by Laura Glendinning
When I was a kid I considered Europe to be a place where knights and damsels and castles were still the way people lived, with some peasants picturesquely gathering wheat in the background of a jousting tournament. There was definitely a guy with a lute hovering nearby. How that exactly makes sense given you have to take a plane to get there, well, that is kid logic. The Europeans don’t take planes. We do!
It’s a big Medieval Times restaurant, right?
You could just about think that on a trip to the Loire Valley, which has 300 castles scattered over a little over 310 square miles. Math whizzes will note that’s a castle every square mile or so. While they started out as important defenses in the tenth century, by the 14th and 15th centuries they were turning into gentry showpieces. When you import Leonardo Da Vinci from Italy, giving him a rest from making art and architecture for the Pope, you are quite serious about home improvement.
Leonardo is in fact buried in the Loire, at his final home in the storybook town of Amboise. He had crossed paths with King Francis I when the latter captured Milan. Leonardo wisely read the political tea leaves as he watched Pope Leo X all but bow to the French king. Da Vinci entered into King Francis I’s service for the remainder of his life. The Loire is the better for it.
The Loire River makes for a perfectly verdant breadbasket for northern France. And a wine basket too. Chalky soil makes crisp whites and nuanced reds. By the way, Loire sparklers are hard to find out of France. If you find one, buy it. If you can’t call your creation a bottle of Champagne, you work very hard to make a great bottle that rivals Champagne. Trust me on that.
I knew I was in for a day of castles and wine tasting so I especially enjoyed a pre-dawn walk to get to the metro and then to Montparnasse station, the major TGV train station, on a recent trip to Paris. In case you think that makes me a rooster, it was a time of year where the sun rises about 8 a.m. I was in Tours within 50 minutes, at a speed of about 145 mph. Traveling alone I treated myself to 1st class. If I was buying tickets for the whole family, 2nd it is.
I emerged into misty rain at Tours, a pleasant college town. That means "towers" in French. BTW googling "tours in Tours" gives the google algorithm a headache. Just google LinkParis.
I met my small group consisting of an about-to-be-engaged couple, and a couple married 50 years. And there's me in the middle of life's journey. Cyril, our guide, had worked at the local Leonardo museum for many years. He was an ardent student of Da Vinci. Drive with Cyril and you will learn where Leonardo bought his bread, grew his grapes and maybe bought his charcoal for pencils.
We stopped at our first castle, Chinon, along the banks of the Vienne. Restored by Napoleon III after centuries of disrepair, it spent a little time as a prison. But it has an airy feel, thanks to the sandy stone which it was built with. Speaking of that stone, the castles do crumble compared to the granite ones built in Burgundy. But it's a very slow and picturesque process. There are relics from Joan of Arc at Chinon, where she met Charles, heir to the French throne. The French kings were on the run from the English and had set up in the Loire, having lost Paris during the Hundred Years War. Joan of Arc ultimately rallied the French to re-take their country, being martyred as a result. Does the opposition never learn that when you torment and burn 14-year-old true believers you are going to get beat?
It was soon time for a vineyard tour and tasting. I am not one for 11 a.m. wine but on vacation, yes, bring it. Loire grapes are the grapes of white wine lovers, being sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, chardonnay and gamay, but they grow pinot noir as well. We walked among the rows on a chilly day. True wine grapes are small and tightly bunched and don't look grocery store perfect by any means. You need those tight little bunches, seeds and stems to make anything interesting. We were invited to do a little harvesting (it was October). I took the shears and dove in.
As for the far more fussy pruning in summer, I don't think the tourists get to do that.
After tasting white, light red, and sparkling rose, we enjoyed a really generous cold lunch. I am kind of a rillette nut so I had to stop myself from finishing the platter. Rillette is an elevated country pate, basically. Not for vegans. It varies be region, but it's organ meats, fat, nuts and herbs. Mmmm.
We carried on to two more castles.
If you want to see out without detection and maybe shoot a flaming arrow without reprisal here's your window at Azay Le Rideau.
Cyril took us to Villandry last. It's grand, and a lot of the tour is outdoors to enjoy the biggest formal gardens in Europe. Heirs to the family that bought and restored the castle in the late 19th century still live there. There is an adorable little garden shop on site, and a café that sells the universal tepid, adequate coffee sold throughout Europe at tourist sites. Good coffee is banned for mysterious reasons. And I had had 11 a.m. wine. Please. Well I chugged it anyway.
Our little group watched a wheezing bus load of 35 or so people and congratulated ourselves on our nimble van.
I asked Cyril what the local peasants thought when a duke rolled into the best riverside farmland and decreed a castle would be built. Were they glad of the work? Or annoyed the best stone would be dragooned?
Cyril quipped, "You did not have an opinion, even if you had an opinion." As the day finished, Cyril left aside history, Leonardo, facts about rivers and, perhaps a little tipsy from lunch, discussed his plans for his spring garden. He was going to plant flowers bred by kings, and courgettes bred by dukes. He shared that he was just a guy raised in a rough housing project outside Paris, who barely graduated. He relished his Loire life.
And then we headed to Tours, a good 30 minutes away; the older couple thought to mention their train ticket was set for 6, not 7. Cyril put on some speed.
We did not make the train. The older couple managed to change their ticket. I went for a last walk and found an ATM. So we were not in medieval times, alas. We had modern life, with insta cash and trains and a decent bistro at, of all places, the train station.
I walked nearby in the light rain and enjoyed what life not in a castle is like. It's pleasant. Castles are for grand moments and lives. I found a violin maker's storefront in the dusk, awaiting an eager student.
Though close to Paris via modern means, it's far enough to really feel like you are away.
Join some tours in Tours.