A truly wonderful way to experience the Loire Valley is to stay in one of the magnificent Chateaux. Fortunately, a number of these take overnight guests, and one of the best is the Chateau de La Verrerie. Located on the easternmost edge of the Loire near the small village of Aubigny-sur-Nere, it’s a gem. You drive deeper into the countryside until you reach a private road with a gatehouse. And there, at the end of a long road, sitting in splendid isolation at the edge of large lake, stands this ancient chateau.
The chateau is quite magnificent and the bedrooms rather grand. The rooms are 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. The owners live in a wing connecting the main house with the chapel. 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 charming view. Your hosts are the Comte and Comtesse de Vogüé. You may see the count out strolling with his black Lab behind the family wing of the house. He might even host a pre-dinner cocktail.
While at the Chateau you can stroll the grounds, or borrow a bicycle, or even take a rowboat out on the lake. You can drive to Sancerre and sample the famous wines and spectacular views from this hilltop town. There are also charming villages quite nearby, or you can enjoy a game of Cluedo in the one of the comfortable lounges filled with books and board games (TV reception is non-existent and although wifi has been installed, it’s no match for the chateau’s thick stone walls.)
Dinner is at La Maison d’ Hélene, the little restaurant in a cottage on the chateau grounds. They serve quite good, seasonal, regional fare, and dinner gives one an opportunity for a look at the other guests of the chateau, where those with a flair for the imaginative may get the feeling of having been cast as minor characters in a gothic murder mystery!
Nighttime brings total darkness and silence to the Chateau. It is remote enough that there are no lights on the horizon and the stars are incredible–the brightest stars are dazzling and you can even see the bands of the milky way.
Morning brings croissants and homemade jam amid the antiques of the breakfast room while the resident black lab begs for scraps. You can also opt to take the guided tour of the Chateau’s main rooms and treasures.
We’ve stayed at the Chateau de La Verrerie several times over the past decade, and never failed to be enchanted each time.
Fall in love with magnificently restored renaissance châteaux; with a beautiful countryside of rivers, farms vineyards and forests; with postcard-perfect towns; with comfortable inns and luxurious manor houses, and great food and wine. For a gay couple, there may be few more romantic places to spend a week than the beautiful and historic Loire Valley.
It’s a great getaway too for a group of friends, and an emerging and vibrant (if small) gay scene offers the possibility of meeting the locals. For the single traveler, an organized tour is a great way to see the region. Some of the best tours are by bicycle, as there is an extensive network of dedicated bike paths following the Loire River, and the gentle terrain makes for easy cycling. Alyson Adventures offers all-inclusive cycle trips in the Loire with a focus on singles, relaxed itineraries, extremely knowledgeable guides and a van to pick you up if you get tired of biking!
Certainly the main attractions of the Loire are romance and history. The renaissance châteaux built by Charles VIII, Francois I, Catherine de Medici and other royals during the hundred years that the French court relocated from Paris give the Loire its distinctive storybook charm. The region is light on industry and heavy on forests, vineyards, farms and placid, shallow rivers. A few larger, still-quaint cities provide amenities like shopping and nightlife.
Must-see sights are really too numerous to mention: the Chateaux of Chaumont-sur-Loire,Chenonceaux, Chambord and Azay-le-Rideau; charming villages; historic cities such asAmboise, Chinon and Orléans; the bustling and ancient university town of Tours; the gardens of Villandry and the Parc Floral de la Source; plus small wineries and the unique and unusual troglodyte (limestone cave) houses. And the Loire region is home to a growing gay population.
Conveniently for both residents and visitors, it’s a mere hour’s train ride from central Paris. Its closest cities, Tours and Orléans, are attracting increasing numbers of openly gay residents, and with them bars, saunas, restaurants and discos.
Sleep like a king (no, literally!)
The châteaux of the Loire are not just for visiting. Many have opened their doors to paying guests, offering luxurious private bedrooms and grand and romantic salons and gardens. Though no chateau or hotel in the Loire is exclusively gay, a number are gay owned. The Château des Ormeaux (112-150 euros), a 10-minute drive from Amboise, offers secluded luxury in a 19th-century villa recently restored and run by three fun-spirited gay men. Rooms in the main house are roomy and deluxe, while one room occupies a (well-outfitted) traditional troglodyte cave dwelling. Communal dinners are offered several nights a week, adding to the homey atmosphere.
In central Amboise, you could hardly ask for a more luxurious setting than the Manoir Les Minimes (95-170 euros). Enjoy an aperitif in the grand public rooms with the owners, a charming gay couple, and their friendly dog Olga, then retire to your lavishly appointed bedroom and bath with views of Amboise and the Loire. Many such chateau accommodations can be found through Bienvenue au Château (www.bienvenueauchateau.com) — an association of owner-occupied châteaux with the charm of a private home and the amenities of a good hotel.
If you prefer something simpler, the Loire is peppered with charming, inexpensive inns. In the center of Orléans, the gay-friendly Hotel d’Abeille (64 rue Alsace Lorraine ; +33 2/3853-5487; 47-69 euros) has spacious rooms, quirky charm, a super-friendly staff, very reasonable rates — and even free WiFi Internet. Always a good bet is the Logis de France (www.logis-de-france.fr) association-inns, which range from simple to quite elegant. Most have excellent restaurants, and all offer great value. And even in the most out-of-the-way places, a same-sex couple sharing a bed should not raise an eyebrow.
