Thursday, June 25, 2015

Loire Valley, France: Let's Play Château Bingo!

It took us just a couple of hours to get beyond the suburban sprawl of our camp outside of Paris, and two days to reach the Loire Valley at the town of Orléans.  Along the way were miles and miles of wheat, potato, flax and corn fields irrigated by large sprinklers disgorging a jacuzzi’s share of water with each stroke.  Once we were in the valley it was flat and the roads busy with traffic.  We were on track for an early arrival into camp, but the threatening skies of the morning let loose with episodes of rain.  We sought refuge once in a half-finished garage, once under a cherry tree, and once under the canopy of a car wash.  We had our tent up just before one final gift from the sky.  We have had so little rain on this trip that we did not mind this little inconvenience, and once it cleared we had sun and puffy clouds for the next week while we made our way west along the Loire River.
The very wide bridge we crossed to reach the other side of the Loire River and our campground in Beaugency.
The Loire River flows from east to west where it meets the Atlantic Ocean west of Nantes.  It has long been an important geographic feature dividing northern and southern France.  Initially it was an important transport route for the Roman Gauls, and they built fortresses with walls, keeps and moats from the 9th to 11th centuries to ward off the Vikings.  During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) it marked the boundary of fighting between the English and French.  After that it became “the place to be” for French nobility and the elite, and the fortresses got upgrades and more chateaux got built as an expression of wealth and power. 

Within the valley hundreds of châteaux remain, some public, most private, and for a fee you can get close and maybe inside a few.  The first two days we did short rides to a campground, set up our tent around noon, and then cycled, unburdened, to a castle.  We visited first Château de Chambord, touted as the largest and grandest in the Loire Valley.  It was quite impressive, with the most intriguing double-helix staircase and symmetrical layout reputedly (but not proven) to be designed by Leonardo de Vinci, who spent the last three years of his life in the Loire Valley. And so many fireplaces -- 365 we were told.  It must have been a cold place as the fireplaces were huge.  We have seen piles of stored logs all through the valley, and it puzzled me that they were cut in such big pieces, four to five feet long.  And then it clicked...they were sized for one of those château fireplaces!  No wonder Europe was deforested.
Postcard-perfect Château de Chambord!
The double-helix center staircase, reputedly designed by Leonardo de Vinci.

The towers of Chambord.
Another in the series of nuclear castles of France.
Our second visit was to Château de Cheverny, which has been in the same family for the last six centuries.  They still live in one wing and the other wing is fully furnished and open for viewing.  So many beautiful antiques.  But it was not hard to return to our simple collection of possessions that define our travel lifestyle.  We stayed an extra day in Cellettes at the municipal campground.  Not just to rest, but because it had all of what was best of these campgrounds run by the local town.  It was small, quiet, and green, with only three or four other campers, and cheap -- 10 euros a night.  The manager had placed fresh flowers in the vases in the bathrooms and dish-washing area.  Next to the campground was the city tennis courts and the separating wall was used by kids to practice hitting balls.  Despite the chain-link extension at the top of the 20-foot wall, balls would sail over regularly.  We would pick them up and throw them back over, and shortly after we would hear a cute little “merci”.

Château de Cheverny is nicely balanced, not having suffered from additions and modifications by multiple owners.
Not my style, but interesting to see.

Chateau de Chesney still has a kennel of hunting dogs.  We arrived around feeding time, so they were a bit animated.

Our "petite château" at the campground where we could cook and blog protected from the elements.
Once we left Cellettes we were on and off of a cycle route known as EuroVelo 6.  It is possible to follow this route from the Atlantic Ocean across France,, through Germany along the Danube, and cross multiple other countries to end up at the Black Sea.  Only limited portions are completely dedicated to bikes, but otherwise it follows small roads, and intersections are well-marked with directions and distances to the next town.  The Loire Valley section of the route is very popular and we passed many groups of touring cyclists, most with just enough baggage to stay overnight in a hotel.  We chose to break free of the route often to seek out other notable chateaux, just to get a look at the outside and get a photo.  And so began the game of Château Bingo!

The château in Amboise where Leonardo de Vinci lived the last three years of his life.  He crossed the Alps to get here riding a donkey and carrying the Mona Lisa.  Bingo!
Little did we know that some of the sites have an entrance fee just to get onto the grounds.  The buildings are hidden by hedges and the only view might be between the bars of a gate.  So some were winners and others not.  The biggest score was the Château de Chenonceau.  This château is notable because it is built on a foundation with arches that span the Cher River.  We could get nowhere near the front for a view on the north side.  But all the glamor shots we have seen of the structure looked across from the south side, so we rode our bikes along the river to the nearest bridge, crossed over, and then found a dirt path that followed the south bank.  And soon enough the castle came in view, and we had a great unobstructed view of the whole thing! 
Château de Chenonceau...Bingo!

