed very eccentric and quite rich. He spoke to his companion about his time in “the Argentine.” The restaurant staff consisted of just one nice girl serving and one young man in the kitchen. The setting in an isolated country chateau and the choice assortment of characters prompted the question: “So, which one of them ends up murdered tonight?” You really can’t help feeling like you’re a character in a classic Gothic mystery as you wander the long and darkly handsome halls, and stroll the green and misty grounds. Alas, looking back, all the guests seemed to have survived. Not even a ghost disturbed our sleep.
For those of you interested in such things, the meal was quite good. I had very good foie gras and a tasty, very meaty duck breast. Rufus had foie gras and then pork with mushrooms—a bit bland he said. Logan had a terrine and then sweetbreads. The sweetbreads were not on the menu, but the restaurant prepared them especially for Logan because when Rufus made the reservation via fax he said that he hoped they would have sweetbreads because Logan was a big fan. He did this because the article in Travel & Leisure magazine (the article which prompted us to stay at the chateau) had made mention of the exceptional sweetbreads. However, on returning to our rooms after dinner, Rufus gave the article to Logan to read and it turns out that the exceptional sweetbreads were at another place entirely! Still, Logan said they were tasty. For dessert I had crème brulee (good) and Rufus and Logan had this chocolate tart, a cake with a warm liquid center that was just fantastic! To drink we had a Sancerre blanc and a Chinon rouge. We have apparently arrived just a few days too late for the white asparagus. It was listed on the menu but we were informed that the season was “finished.” Poor Logan missed the season by just days on both ends this year.
After dinner, we retire to the sitting room of the chateau, where I make some notes about the trip and record my impressions: “…The chateau is very quiet! I guess all the other guests are snoozing; I’m still try to digest all this food. We attempted a short walk after dinner, but you can’t go far unless you are willing to venture across damp lawns, braving the mosquitoes, in total darkness!”
Retiring to bed was amazing as the place was totally, absolutely dark and silent. Looking out the window you saw no light anywhere and there was no moon. The stars were incredible though: the brightest stars dazzling and you could even see the bands of the milky way. But inside there was no light at all! To see the night sky in all its splendor is such a rarity—it must be one of the great losses of the 20th century.
In the morning we had croissants and homemade jam amid the antiques of the breakfast room while the resident black Lab begged for scraps. We took the guided tour of the Chateau’s main rooms and treasures—who could resist. The guide, a pleasant girl, spoke mainly French, but one got a good look around. We were the last guests to leave, at about 12:30—like us, everyone seems to have booked for just one night, but I would happily spend several nights here—exploring the surrounding region and just lazing around the grounds.
From the Chateau La Verrerie we drove a circle around the Berry region, first south to Bourges, a bigger town with a beautiful gothic cathedral and a famous (and well preserved) gothic residence—the Palais Jacques Coeur. (He was the Royal treasurer of medieval France, but his own lifestyle eventually proved too extravagant—despite his many accomplishments on behalf of France, he was accused of fraud and forced to flee to Rome.) The Bourges cathedral, St. Etienne, built between 1195 and 1260, has fantastic stained glass windows.
From Bourges we turned back north to Sancerre. We had come for the wine, but Sancerre turns out to be a fabulous medieval hill town. A collection of stone buildings on narrow streets perched on the crest of a solitary hill rising above the surrounding countryside. This beautiful town was almost completely empty of tourists—amazingly tranquil. We bought a baguette and one of the Crottins de Chavignol goat cheeses that Sancerre is famous for producing and ate them in a little park with a view over the river and surrounding countryside. We bought some wine of course, from Domaine La Moussiore in the center of Sancerre and from Lucien Crochet (regarded as one of the best producers) which is located in the village of Bue. Logan had invested in a copy of A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire (by Jacquiline Freiderich) an invaluable to the wine producers of the Loire.
From Sancerre we meandered west on tiny country roads to the town of Salbris—our destination for the night. We had a reservation at Domaine De Valaudran, a grandly solid looking 18th century mansion that, sadly, had been completely gutted inside and concealed a generic, if comfortable hotel. I had selected the hotel from the Routard guide because of it’s highly regarded chef—although the chef had since departed the hotel and replaced by a new, 23-year-old chef. The food (like the hotel) was pleasant but unexceptional—though Logan, who ordered pigeon, raved about it! (Logan also liked that although he had a rather small single room it inexplicably had a huge bathtub.) The young staff too, were enthusiastically friendly, but the hotel’s lack of character was heightened by an inevitable comparison with the fabulousness of the previous night’s Chateau.
