France - April, 2001

This is Part One.


    On Sunday, April 15, we took off from DFW on American Airlines and flew to Paris, arriving about 10 am the next day.  After an early check in and a nap at an airport hotel we got on the subway and rode to the stop closest to the Eiffel Tower.  The weather was overcast, windy and cold as we approached it.  When you get close to it, the tower sure looks big.  It is directly on the Seine River and has a commanding view of the entire city of 13 million, whether from the Second Level where you could see Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur, or the top where there is also a great view of the Arc de Triomphe.  You have to change elevators at the second level since it's so far to the top and it doesn't climb at an angle like the ones that start in the corners of the tower's feet.  It's an interesting view on the way up.  But the wind, sprinkles and 45 degree temperatures convinced even us newcomers to go back down, gaze up at the now lighted Tower and head back towards the subway, where the lights of a cafe on a side street drew us in.  Our waiter loved the American girls.  Then it was back on the subway to catch the last train back to Charles de Gaulle (please genuflect) and our hotel.

Tours, Vouvray, Amboise and Chateau Country

    The next morning we went back to the airport which has a TGV (French for train of great speed) train station in it and used the first day's travel on our France RailPasses.  These trains routinely go 186 mph (300 kilometers per hour) and set a record of 300 Mph. Here's what they look like.  We made the 145 mile trip southwest to Tours in 50 minutes after taking an hour to reach Montparnasse Station in SW Paris.  Make those reservations early!  For the first half of our trip to Tours we rode in little jump seats at the end of a car because the train was full.  The railcars are silent and very smooth with no jerking about.  The speed is phenomenal and the countryside goes by at a rate your brain cannot understand.  A week later I sat by the window looking at what I thought were sheep until I suddenly realized they were white cattle.  My brain refused to believe anything could be going past that fast and that far away, so it made them closer and therefore smaller.  Cattle became sheep.  The French just sit there and read like nothing special is going on, but I was having the time of my life.  Here's a picture of R enjoying the ride a week later.
    I had spent the summer of 1963 in Tours, France studying French with a group of other high school students from Martinsville, VA and busing all around the countryside touring chateaux (kings' castles) on weekends.  I loved Tours and I wanted Rachel to see all that.  We walked around the corner to the Hertz counter and picked up our little car for the next six days.  We drove to Amboise, established in 503 AD(!), to the Manoir les Minimes which was to be our headquarters for the next six nights.  When we looked out the window we saw this view of the Amboise Chateau, Amboise and the Loire River which I made by stitching together two pictures.  It was a 5 minute walk to town where where there were  lots of nice looking brasseries (low priced restaurants, one step up from a cafe) and restaurants.  That night we got our first taste of the wonderful pizzas the French make.  As we turn up the street beside the Amboise Chateau, you can see the main entrance to it behind RachelSide view and rear side of castle.  It is up this same street in 1516-1519 that Leonardo da Vinci walked during the last three years of his life to get to the chateau (castle) where his benefactor, King Francois I lived.  More about Leo later.  Buildings further up the same street and a night view.


    The next day we drove towards Tours and across the river to visit the famous wineries at Vouvray, France which make a white wine by the same name.  These caves owe their existence to the quarrying of the white limestone used for the construction of all of the chateaux we explored and a hundred more.  A lucky combination!
    That evening we took a walk in Amboise along the banks of the Loire where the flowers were in full bloom, drove halfway across the river to the Ile d'Or for a great view of Amboise Chateau and the graceful bridge, and the only picture I have of the Manoir les Minimes, blurry in the fading light.