An amazing number of flying buttresses on the cathedral in Tours.  We were lucky to wander inside as an organist was rehearsing.  We sat and listened to those pipes fill the space with Bach and Stravinsky.

Strong guys holding up the city hall in Tours.

Another perfect day along the Loire River.

Just a hedge-obstructed view of Château de Villandry.  No bingo here.

We cycled well out of our way to see Chateau de Azzy-le-Rideau only to see its front shrouded for renovations through the bars of the front gate. Another zero bingo.

Chateau de Uzze along our route...Bingo!

Just another roadside château, on the way to the town of Saumur...Bingo!

Morning light on Chateau de Brissac...Bingo!

Our last campsite along the Loire, with laundry boy doing his chores.
The châteaux are lovely, but the Loire Valley is also region of industry and agriculture.  Manufacturing facilities and nuclear plants dot the river’s shore.  Corn and wheat fields cover the valley flanks.  And vineyards are extensive...we have developed a certain fondness for cabernet franc.  Unfortunately, since we have no way to chill a bottle we have only been buying reds.  I think coming back to explore the white wines is a good enough reason to come back again someday, don’t you think?
Can't resist one more anonymous château seen while rolling down the road.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paris, France: Sightsensing

This post is a bit long in text and images, so hopefully you will make it to the end.  This blog includes what I most want to share with my mother, so I dedicate this one to her so she can get a sense of Paris through us.

More than a few of you reading this have been to France. And if you have been to France, you likely have been to Paris. And now we have been, too.  For us the city was a bit overwhelming for all the senses. So accompanying the photos below is a summary of our impressions grouped by touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.

We spent four days in the city and one day in Versailles. We camped in a suburb approximately 40 kilometers south of Paris and purchased a multi-day transit pass that allowed unlimited use of buses, regional trains into the city and metro lines within the city. So by 8:00am we were queued up on the train platform with the other commuters. By the time we transfered to the metro it was peak time, and we were elbow to elbow with Parisians, jostling through the dark subway tubes. Standing was often the only option, squeezed in like sardines. But the French people are polite, we weren’t pushed or shoved. Standing on a moving metro car is an act of balance, and I gripped onto the poles and overhead rails without hesitation, but John avoided those germ magnets and stayed upright in the subway cars like a surfer on a wave.

Riding the metro was nothing compared to visiting Versailles. We took our bikes onto the regional train, and cycled a short distance to fabulous gilded gate. We knew it would be crowded, but we were not prepared for the masses of people lined up in the huge cobblestoned courtyard. One of the entrance attendants told us where we could lock our bikes, and said the crowds are less in the afternoon. So we spent the morning circling the wilderness of Versailles -- the expansive forest and canal and dirt trails that criss-cross the grounds. The interior of the château and the formal gardens have an admittance fee, but everywhere else is a public park. It was a Saturday and French citizens were out having a picnic on a beautiful sunny day, just like us.

The Palace of Versailles-- a people magnet.
It looked less crowded when we finally bought our tickets and stepped into the entrance. The rooms in the place are immense, but we were soon merged into the crowd that shuffled from room to room like a river current. But we learned to slip through when an opening appeared and get a good view of all that opulence. And after everyone got into the Hall of Mirrors the throngs dissipated a bit and we could breathe again. In the beginning I was wondering if it was worth being squeezed into the clammy soft flesh of our fellow tourists, but we were glad we persevered and saw up close the beautiful designs and craftsmanship and to occupy the space where the excess of power and wealth met its end.
The wilderness of Versailles.  Just ride your bike a couple of kilometers down the canal and you have it practically to yourself. 

The French picnicking on a fine June day.  It resembles this painting just a bit, don't you think?

The formal gardens of Versailles.

Elaborate decoration everywhere you look.

The Hall of Mirrors.

Us reflecting in the Hall of Mirrors.  I think we were the only people in biking clothes.

I don't think I could fall asleep in this bed with all that gilding reflecting about.
Since our mode of travel through France is mostly outdoors, the soundscape we experience has persistent elements:  the high-low sirens of the police and ambulance, weed whackers, distant church bells marking the hour, the whine of a train when it passes, and the cooing of pigeons (which are EVERYWHERE, often leaving souvenirs on our tent). And Paris has all of these, but add to the list the sound of people talking English.  It seemed like at all the big sights we were surrounded by Americans.

