Friday, 4 October 2013

Le grand voyage Francais!

The other big trip that I did this summer was to the Loire Valley in France with my family.  It's a region famous for it's beautiful chateaus.  We stayed in a small gite (a cottage) near Chaumont sur Loire, surrounded by fields and fields of sunflowers.  The point was to relax but we're quite an active family so we'd regularly walk the half hour into town, baking hot in the cloudless sunshine, to fetch bread.

And of course we visited a lot of chateaux.  How could we not!  
At first it was just a mind-boggling number of castles, but as we started to get a handle on the history of the place it all started making sense.  Our first visit was to the Chateau de Blois.  It's a handy one to visit early as the four sides of it represent four important periods in French history, starting with the medieval.  Basically a new king pops up, inherits the castle, and adds a new wing.  It also has this rather excellent external spiral staircase.

What with France's rather turbulent political history, a lot of the castle in in bits, or has been refurbished.  In the end the people of France threw out their monarchy, so a lot of the chateaux were ransacked or vandalised, but parts have been recovered or replaced for their own preservation.  I found these amazing (and quite creepy) gargoyles in one of the galleries.

These guys remind me of the creatures from Where The Wild Things Are
Whereas this one reminds me more of a Dementor.  Look at that terrifying expression!
We also got to see a great sword fighting display between two gentleman... and then a lady who took them both on at once!  I only wish I'd understood more of the jokes, although my high school French turned out to be a lot more serviceable than I'd expected!

 I later replicated the scene in the chateau gift shop...

There was a chance to explore the town, visit the church of St Nicholas, find a contorting gymnast hidden in an old beam, and get back to the gite just in time to watch the hot air balloons make their daily flight across the sunflower fields.

Our nearest town had it's own castle - Chateau Chaumont sur Loire, and it really did look like a perfect fairy tale castle, all turrets and spires.  Sadly much of the furniture had been stolen or destroyed when the French nobles were ousted by the common people, but the chateau's new owners had compensated for this by turning it into a modern art gallery, planting in some amazing gardens.  My two favourites were the strange inflatable sculpture you can see below, and then a piece of art which involved creating water vapour in the branching of trees, raining it down on visitors in a light mist.  I'm not sure I appreciated the artistic value of it, but my brother-in-law and I were all over it like toddlers in a fountain!

Chateau d'Amboise was our next stop, and a fascinating one for me as it is here that Leonardo da Vinci is buried.  You can actually go into the little chapel by the castle and see his grave!  For anyone that's been taught anything about drawing or science or just being interested in life, da Vinci is a key figure.  I was in the presence of a master!

Although, there was also the pressing matter of a hollow tree that I felt the need to climb inside, as usual!  I have such odd habits...

Anyway, da Vinci.  He lived in Amboise in last three years before his death, and was very close friends with King Francis I, who gave him the use of the manor house Clos Luce, which has been turned into a kind of interactive memorial park about da Vinci's life, inventions and discoveries.  They've even replicated some of his designs to a scale that you can climb on them and make them move, which I obviously loved!  There are also some very beautiful gardens.

Honestly, my sister and I fell slightly in love with him.  I wasn't even aware of half the stuff he was responsible for.  Did you know that Da Vinci figured out what the rings inside trees meant?  Or that he "reflected on dew"?  That following the Black Death he was the first to propose that traffic circulation could improve public health?  Da Vinci was one of the first to understand how colour, not just shape could be used to show distant objects, like mountains - that they became paler and bluer as they retreated and that this told us about the nature of air.  He imagined the model of wheel now used to power modern hydro-dams, and drew designs that led directly to the later inventions of the helicopter, parachute, and paraglider.

 This next stop is at the Chateau de Cheverney, and if it looks familiar to you, that might be because it was used in the old comic books 'The Adventures of TinTin'.  The author modelled Marlinspike Hall, the ancestral home of the Haddock family, on this chateau!  They even had a Tin Tin display on at the time, with rooms based on scenes from the books, and some of the old prints of the comics.

Our last chateau, and my personal favourite, was the Chateau de Chenonceau.  It's built next to the River Cher and has a long ballroom that is built on a bridge, spanning the width of the river.  You can walk right across it and onto the opposite banks where there are some lovely woods.

I also enjoyed seeing the sheer amount of mistletoe about.  It was everywhere!  I read the Asterix and Obelix books when I was younger, and remember that a lot of the village druid's activities seemed to revolve around mistletoe.  of course we have it in Britain too - there's a copse of trees near my house that have bundles of mistletoe in them every year, but I hadn't expect it to be quite so populous!

 It was a great trip, with incredible weather, and a chance to spend long hours with my family, who I don't get to see in person too often these days.  Many evenings were spent round the cottage table playing card games, reading, or just talking.  Quality time :)

Although of course there was also time to indulge in a few hobbies too.  Like arranging the figures in gift shops...

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