Part Two: The Great Chateaux
We drove then into the heart of the Loire, and made a tourist-attraction-filled day of the region’s two most famous chateaux—Chambord, the largest; and Chenonceau, indeed the most beautiful.
The approach to Chambord is through the estate’s vast walled game-preserve—a suitably impressive approach to the 440 room royal palace—though the trek across the vast parking lot to the ticket booth is rather less so. Chambord is interesting for its historical significance and for some fascinating bits of its architecture but, as it was built by and for the Kings of France, it is rather too large to be charming. The symmetrical Greek cross plan with its identical apartments in groups of four and especially the unusual central double-helix staircase are attributed, though not definitively, to Leonardo Da Vinci. The staircase, with its parallel but separate spiral ramps is rather fascinating, as are the large but maze-like private apartments. The chateau’s other famous feature, it’s roofscape of turrets and chimneys seems more romantic fantasy than Da Vinci, and can best be appreciated (despite the scaffolding that seems to cover every major European monument) at a distance. A decent audio tour helps make sense of the buildings layout and history; rooms have been restored to reflect the era’s of various occupants, from the Chateau’s creator Francios I (in the early 16th century) to the last Royal occupant Louis XV, who gave it to his father –in-law in 1725.
It was well into the afternoon when we finished exploring the rooms, losing each other on the staircase and looking at the various collections of paintings and other art. I’d worked up a bit of an appetite—and ever mindful of the French countryside’s rigid timing of lunch—I announced as we left the chateau that we were stopping to eat at the very first Logis we came upon. The Logis de France does not let you down, for there—between the Chateau and it’s parking lot—was the Hôtel du grand St Michel, displaying the green and yellow Logis emblem and featuring a pleasant outdoor terrace. What a treat to be able to get a tasty, reasonably priced meal right on the grounds of a major tourist attraction!
After lunch we drove through La Sologne forest from Chambord, near the river Loire, to Chenonceau, on the river Cher. We were staying that night at an inn only a kilometer or so down river from Chenonceau, so we checked in the late afternoon, enquired about the timing of dinner (7:30) and set off for the Chateau.
Despite the number of visitors (and the chateau was busy) it is possible to have a very pleasant visit at Chenonceau. Fortunately, the main road as well as the carparks are well separated from the Chateau and its gardens—the estate still has quite a bit of land around it. We found, rather by accident, the best approach to the house: bypass the direct path—the one mobbed with visitors—and take the path to the left. This makes a long loop around the estate but allows you to approach the Chateau by way of Diane de Poitiers moated formal garden. It’s a beautiful approach, providing the classic postcard-view of the house spanning the River Cher like a bridge—and is virtually crowd free. The house itself is busy—there is no getting around that—but the interior is gorgeous—both beautifully restored and beautifully maintained. There are even great arrangements of flowers everywhere. You can visit the entire palace: salons, bedrooms and even the kitchens tucked into the foundations and opening onto the river. There is a fantastic private chapel—though it lost its original stained glass when a bomb exploded near the Chateau during WWII. The fact that the house is also a bridge across the Cher lends it a certain strategic importance; it may be a factor in saving it from destruction during the Revolution. In the WWII it formed a link between occupied and Vichy France. Chenonceau, unlike Chambord, is privately owned and managed and it shows both in the meticulous upkeep and the aggressive merchandizing—there is gift shop, a restaurant, even a winery. All are conducted with style and rather good taste, though—and the profits are obviously re-invested in the property. We had a pleasant drink in the wine cellar to escape the afternoon heat. The grounds are pleasant for strolling, and far less crowded than the house. The forested section on the opposite bank of the river is least visited of all and offers fine views.
This night’s inn, the Hostellerie Du Chateau De L’Isle, was quite charming. A real 18th century house, with additions and remodelings, it still had lots of character. We had a sort of suite of attic rooms with hand hewn beams and mismatched furniture. Though it’s only about one kilometer from the Chateau de Chenonceau, our inn seems quite out in the country, surrounded by fields and pastures, and just a short walk down to the river Cher.
