Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Loire Valley and its castles

Chenonceau is breathtaking. Right from the approach, a stroll down a wide path lined with trees with the majestic castle ahead getting ever closer. Chenonceau is the castle that straddles the Loire River. the reason it was built across the river was to make it easier for the king to access both sides whenever he felt like hunting. The castle has been extremely well maintained. I wandered from room to room taking it all in with wonderment and awe, often with a big smile and sometimes with an audible gasp of pleasure. There was so much beautiful stonework and woodwork and opulent fabric and rich colours. The castle dates to 15th/16th century and is a resplendent example of the renaissance appreciation of life and good things. The philosopher, Rousseau spent time at Chenonceau and it was here he had an epiphany about bonheur and bien-ĂȘtre or happiness and well being (I, of course prefer the alliteration of the French version of the epiphany). Rousseau reflected and wrote about the importance of being  IN and appreciating the moment. He was ahead of his time in renouncing fancy dishes and imported delicacies and rich sauces. He proposed eating locally and seasonally and savouring flavours for their own properties rather than hiding their light under the bushel of sauces. He also had a lot of sensible things to say about education and the need to cultivate a thirst for learning in the student; to facilitate an understanding of WHY he or she should learn about the world rather than just providing the content to be learned. 

Even the scent of Chenonceau was captivating, a not too sweet woody fragrance floated in the rooms with the entrancing ability of transporting me back to the time when Diane of Poitiers and Catherine of Medici would have swished across the floors. Both these women, rivals in Henri II's affections lived at Chenonceau and exerted their influence at different times. 

From Chenonceau, the drive to Azay-le-Rideau should have taken 40 minutes, but riding on misguided GPS-less intuition and a very lacking in detail map from the hotel, I enjoyed a 2 hour drive through the Touraine countryside. And just when I'd almost got there, I ran into army training and had to do a big detour. 

The village of Azay-le-Rideau had its own charm, little cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. The castle, another of 'the' castles to see, was beautiful from the outside and had some stunning features but perhaps the 2 hours it had taken to get there, dulled my appreciation. Or maybe seeing Chenonceau first was always going to make it hard for the other castles. It had also got pretty cold by then. 

So, fortified by a salted caramel cake in the form of a crown and a pot of tea, I set off for Ussé, the sleeping beauty castle. Another stunning exterior and beautiful gardens. The most expensive of the castles to visit, and the most poorly maintained of the three. The fact that they were riding on the sleeping beauty connection, a tenuous connection, in fact, given that it is only supposition that Charles Perrault based his fairytale on this castle. There was a lot of brainwashing going on to this effect with the Disney soundtrack to Sleeping Beauty being piped throughout the castle and rooms set up with costumed mannequins recounting the story. Sigh.

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