Food and wine: oh la la!
The Loire is a region of excellent wines — perhaps not as well known as Burgundy or Bordeaux, but also not nearly as expensive. In fact, wine may be one of the last great values in France, given the depressed state of the dollar. Try the Vouvray Petillant, the local take on champagne. Coteau du Layon is like a bargain sauternes, and is perfect with foie gras. Touraine and Sancerre are crisp, excellent whites, and reds range from light and refreshing Touraine to full-bodied vintage Chinons. Visit local wineries, or simply enjoy them at meals. Terrific restaurants abound in the region, with prices half what you’d pay in Paris.
Le Pavillon Des Lys in Amboise, for example, is one of the best in the region. Charming Chef-owner Sébastien Bégouin (you may start to feel that everyone in the picturesque town of Amboise is gay) serves an amazing eight-course gourmet extravaganza (at the bargain price of 38 euros) to a handful of tables in a beautiful manor house in the heart of Amboise. For food lovers, this is not to be missed.
Le 4 Saisons (351 rue de la Reine Blanche +33 2/3866-1430), a Logis de France in Olivet just outside Orléans, serves delicious regional specialties in a romantic setting on the tiny river Loiret. Great little traditional restaurants abound, and there are also newer, more urban restaurants, like the hip Next Door (as in next door to and run by Philippe Bardau’s haute Les antiquaries; 6 rue au lin; +33 2/3862-4000) in Orléans and the tasty wine bar L’Hédoniste (16 rue Lavoisier +33 2/4705-2040) in Tours, which attract a trendy gay/straight crowd.
Meet des locales
Gay venues are multiplying throughout the region as homosexuality becomes more visible and accepted. Orléans and student-filled Tours have small but friendly gay scenes — though most all establishments are mixed, attracting gay men, lesbians and stylish heterosexuals. They tend to be small as well, so it’s no surprise that the most popular bars in both Tours (La P’tite Chose 32 rue de la Grosse Tour +33 2 4776-0009) and Orléans (Le P’tit Café 255 rue de Bourgogne +31 2/3862-5886) have the abbreviation for petite in their names.
“Trendy” bars, like Orléans’ Bel Air, (44 rue du Poirier +33 2/3877-080) featuring elaborate cocktails and modern, “urban” design are also popular with local gays. Discos, such as the venerable Le Gi (13 rue Lavoisier +33 2/4766-2996) in the heart of Tours, are strictly late-night weekend-only affairs. As they are small (by urban standards) and attract an almost exclusively local crowd, the atmosphere can be quite friendly. Male-only hard-core cruising options are limited to a handful of local saunas, such as the newly opened and very popular Savon (rue des Grand Champs at rue d’Illier +33 2/3868-1198) in the center of Orléans (saunas tend to be popular quite early, always call ahead for closing times) and the two-year-old cruising/darkroom bar Le Stud (84 rue Colbert +33 2/4766-6570) in Tours, which is named and modeled after the San Francisco Stud in its leather bar incarnation of 20 years ago.
The best way to get to the Loire is by train, with fast, frequent service to Orléans and Tours from central Paris. There is even a high-speed TGV train direct from Charles de Gaulle airport to Tours. You can arrange a rental car pickup at the train stations from any of the usual agencies. Driving is fairly effortless; the country roads are picturesque, well maintained and well marked — though a good road map is essential.
France has for years now devoted itself to becoming one of the most gay friendly travel destinations — not only Paris, with its gay neighborhoods, gay mayor and diverse and teeming gay cafés, clubs and discos — but also smaller cities, towns and the countryside have become very gay-friendly.
“It would be easier,” I remark, “To have lunch with Jacques Chirac.” We are standing outside the Pilier Sud, at the entrance to private elevator to Restaurant Jules Verne. Our way is blocked by a pleasant but stern young man, clad in all black, with a radio headset. It is a near impossibility to make a reservation at Jules Verne, the luxury restaurant on the second tier of the Tour Eiffel.
