I was in the Loire area the first time in June or July 2005. I had an entry from page 251 of my memoire, and here is an extract, “I was in the La Loire area surrounded by countless chateaux, often referred to and quite rightly so as the Valley of the Kings. For this was where generations of kings and queens had lived, wielded or lost power, loved or lost their love, wives, women, chateaux and even their lives, and died. The place is so rich with history, culture and heritage that the French government has seen it fit to declare all the chateaux in the area, except those in private ownership, as national monuments many of which are also under UNESCO jurisdiction. But first, how I ended up in France after Chicago.
(In April 2005,) I ran into this friend who was planning a holiday for his family in France from the day the Convention would end. He and his wife would meet up their two children in London before joining Josephine who resides in France and who was drawing up a visit plan to various chateaux around the Loire Valley. My friend promised me that between him and Josephine in France, whom I know as well but whom I had not met for a while, they would do all the leg work and planning, so that my part would entail nothing more than preparing to enjoy myself. I could deal with that, I thought, and so I ended up in France after Chicago.
The plan was to meet in Tours, which was in the middle of La Loire, along which river bank most of the historical chateaux are sited. Getting to Tours proved to be quite a challenge: from Chicago, I flew to Paris, where I took a TGV to St Pierre des Corps before catching a connecting local train to Tours. I met up with the parties eventually and on time, but not entirely in a straightforward manner. First, I found myself sitting through a delay of two and a half hours in Chicago because of water pressure in the first plane before moving onto a second. Then I learnt that Terminals 1 and 2 in Paris CDG Airport were not exactly next door or within walking distance, so that I had to lug my bags between trains and platforms.
Well, all is well that ends well. Josephine and the family did do most of the work. All I did was taking up some driving and ordering wines for the meals, which I could handle with grace. The trip has given me new ideas on how to plan future travels. More importantly, I find that I can handle those re-visits I mentioned earlier. They were all pleasant memories which no one ought to refuse or avoid.”
Fast forward 18 years after that first visit, my sentiments and reading on La Loire and the chateaux haven’t changed much, but this time, I was the sole driver and hence under more pressure. I am a lot older and the circumstances had changed. I had kept notes on the phone during the breaks to keep the immediacy and the flavour, which reflects mind formation and the mind and not necessarily the present moment that one should be living in. I would begin with the train journey out of Gare La Rochelle.
I would break up the journeys up into blocks to make the blogs more readable.
The train arrived Saint Pierre Des Corps at 3:50pm on the dot, and Su arranged the leave-train operation with military precision, aided by passengers boarding the train from the platform for Paris. They were motivated to assist in order that they would get on the train on time, for the train won’t stay at the platform long and we had plenty of luggage to off-load. The car hire shop – Sixt – was just a walk-across. We took a BMW 320 Dissel and began a sharp learning curve for all three of us. No sooner had we got out of the carpark and before hitting the highways, a large white car on our right bumped into the car in its front, causing a slight traffic jam. We drove off thanking God that we were all safe. It could have been us that the car bumped into. Then it began to pour, rather hard, but again, thank God we got to the small town Azay-le-Rideau. It was still raining, though subsided a bit when we arrived and we couldn’t park anywhere. At one time, we were running in circles. Eventually, Su volunteered to walk to the hotel for assistance. She came back in about 20 minutes with a key card for hotel parking. We decided to make our way to the hotel after off-loading the bags at the nearest corner, before taking the car into the car park the hotel had reserved for us. We then checked in, claimed two rooms. We took Rm 17 Descartes on the ground floor while Mei-Mei took another on the first floor. I freshened up and started to drive to the restaurant L’Etape Gouurmande, which was in wild country, with conflicting GPS instructions. The good news was: it had stopped raining; the sky was clear; traffic was light; and we got there OK for a good meal. The bad news was the return journey. It was a bit scary, to put it mildly. It was later than we had expected; the sun had gone down; the roads were narrow with no street lights; and the GPS in the car was not always responding or reliable. To start with, it had recommended that we drove at 80kph, which would not be practical or sensible. We had even a more challenging time the following evening when we went for dinner at Auberge ½ Eme at Sache. Once again, the outward journey was barely OK, but the dinner took longer than we had planned for, implying that the return trip was even more scary and potentially dangerous than the evening before. It was an experience that I would rather not have. Lest I am misunderstood or have sent out the wrong signals, I should add that the two dinners were exceptionally good value and extremely enjoyable, for which Su should claim most of the credit. The ladies had tried their best to navigate the journeys and had shared the risks together.
The next day, we went for our first chateau visit – Chateau Villandry which was a main reason why we had visited Loire in the first place. It featured a well-maintained chateau and very well-manicured gardens with one thousand years of history, spanning the Middle Ages, Renaissance and more recent additions from the 18th century onwards to present day. It is easily one of the most worth-visiting chateaux in Loire; and the weather was near perfect during our visit. It only began to drizzle as we drove off. Since Villandry was so close to our hotel Biencourt, we drove back and had a picnic lunch on the benches of a sitting out area within sight of the hotel.
Let me now put on the record a few words on this hotel on Rue Balzac at Azay-le-Rideau. We met the Manager Thomas the afternoon we arrived who was extremely helpful. He told us that we could use the rather spacious sitting out area outside our Rm 17 as our exclusive living room, at least for the evenings. I took the invitation literally and somehow left my vest on a sofa overnight after coffee and a few drinks. We slept late the first night and by breakfast time, our living room was open to other guests, but Thomas very thoughtfully had my vest kept in his office before I could take it back to our room. Similarly, he offered to let us use the hotel garage for a few more hours after we had checked out, at no extra cost, so that we could walk the signature chateau next door – Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, which we did; and very importantly, he kept Su’s favourite scarf, again in his office, which she had left in the room as we checked out, inadvertently, which she very gratefully collected from Thomas when we went back to collect the car for the last time.
Turning to Chateau D’Azay-le-Rideau, it is billed as one of the most beautiful Renaissance architectural marvels along the Loire Valley. The original architect had skillfully combined French architecture with Italian and Flemish influences, to which later architects further enhanced and embellished, bringing it to its present day architectural perfection and its admirable appearance. Indeed, the Chateau is an iconic symbol of the Renaissance.
We moved out from the small township for Tours around 2pm and arrived Tours just before 5pm, after taking a detour to visit Domaine de Cande which featured a chateau in which the Duke of Windsor had his wedding with Simpson in 1937 after giving up his kingdom. The property was then owned by a French American billionaire who was a great friend of the Duke. It took us great effort to locate the chateau; and we were not helped by the GPS. Su finally got direction from a soldier in uniform who spoke perfect English at an outpost nearby.
And that was how we spent the first three days and two nights at the Loire Valley.