Chambord Chateau

    Thursday, we drove east through Blois to the Chateau at Chambord.  This was one of many chateaus built by Francois I and, with over 440 rooms, is the biggest ever built.  Francois, who became king in 1515 at the age of 20, came back from a trip to Italy impressed with the architecture he had seen and started building chateaux like mad.  It is thought that Leonardo da Vinci designed the double helix staircase.  All the original furniture disappeared in the French Revolution, but it has period pieces in it and some of the originals were later located.  It's full of tapestry after tapestry most of which were made in Flanders (Belgium).  Here are the King's bedroom and his pool table.  The ceilings were made of carved stone with salamanders, the king's symbol, and the "F," his initial.  Look at the antlers for scale.  There was a case of long guns of the period.  The one on the bottom left is longer than a man is tall.
    Walking outside, you can get a sense of the scale of the place from one of the parapets.  The east wing of the house is so vast I had to stitch together a picture of it from two pictures.  Finally, we walked out front and, looking north, took two pictures of this monster which I've put together here: Chateau Chambord front view.
    Then it was time for Rachel to do a little shopping in the Vielle Ville (ancient city) of Amboise where, like all towns we saw in France, the streets were made for people and horses.  They're simply too narrow for cars in some places; even the tiny French ones.  When we were in the south of France we rented a 3-Series BMW.  It was one of the very biggest cars on the road and I actually had to back and fill to make it around some of the corners in these ancient cities.

Chenonceau Chateau

    Friday we had a big day.  Only about five miles south of Amboise is the Chateau of Chenonceau, my favorite from 1963.  I was really looking forward to showing it to Rachel and it didn't disappoint.  After parking the car we walked down a lane of trees towards it.  As it hove into view it looked just like the fairytale castle I remembered.  This chateau was owned by a succession of women and it shows their taste in its beauty.  In this picture you can see the original mill and guardhouse, built before 1243.
    Chenonceau is built entirely across the Cher River which joins the Loire just west of Tours.  Its moat, shown here on the right side, is a U-shaped extension of the river.  Across the moat is the smaller garden.  A much bigger one is opposite and both are meticulously kept.  Here's another angle on the big garden.  After we entered the chateau's front hall we turned into the guardroom. where a roaring fire kept us from freezing solid.  Chenonceau had three or four fires going and was markedly warmer (less freezing) inside than others.
    Each of these chateaux had its own chapel and Chenonceau showed signs of its guards' boredom.  Here is an enhanced contrast picture of ancient graffiti, scratched by guards in 1546.
    Diane de Poitiers was King Henry II's favorite mistress.  In the mid 1500s he gave her Chenonceau and part of the crown jewels for services rendered even though he was married to Catherine de Medici at the time (here's Diane's bedroom with a picture of Catherine over the fireplace) and even though French law prohibited him giving away the property of the crown.  He also assigned to her part of the royal income.  Having gotten this substantial pay raise she, like all women began to remodel, including the installation of the gardens and the construction of the bridge across the Cher from the castle which then existed on only one side.
    But nookie comes and nookie goes.  In 1559 Henry took a spear in the eye and died and Catherine de Medici soon "convinced" Diane to trade Chenonceau for a much smaller castle.  In 1580 Catherine began work on the wing which stretched out over the bridge on the Cher, full of windows and dormers.  It was richly decorated and used as a ballroom.  Here is one end of the gallery, a view of the Cher from it and a view of the gallery from inside the main house.
    The chateau escaped damage in the revolution because the local people said, "There is but one bridge over the Cher and Chenonceau is it."  Inside the chateau there were some magnificent furnishings.  It was drenched in 500-year-old Flemish tapestries.  Here's an ebony and mother of pearl cabinet, one of the many fireplaces, a portrait of Louis XIV given to the owner by the King himself (check out the frame) and a fireplace with a fireback in it that says 1683.

Amboise Chateau

    That afternoon we went through Amboise Chateau, here seen from the top, where no pictures were allowed inside and, for some reason, I didn't take any!  Amboise' Chapel is awesome enough.  The limestone from the caves of Vouvray is quite soft when it is first quarried, but hardens with exposure to the elements.  Just look at the intricate carvings over the entrance to this chapel which were possible when the stone was soft, but have lasted 500 years!  This is the inside (two shots stitched again) of the chapel.  And on the left of the previous picture, seen here in detail, is  the burial place of Leonardo de Vince (French spelling)!  Is that awesome, or what?  We stood at the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, walked on the street he walked on and later toured his house!
    Here is a nice picture of the town of Amboise, a town of about 15,000 (I'm guessing).  Straight across the river is the Ile d'Or (Isle of Gold) and a view to the east from the front of the chateau looking upstream at the Loire (say Lwahr) River.  The white-faced building farthest away is the Manoir les Minimes where we stayed.  It's named after the Minimes tower, the eastern turret of Amboise Chateau.  We then went through the chateau, but no pics!  Why do I follow these rules?  Sometimes Rachel whines at me so loudly when I pull out my camera under a No Photos sign, it attracts attention from the guards and I didn't want to end up on the rack!

