Une semaine en Touraine…..
August 17, 2010

Une Semaine en Touraine : 8 – 15 August 2010

Lundi 9:

Disembarked from the overnight Portsmouth – Caen ferry at 7.00 am and set off due south, through the early morning mist, towards the Loire Valley.    

This was a first outing en France  for our  sat-nav lady, Jane, but she soon had the route sorted with an estimated journey time of  around 3 ¼ hours.

An hour or so later the call of cafe et croissants had become irresistible. We pulled up outside a small bar, in une ville d’un cheval, and enjoyed our first petit dejeuner of the week.

Croissants on home soil, across La Manche, bear little or no relation to the pap masquerading under the same name in the UK.

On the other hand the French idea of un grand café never fails to amaze me. It’s high on flavour but low on volume and my craving for caffeine requires at least two if not three cups!  

Appropriately refreshed we continued our journey. The Peugeot 207 SW,  clearly at home in France, ate up the miles as we bypassed Le Mans, of 24 hour race fame, and were soon crossing the Loire at Tours, reputedly the home of the most pure French in the country.    

We had done very little homework but had spotted a possible campsite, in the Rough Guide to The Loire, on the banks of River Indre just outside Azay Le Rideau.

By 11.30 am we had booked in, found a pleasant emplacement right next to the river, and unpacked our Gelert Quick Pitch tent. It didn’t quite live up to its name but half an hour or so later it was up and we had avoided any obvious embarrassment, as we grappled with it for the first time, in front of our German neighbours who were watching from beneath the awning of their camper van!    

By now the sky was blue, the sun shining, and the temperature approaching the top 20s and all was well with the world. All that was missing was une grande biere pression so  we set out for an initial reconnaissance of the area. 

The architectural gem, which is the 16th century Renaissance Chateau D’Azay Le Rideau, lay secreted behind the trees on an island in the river, and just a five-minute walk via the charming town of Azay.

Our nightmare scenario had been, hordes of English visitors spilling from their coaches into a town given over to tacky gift shops and restaurants with le menu touristique!

We were therefore pleasantly surprised and delighted that picturesque Azay has retained its integrity as a local town for local people. We felt very much part of a thriving, working French community.

It was great to be able to use our French, receiving responses en francais, rather than English, and we soon established ourselves as regulars at Le Francois Premier, where we hardly heard an English voice all week.   Sante!                  


Mardi 10:

Camping du Sabot doesn’t have a shop but a van du pain calls at the site at 8.00 o’clock every morning.

Our only concessions to self catering had been to take a single campingaz burner, a camping kettle, a saucepan (just in case) and a cafetiere. We had also packed Yorkshire teabags, Lazy Sunday coffee and a pot of Hartley’s apricot jam!     

It was all very tranquil as we sat beside the river, admiring the pastoral scene before us, while sipping our freshly brewed coffee and munching on chunks of freshly baked baguette et confiture d’abricot.

As we set off bright and early, for nearby Rigny Usse , the sky was disappointingly overcast but we arrived at the medieval chateau that had inspired the story of La Belle au Bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty) well ahead of crowds.

The white stone chateau, on which Walt Disney based his fairy tale castle, perches impressively above the River Indre, on the edge of the dark and mysterious forest of Chinon.

Just a further 15 minutes drive and we were in Chinon, where the ramparts and towers of Henry Plantagenet’s huge ruined fortress loom in rather more foreboding fashion over the medieval city, set by the River Vienne. 

Chinon is a hugely popular tourist destination, particularly with the English -many of whom now reside in the surrounding countryside. However we were lucky. Our visit coincided with the obligatory two-hour French lunch break and we were able to amble through the ancient streets and alley ways unhindered.

It was at Chinon, in 1429, that a 17-year-old peasant girl in men’s clothing caused a stir by talking her way into meeting the Dauphin (heir to the French throne) the future Charles VII, who had been nursing his wounds in the castle following defeat by the English at Agincourt.

Her name was Joan, Jeanne D’ Arc, and she believed that angelic voices had delivered messages to her from God, stating it was her destiny to help the Dauphin reclaim his kingdom by leading the French to victory in the 100 years War.

She won Charles over with her charisma and in no time at all was leading his army to a famous victory over the English at nearby Orleans. More successes followed and eventually Charles was crowned at Reims with Joan at his side.   

It is also at Le Chateau de Chinon that Richard the Lionheart is said to have breathed his last, although apparently it is more likely he was DOA, having been wounded in a nearby battle.

