Château Chenonceaux, Loire Valley

March 25-27 2011

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Weekend in the Loire Valley

Chenonceaux, France

What is nicer than eating a picnic supper in the springtime, sitting on a bench beside a stream, watching a horse munching on the grass in an adjacent field? The late afternoon sun was fast disappearing as we ate our ham sandwiches, washed down with a bottle of local wine. We were enjoying the last of an eventful day exploring Château Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley and the village of Chenonceaux.

Ray, I, Erica and our grandsons, Atticus and Roman, had driven from Paris Friday evening, leaving Andrew at home recuperating from jetlag and a week of OECD meetings in Botswana, Africa. The Hôtel La Roseraie had been recommended by a member of the MOMS group of English speaking ex-pats in Paris. It suited us very well. We had a suite with two bedrooms and a living room, perfect for our family group.

Château Chenonceaux, the ladies château, was first built on the site of an old mill on the Cher River sometime prior to the 11th C. The chateau was rebuilt several times and was given by Henry II to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. She had an arched bridge constructed, joining the château to its opposite bank and oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees. After King Henry II died in 1559, his strong-willed widow and regent, Catherine de' Medici, had Diane expelled. Because the estate no longer belonged to the crown, she could not seize it outright, but forced Diane to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Château Chenonceaux her own favorite residence, adding a new series of gardens and spending a fortune on enhancements, including a gallery over Diane’s bridge. The château, seen from the River Cher, is one of the most beautiful of the Loire châteaux.

We all enjoyed visiting the grounds and the interior of the chateau. Erica and the boys had audio guides which helped somewhat. There was so much to see. The Château sits on 70 hectares of farm and formal gardens. All the properties have been lovingly restored, using historical plans and many of the original furnishings. The boys tired of the interior before the adults did. Erica took the boys out to run through the hedge maze before Ray and I finished up our tour. The boys had a great time chasing each other around the hedges. On our way back to town we stopped to visit four donkeys in a field, part of the château farm property.

After a multi-course lunch in the Hostel du Roy restaurant, across the road from the hotel, we returned to our rooms in the hotel, intending to get the boys to take a rest as they were very late going to bed the previous night. The boys were still full of energy so, leaving Erica behind for a nap, Ray and I took the boys out for a walk around the town. The boys were in fine form, exploring everything. Atticus led Roman into situations that were almost beyond him, jumping across the water in a lavoir, leaping across a ditch and trying to walk on all the graves in an old cemetery. Atticus even managed to climb up a metal drain pipe onto a low roof covered with clay tiles. It made me nervous and I sounded like a broken record continually telling him not to do what he was doing. Thank goodness he escaped unscathed. His Dad later said Atticus was just like him as a child.

Part of the reason for our walk was to find a playground where the boys could play with a soccer ball. The only suitable place ended up to be a green space between the railroad tracks and the car park for the chateau. They had a good time kicking the ball around. On our way back to the hotel we met Erica, who had wakened from her nap and had been looking for us in the château grounds, but we never made it there.

Sunday began with a light rain, perfect weather for visiting the Cave des Roches in Bourré. The cave is the only location in the world that cultivates different mushrooms 50 meters underground. The caves, extending over 120 km of tunnels on seven different levels, were originally created to extract white limestone used in the construction of the many chateaux and large houses in the area.

The regular guide was sick so the substitute, a woman who works collecting the mushrooms, gave us a combined tour of both the mushrooms and the promised underground village. We all, including the boys, found it very interesting, although Erica had to translate for Ray and I as the guide’s rapid French left me behind. We saw button mushrooms, Paris browns, oyster and Pied blue varieties growing. We got to taste some of the Paris brown mushrooms and they definitely had a distinct nutty flavour. Erica bought a bag of the Pied Blue, the most expensive, to bring back to Paris.

A large section of the tunnels illustrates how the workers extracted huge limestone slabs. They were able to carve just two slabs per 10 hour day. A few years ago a talented stone carver was invited to use the tunnels as his canvas. Over three years, the man worked to depict an underground village in the limestone. The carvings of doors, windows and animals were very realistic. The carver has been invited back to expand the village in the near future.

We had just enough time after the cave visit to drive Mareuil-sur-Cher to La Lionniere. As well as being a working farm raising goats, La Lionniere is one of a series of ferme auberges in France that operate a bed and breakfast and a restaurant where about 50% of the food served must be produced on the farm. Reservations are required as the set meal is prepared just for the number expected. When Erica called to reserve the woman didn’t sound very receptive to two young children attending. However, there were toys, paper and colours available to keep the boys amused while waiting for our multi-course meal. The lunch was well attended, including a large group with four young children celebrating a family event. The meal, which included several goat cheeses, squab and curried goat, was served in a glassed conservatory overlooking gardens in full spring bloom. After dinner the boys went outside to see the farmyard and get acquainted with the resident lab. Roman, who is very unsure of dogs, was frightened by the friendly dog and came inside, but Atticus was charmed. Atticus now wants a dog.

All that was left of the day was the drive back to Paris. We arrived to find Andrew busy preparing a chicken dinner for our return. He certainly looked a lot better rested than he did on Friday.

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