“Three months in advance” is their standard reply…and even then…I finally had a friend who works for the French Tourist Office in LA make the reservation…to her slight annoyance, as even for her it required multiple phone calls and faxes. It’s somewhat ridiculous…Le Grand Véfour, Le Cinq—great, three star restaurants—booked with a simple fax on our last trip to Paris. Anyway, even after going to such great lengths to extract a reservation, and a fax from the restaurant confirming such reservation, the Jules Verne insists that you reconfirm the reservation the day before. OK, slightly annoying, but not unheard of. Except that they never answer their telephone. Call, call, and call again, and all you get is a multi-lingual message telling you that all lines are busy and please try again in a few minutes. At the prices they charge, you’d think they could hire someone to answer the phones…or outsource it to a call center in India or something. Finally we sent them a fax. But, of course something has gone astray…our table has been canceled (and given to who I wonder, considering the difficulty of making a reservation and the impossibility of reaching them by phone. Have they a list of stand-ins at the ready?) Calls are made from the elevator desk to the restaurant upstairs; someone comes to confer with us…I wave my confirmation fax (bearing the imprint of the French Tourist Office) and Logan explains the multiple unanswered phone calls. Still the young man in black bars our entry to the private elevator lobby, snicker though he did at my comment about lunch with Jacques Chirac. Clearly this is a commonplace occurrence. Someone in authority explains that they had tried to call our hotel, unsuccessfully, that morning, and then—finally behaving in the manner one expects from such a restaurant—says, but of course we will take care of everything, please come up…
From that point on, all is pleasant. A sweet boy lifts us to the second étage in one of the tower’s uniquely slanted elevators; we can see the young and the vigorous clambering up and down the stairs as views of Paris flash in and out of sight between the steel girders. We are offered an aperitif in the bar, but already they have a table ready for us. It’s a small table…too small really for the theater of food the restaurant requires, but it is right at the window, on the best side of restaurant. All of Paris is below our table: Sacre-Coeur on its hill, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the roofs of the Madeleine and the Opera, the expanse of the Louvre, and, in the distance, the distinctive towers of Notre Dame and the brightly colored tubes of the Pompidou Center. Directly under us, on the platform below the restaurant, tourists admire the view. It is spectacular, as promised. Inside, the restaurant is all black and grey and leather—very eighties. It seems a bit, well, too eighties, though in mint condition. Logan admires the china, white with black geometric accents, eighties too, but handsome. I find the black stemmed wineglasses less successful. We have glasses of Veuve Cliquot vintage rose (€29 a glass!) Logan promptly knocks his over—25 euros spilling into my plate and lap—fortunately protected by my napkin. Fortunately our only mishap. Service is efficient, professional, but no better than most Paris restaurants. Food is fairly excellent. The à la carte menu is shockingly expensive—50 starters, €90 entrees, and up. But there is a very nice “businessman’s” lunch menu for 55 (the only thing not translated into English—Logan finds this very cunning). He and I have a starter of haddock prepared three ways: a soup that is almost entirely fish flavored air—really good; haddock tartare, and a little spinach and haddock tartlet. Abbie has a terrine of foie gras and oxtail—terrific. They have lamb for the main course—they proclaim it excellent. I have quail—deboned for the most part, and stuffed with foie gras. It is excellent. We drink two bottles of wine, a white and a Bordeaux, neither particularly expensive. Dessert is a sablé with strawberries, with custard and ice cream; and a lemon thing that Abbie had. Various little candies and cookies and truffles are brought to the table, of course. The wine waiter is cute. After lunch, we wander downstairs and out amid the milling crowds for the view of Paris from the open platform. Logan buys another cheap souvenir Tour Eiffel to add to his odd little collection. We make a waiter open the back door to the Jules Verne for us, so we can take the private elevator down. We are about the last lunch guests to leave the restaurant. The crowd was largely American; a few French people. What can I say? The view: extraordinary. The decor: fair. The service: good but not outstanding. The food: very good. The price: the prix fix lunch is a good value. Otherwise for the money, I’d go to Le Cinq, hands down.
After lunch we caught a taxi to the Louvre. I felt such a tourist, taxi-ing from monument to monument. Everyone was over-tired in the Louvre…but we saw the remounted La Gioconda—or rather the crowds around it. It is better located and better lit. They have moved the Veronese wedding feast to the other end of the room. All and all, the room looks better. They have also finished refurbishing the rooms containing the grand format paintings. These galleries look quite good. We escaped the crowds though, for the Richelieu wing and the Mesopotamian art, the French sculptures in the sunlit courts, and the medieval objects tucked away on the floor above. These galleries are essentially deserted.
This spring, without really planning to, I ended up spending 24 days in France—nine in Paris and the remainder touring the towns and countryside in a wide arc around Paris from Reims in the Northwest to Chinon in the southeast. I made two separate trips to France; the first a last-minute press trip organized by the French tourist office to promote the “Gay Friendly” Loire valley followed by a long-planned trip with my business partner (Mr. Logan) and my mother (Abbie), AKA Nonna, which took us to Paris, Chablis, Berry, and again the Loire valley. The press trip focused on the cities of Orleans, Tours and Amboise, so the only real overlap was Amboise, which I visited on both trips. A detailed and chronological account of the trip would be lengthy and unnecessary, therefore I will recount only some of the more entertaining anecdotes, such as the one above.
Our first press visit was to the Parc Floral de la Source—a large garden of a former Château that now houses offices for the university. It was chilly, and just slightly too early in the season for most of the flowers, except the tulips. The most remarkable thing a about it is that it is the source of the river Loiret—hence the name. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen the source of a river before; so somehow I always imagined something rather grand—melting glaciers or something. Here the water bubbles up out of little hole in the ground and forms a small decorative stream that runs through the rather formal garden. It looks quite artificial really. When we dined a few nights later at Les Quatre Saisons, a beautiful inn and restaurant (with very good food) which sits picturesquely on the banks of the Loiret a dozen kilometers or so outside of Orleans, the decorative little stream had become a wide and rather impressive river. I still have trouble believing all that water comes out of a little hole in the Château grounds, but I’m assured by those with a more thorough knowledge of earth sciences that this is just the way these things work.
