Friday, April 26, 2013

The News from the Loire

Stoney and I in front of Chateau d'Usse

Sitting in the room at Le Prieure, which is an old priory 40 meters above the Loire and the little town of Chenehutte les Tuffaux. Our view of the river below, the little green island in the center, and the medieval village across the way is lovely, if stormy, with lowering clouds.

Location on map of Le Prieure

But the major point of all this, folks, is, we freakin did it! That's right! High fives all around, but especially to my husband Stoney, who biked 235 kilometers over five days of sometime late winter weather, and sometime early summer. He hadn't been able to do the training he wanted due to a torn hip labrum, which sounds painful because it is. He also has a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, whatever the heck that really is, and exercise-related asthma. He is a brave soldier, a trooper. And I think he even enjoyed it quite a bit.

The day billed as moderate, from Montbazon to Luynes, was not as bad as we feared. Really the climbs on the first day, up and down through farmland and forest from Montlouis back to Amboise, were worse. But we were helped by the fact that Wednesday was nice and sunny, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The route along the Indre river, beside green marshes and mills, through small medieval towns with houses and barns made of rough stone, with steep pitched roofs and gothic limestone details, was something out of a Constable painting, if he'd painted France. And it had some of the most evocative and dramatic chateaus of the entire trip.

View from inside Azay-le-Rideau

First we came upon Azay-le-Rideau, a Renaissance chateau with pointed turrets and flamboyant tracery that seems to float over its own reflecting pool. The various rooms are furnished in tapestries and furniture from different eras ranging from the 1500s to the 1800s, and are lined with portraits of the various owners over the centuries. In the attic you can see the wooden structure, which is not only beautiful, but proves that there were some pretty amazing engineers building things in the France of the 1500s. There are displays on the local textiles, tapestries in mint condition, and enough stunning views to fuel years and years of interesting dreams.

Chateau Langeais - see the drawbridge?
View from inside the keep of Langeais

Wednesday's second chateau was Langeais, which was introduced to us through a dramatic ride across a river through a twentieth century bridge styled with turrets to look medieval. The chateau of Langeais is massive, its heavy gray towers looming huge and forbidding over the smaller half-timbered and limestone-faced storefronts below. It evokes a sense of awe that one has to experience to believe. And I don't think it would have the same effect if we had approached it enclosed in the metal and glass compartment of a car. On the bike, you can crane your neck back and gawk at the castle as you roll toward it. Biking to these sights, as Stoney has said, gives you the ultimate cinematic tracking shot as you arrive. In a car, much of the view would be obstructed, and the experience would be truncated, too quick to savor.

And the Loire should definitely be savored. It is so full of chateaus, and other surprising things, like the troglodyte villages along the river, these little towns half in caves, carved from the soft white limestone, and sometimes faced with gothic turreted castle-like fronts. We wheeled our bikes into one, and it just blew us away. I have seen drawings and paintings of little gothic villages cut into rocky ridges, with sweet small windows topped by flattened ogee arches, gnomish caves leading deep into the earth. Surely, I used to think, these are just imaginative illustrations for fantasy fiction. Not so. Those places really exist. And I've seen them.

Stoney and I in front of Eglise Candes St. Martin

I could, and probably will, write an entire post on why touring by bike rocks, and is my preferred method of discovering new places. For us, it turned out that 30 miles per day was about right, even in rolling terrain. We enjoyed being challenged by the hills, and the length of time spent on the magical velocipede. I think we probably averaged five hours per day on the bike, because we took it slow, pacing ourselves. And because we wanted to go slowly and really see everything. Even with that, we had a nice sit-down lunch and still got to see at least two major sites per day. But also, having to endure some aches and pains, having to keep finding enough water and food to keep us topped off was a nice way to keep us connected with our most basic selves, and to feel like we were accomplishing things daily, overcoming obstacles in a pleasurable doable fashion. And doing all of this together.

I will tell you, though, that my cranking on Rosetta Stone French since October, and my mostly forgotten 7 years of French, didn't go amiss. In Montlouis-sur-Loire, a place with its own wine appellation quite close to Vouvray, the waitress told me she spoke not a word of English because she was terrible at languages. I am pretty good at them, and I kept being very grateful about that on this trip. Stoney says my facility with language is my superpower. I probably have just enough French to be dangerous, but I think the key is to try speaking the local language, as a way of showing respect to the natives. They really seem to appreciate it.

Another bonus of going by bike is you get to see foliage and greenery you would miss inside a car. As an example, I stopped for a nature break and nearly stepped into a patch of leafy greens that I'd been seeing for a while beside the wheels of my bike, along with some other somewhat familiar things like chive flowers, mustard flowers, buttercups, borage, and I'm not sure what else. The foliage passing by on this trip has looked at times like flipping pages in Culpepper's Herbal. Just in time, I realized the reason I recognized those particular leaves was that they were nettles, which sting if they touch your skin. Disaster averted, and sense of wonder achieved. I remember from a time when herbalism interested me several years ago that nettles make a healthy tea purportedly to help with feminine complaints, but they must be parboiled first, to remove the sting. Along the bike routes of France in April are all kinds of useful and pretty herbs, growing healthy and green and wild. Our path was strewn with flowers. Come on. That's just plain awesome. And you'd never have that experience by auto.

I have another entire day to talk about, which started in Chinon and ended just downriver from Saumur, the biggest town we've hit so far on the bike. Saumur is full of wineries, with free tastings. As we were 6k from our hotel, we thought better of this, but we have been buying a bottle of wine a day to bring back to the hotel in our panniers, which has saved us lots of hotel surcharges, and made us feel adventurous. To talk about the different kinds of wine in this area would require another post. I'll give it a shot down the road. The wine here is very good, and probably hard to find at home.

View from the Keep of Chinon

I'll save the Chinon day and more details for future posts. It's almost time to get ready for another insanely fancy hotel meal. Hey, it's included.

Cheers from the Loire! :)

Joan of Arc in Chinon


No comments:

Post a Comment