France’s Loire Valley

We had visited this valley of luxury, decadent hunting chateaus and white wines many years before. Since we were in the area, we thought another brief visit was in order. One cannot, of course, get enough of either chateaus or wine, but we tried in the short time we had.

We intended this visit, like those in Normandy and Brittany, as an introductory survey trip: we made a brief exploration of some of the most interesting towns, sights and areas to determine if and how to plan future trips during which we may more closely explore particular areas.

We entered the valley from the northeast, making our first stop in and around Saumur.

Saumur

Our brief stop here let us explore the old town area around the 14th-century Saumur Chateau, part of which is under wraps for what appears to be a needed renovation. Although the chateau does have a local art museum, we decided to pass and instead explore the city center and stop at a tasting room to sample a few of the area’s sparkling wines. However, a brief drive through the unattractive town was enough to dissuade us from stopping either there or at the city’s other primary attraction, its Military Cavalry School or its evening occasional equestrian performances.

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We instead drove through miles of farmland (especially sunflowers, corn and a few grapevines) to the tiny country town of Rochemenier, the center of troglodyte county for a brief stop at the Troglodyte Museum.

Rochemenier Troglodyte Museum

This well-done museum reconstituted a 13th– through 19th-century community that was typically occupied by three to four farming families. The land, originally cleared and used for farming and grazing, was gradually expanded by digging caverns both into the ground and into the cliff sides. This was done both to reduce costs and to provide insulation from both hot and cold temperatures. While some of those homes carved into cliff sides had windows, many had openings in the ceilings, such as to vent the air, let in light, collect rainwater and as chimneys for fireplaces that were dug out from the sides of (rather than actually inside) individual rooms.

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The rooms included everything from stables and winemaking facilities (grapes for which were fed through chutes in the ceiling so as to reduce the need for transport) to bedrooms and even a large underground chapel. They even carved specific niches in walls to house laying hens and pigeons. A few buildings, especially kitchens, were built above ground. Those that were underground could be readily extended by digging out alcoves, such as to accommodate additional beds or to expand work areas.

Some rooms (such as bedrooms and some work areas) were specific to individual families and other rooms (such as the chapel, the winery and a communal “Village Hall” in which people gathered to stay warm on particularly cold evenings) and expensive tools were communal.

The largest space in the complex was an underground chapel that was believed to have been carved during the religious wars of the mid-16th century as a secret place to worship. Even after a permanent chapel was built above ground, the subterranean chapel was used when the surface chapel underwent repairs.

A couple rooms, meanwhile, had been “modernized”, initially to house some poor and elderly people, and the museum’s caretaker.

Overall, it was a very interesting and worthwhile visit.

Montreuil-Bellay

Next up was this small, pretty town, surrounded by a wall of which small sections of which remain, with an impressive and intimidating main gate, and a number of smaller ones that still remain. It also has a number of large and attractive mansions and homes. The primary attraction, however, is the huge, 13-tower chateau that began as a fortress in the 11th century and then, as the seat of a barony, was continuously expanded. This expansion continued through 1472, when it achieved its current size and grandeur. (It was resided in through most of the 18th century, presumably ending during the revolution.)

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The chateau also has its own Gothic-style church and of particular interest to us, its own winery. Since we can’t resist an offer to taste wine, we partook. We sampled two Cab Franc-based reds, a light one (with a bit of a musty taste) and heavier one (that was a bit harsh and acidic for our palates), a Chenin/Chardonnay-based white (a light, fruity, pleasant sipping wine) and a white, Cremant de Loire sparkling wine (dry and pleasant). All, except their reserve wines (Cuvee Prestige) are priced below E10. Even the reserves are only E13.80.

Fontevraud

While the town center is certainly pleasant, we went primarily for the Abbaye Royale, the largest and currently best preserved medieval abbey in Europe. It was founded in 1101 by a monk who created a new branch of the Benedictine order and appointed a woman to lead the abbey—a practice that continued until 1792 when the abbey was disbanded. At its peak, it had more than 700 monks and nuns and became home to many young aristocratic women—most notable, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Enjoying the support of French kings, the royal abbey controlled most of the abbeys in France and was perhaps the most powerful in all of Europe.

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In 1814 the abbey began a new life, this time as a prison. During this period, which lasted 160 years, the complex held up to 2,700 prisoners at a time. By the time it closed in 1963, work had begun (including by prisoners) to restore the abbey into a national historic site and cultural center.

Chenonceau

This town, in the middle of farming country, is known primarily for its grand, French Renaissance-style chateau, one of the largest and most beautiful in the Loire Valley. While it is huge and visually striking especially for the 60 meter-long Grand Gallery that spans the Cher River, it, unlike many others, remains lavishly furnished in 15th-17th-century styles. The symmetrical gardens, across the bridge spanning the moat, are also pretty with their multi-colored blooms. The castle, as with the case of many other chateaus, was continually expanded and adapted throughout its life. It was initially build in the mid-1500s, and remains privately owned (although not lived in) today. Among the most striking rooms, in addition to the Grand Gallery, are the Chapel and bedrooms of Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici and the Louis XIV Salon. And then there’s the Louise of Lorraine bedroom which is decorated all in black and painted with symbols of death to commemorate mourning for the assassination of her husband, Kong Henri III.

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Chambord

Although we had visited and toured Chambord before, our trip to Chenonceau reminded us of just how beautiful these grand chateaus really are and prompted us to compare the exterior of Chenonceau with our memory of Chambord (the interior, as we recall and according to web sites, is still no comparison). So we returned just to see the outside. It is indeed awesome, and in some ways, event elegant with its rounded towers, the terraced roofs, the sculpted gables. However, some of the gables are so intricate and overwhelming as to detract from the elegance and disrupt what could have been a harmonious design. On the whole, we prefer Chenonceau. Not, unfortunately, like somebody has offered it to us.

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Montresor

A pretty little town deep in the countryside, it is dominated by a church and the proverbial castle on the hill. The town also has a few quaint small streets (most of which can’t or shouldn’t accommodate cars) winding up and down the hill. Very pretty.

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Our next blog covers more of the beautiful towns in the Loire Valley.

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