Vive La France

Posted on October 22, 2011 by

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Look, there’s no need to travel to the ends of the earth to enter a different world. Delightful Tours in France is just a hop, skip and a jump away. Well, I say hop, skip and a jump. Getting there can cause a bit of head scratching. Unless your name is Daphne Selfe who can hop, skip and jump it in five hours. She goes via Lille. However, when we tried, Eurostar said Lille!? Non! C’est impossible. You have to go via Paris. That means cab to station, train to King’s Cross, lug case to St. Pancras, Eurostar to Gare du Nord, lug case on to Métro to Porte d’ Orléans, TGV to Tours and cab to Car Rental. Oh dear. Shall we drive? Nah, busman’s holiday (himself lives on the road), let’s book a cheapo from Stansted, it’s only £20 return. Oh yeah. Plus levy – whatever that is – £2, plus £12 check in, plus one suitcase £110, plus £85 parking. Once in the air, sans reading matter, we were overjoyed to stumble across the wonderful travelogues of the equally wonderful Peter Marshall on YouTube telling us in a very entertaining way about the joys which awaited us the other end.

Arriving at La Belle Époque in Chinon we notice it was once called The Station Hotel being, as it is, opposite the station. Not that trains broke our sleep. There were none. La gare was fermée. We recommend La Belle Époque, its cheerful patron, the farmer’s market shop over the road and Chinon. Why Chinon? We were on the trail of the awesome Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England. This is where Henry II incarcerated his feisty wife. Not that it could have been much of a punishment. As the man said: Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. The chateau is quite, quite delightful with wonderful panoramic views over the river Vienne.

From Chinon it’s a pleasant drive to Fontevraud Abbey where our heroine is buried. Well, she was until French revolutionaries dug her up and scattered her remains. Now here’s a funny thing. Actually not funny, infuriating. Fontevraud is advertised as The Royal Abbey. Which royals? The French? No. Near Queen Eleanor of England is her husband King Henry II of England, her son King Richard I of England and Queen Isabella of England, mother of King Henry III of England but are there guided tours in English? Non, said the sour puss at Reception, nous n’avons pas les guides anglais. Neither is the website available in English. What a bloody cheek. We will also always remember the abbey for the wonderful farmer’s market shop pique-nique we didn’t have. The arrows pointing to the designated picnic area lead nowhere so we ended up like Mr and Mrs Bag Lady munching furtively out of sight.

Then it was au revoir Chinon, bonjour Tours where we arrived to find to our delight and amazement that not only is Le Gite Champoiseau prettier than its photos, Madame had stocked the kitchen with tea, coffee, milk, brioche, home made yogurts and jam.

Still on the Eleanor trail we take the Autoroute to Poitiers (tolls £10) to see what remains of her old palace now the Court House. The hall where she held court is so huge it has three gigantic fireplaces. Then, on our way down a very steep hill to the Cathedral she founded, himself groans as he takes a decko at the photos just taken in the old palace. No good, he mutters, we’ll have to go back and retake them. Retake them! I screech. It closes at 4! We haven’t seen the Cathedral yet! Well, we’ll have to get a move on says he as we run down the hill. What do you need to see? The window, the stained glass window, I pant, the one Eleanor and Henry gave to the cathedral. It shows them together, one of the few we have. We scrutinise every window. Nairy a sight of the mismatched pair. Oh well I moan that’s it then. On the way out, I buy a postcard of the window and there at the bottom is Eleanor and her old man. Quick, quick let’s go back. Do we find them? We do not. Someone at some time built a parapet obscuring my heroine. She would be furious. As indeed was I. No matter. The Palace awaits.

We stagger back up the hill, up the thousand steps to the palace and headbutt Security. He is surprised to see us back but very understanding. Actually he was the nicest thing in Poitiers which, after Chinon and Tours, was a bit of a let down. We couldn’t wait to hot foot it back to our little home in Rue Champoiseau.

With Eleanor done and dusted it was time to find Léonardo da Vinci at the Chateau du Clos Lucé and Chateau D’Ussé where Sleeping Beauty was born but first, the jaw dropping Chateau Villandry. Awesome. In anybody’s books. As for Léonardo he would be very happy to see the inventions he scribbled on bits of paper brought to life. Literally. Those in the grounds are hands on working reconstructions. D’Ussé is also well worth a visit especially for the laugh out loud, job lot of mannequins from Central Casting. What, we wondered is that bloke supposed to be doing in the cave? Hoe Down? Karaoke? No. Making wine. And as for La Belle in the castle tower (Sleeping Beauty) she is not so much dormant as rigor mortis.

Oh! Forgot to say. As we were following in the footsteps of Eleanor. a woman was following in ours. Joan of Arc, the maid of Orléans, is everywhere. Her statue in Chinon made us laugh. The sculptor has her trampling the faces of the English in the mud. He omitted to point out the fact it was her own people who found her guilty of heresy and handed her over to the English to do their dirty work.

Our visit to the Loire valley was, at nine days, far too brief an encounter. We didn’t even have time to visit the museum of that naughty monk Rabelais who, like Joan, is everywhere. Ah! Chinon. Ah! Tours. Ah! Eleanor! Vive La France. À bientôt.

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