Our guided tour of Orleans took us to the old city hall, and the rather nice Cathedral of Sainte-Croix, and of course numerous statues of Jeanne d’Arc—patron and liberator of the city in 1429. The city was preparing for the annual festival in her honor on the 8th of May, taking place a few days after we depart. Apparently, each year a local girl—a virgin of course—is chosen to play the role of Joan, and she rides into the city on a horse and then much feasting and drinking ensues. Orleans is a pleasant and compact city of (newly) cobble stoned streets and quaint buildings. It’s easily explored on your own. Except for one thing you won’t see—and this is what I love about these guided press tours—the secret entrance to the excavated medieval gate and drawbridge. We were assembled on the main square, in front of the large equestrian statue of Jeanne d’ Arc when our guide from the Orleans tourist office takes out her keyring and presses something that looks like the little device that unlocks the doors on a car. She presses a button and a three meter square of cobblestone(!) in the place du Martroi, slowly, silently, and electrically opens like a huge trap door, and out of the ground rises a steel spiral staircase. Descending the staircase to some depth, we explore the foundations of the city wall, and drawbridge gate, and medieval moat. Rather impressive. It seems it was unearthed while constructing an underground parking garage. When we exit, the whole thing is closed up at another push of a button and the massive cobblestone trapdoor disappears seamlessly into the surface of the square.
Another guided tour—this of the privately-owned Clos Lucé, the final home of Leonardo da Vinci, in Amboise. Our guide is a completely charming young man with an endearing shyness and beautiful blue eyes. I would mention his name, but he seemed so shy that I think it might embarrass him. He keeps apologizing that he only gives tours to children—perhaps afraid that a group of fully adult homosexuals may be bored with his presentation. Actually I think he was an inspired choice. They run us from place to place on these press tours, so our (or at least my) attention span often grows rather childlike; plus the Clos Lucé is the perfect place for children. It is filled with reconstructions and models of Leonardo’s inventions that you can actually play with, and has lots of interactive exhibits, all of which seem more ideally suited to children, who may become bored with the don’t touch aspects of the Châteaux and Cathedrals. Again we got an insider treat—our guide unlocked the gate in the basement of the house that provides entry into the underground tunnel that once connected the Clos Lucé with the nearby Château d’Amboise. (So that Leonardo could be visited by his patron François I without the king having to go outside.) The tunnel has mostly collapsed but a hundred meters or so of dark, damp, off-limits passageway remain. It’s rather fun to explore, in a creepy way. Fortunately, I have learned a few things while traveling, and have a flashlight in my bag!
We meet up with our guide again, unexpectedly, at the bar La P’tite Chose in Tours, at a meeting of the local gay social group. Here we have a chance to chat with him and his friends over drinks. We discover that badminton is the group’s most popular sporting activity.
I’ve decided I really like the quirky Hotel de L’Abeille—the group is split, and this is the hotel I’m not staying at. The staff is gay, and friendly, and a few of them rather cute. The rates are really cheap, around 50-70 euros per room. The lobby is comfortable and has free wifi. (Why is it that the most inexpensive hotels are likely to provide free internet, while a in a room that costs several hundred euros, they will add an additional, sometimes absurdly high, charge?) The whole decor may be aggressively over the top, but the place has character and charm. The clientele is mixed. Gay and straight couples as well as one really attractive young man on his own! Breakfast looked good. My hotel, across the street (Hotel d’Arc) is just comfortably bland. And none of the other lodging in town seems very special at all.
Andrew, one of the writers, tells us a story about the gay sauna in Orleans—the brand new Savon—which I had declined to visit on a Monday night. He said he was in the steam room with a cute French boy—apparently there was a decent crowd of two dozen or so—and he started chatting him up—fluency in French, which I definitely lack, can be an advantage. Anyway he tells us, admitting it was a totally corny pick up line—he asks the boy if he has ever had sex with an American. The boy says no. So Andrew asks “Would you like too?” To which the French boy replies, “Yes…with a young American.” A hysterical story as he told it, and that he would tell it with such relish and amusement is a good example of his personality. You should also know that besides being charming, Andrew is extremely handsome, rendering it even more amusing.
Amboise, a small, almost too cute town straddling the Loire, is a real discovery. Two beautiful, luxurious manor house hotels, at very reasonable rates for such unrestrained luxury—the Manoir des Minimes and Le Clos d’ Amboise, and a restaurant that is so fantastic—and such a bargain—as to be almost beyond belief.
The amazing dinner was at the recently opened Pavillon des Lys—8 courses for €38 euros. I have no idea how they do it. Each course was amazing. The chef/owner, Sébastien, a gay guy (which is why they put it on the itinerary, I suppose), does all the cooking alone. There are two waiters. It is a small restaurant, about nine tables (with four lavish bedrooms as well.) Dinner consisted of…
Champagne and little snacks in the garden
1. a beet and parsley cappuccino
2. foie gras and potato tart with Coteau du Layon wine
3. smoked salmon with a local Sauvignon wine
4. roasted sea bass
5. medallion of beef with (Chinon wine, I think)
6. chariot of local cheese
7. pre-desert course of little parfait and cookies
8. a chocolate mouse thing
9. a green apple clafouti with calvados ice-cream
and a glass of poire William in the salon.
hmm…seems like more that 8 courses. It was fantastic! They serve only two multi-course set menus (one vegetarian, rather a rarity) which change daily.
