This weekend Kathleen and I went on an overnight trip to visit some chateaux (Valençay and Chenonceau). Kathleen went to Cosne to get the car in the morning, we left Sancerre at midday Saturday, and opted to follow the GPS's "short" route (instead of their "fast" route), figuring it'd be the scenic route, and it was! It took us through some lovely country backroads (no traffic and immaculate paving—how do the French do it!?), past many a farm and field of charolais cows, to Valençay. The colza is in bloom right now, so there were fields of shockingly bright yellow flowers throughout the trip (Fun fact: "colza" is the French word for "rapeseed"—which has been thankfully rebranded to "canola" in the US.)
We also passed through town after adorable town, each similar with their red rooves, white and grey stone buildings, narrow and kinked streets, old churches, and prominent boulangeries and boucheries. Some even had the ruins of old castles in the backdrop.
Valencay is most associated with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who owned the chateau from 1803-1838 (but please remember that, like all history lessons on this blog, this is likely inaccurate.) Kathleen and I got the audio guides, which had this cheesy narration (the opening line was "Welcome, gentle visitor!") from someone with a simpering British accent pretending to be Tallyrand, and it featured a guest cast of characters as well, like his wife and mistress (she seemed nice). But after a little bit, I got kind of into the audio guide's silliness and enjoyed the drama of the absurd royals that passed in and out of Valencay over the years.
Now, as you may have surmised, I really struggle to retain any history that is spoken at me, and instead I just get overall impressions and a few key facts (which I cling to). So, I forget a lot of the specifics, but from what I could tell, Talleyrand had no moral compass whatsoever and would just simply get in with the most powerful people (Napoleon once described him as "shit in a silk stocking"—Napoleon Bonaparte!) so he could pursue his real passions of books, women, and living the good life. Despite his general despicableness, I couldn't help but admire his selfishness and single-minded pursuit of leisure. I also generally approved of his interior decorating—lots of that light and airy style that I now know is so very France circa 1800.
There weren't very many people there, which was nice and unxpected. After the tour, we walked through the grounds. There are way better photos on the internet of this place than I took, so I won't include too many, but here is one from the beautiful grounds at the back.
They also had a small number of farm animals (kept in enclosures for our viewing pleasure), which I really enjoyed. I like that this goat looks like he was just struck by a really profound thought.
And! There was a peacock that wouldn't fan his tail for me because he was too busy aggressively and shamelessly going after a sablé-style cookie on the ground.
We left the cheateau around 5:30, walked around the small town, and then set off towards our AirBNB for the night, which was about an hour away. On the way, we stopped in a very small town and got a dinner of mediocre steak (I really need to look up how to say "rare" in French) and truly terrible fries at the town bar/restaurant, populated by the locals. There was a really adorable and outgoing 4-year old girl named Margot that sidled right up to Kathleen's and my table and started asking us what our names were, how old we were, where were we from, and so on (it was basically textbook beginner French, and I totally nailed it.) I was really pleased because, finally, I was having a French conversation with a real French person where I knew everything that they were saying and I could also answer all of their questions—how exhilarating! Now, my next goal is to have that sort of interaction with someone who isn't four.
Our AirBNB was great, we stayed in the basement of a French family's house, it had nice lighting, comfortable beds, and its own kitchen. Aude, the host, was wonderful, and in the morning she brought us a breakfast of pastries, (warmed!) bread, and a delightful mound of butter.
The AirBNB was just 10 minutes from Chenonceau, and we aimed to get there right at opening. In fact, we were the first car in the parking lot! It also happened to be the most beautiful parking lot I've ever seen, resplendent with flowering dogwood and weeping willow.
At this point, I was thinking I'd really aced the logistics for this trip. But then! Right as we approached the ticket window (five minutes to opening), a comical hoard of tourists staggered off a bus and began to swarm the ticket area. (No picture for this, but I think we all can imagine it.) Luckily, just the guide went in to get their tickets so it didn't hold us up at all.
After getting our tickets, we were off! To get to the castle, you walk down a long, wide, gorgeous path, flanked on both sides by monstrous trees, which for some reason were all tilted to the right.
Now, as a sidenote I want to point out that what you see above is exactly the sort of terrain that we Reismans are bred for: we will absolutely shred it when given a direction, a crowd, and even the smallest amount of room for weaving—chalk it up to a combination of competitive instinct, impatience, and crowd-induced claustrophobia. We were trained in the elite facilities of Logan airport, where we learned to fall in a line of five behind our determined coach (dad); it was sink or swim. You should see us at the July 4th Needham fireworks—it's really a thing of beauty. But I was slowed down by all the picture-taking!!! I just wanted to clarify why, despite being one of the first people in, I was eating the dust of baby-boomers with fanny packs and tripods.
And then, voila! The castle.
In the back, there is the great hallway that spans the Cher river. I saw a ferry boat come close by, and it made me wonder if the river is closed except to certain companies—like could I go river-tubing under this castle? Would I want to? I just don't know.
I highly encourage you to check out more photos of this place, because mine really don't do it justice.
Anyway, back to the front: after walking over the bridge over the moat (duh, it's a castle) you go through this trick door that's inside the larger door.
This post is getting kind of long so I will try to keep it short (too late!) but basically, this castle is absolutely stunning inside and out (Alex—I have some decorating ideas for our apartment in Cambridge). It was built in the 16th century (Catherine de Medici hung out here) and is immaculately preserved (unlike Valencay, which seemed a bit tired.) There are absolutely enormous bouquets of fresh flowers all over the place, and I guess in the winter they actually light fires in the ostentatiously large fireplaces! The rooms are lavish, and I thought about how fun it would be to sleep there, before I realized that this place is probably lousy with five centuries worth of ghosts.
The audio guide was also great—both informative and entertaining, with each segment punctuated by Renaissance classical music. I may email the chateau to ask them who narrates it, because whoever he was, he had an amazing voice and I need to hear more of it. It was low and refined, with a slight French accent, and at the end of the sentences he would drop his voice even lower, into the most captivating growl, dark and deep. The whole thing was on an iPod touch and with headphones that wrapped around the back of my head and fit so snugly and comfortably that I felt like I was prancing around in my own Renaissance fairy tale, except this fairy tale was mainly about four hundred year-old tapestries.
In the basement are the kitchens, and on the way down I slipped on the steps, worn smooth by so many years of servants and then tourists, so I entered sliding in on my ass—quite the entrance!
Other things that I wrote down to write about: during WWI it was a hospital, and the patients would sleep in the great hall over the water and fish out of the windows. Madame Dupin was at Chenonceau during the Revolution, and she was so beautiful and loved by everyone that the locals didn't even kill her, and also spared Chenonceau. I find this astounding, this woman must have been seriously charismatic if she lived in this big of a castle and they didn't even want to cut her head off.
Also, did you know that Henry III of France was assissinated by a monk? Does anyone else think that's kind of funny? Like, who would've thought, you know?
After the tour, we again strolled the grounds. My only complaint about Chenonceau is that it has just one dinky little drawbridge that's about the width of a sidewalk and goes over a dried-up moat that's roughly four feet across. But everything else was perfect.
After Chenonceau, we drove back to Sancerre, stopping on the way back in a little town called La Borne, which is full of pottery studios, but I'll write about that another time because I want to give it more focus and I fear no one made it this far.
I think I'm all cheateaued out for this trip, but sometime in the future I'd like to see Chambord (the biggest chateau in the region, with over 400 rooms!) and Cheverny, which I believe is supposed to one of the most well-decorated.