Another local hero, immortalised in a statue down by the riverside, is Francois Rabelais one time 16th century monk, doctor, humanist, writer and all round bon viveur!   

The Rabelaisian tradition lives on in the Companions of St Vincent de Valleres .

Quite by chance we happened upon some of its members at an early evening wine tasting session outside the tourist information office in Azay.   

The brotherhood, the oldest in Touraine, was created in 1753 in honour of St Vincent and has enjoyed a recent renaissance. Its members, dressed in traditional burgundy robes, gather under the banner of friendship, good food, wine growers and wine lovers of Azay-le- Rideau.    

Their motto, ‘My wine is not in vain’, is enshrined in a song especially composed for the companions and performed by them on this occasion, after a few glasses! 

I’ll drink to that – santé!


Mercredi 11:

Weather-wise, the term changeable springs to mind. Yesterday’s less than promising start had blossomed into glorious late afternoon sunshine.

During the early evening les pecheurs had been out in force along the banks of the Indre and, from our tent, we had enjoyed watching their antics (a droite!) over a glass of local wine.

Aujourd’hui I woke to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the flysheet and it was certainement a morning for waterproofs et un parapluie as we set off towards Le Chateau de Villandry, where elegant Renaissance architecture is set amidst stunning gardens.

Gardens aren’t normally my thing but les jardins de Villandry are stupefiant and in many ways a greater attraction than the moated chateau itself.

In 1906 the chateau was purchased by an American, Ann Coleman. Her husband, a Spanish doctor, Joachim Carvallo set about recreating a grand French garden in a historically accurate style.

Carvallo’s terraced creation includes a water garden, an ornamental garden symbolizing four different types of amour, a maze and a medieval herb garden.

However la piece de resistance is the potager, a fascinating Renaissance kitchen garden covering 12,500 sq m, where intricately planted cabbages, pumpkins and aubergines sit side by side with beautiful rose bowers and a range of other flowering plants and shrubs. The entire area is completely replanted twice a year!      

Worryingly, Chris was very taken with this harmonious juxtaposition of vegetables and flowering plants. She was busily making notes on her mobile and at one point proclaimed a similar gardening project, chez Aldridge, would be under way by the time I return from Rwanda!    

During the afternoon we drove on to Amboise, a part of France forever close to our hearts, but which has sadly become rather twee (exemplified by a dreaded  petit train – a pet hate of mine!), over commercialised and over run with tourist groups since we last ventured here.

On that occasion we had lingered for several days, camping on LIle D’Or in the middle of La Loire, gazing up at the heavily fortified chateau rising sheer from the river bank.  

Amboise makes much of its association with the greatest Renaissance man of them all, the great Leonardo da Vinci. Invited by Francois I to cross the Alps and join his court, Leonardo spent his last three years, from 1519, at the Le Clos-Luce.

Unsurprisingly this is now an over priced tourist trap but I remember a leisurely, un-crowded visit, over two decades ago, and marvelling at forty or so working models of Leonardo’s mechanical inventions, all constructed according to his plans and sketches.

To say Leonardo was ahead of his time is a rather an understatement. Apparently those same models remain, down in the basement, and are still the star attraction!


Jeudi 12:

Yesterday late afternoon /early evening was once again the most pleasant part of the day.

The sun dappled trees on the river bank were mirrored in the slow moving waters of the Indre and we might have been forgiven for thinking we had been transported into Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows as, with a joyous ‘poop poop’, Mr Toad drove on to the site towing his caravan.

Unfortunately it was a lighter shade of beige rather than ‘canary coloured’ and it was Herr Toady at the wheel of an old Mercedes!

Today was designated un jour a pied!

Having breakfasted on freshly baked baguette, from the van du pain, liberally topped with Bonne Maman confiture de rhubarbe, a wonderful discovery at Chinon Intermarche, we set of to visit our neighbours at le chateau.

Five minutes later we arrived, the gates had just opened, and for a very short while we were able to experience this remarkably tranquil and picturesque setting almost to ourselves………..and then the coach-loads started to arrive!  

Apparently, not that I’ve read it, Balzac’s romantic hero in Le Lys dans la Vallee described the Le Chateau D’ Azay le Rideau as, “a diamond cut with facets, set in the Indre,”  which absolutely remains the case.

It is not grand in size, compared with the chateaux at Amboise and Villandry, but petit and beautifully formed in its island setting. There are captivating views, from every angle, of this perfect turreted, early Renaissance gem reflected in the surrounding waters of the Indre.    