I immediately made reservations for my return trip with Logan and Abbie, as we would be staying nearby. Our encore dinner was equally impressive. Logan and my mother loved it. It was a warm evening, so all the tables were set up outside in the walled gravel courtyard. The indoor tables with lamps and stuff…all as formal as if in the dining room. The weather was perfect for it. We were the first to arrive (at 7:40) and the second to last to leave (at just before midnight.) Well, we spent an hour on the upstairs terrace having our coffee (or verbena) with a tiny chocolate pot de crème and waiting for the check. From the terrace there we had a postcard view of the illuminated St. Hubertus chapel, with the Château behind, as dusk turned into night. Amazing. We were the only ones invited to have our coffee up there, so didn’t we feel special? Same waiter as before (and Sebastien said hello briefly at the end of the meal). Only nine tables, but all were full. And this time only 33 euros! So it went like this:
Aperitif: Kir Vouvray pettilant with little bites: a shrimp, a tapanade, a spoon of beet, and a little glass of melon.
1: a goblet of almost pureed vegetables and herbs; a parmesan cracker
2: Foie Gras with sel gris and a tiny lettuce salad
3: Crabmeat, tomato and avocado mille fiule with a crispy pastry
4: A small filet of fish on a bed of baby peas
5: A half quail with some mushrooms and tiny root vegetables
6: Cheese from the cheese board—a long plank that it took both waiters to carry to the table (actually the cheese is a supplement to the menu, but they comped us on it.)
7: rhubarb clafouti with strawberry ice-cream
8: a glass of fresh sliced strawberries with a glass of vanilla ice cream
9: a mango parfait, a little raspberry on a cookie, a tulle cookie
Then the delicious pot de crème with coffee on the upstairs terrace
We did not drink too much, just two bottles of wine and our aperitifs. We had a light red Menetou-Salon with the first 4 courses, and a Chinon with the quail and cheese.
Oh, the Manoir Les Minimes is fabulous. It’s a grand manor house; my room is extravagant—my bathroom even has a view of the Chateau. Owned by two charming gay guys (in matching pin-striped suits!) Everything in Amboise seems to be owned by homosexuals. Even the director of the Château d’Amboise, I’m told, is gay!
At the first dinner at Pavillon des Lys, after everyone had made their selections from the enormous Chariot du Fromage, one of the writers remarked that he had selected an particularly pungent (I believe his descriptions was stinky) cheese. Christophe remarked casually, not really as an explanation, that the cheese in question was from Alsace. Except that in giving a correct French pronunciation to that region of Eastern France, it sounded like “It comes from Al’s ass.” That got everyone’s attention, and much merriment ensued. It took Christophe a few seconds to understand what all the laughter was about.
A nice tour of Tours—excuse the obvious pun. It’s one of the larger cities of the Loire, and a big university town. Lots and lots of students. A cute half-timbered medieval quarter with lots of crowded sidewalk bar/cafes. The ruins of the enormous Basilica of St. Martin of Tours—now the city streets run right through the footprint of the giant church; only a couple towers remain. A new, much smaller, 19th century basilica was built during the religious revival to house the relics. I was the only member of the group who wanted to see his relics—so our guide took me to the reliquary under the alter while the rest of the group had coffee. Two interesting stops on the tour that I would have never discovered on my own: We visited a traditional silk weaving factory where they still weave fabric by hand on 18th century looms. For historical restorations I presume, as it is a tremendously expensive process. Apparently it is the only surviving weaver from the time when Tours was the Royal silk weaving city. The fabrics are beautiful—but even the spools of thread were astonishingly beautiful—they glowed with an almost internal light. We also visited an artisanal baker, where all the bread is made by hand and baked in a traditional, pre-WWII brick oven—one of the few surviving in France. Really good bread—in a country of good bread—but a dying artform in an age of more modern, mass production techniques. Anyway the brick oven is essential to the perfect texture of the soft interior and crisp crust of the breads at Veiux Four.
Christophe (our host from the LA office of the Maison de France) wore his “Sophie” (The Doyle/Logan Company logo and mascot) T-shirt to dinner last night. It was sweet. I had been wearing mine occasionally during the trip—I brought both, as they are black (I travel in black, it’s just one less decision to make.) The business card, I realize from this, is very successful—everyone remembers the dog logo “Oh I have your card, I remember the dog!”