Dinner was served on a terrace overlooking a pond and a large yard full of ducks that came begging for bread. By the end of the evening we were best friends with the ducks. There were only two choices for each course, but the food was fantastic. I had a started of salad with two kinds of smoked salmon, crab and tiny shrimps, and a small piece of fantastic foie gras. Rufus’ starter was a terrine of duck (eek!—and they were watching!) Main course was gambas for Rufus and me; chicken breast with morels for Mr. Logan. Local cheeses and then dessert: a great île flotant—it had a layer of caramel under the crème anglais and carmelized orange peel on top! And chocolate mousse. After dinner we walked around the grounds. The sun was setting with much brilliant orange/red fanfare across the fields and through the trees beyond the hotel. Suddenly we were in our own Van Gogh landscape. Bathed in the pink evening light, we ambled down the country road until we came to the Cher river’s edge. When we got back to the hotel, we had a bottle of Gandon champagne from the minibar—relatives of the inn’s owner, Denis Gandon, have a small champagne house. We drank it on the terrace and chatted with an older couple that were driving from their house in Portugal back to their main home in Hamburg. Quite a drive, that.
The next morning, after feeding croissant to the ducks on the terrace, we set off in our rented Opel, returning to our tour of off-the-beaten-track Loire.
I believe it was Logan who chose Montrésor as our destination that morning, and I’m not at all sure how he came to select this small town with its one-paragraph mention in our Eyewitness Guide. We followed a lonely road, south through the woods stopping for a look at a private chapel, a miniature renaissance church, locked up tight at the side of the road. Shortly thereafter we entered Montrésor, a little ribbon of a village following the base of a great hill and small, placid river.
Our first stop was the town’s gothic/renaissance church, a lovely mini-cathedral that was the private chapel of Imbert de Bastarnay, Lord of Montrésor. The Lord and his family are still present here, in spirit and marble effigy anyway—their 16th century tomb is the highlight of the church. Lord, Lady and son repose in life-size marble relief atop the sarcophagus, while angels, apostles and greyhounds keep watch. Sad that the tomb (like so many treasures of France) was badly damaged in the anti-clerical and anti-royalist frenzy of the revolution, but it has been well restored with only a few cracks and missing fragments. The highly sculptural and gruesomely realistic stations of the cross are also well worth a look!
We climbed the hill to the Chateau, which retains the gate and some of the walls of the original medieval fortress. It was noon when we arrived—lunchtime–so were told to return at two for a guided tour; in the meantime we were invited to explore the Chateau’s walls and enclosed gardens. The grounds are neither formal or manicured—the impression is of limited staff—but there are lots of flowers and bits of statuary, and the overgrown quality simply adds a romantic note. The views from the walls and ramparts are fairly impressive.
We then spent some time exploring the little village: walking along the story-book pretty riverbank and peaking into the gardens of the old stone houses. We stopped for lunch in little café in town, where we ate at a sidewalk table along with a few local workers. We had a fine, unpretentious 3 course lunch and a bottle of local rose for about $12 apiece.
When we returned to the Chateau, a busload of French schoolgirls was on their way out, and then it was once again deserted. Our tour of the house was just the three of us and a solitary American girl, backpacking through France. Our tour guide was a local boy of about 17, who spoke in the clear, perfect French that is the hallmark of the Touraine region; even I could understand a bit of what he said. He delighted in the American French of Logan and the Backpacker though, and presented them with elaborate descriptions and asked them teacher/pupil sorts of questions. The Chateau was built in the 15th and 16th centuries, but most of the interior dates from the 19th century occupancy of an exiled Polish count. The main room is given over entirely to the counts hunting trophies and antlers, horns, heads, small stuffed creatures and even leg are mounted on every available surface. They’re all a bit dusty and moth eaten after 150 years (for the record, a boar’s head will not age as gracefully as an oil painting) as well as seeming a bit gruesomely anachronistic. The rest of the house is given over to more artistic pursuits—a nice collection of paintings, including a Caravaggio portrait looking rather forgotten in a dark corridor! A small treasury room holds a small fortune in gold and silver objects; a contrast to the dusty, deferred-maintenance look of the Chateau.
From Montrésor, we proceeded north, back towards the Loire river, to one of the regions more curious sights—the Pagode de Chanteloup. It is a seven story Chinese/French tower, a grand folly on the grounds of the lavish 18th century Chateau de Chanteloup. The Chateau lasted less than hundred years—it was abandoned and then pulled down in 1823 and the estate reclaimed by nature. All that remains is this curious seven-story tower and a bit of a once elaborate system of artificial waterways—now set in splendid isolation amid forest and fields. From the road, where one parks and buys an admission ticket (and a picnic lunch if you wish!) it is a healthy hike to the Pagode. Once there it another hike on narrow stairs to the spectacular vertiginous views from the very top. Still there’s something about the scale and the design and the lack of function that makes it seem like a toy—which of course is what it was built as in the first place. You can’t help having a good time here—it’s just so silly. The keepers of the monument have recognized this as well—and have thoughtfully provided a number of ancient games—bowling and coin toss and croquet with enormously oversized wickets for additional amusement. The hiking, and its status as a decidedly minor monument, meant that we had it to ourselves for much of our visit, joined at last at the top of the tower by two huffing and puffing British couples.