During the summer evenings, the chateau provides a wonderful setting for a spectacular Songes et Lumieres. This year’s offering, Le Miroir Enchante, features un chameau et deux chevaux blancs, which spend their days padding around a paddock across the river from our tent.

Azay takes its name, le Rideau, from the Ridel family who occupied a small fortress nearby during the 13th Century. However, for centuries it was known as Azay le Brule (‘the burnt’) after the Dauphin Charles smoked out a Burgundian garrison here in 1418!

Another idyllic Kodak setting is presented by an old mill next to the bridge on the edge of Azay.


Vendredi 13:

Not a promising date, for those of a superstitious nature, but ce matin, in the words of the song, le soleil port son chapeau………..

It seemed an ideal day to take in our last chateau of the week and arguably the most graceful of them all, Chenonceau, which arches its way across the River Cher.

Unfortunately today was a French public holiday (one of many) and a few hundred other people decided to make a similar excursion!

The Rough Guide had warned that Le Chateau de Chenonceau was a firm favourite on the coach party circuit and that during mid summer the place can become uncomfortably crowded with day trippers. It was spot on!     

However, there is no escaping its architectural merit and the highlight for me was the long gallery with its windows opening out on to beautiful views along the river.

There was a brief respite from the heaving throng on the floor above which houses a temporary exhibition of works by the renowned contemporary French artist Andre Brasilier who was born and studied in the Loire Valley at Saumur.     

Owned by the Menier Chocolate Factory family, the chateau is now a thriving business with its waxworks, paddle boat trips, orangerie restaurant and huge gift shop – but not really to my taste!

Having decided that, after the morning’s exertions, a glass of wine was called for,we stopped off at the vineyard and winery of Le Chateau d’Aulee, on the outskirts of Azay, for a spot of degustation. We tried a couple of pleasant whites and a red and came away with a bottle or two for the cellar.

Ce soir, Azay played host to un Grand Marche Gourmand. This gastronomic fete, clearly a highlight of the annual calendar, centred on the Place de La Republique and spilled out along the surrounding streets and alleyways.

It opened at 5.00pm and was soon thronging with locals, but thankfully very few tourists. We thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, to say nothing of the food and drink!

Thinking things were winding down we left for home just before midnight. No sooner had we snuggled down into our sleeping bags than we were unexpectedly roused by la grande finale a spectacular firework display!

We had no idea that this was scheduled but there was no moving Chris at this stage and she opted for her ear plugs as I managed to secure an interesting vantage point with my head stuck out of the tent flap, lying on my back, staring up into the illuminated sky. Bonne nuit!       


Samedi 14:

Our final morning in France is always, without fail, given over to ‘a big shop’ at le supermarche. On this occasion it had to be Intermarche (the one outside Chinon) because Chris had bought a bottle of wine there on the first day of our visit that she had particularly enjoyed but not been able to find anywhere else during the week!

As we pulled into the car park, at the sign of les mousquetaires, Chris’s eyes lit up and my proposed question of, “How long will it take?” was clearly a  futile one. How long is a piece of string? I know from past experience she can happily push a  trolley around the food and wine section for at least an hour and maybe two!

Re-stocking the Aldridge wine cellar for the months ahead is a serious undertaking.  No bottle passes without a thorough scrutinisation and provided it comes in at 5 Euros or less it stands a good chance of making it into the final basket!     

I should say I am allowed to contribute to this process but apparently I’m too easily swayed by posh labels, gimmicky names and trendy looking bottles!    

With the fruits of our labours merrily chinking in the back of the car we arrived back at  Camping Le Sabot and the sun was shining!

Having sampled one of our purchases for lunch, with a spot of pain et fromage (otherwiswe known as a camembert butty), Chris took herself off to the swimming pool, a final opportunity  to top up her tan, and I settled down in the shade of a tree, with my ipod, to catch up on a spot of Kinyarwandan!

An hour or so later it was a somewhat different picture with gathering storm clouds culminating in a downpour of biblical proportions, or as they so quaintly put it in France: Il pleut comme la vache qui pisse!    

Some time later it relented sufficiently for us to emerge from the tent and head into Azay for something to eat.

En plein air was not an option so we opted for the dining room at L’Hotel-Restaurant Les Trois Lys where we enjoyed an excellent three course menu du jour followed by a final café et cognac huddled under the canopy at Le Francois Premier.

Tomorrow there will be a very damp tent to pack away and a long homeward bound journey to look forward to. C’est la vie!  Sante!