Sadly the only word that adequately describes dinner is ‘ridiculous.’ Yes, you can have a bad meal in Paris—even an expensive bad meal. It was good that we were, by then, tired of eating. Christophe was a bit sad, because it was our last dinner, and it was a disaster; but really, the place was so absurd as to be amusing. It is a “trendy” restaurant. Well just that word is enough to set off alarm bells for me, and for Andrew too. Christophe says that some “trendy” restaurants in Paris are quite good, and fun, and I have no reason to doubt him. He’d never been here before. I’m rather sure he won’t be back. It was the Cantine du Faubourg…a very big place, in the basement of a building in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. Well, already it was trying too hard to be trendy. Orange plastic T-rex’s on the stairs going down. Gauzy curtains. Cool, modern, straight edged furniture and goofy lamps. Actually it was kind of pretty, in a sort of LA, sort of just past being trendy, way. And the clientele was not trendy—pretentious, plastic surgeried, breast enhanced, yes—but trendy, no. I thought they might all be people who made a lot of money in illegal activities. Mixed with just plain rich people from the neighborhood. Anyway, all this is forgivable…but as a restaurant, the place was a disaster. We were seated….early, 8pm, there was only one, maybe two other tables occupied in this huge space. We ordered drinks. They never came. We waited and waited. Finally the waitress came and told Cristophe that they couldn’t do drinks because “the computer was down” but we could have wine instead. We said “fine”…but got a good laugh out of that. Then, mysteriously and without explanation, our drink order (just slightly wrong) arrived. We were offered a very limited menu. Some kind of shrimp starter and chicken skewers or tuna steak for a main course. The little filo wrapped shrimp things were fine—they were served for no reason on long tiles, which didn’t really fit on the table. The mains they mixed up…I got chicken instead of tuna, but both were said to be equally insipid, so I didn’t miss much. The chicken on a stick was just that…coated with some kind of spice and served with noodles that Christophe aptly described as “bland”. The tuna came over-cooked (not very trendy!) and with a pyramid of instant rice! The harried, clearly unskilled waitress had to bring all the dishes to the table, two at time, unassisted, while dozens of staff did nothing but glide elegantly around the room, looking beautifully detached. Honestly, the place had an enormous staff—all very pretty, dressed in all black or all white outfits—but they did absolutely nothing but swan around the room, looking pretty. Dessert was decent; red fruits and lemon sorbet. The PR director—a fabulously dressed black woman, came over to greet us and deliver an obviously insincere “anything you need just ask” speech. The highlights of the restaurant it seems, are that they change the interior decoration twice a year, and that they will send a car to pick you up and bring you to the restaurant! It is probably the only way they can get anyone in the door. Yet it was quite full when we left at eleven. We had a good laugh about it, and as I said, as we were still full from our very nice lunch, it hardly mattered. Perhaps it was even better at that point to have an amusing story.
(That really good lunch, by the way, was at L’Ecluse St. Honoré, one of a small chain of wine bars featuring Bordeaux wine and simple, excellent food. As it was a very hot day, we were served two cold courses, both excellent, and a dessert. All the while we were entertained with amusing stories by Patricia Deckmyn, the exceedingly charming and witty ‘Ambassadress’—public relations director—of the restaurant.)
We sit in a café on the Rue de Rivoli, because my mother wanted a croque monsieur. It’s an inexpensive neighborhood café and tabac—The Jean-Bart—with nothing to call attention to it and consequently devoid of tourists. I’d been here before; the food is good and it is remarkably cheap for Paris. It’s pretty busy on a Friday night, and we’ve snagged a sidewalk table at the very end. Service is slow, but the atmosphere is festive. At the table next to us, separated only by the space of the doorway, are three French boys. They are drinking a bottle of rose from coca-cola glasses, smoking, talking on their mobile phones. They are dressed in the international style of youth: baggy jeans, an expanse of boxer shorts showing, one expensive designer accessory each, casually worn. The prettiest one—though it’s a close contest, sports a Gucci belt. One is rather hyperactive, always leaping up, leaving the table, going off for extended periods. The other two are far more languid. They slouch in their wicker chairs, opposing sides of the tiny cafe table, legs entwined. They might be gay. They might not. Clearly they are no older than 17, probably younger. Clearly they are enjoying their evening on the town; the wine, the cigarettes, the casual interaction with the waiter, the calls to friends on the mobile phones. It’s a scene I can’t imagine in America, and I can’t but feel that the lack of such casual, and innocent, adult fun is somehow detrimental to developing responsible, well-rounded adult personalities. The waiter, himself about 20, faux-hawked and cute mainly because he tries so hard, is friendly and funny despite the crowd and the frantic pace it demands. A young man stops at my table and asks for a cigarette—not for him, but for his girlfriend, who laughs and remains shyly in the background, clearly embarrassed. Her boyfriend is gregarious and clearly unembarrassed, or if he is conceals it completely with bluster and good cheer. I proffer her one of my Galois and light it and he kisses me on the cheek and she, laughing, says “merci, merci.” The boys, two now, abandoned again by their manic friend, stare languidly into each others’ eyes, whisper secrets, smoke their own cigarettes.
Logan, always the culinary adventurer, ate a pigs foot (deep fried and admittedly tasty, if bony) at Brasserie Flo in Reims, and a plate of horse tartar (which I declined to try, but which he declared the best tartare ever) at a sidewalk bistro in Bourges. I’ll refrain from the “I’m so hungry…” jokes.
Open ateliers in Belleville (an artsy Paris neighborhood). Very crowded. Too many children—not really the children I mind so much as the attendant strollers, chariots, etc. which consume so much space. Followed about the same route as we did two years ago. Saw perhaps ten percent of the open studios. A few very good artists…nice etchings, a few nice painters. I had the idea that it would be great to do an annual Belleville/LA show…bring the works of the ten best artists to LA for a group show. The work is cheap…the artists almost all unknown. Much of it would be hugely popular in LA. Some of the work is really good…and we saw only a fraction. Belleville is fascinating. Deteriorating buildings opening into magical, spacious courtyards. Wonderful restorations hidden here and there. A fascinating neighborhood of terrific, ungentrified, raw spaces. Dilapidated, but not at all dangerous (at least it seems so). Is there any place like it in LA, I wonder, or even in Amsterdam. Lively too, as there are shops and cafes; Chinese and Jewish restaurants. Ugly sixties high-rise housing too, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Hilly, unusual for Paris; an ancient aqueduct; an abandoned rail line. Secret courtyards and amazing raw space.