Part Three: Chinon
It was time to make our way west, in the direction of Chinon, to reach that evenings lodging, the Château des Réaux. We drove southwest, and then along the river Indre, through the village of Sache—birthplace of Alexander Calder—and round the square which is dominated by one of his brightly colored mobiles. Logan, consulting his trusty wine guide, had one more stop he wanted to make en-route—a small and highly regarded maker of Touraine wines in Chapelle St. Blaise. The winery will go nameless here as we never did find it, and in this one instance our wine guide failed us completely. It listed no phone number for the winery, and only a vague address—but as the village was tiny, we easily covered it in it’s entirety. No sign of the winery. We widened our search, exploring country lanes in all four directions. The more we searched, the more determined we became. Finally we had covered the countryside all around the village; had driven twice through town of Azay le Rideau across the river (where we decided we would return to tour the Chateau which looked so beautiful from the bridge); had searched west as far as Usse (a dramatically sited and isolated chateau) and then back; and to the south into the Foret de Chinon!
Finally we had the good sense to abandon our search, and fortunately our next destination, Château des Réaux, presented no difficulty. The chateau is both hotel and family home—presiding over it all is the lovely Florence Goupil de Bouillé, whose family has lived here for over 100 years. The moated Chateau is an imposing site, in spite of its variety of unrelated Architectural styles. The oldest part of the house, from a the 13th century, was originally a barn; Next to this is a 16th century castle, which merges into a 17th century manor. A an early 20th century arts and crafts style wing completes the building. Somehow, it all comes together in a rather romantic composition. In addition there are pretty gardens enclosed within the moat as well as a beautiful 19th century gothic revival burial chapel. The family rooms of the Chateau, many of which are open to guests, are eclectic and homey—filled with personal photos and other momentos. The guest rooms however are luxury hotel lavish. We had booked two rooms—but one of these, a lavish suite with two sleeping rooms, would have been more than adequate for the three of us. None-the-less, I believe Logan enjoyed his Moroccon-themed room in the 20th century wing—outfitted with jewel-like stained glass windows brought back from an expedition to the near east. We spent some time exploring both the house and grounds—the real pleasure of staying at these Chateaux-inns.
Madame sometimes serves a family-style dinner to her guests but perhaps because there were few guests in residence (or was it the cooks night off?) dinner was not available. As a consolation, she made us reservations, following a consultation with Logan, at Au Plaisir Gourmand which, she assured him, was one of Chinon’s finest restaurants.
On the road to Chinon, occupying a prime site along the River Loire is a jarring reminder of the 20th century—The E.D.F. Centrale Nucléaire. It covers a huge area—an area larger than the town of Chinon, and three huge cooling towers emit bits of steam like artificial clouds. These are surrounded by acres of parking and at night the whole installation glows with electric light. The Loire valley should not want for power.
Chinon sits on a narrow strip of land along the north bank of the River Vienne; the land rises steeply behind and the hilltop is dominated by the ruined fortress of the Chateau de Chinon. Au Plaisir Gourmand Occupies a beautiful 19th century townhouse at the back of an enclosed garden at the foot of the chateau. Madame must send quite a few guests here, because we got the royal treatment—starting with the best table in the house, front and center and set between French doors overlooking the garden. Service was formal but friendly, and everything was quite beautiful. I had the best starter, perhaps, and excellent foie gras. Rufus had an escargot ravioli and Logan had potatoes with caviar. Logan had the best of the main courses—as is only right as he had the courage to order it—a big plate of lambs’ kidneys and sweetbreads. Sadly, there is no way on earth to make this sound good (or, you’re thinking, even palatable)—but I tasted it and it was fantastic. Rufus had a pigeon, also excellent, and I had guinea fowl, but it was really too simple a dish to do the kitchen justice. I remember the desserts were fabulous—but as I did not note them in my diary I have forgotten what they were!