Le Mans

    Having not had enough packed into our day yet, we decided to go up to Le Mans, home of the 24-hour endurance race.  It is about 75 miles away from Amboise, but do you think you just hop on a major road and bop up there in an hour or so?  Mais non, fromage breath!  You take little two-lane roads through countless traffic circles, one-lane roads made for horses through medieval towns and follow countless signs for the next little town.  Navigation is a two-person job and even then, you end up taking wrong turns.  The roads are numbered on the maps and after you've been on a road for a mile or two; never at the intersection.  The result is slow progress, but very scenic progress!  Thus we pulled into Le Mans about 7 pm.
    The race course is made up of normal roads (which are all in excellent condition in France).  This means you can drive the Le Mans race course.  I'd learned this in a guidebook and was why we went up there.
    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Mulsanne Straight where race cars reach 200 mph and our little diesel Nissan weaved as its driver took photos from a moving car!  This stretch of road gets its name from the little town of Mulsanne which lies just south of where the course veers off to the east (we are driving this course backwards from the way it is raced) at a traffic circle, of course.  The racers don't have to go through the traffic circle, but this does not give them a speed advantage over the average French driver who apparently believes tires wouldn't have sides if you weren't supposed to drive on them!
    Here, the course turns to the west (going backwards), turns to the right (this shot only was taken on our return trip), makes a tight left turn, runs along here, I know you've seen this curve on television and even makes a ninety-degree turn at what is a stop sign the rest of the year!  Notice the tire wall on the right for when they take that turn a little bit too fast!  We ate supper in a little bar in Mulsanne, ordering two sandwiches.  Out from the kitchen came two sandwiches each made from an entire baguettes of French bread!  These suckers were at least 20 inches long!  We learned right then to order one sandwich to share.  Then it was home to Amboise and to bed.

Valençay Chateau

The next day was April 21st, my birthday.  To celebrate, we drove east southeast from Amboise an hour and a half where Rachel bought me a little vacation house, formerly owned by Charles Maurice di Talleyrand-Perigord, better known as Talleyrand, but begun in the 3rd or 4th century.  Foreign Minister to Napoleon among many other things.  We're starting a little business raising peacocks to help pay the mortgage.  It's going to be big!  Here is the moat we'll use to keep out those pesky kids who are always selling something, a picture of the beautiful garden in the front which Rachel will maintain and my little peacock in the garden.  After walking thru the main entranceway to the back and standing with our backs to the river valley, we can see the rear of the house and the fountain in the courtyard.  At the very back of the left wing, referring to the edge of the river valley behind, we found this sign with a perfect translation to English.  We always call it a landslip now.
    Napoleon directed Talleyrand to buy this chateau (with financial help from the Emperor) from a financially embarassed owner to use to entertain and impress foreign dignitaries.  It was one of the very biggest feudal estates in France, comprised of over 50,000 acres, 99 farms, a 450 acre park, vineyards and the chateau with over 100 rooms.  It took Talleyrand three days to inspect it before purchase.  Although it for this purpose its first six years and the last twenty years Talleyrand owned it, for six years it housed the Spanish Royal Family and their 150 servants.  They had been exiled from Spain by Napoleon and were in a guilded cage here.
    This is the Great Hall, and the Reception Room.  Isn't the place magnificent?  I think some shag carpet and a few Longhorn steer heads on the wall will really spiff the place up.  This is one end of the Music Room.  The other end of the music room shows part of a piano, although it looks like a harpsichord.  They had just started building pianos then and they made them in the shapes they knew.  This is King Ferdinand VII's bedroom.  Once the Spanish left Talleyrand removed all traces of Spanish occupation, including hanging pinatas and empty Dos Equis bottles.  So with one more tasty meal of peacock, we were off to another chateau.

