Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 8 : July 9 - Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Chaumont, France
Montrichard, France
Chenonceaux, France

Friday morning we woke up to cooler temperatures and rain. It had basically stopped by the time we got up and went for our run, but it started again once we were out there. It was still pretty hot and after all the heat we had experienced on the trip to this point, it felt great. Of course the French people probably thought I was insane standing in the rain after my run.

After we showered, we had a relatively leisurely breakfast at the hotel. After breakfast we hit the road to our first chateau, Chateau Chaumont, which was about 20 minutes from our hotel. It was an easy drive, along the Loire, and by many caves that are being used for wine-making and as wine cellars.

Chateau Chaumont is up on a hill above the town of Chaumont and overlooking the Loire. It was a very interesting castle to visit b/c they were doing an experiment in organic farming on the grounds as well as having a modern art exhibit throughout the buildings on the grounds. First we checked out the garden, which had all the same things you'd find in a vegetable garden here. Then we walked through the courtyard and onto a path that looked onto the river. To get into the castle, we walked over the drawbridge and through the main gate. The tour of the interior was pretty interesting since they had furnished a lot of the rooms to look like they did when the castle was built. The modern art was a little freaky, there was some sort of post-apocalyptic thing going on with a story and art to go with it.
Chateau Chaumont

Relaxing in the seats overlooking the Loire

The drawbridge and main gate

Janda and the suit of armor- that armored guy had really long legs

We went to the stable buildings too, that was very interesting. The horses of the nobles who lived here had better quarters than most of the people did at the time. We checked out he rest of the grounds, walked down the paths and then headed out to our next destination.

Fancy stall in the stable

We went to Montrichard next, a slightly bigger town on the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire. The town was pretty neat, with a medieval castle overlooking the town center. We stopped and got some Orangina and some candy and used the ATM before heading to the Caves Monmousseau. Cave is the word for cellar in French, so I thought originally that we were going to visit a wine cellar, but there are actual caves, like the ones that we had seen that morning. In the Middle Ages, people dug caves into the side of the hills along the river to make a system of tunnels. The tunnels at the Caves Monmousseau ran for 15 kilometeres deep into the hill. On our tour of the caves we learned how sparkling white wine (known as Champagne if it comes from the right region in France) is made. It is a long process- at the Caves Monmousseau it takes around 3 years. First they make the wine and put in the sugar, yeast and tannens, and then they set the wine bottle on their sides to develop the carbonation and flavor for 2-3 years. Then they take the bottles, slowly rotate them to upside down vertical over the course of a week or two, to make the sediment settle to the opening. Then they freeze the neck of the bottle and pull out a sediment filled ice cube. After that they put in more wine and sugar to fill the bottle and then they cork it. At any one time this cave system has about 4.5 million bottles of Champagne- 1.5 million per year, all made in one batch. Afterward we had a tasting, but we weren't too interested in that b/c we don't really like Champagne.

Entrance to the Caves, right in the middle of the picture

When we left the caves, we headed to Chateau Chenonceau, one of the most famous castles in the Loire Valley. It is on the Cher River, and in fact, the castle spans the entire river. This was much busier than Chateau Chaumont in the morning and by this point all the clouds had burned off and it was hot hot hot. We started out in the maze and then walked through a shaded forest path to get to the castle. The grounds were amazing, with multiple gardens, two sections of forest and a moat system. We looked through Diane de Poitiers garden to the left of the castle and once we got too hot, we headed into the castle. We walked right through the ballroom gallery to the other side of the river. It was nice and shady on that side, so we relaxed in the shade for a while before going back into the castle. We toured the rooms of the castle, which were fully appointed with the furnishings of the time, especially the kitchen. Then it was onto Catherine de Medici's garden, which was right next to a shady path back to the parking lot. The castle is beautifully kept, I can see why it is one of the most popular for tourists. I've heard that Chateau Chambord, the most popular, is not as well kept or as nicely furnished, so I'm glad that we chose Chenonceau and Chaumont.

Janda in the maze

Me in the middle of the maze

The wooded paths around Chateau Chenonceau

The Chateau from the edge of Diane de Poitiers garden

The chateau from the far side of the river

Standing over the river in the ballroom gallery

It's built right in the river and only short boats can fit under it

After Chateau Chenonceau, we headed back to our hotel in Amboise. Once again we had managed to miss lunch, so we decided to rest up for a couple of hours and try to get dinner right at 7pm when the restaurants reopened for the evening. We did end up falling asleep, but we woke up in time for dinner. Janda had been craving pasta, so we went to the Italian restaurant in town (sit-down meal #3). We had a delicious eggplant appetizer and for the main course I had a pizza and Janda had a seafood pasta dish. Portion sizes in Europe really aren't enough for Janda, so he ate half of my pizza too!

After dinner, we went for another walk around town. We saw some caves carved into the hillside, so we went to get a closer look at them and found a staircase leading to a scenic viewpoint above the city. When we got there we had a nice view of the city and the river. We also saw a sign for some Gallo-Roman ruins, so we went on a wild goose chase to find them. We had absolutely no luck, so we gave up and headed back down the hill to get a better look at the caves, which were actually people's houses. As we walked down the hill checking out the caves, I realzed that we were near Clos Luce, the house that Leonardo da Vinici had retired to at the behest of the French king, who only wanted to be able to converse with the famous inventor. We stopped and had a look at that before heading back to Chateau Amboise for a lit-up night walk through the grounds of the castle. We waited for at least a half an hour, with a large group of people, and no one from inside the castle bothered to tell us it was canceled! Bummer, but it was late, so we headed to bed so that we could get an early start the following morning.

At the scenic viewpoint

Cave houses in the hills

Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci died

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