This is a good place to offer some comments on the wines of the Loire. We had two wines here that were new to me; both were really good and quite inexpensive—the catch of course is that they are going to be really hard to find outside the region. The first of these is a Vouvray Petillante—a sparkling Vouvray that is the local, inexpensive alternative to champagne. It’s very nice, as can be the Cremant de Loire, a sparkling wine I have seen exported. The other discovery was Layon—a sweet white wine that is an excellent companion to the foie gras. While most of the sweet wines classically paired with foie gras are top-of-the-line expensive, the Layon is a bargain. As a result, though the food at Au Plaisir Gourmand was (as expected) rather pricey, an excellent selection of wines—including a well-regarded Chinon, of course—was quite cheap by comparison.
It was late when we crept up the tower stairs to our rooms in the Chateau, for a peaceful nights sleep as lords of the manor. Breakfast was in the formal dining room—I remember cherries and home-made jam. We went out walking again after breakfast—it is so hard to leave these places. However, our next night’s hotel—in a bit of a logistical error—was only a ten minute drive from the Château des Réaux! In fact, we had driven past it on our way to dinner in Chinon. As it was so near, we went there directly on leaving the chateau, and dropped off our things. The Hôtel Restaurant de la Giraudiére was rustic country inn wrapping itself around a pretty table-filled courtyard. We were given a suite of attic rooms—two bedrooms, one bath and a separate sitting room—a nice arrangement and cheaper than two separate rooms with bath.
The rooms weren’t ready of course, it wasn’t even noon, and in the courtyard they were busy setting up for a Lions Club lunch, so we set off immediately to sightsee. Backtracking yet again, we returned to Azay le Rideau to tour the Chateau. This is a rather quintessential example of the Loire Chateau—a setting in the river, unified renaissance facades, and decorative, functionless, turrets with ‘pepperpot’ roofs. There’s a wealth of sculptural detail, including plenty of Salamanders (the symbol of Francois I) and Stoats (the symbol of Claude de France, his wife). This bit of Royal toadying was ineffective though; Gilles Berthelot, the chateau’s owner was treasurer to Francois I—and he suffered the fate of treasurers; accused of embezzlement, he was forced to flee the country. The interior and the grounds are open to wander through—and the audio tour gives lots of historical and architectural details. We explored the chateau ‘til well after 2, so lunch was a quick croque monsieur in the adjacent town.
We returned to Chinon, to pay a visit to the winery of Charles Joguet, one of the top producers of Chinon wines. As luck would have it, one of the winemakers, Alain Delaunay, was himself in the little tasting cellar (not Mr. Joguet though—he’s at least about 90 years old), and conducted us on a tour of his wines. Here Logan was really in his element—Rufus and I watched in amazement as he chatted expansively in French for a good 20 minutes, while we tried the various wines. We bought some good Chinon at bargain prices—unfortunately we must fight the urge to drink them—they are supposed to be cellared for several years.
Rufus was ready to visit more wineries, but Logan was satisfied—and frankly we had run out of room for wine in the limited cargo hold of our tiny rented Opel. Next time we visit a wine region we splurge on a bigger car! So we went next to the town of Richelieu—noteworthy as one of the few planned cities of the 17th century: an orderly walled rectangle with gridded streets arranged around tow large plazas. Unfortunately the plazas are now given over to carparks, and the Classical Mansions to shops, so the grand beauty of it is a bit obscured, but at least it has not been corrupted by sprawl—the town remains entirely within its original walls. It was built by the notorious Cardinal, who’s adjacent chateau no longer stands—the grounds remain as large park.
We returned to la Giraudiére for a pre-dinner drink on the tree-shaded terrace. In one of those too-strange coincidences, we spotted the back-packing girl from Montrésor checking into this very inn; she didn’t arrive at dinner though, and that glimpse was the last we saw of her. Still, it seemed quite surprising to see the same American at two rather obscure, somewhat distant spots.
We had our dinner on the terrace—throughout the trip we had the very good fortune of clear skies and warm weather. Dinner was simple, but quite delicious: starters of fish, or foie gras; roast duck with asparagus, chicken in mustard sauce and nice ’89 Chinon—and the so pleasant terrace which made one wish dinner could last forever. But it could not of course, and neither could our visit to the Loire. The next day we were due in Paris. We left Chinon in the morning and made a leisurely and scenic drive along the Loire to Tours. From there we picked up the motorway to Paris, stopping only at Chartres to see the famous Cathedral. It was a fantastic trip, but it is an area so rich in sights that even as we left we were eager to return. After all, we had not visited the Chateaux of Usse, or Villandry, with its famous gardens. We had bypassed the bigger cities, Tours and Orleans, each with many famous attractions. There was still the whole of the Anjou and Loire Atlantique to explore. There were also countless unvisited towns, wineries and Chateaux in the area we just spent the week in—as well as a few places to which we already longed to return.