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.

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