A pleasant surprise were the buskers (street musicians) in the subways.  The passageways often are like a maze, but the tiled walls would reflect the music from a distance and the acoustics made it sound like a concert hall.  They were not all that numerous -- it seems they need to get permission to perform -- but they were highly skilled, even selling their recordings on the side.  We saw folk singers, violinists, cellists, and one woman playing very unusual ancient lyre.  Our last day we visited the Palais Garnier (opera house), and like all good attractions the exit is through the gift store.  And there was a DVD playing an orchestra performance with soloists.  And I swear the same woman with the lyre was one of them!
The famous glass pyramid in the center of the Louvre.
Our first day in Paris we spent in the Musée du Louvre.  It was one long day.  The museum is immense and we didn’t want to miss a thing, so we walked through every room.  And the day was even longer because we got confused on how to make the connection to the regional train back to our suburban camp, but thanks to a generous French soul who called across the tracks to ask where we were going and how to get there, we made it back before the sun set (10pm this time of year!)  As we were walking towards the campground we heard the distant thump-thump of a live band.  And when we got back to our tent it was even louder, in fact just on the other side of the fence in the park.  It was a Saturday and this was the town’s summer festival.  We crawled into our tent and inserted the ear plugs and hoped we could fall asleep, even though we could still hear the deep bass beat.  And that is when the fireworks started.  Right over our heads.  We just had to roll on our side to see the light show.  I commented to John that the music was not that bad after all, and the first chuckle of the evening.  But it was the finale, and we were off in dreamland shortly after.
The Louvre's collection includes the ancient, like this room of roman antiquities.

Like so many other museums, the setting is as impressive as the art.

Hey, what is everyone looking at?

Just a little portrait of a woman with an enigmatic smile.

The Louvre is a U-shaped building housed in a former palace, with the modern glass pyramid in the center.

There were several fully furnished rooms from the time of Louis XIV.

Just a few people coming over for dinner.

One of a few fully enclosed sculpture courtyards.

Some really old 3000 years old.

Just one piece in the Islamic section.

Sarcophagi of many shapes, sizes and materials.

I sometimes worry about the collective health of the French people.  Smoking is as common as it probably was in the 50‘s in the United States.  All ages and demographics participate, and it is hard to be in any outdoor public space without smelling smoke.  Poor John -- he usually waits outside the supermarket with our bikes as I go in to do our food shopping, and he invariably encounters smokers finishing off just one more before entering.  And in Paris it was just that much worse because there are so many more people.  Our experience has been that the French are very courteous and polite. But even the glare directed at an offending smoker to let them know we don’t want to share their smoke, which works so well in California, goes unnoticed in this country.

But a wonderful smell experience was the day we bought tea.  I am a bit spoiled at home.  I buy loose-leaf tea by mail order, and I am accustomed to a good strong cup every morning.  The supermarket variety I have been drinking has no flavor.  But in Paris, a city of gourmands, we found the Palais des Thés, a boutique like you would find selling perfume.  Upon entering you are handed a cup of hot tea to sample.  And lining the shop are shelves with little dishes of tea, covered with glass jars.  So if one of the poetic tea names catch your attention, you can lift the jar and a wave of aroma comes your way.  I left that store with a half of kilo of happiness, tucked in a little paper bag with handles and the store name printed on the outside, like you would get at any fashionable boutique.

The Orsay Museum is housed in the former central rail station.

There were a couple of these clocks still in place.

The paintings in the French Impressionists section of the Orsay were magnificent.

"Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" by Degas.

Just a small portion of the plaster original of Rodin's "The Gates of Hell", parts of which he enlarged to bigger sculptures. 

It is not hard to imagine this space's original use.

Absolutely beautiful restored clock...see if you can find it in the previous photo.

A most exquisite Art Nouveau bed.
Every day of bike traveling is a sight sensation.  The scene changes constantly, and since we don’t retrace our route, it is always new.  But even this training did not prepare us for all we would see in our five days of Paris.  A long day at the Musée d'Louvre and another at the Musée d'Orsay were overwhelming -- to see so much great art and so many masterpieces up close was part of why we came to France.  When I finally got to lay down and to sleep each night, a mental slideshow of what we saw would pass by.  I don’t want to forget, but I know time will begin to erase the memories.  So I committed to myself to remember what impressed us the most -- the sarcophagi in the Louvre, the art of Degas, the sculptures of Rodin, the Art Nouveau aesthetic.  And if a day in the future I feel blue or pessimistic about humanity, I can use the internet to see it all again.

We walked and looked at so many other iconic sights -- Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Jardin des Tuilleries, Sacre-Couer in Montmartre, Palais Garnier.  But finding a toilet was a challenge, but this little app came in quite handy!