Renting the car in Paris (from Avis—the best choice I think in France) was more trouble and time consuming than renting at a provincial train station. The girl that helped us was obviously new, and took forever. She wanted to see out plane tickets! Said it was an Avis requirement…I had never heard that one before—the rental agency was at a train station, and I had arrived in Paris, as often, by train, I’m not sure what I would have produced! Fortunately I had my itinerary and my e-ticket computer printout with me, as they were in my passport case. I thought they might want to see my passport…but she didn’t ask for that. Rented many Avis cars in France and it always takes like five minutes…in Dijon or Orleans…but at Paris Gare de Lyon it was a big production. The staff not even bilingual…good thing Logan was along to help me with all their questions. Really, I have always just shown them my reservation and they’ve tossed me the keys! Surprisingly, driving in Paris was the easiest part. Drove back to the hotel, then out of town, with no problem, no getting lost, no real traffic. But I’d take the train out of town just to avoid the Paris rent-a-car location.
The Hotel Crystal, in Reims, is unchanged, and Madame Jentet seemed younger than ever. Surprised, when I greeted her by name…but quickly recovered and didn’t let on that she didn’t have a clue who I was…but I would not expect her to remember me from our brief meeting seven years ago! We visited the Cathedral, of course. Had dinner at the Brasserie Flo. The restaurant we had planned, and had been to before, Au Petit Comptoir, was closed on Monday. After dinner Logan and I had a walk and visited the tiny Lesbigay Bar! It was predictably dead at midnight on Monday, but kind of cute. A silly boy bartender sang along with the CD’s. I had gone into the tourist office in Reims earlier as a kind of test (are regional tourist offices gay friendly even if you are not on a gay tour?) and asked the girl at the desk about gay clubs. She didn’t bat an eye, tried to find some information and marked this place on the map. Turns out it is listed in the general tourist guide as well. She said from there I could find information on everything else. I guess there is a disco, but I didn’t bother asking about that for a Monday night!
The Hostellerie des Clos, in tiny Chablis, hadn’t changed much either. Comfy cheap rooms combined with fancy expensive dinners. Had a walk around the town, to the church that is always closed, then dinner in the hotel restaurant. Set menu for €52 euros…white and green asperges, salmon-trout, veal liver, cheese, strawberry and chocolate dessert. Two bottles of Chablis and one bottle of Banyuls with dessert and after. Quite drunk on the Banyuls; it has a very high alcohol content; delicious with chocolate though. Ate at the hotel restaurant the second night too…a la carte, so it cost twice as much! Oyster and crayfish terrine and then a pigeon. Logan had morels stuffed with foie gras and sweetbreads. Abbie had green asparagus with truffles and then scallops. I have no idea how much money we spent there…I don’t want to know…but the set menu is a much better deal; of course it always is. We were going to eat the second night in the restaurant in the village of St. Bris that we discovered on out previous trip, but found it is both closed on Wednesdays and under a new owner—so who know if it is still good…it couldn’t be as unique and special as before, anyway. A strange note though…everything in the Yonne region seems to be closed on Wednesdays! Both restaurants we wanted to go to, the market across from the hotel—it just seems a very strange day for everything to close. Also in the Yonne, the churches are never open…where as in the rest of France they just leave the doors open all day so you can wander in and have a look about. Anyway, spent our second day in Chablis driving around on tiny roads and stopping in cute tiny towns. Visited the Abbaye church at Pontigny…I didn’t remember it until we got inside; it is really beautiful in its starkness. I remembered it then, and recalled my photos of it. Ended the day in Auxerre, visiting the Abbaye there, St. Germain, a quite beautiful church and cloister done up with very high tech lighting and museum installations. Tour of the crypt with (9th? 10th?) century frescos…anyway, supposedly the oldest in France. Also visited the Cathedral of St. Etienne; strangely more impressive on the outside than in, even though the exterior was extensively scaffolded. They do have a reliquary with some bones of St. Steven (he of the stoning) behind the altar.
The Hostelerie des Clos is very comfortable with reasonably priced rooms. No-hassle, free wifi internet. Very beautiful public areas and courtyard. The whole town of Chablis seemed to be getting a makeover—restored streets of medieval buildings and a new fancy hotel and new fancy restaurant being prepared to open. It seems it has become something of a real tourist destination since our last visit. Logan theorizes that the magazine article in “Saveur” which led us there three years ago started a trend.
Drove today on very tiny roads from Chablis to Briare, to see the pont-canal. It is very impressive. A beautiful piece of very elegant 19th century engineering. Very, very long too, as it crosses an extremely wide section of the Loire as well as the 16th century shipping canal that runs alongside it. It’s very strange to see this long bridge of water crossing a river. Funny too, to think that when it was built, in the late 19th century, it was already obsolete. Canal shipping, so vital for centuries, had already been replaced by the railroads. Strangely, no one was at the canal itself, except a group of Dutch students.