Cheverny Chateau

    Not too far north of Valençay is Cheverny.  I had never seen this chateau before because it was used as a private residence until 1982 and has been in the Hurault family for well over 1,000 years (except for one year when Diane de Poitiers lived there.  She did get around)!  The result is a fully furnished chateau with everything in prime condition.  As we approached it, you could tell it was in perfect condition.  Check out the medieval weaponry on the walls of the Guardroom with its unfaded 17th century Gobelin tapestry depicting the abduction of Helen of Troy, and the magnificent fireplace surround at the other end.  The Hurault's were a gracious lot and kept a special bedroom just for the King in case he got sleepy riding from one mistress to another.  This was the most magnificent room we saw in France.  The above picture is a scan from a book on chateaux of the Loire Valley and is beautifully lighted.  Here is the way the side of the same room really looked.
    The Reception Room downstairs was also a stunner.  This house had about five hundred original oil paintings hung about, many of them built into frames attached to the walls as you can see in this view of the other end of the Reception Room.  You can see what great shape this chateau is in as we leave by the rear (servants) exit.

Clos Lucé, the Amboise home of Leonardo da Vinci

    If you've been reading carefully, you already know Leonardo da Vinci came from Italy in 1516 at the request of King Francois I.  Frank was tired of trying to make conversation with the local mistress talent and told Leo, "If you'll just come to Amboise and talk to me you can live in Clos Lucé and I'll give you the same amount of money one of my babes spends each month trying not to smell like a goat (this in an age before Right Guard)."  Realizing this was serious coin Leo immediately got off his ass and on his donkey and, with a servant, his pupil Francesco Melzi and three paintings which would later be very famous, left Italy and rode up to Amboise.  It is rumored he had the beginnings of the Mona Lisa with him at the time (no kidding).
    As we walked up towards Clos Lucé, we found these two teens playing classical music in the street for tips.  We couldn't help but thing of the contrast with America.  Farther up, off to the side we saw what they call troglodyte houses.  These are dug caves where people make their homes, known for their low purchase prices and taxes (also no kidding).
    Before long we reached Clos Lucé.  Inside were the Great Hall, his Study (one end and the other), original signed da Vinci drawings, his Living Room and ... are you ready? ... the bedroom and the very bed where Leonardo da Vinci died!
    The basement held about six rooms full of models of machines made by IBM from Leonardo's drawings.  He invented transmissions, the army tank, the drawbridge (several variations) and much, much more.  There is also a now-caved-in beginning of a tunnel rumored at one time to have gone to the chateau and that the king used to visit Leonardo.  In the back of the house is a drawing of what the Amboise Chateau looked like in the 1500s versus today's town, obscuring most of it.

    Since this was our last day in this part of France we decided to go over to Tours and look up the people with whom I had stayed during the summer of 1963.  I couldn't remember their names, but I remembered the address.  Off we went and found it easily after rediscovering what a beautiful city Tours is.  I knocked on the gate, hollered, "Bonjour," and prepared to crucify more French.  A nice woman younger than even their daughter would now be, answered us and I tried to explain who we were.  She seemed to understand and then said, "I speak English," in this distinct British accent.  Turned out my original host had died many years before and his wife had died in 1995.  The house had been resold to new people.  Since she spoke such great English we learned things I hadn't learned even during an entire summer.
    The house (second shot) had been built in the 12th century and was 1,000 years old!  It was originally built as the parsonage for this magnificent cathedral up the street a block with its imposing flying buttresses.  The new owner gave us a nice tour of the house which was being redone.  I even got to see my old bedroom!
    Down in what was now the furnace room we could see the outline of a doorway in the rock wall.  It had been filled in, but was at one time the main entrance to the house.  These days the doorway is underground, the ground having risen about five feet higher than the house in that 1,000 years.  Yep, the same thing archaeologists use to date things is working here.  Every time a horse pooped in the front yard the ground rose a little.  Everytime someone wiped the mud off his boots it rose a little more.  Upshot - the front door is five feet underground!


    The next day we got up bright and early, turned in the car, got on the TGV (this time with reservations) and headed down to Provence with a short stop in Paris to change trains.  Hope you enjoyed the trip!

Click here to go back to see the conclusion of our France trip.

ery time a horse pooped in the front yard the ground rose a little.  Everytime someone wiped the mud off his boots it rose a little more.  Upshot - the front door is five feet underground!


    The next day we got up bright and early, turned in the car, got on the TGV (this time with reservations) and headed down to Provence with a short stop in Paris to change trains.  Hope you enjoyed the trip!

Click your Back button to see the link to Part Two of our France trip.