We walked down the Champs-Elysees, which is a big wide grand boulevard of the type Paris is known for, but it left us less than impressed.  Cafés with smokers outside and lots of high-end shops.  But at the end of this boulevard is the Arc de Triomphe, more massive than it seemed from the newsreels when Paris was liberated in WWII.  And there is a tunnel that takes you underneath what has to be the world’s largest traffic circle to take you to the other side.  We were standing there admiring the monument, and a man walks by, bends down, and then shows us a sparkling gold ring.  Wow!  He looks at it and then offers it to us.  We say, no, take it.  He refuses and gives it to us, saying in broken English, it will be good luck.  We say ok.  He starts to walk away, then turns around and comes back.  Asks for some money for lunch.  I say to John, give the man a couple of euros.  He does.  The guy asks for another euro.  We are on to the scam, but it is too late.  He keeps asking for more money, and we say no, but he won’t take the ring back and he won’t give us back our coin.  We felt so stupid.  So when a woman tried the same trick on us the next day in front of the opera house, we just laughed.  We watched her walk away and try it on three other people.  The first two just ignored her, but the last one looked like he was getting reeled in and reaching for his wallet.  John walked over and just kept shaking his head and repeating not to give her money.  The transaction was interrupted and the woman was pissed and followed us spewing curses, but John felt avenged. 

The River Seine.

A door on the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Detail of one bridge over the River Seine.

Gratuitous tourist photo.

The letter "P" cut into these breads stands for "Poilane".
Finally, in answer to the question: “What did you eat?”.... 

We ate one lunch in the restaurant in the Musee d’Orsay, mostly because our backpack with our picnic was in the baggage check which was through the door that if we exited we could not re-enter. 

One of my favorite food bloggers recommended this place for crepes, and it was a satisfying meal.  How can you go wrong with a big buckwheat crepe filled with cheese, folded like an square envelope, topped with a hardly cooked egg yolk, and washed down with Breton cider?

The boulangerie and patisserie shops in the city were not much different or even better than what we have experienced in even the smallest country village.  But this trip to Paris was a bit of a pilgrimage for me, to find and taste what has been described as the world’s greatest bread.  I first became aware of Poilane bread from this article in Smithsonian magazine.  And I have since mastered baking my own naturally-leavened bread, so I needed to experience it.  And you can get lunch at the café next door.

The cafe served tartines, which are really toast topped with tasty toppings.  And they use only Poilane bread, cut from the middle of the boule loaf so the slice is at least 10 inches long, and then cut crosswise in six pieces, perfect for sharing with your dining partner.  The café was just a hallway with dining tables on one wall and the food preparation area on the other wall.  Diners could sit on the long bench against the wall, but the little tables had to be moved out of the way to squeeze in and sit down. It seemed to be filled with only Parisians. We were close enough to our neighboring diners to be family, but in the French way, your attention is directed only to the person at your little table sitting across from you. We enjoyed the tartines, and the glass of wine, and the salad, and the gazpacho.  But I could not help but steal a glance at the fresh strawberry tart the couple next to us was eating, so we had a slice of that, too.  It was a fine meal.

We bought a stack of sliced Poilane bread, for our picnic dinner that evening, because a full loaf was too much for even us carbohydrate addicts.  It is an excellent bread.  The crust is hard and just shy of scorched and full of flavor, what can only be achieved with a wood-fired oven.  Our last day in the city we sought out another Polaine shop, very near the tea shop, and bought a petite boule for lunch for when we would commence cycling the next day.  They put it in one of those little boutique paper bags and I carried it around protectively all day along with my little bag of tea, like a newborn baby in a basket.
A few along the famous Champs-Élysées.

Arc de Triomphe

The simplicity of a typical picnic lunch for us -- bread, cheese and tomato.  But this one is special -- made with Poilane bread!

Waiting for the morning train.

La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre

A view of the heart of metropolitan Paris from the high point in Montmartre.

Only a few of the metro station art nouveau entrances still remain.

A space as beautiful as the music played within...the Grand-Foyer in the Palais Garnier opera house.

Staircase within the Palais Garnier.
One of our best memories of Paris happened on the last evening.  We planned to get back early to get our gear organized and be ready for cycling the next day.  But the train stopped on the tracks halfway to our station due to an electrical problem and we were stationary for nearly an hour and a half.  So when we finally got back to camp it was late and we were hungry, so we plopped down on the grass next to our tent with our tablecloth and picnic dinner.  And a bit later mother and daughter of the family staying in the mobile home at the end of our row came over with a folding picnic table and offered it to us.  The girl spoke English and invited us over.  At 10pm we were sitting on their porch drinking coffee and hot cocoa, nibbling on cookies, and talking about our travels and the best parts of France and what California is like.  They were apologetic for seeing us for the last several days and not inviting us over sooner.  And so they insisted we come over for coffee the next morning, too.  Thank you Marine, Christine, Claude, Francois, and Cassandre.  You represent the best of France.
Our adopted French family.

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