Lovely here at the Château de la Verrerie, as always. Arrived in the early afternoon and walked around the grounds—it was quite hot today. Logan and I borrowed bikes (in rather poor repair) and cycled around the grounds a bit. Visited the chapel—which is more beautiful inside than I remembered, with lovely paintings on the wooden ceiling. I love it here, because it is like staying in a private home—albeit a very, very grand private home. They have wifi here now, too…the only problem is that it doesn’t penetrate the thick stone walls…so you basically have to go down to the office to connect. Also they charge 10 euro for the password to the network (good forever we are told…although how much time does one spend at La Verrerie!) which I think is just silly. Nice dinner at the restaurant on the grounds, La Maison d’Helene. More white asparagus, as it is the season. And strawberries, which are uniformly outstanding. Logan ordered the most expensive Sancerre on the menu (57 euros) justifying it by saying it would cost three times as much in LA. We had a red Fixin (burgundy) too. The wine bill for this trip is going to be huge…I don’t even want to know about it. The Chablis was very good of course. We played several games of Cluedo in the lounge after!
A Saturday morning visit to the pretty village of St-Aignan. It was very busy, and it turned out that Saturday was market day. A fun market in the center of town with meat, vegetables, cheese, etc. Really cool Romanesque church with a crypt full of medieval frescoes. Impressive hilltop (private) chateau. We drove from there to Civrey, to the pleasant Hostelerie du Château de l’Isle and settled in early. We switched Abbie’s upstairs room for the one she had before in the little woodshed annex. She likes it; no stairs and a stall shower. It’s the cheapest room they have, and only used, I think, for overflow. There is a nice new glass pavilion where they serve dinner. They only have one menu per night…I can’t say I remember exactly what it was…though I do remember enjoying it. I got a kick out of Logan asking our teen waiter for advice on which of the old Vouvray wines was best. (He had a definite opinion though.) We had a Vouvray and, I think a Touraine red. We were the last diners in the dining room—a sudden rainstorm had blown in during dinner, and the rain was drumming down on the roof.
Discovered Loches, a pretty little town with an impressive castle-like chateau (small manor house, interesting church, donjon, intact walls with only one gate) and saw the sights. Interesting in that there were basically no tourists. Churches were busy in the morning (surprisingly so, until we realized it was mother’s day in France). But it seems no one visits Loches. What a contrast to Chenonceau! An amusing sight: two carefully marked handicapped parking spaces closest to the foot of a long staircase leading up to the Château gate! We also visited a ruined Abbeye on the opposite side of the river. Then I drove to Montresor, just because it was nearby and Logan loves it so. We sat in that same café (Café de la Ville) and had a little wine and shared a gigantic salad of meat (it was just after lunchtime). Then Logan and I went for a walk…he saw an empty house for sale, right on the little river that runs along the village, so we noted the phone number! It is all very pretty. Visited the little gothic church that was built as a funerary chapel! Talk about a nice tomb!
No trouble finding our hotel in tiny Chinon, and got lucky with a legal parking place just across the narrow street. The Hotel Gargantua—after the character by Rabelais; it’s not that it’s so large. In fact it’s a rather quirky, family run hotel, in an old (16th century) renaissance house. Pretty cool actually. Right in the center of town. Great view of the Château de Chinon. Nice big room and very low prices. The other nice, inexpensive hotel in town, the Diderot, seems a bit swankier and a bit more professional; it’s bigger and in a 19th century building with a cute garden. A toss up perhaps. Dinner was good, we ate in the dining room because of the variable weather, though it had stopped raining and was warming up again. (The next night they were serving dinner on their terrace, which seemed really pleasant.) That night though, we ate at Au Plaisir Gourmand, for our gourmet meal. We got the best table. Abbie had a lobster salad which was great. Logan had veal sweetbreads and kidneys. I had a menu—crab terrine, lotte in verbena, duck breast, strawberries. It was good, as always, but not as good as Pavillon des Lys—where both the food and the setting (outdoors in the courtyard, with coffee on the upstairs terrace) were magical—and cheaper!
We drove to Candes St-Martin to see the old, partially fortified church. It’s been fixed up a bit. We just went for a drive after that…up the Loire to Saumur, and past, to a little town that Logan remembered—where we visited another church. Took a much quicker road, on the other side of the river, back to Chinon. Good luck in finding our same parking space. We spent the afternoon shopping in Chinon (shoes, pastries—langues des femmes, pates de fruits—an extra duffel bag!) We sat in the pretty square and had some coffee and water.
Last night in France, back in Paris. We did a bit of last minute shopping in the Marais—somehow the thought of leaving brings out the desire to buy things. We had dinner at C’Amelot on the rue Amelot in the nearby 11th. They have the one menu per night. It was a cold pea soup with mint (delicious); monkfish; and pigeon with polenta. Abbie wouldn’t eat the pigeon, though she declared the polenta excellent. I’m sure she had enough to eat, and Logan and I split her pigeon. The one choice you have there is dessert: she had the best, a strawberry granita with strawberries and cream; Logan’s was second-best, a warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream. And mine was good: warm cherries with a (fennel? very subtle) ice cream. We walked back to the hotel, the convenient and very inexpensive Sevigné, across from the St-Paul metro station. It’s actually a short walk. Logan was tired, but I wanted to visit the bar Andy Wahloo, where I had been taken once by my Parisian friend Mafoud, so I walked over there and had a glass of wine. I’m glad I saw it again. I really like it….fun atmosphere, comfortable, cute waiters. A nice end to the trip, as we won’t count the Aéroport Charles de Gaulle!—Clay Doyle
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.