Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Loire Valley

If I had to find the rural France as described in storybooks and taken from the collective American imagination, I would place it in the Loire Valley, in some village of white, slate-roofed limestone houses presided over by a turreted chateau. In this part of France, wide, shallow and sandy river valleys cut through rolling hills, with rows of vineyards spilling down the slopes. The landscape breathes calm and the architecture light; even the humblest of houses are build of neat, evenly carved blocks of stone, and often lead back into elaborate chambers dug into the backdrop of chalk cliffs. Villages elsewhere in northern France often look to me slightly sad or austere, with rows of houses covered with the same graying stucco that enveloped most of post-war France. The local architecture is rarely conserved as beautifully as in the Loire Valley, and where it is, as in Burgundy and Normandy, the stones are darker, smaller, and less refined than the Loire’s limestone tuffeau. So if I have to choose my France, where I’ve spent hours imagining the house of my dreams, it would be somewhere along the Loire, the Cher, or the Vienne, either an hour or so from Tours or an hour or so from Blois.

If pressed for a particular village, I would choose Chinon, birthplace of Rabelais. I’m influenced in my choice, I’ll freely admit, by a favorite restaurant, Les Années Trentes, with a particularly imaginative menu. Eating well someplace always leaves me with a positive impression, and the quail with sautéed apples, accompanied by a galette of potatoes and a touch of andouillette sausage that I had on a trip a few weekends ago left a fond memory, especially seated à deux in front of the fireplace. I’ve heard from several reliable sources (and read in no less than the venerable French gastronomy guide Gault et Millau) that this is but one of several remarkable restaurants in town. I’ll simply have to wait to own my dream house there for find out for myself, I suppose.

The Loire river system is one of the most pristine in France, without a canal or a dam along its entire course, but it feels more civilized than wild, like a landscape that has been modeled into a perfect balance of nature and humanity. It could be considered the heartland of French civilization, where the most “pure” form of French is spoken. I have little trouble imagining why Charles VIII and Francois I, back from the Italian campaigns and inspired by the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance, chose to build new, elaborate chateaux and gardens in the Loire Valley, establishing the region as a center of learning and political power.

It is a region that has been part of France almost as long as France has been a nation. Charles VII, denied his birthright to the French crown during the Hundred Years’ War, took refuge in the region, one of the last to hold out against the invading English. And in Chinon, in the castle that towers over the city, Joan of Arc had her first audience with Charles VII to organize the campaign to win back his throne.

The castle of ChinonOn the second morning of our trip, we visited the castle of Chinon and saw the room, now in ruins, where Charles VII and Joan of Arc first met. The castle sits high on a hill above Chinon, and its crenellated walls stretch out as far along the crest as the town stretches below along the river. That morning as we peered down we could see little more than a few vaguely defined rooftops in the fog, and the river was completely hidden. No signs of modern life were visible, as the weather seemed to conspire to transport us back in time. We crossed a drawbridge to visit the tower where Joan of Arc was lodged and where a century before her Jacques de Molay, the last leader of the Knights Templar, was imprisoned. Sketches of knights and various cryptic symbols, believed to be drawn by Molay himself, were still visibly carved into the stone walls.

The castle of Chinon evokes medieval battles and carefully designed armed fortresses; I thought of wars that lasted generations, and the generations of leaders, from Philippe-Auguste to Louis XIV, who fought to define France’s boundaries. Most of the Loire’s chateaux say nothing of all this, however. Even though Chenonceau, Azay le Rideau, and Chambord are surrounded by watery moats, who would take refuge in any of them during a siege? These chateaux are pictures of 16th-century modernity, with large windows, sculpted portals, and delicate towers perched above steep roofs. There’s nowhere for an archer to hide and take aim, and no windowless keep in which to cower. The gardens alone, with rows of roses and miles of boxwood trimmed into elaborate arabesques, are enough proof that invading armies were not an everyday occurrence: who would dare tell the gardener that his work of art had been trampled?

ChenonceauMy favorite of all of these Renaissance chateaux that I’ve visited so far – and I have many, many more to see – is Chenonceau. Who can resist a chateau built as a bridge across a river as romantic as the Cher, where the ballroom gallery offers a view on both sides that spans the entire stream? Who can expect me to resist a chateau so expertly marketed as the “chateau des Dames,” where such remarkable women as Catherine de Medicis and Diane de Poitiers made their home? The rooms are all beautifully (and for all I know, accurately) restored with period furniture, tapestries, and portraits, all woven together with the stories of the chateau’s former inhabitants.

Perhaps I’m too inspired by Rabelais, or simply Les Années Trentes, but what fascinated me the most at Chenonceau were the kitchens. Tapestries and canopied beds give one idea of what life was like, but nothing is more fun for me to imagine than an entire wild boar roasting before a fire, or baskets and baskets of fresh vegetables hauled up from boats along the river. The kitchens at Chenonceau look alive enough that I almost wondered if I came back in a few hours if I’d be greeted by rich, savory smells and a seat at a table by the fireplace.

The kitchens at ChenonceauI contented myself with a seat by the fireplace that evening at the restaurant, à deux as I mentioned, and dreamed of the day we will hopefully choose someplace outside Paris as home. For the moment Chinon is ahead, but next week it may be Beaune in Burgundy, or the Gers in southwestern France. I have much, much more of France to see before I finally make up my mind. Dreaming is cheap… happily!

No comments: