Saturday 31 May 2014 Jargeau
It has been a day of driving across the interminable plain which cuts across the northern part of France – long straight roads with no fences or hedges and views out across enormous fields of arable crops, flecked red with poppies, the distant horizon edged with the green of a pocket of woodland or pierced by the tower of a massive silo. For those who are interested the main places on our route were Nogent-sur-Seine, Montereau-Fault-Yonne, Nemours, Bellegarde and Chateauneuf-sur-Loire. We stopped in Nemours for a substantial and cheap lunch (or rather Flunch – the name of the restaurant chain) attached to the largest Leclerc supermarket we have yet seen. We were too daunted by the sheer size to venture inside to stock up on provisions. We hardly noticed the Seine as we crossed it and passed by the impressive Château de Bellegarde. Otherwise it has been uninterrupted driving under a fiery sun. This evening we reached this shaded campsite by the Loire where the man at the check-in pulled up our details from a previous visit in 2007!
Sunday 1 June, Luynes
Before moving on we strolled into the little town of Jageau, quieter today than it had been on our previous visit which had coincided with the weekly market. Once the town had its ramparts and gates. While attacking one of the gates Joan of Arc was wounded.
In the Forest of Chambord we parked and strolled to the head of the long lake formed by canalising the river Cosson. At the far end stood the chateau which we reached following a level shady walk beside the river.
The church of the chateaux was rebuilt in 1660s when the village was made a parish. It was remodelled in 19th century in Renaissance style and echoes many of the detailed features of the Château of Chambord.
We continued our drive towards Blois, crossing the Loire at Amboise and following the north bank through Tours to Luynes where there was once the Roman settlement of Malliacum. The remains of the aqueduct are still visible. It was originally named Maillé. It had once been a wealthy town with fine half-timbered houses. The market hall dates from that period. In the Wars of Religion the Protestants settled in the town. They included silk merchants. The earldom was acquired by the de Luynes family and the name of town changed. In 17th century the family added a wing to the medieval castle and built the Hotel-Dieu (now public housing). There are troglodyte houses in the cliffs below the castle.
Monday 2nd June, Saumur
Crossing to the south bank of the Loire we made the short journey to Azay-le-Rideau. We first visited Azay some forty years ago, catching the bus from Tours in the early morning and arriving to see the towers of the beautiful Renaissance palace rising out of the mists which hung over the river Indre. This time we arrived to find the park under restoration and the place a general mess. It was no longer possible even to glimpse the château through the trees. As we had seen the chateau previously we contented ourselves with enjoying the neatly laid out herb garden with its raised bed in the precincts of the château. There was also a beautiful Romanesque façade to the church in the village and a picturesque medieval watermill. In the streets of the village we visited an art gallery of watercolours and pastels with a beautiful garden behind, splashed with the colours of roses and lupins in bloom and with the artist at work to the sound of a Mozart clarinet concerto.
A drive along the straight road through the forest brought us to Chinon, about twenty kilometres further west where we parked above the medieval fortress. This was one of the favourite residences of Henry II King of England and Count of Anjou in the 12th century. From the ramparts there were impressive views across the slate roofs of the medieval town below. We descended a tortuous cobbled street to Rue Voltaire, the main street of the old town. It is lined with medieval houses, some half-timbered with brick infill, others slate hung, others in gleaming white stone quarried from the chalk cliffs beneath the castle. Among them is the palace of the governor with a graceful staircase. The governors moved down there when conditions in the fortress became too uncomfortable.
In 1429 Joan of Arc came to Chinon to acknowledge the dauphin, the future Charles VII. The town is full of Joan of Arc hot spots, including the inevitable statue. She stayed at a house by the main crossroads and used a well to dismount – now lovingly reconstructed.
There are also innumerable references to the Renaissance bon-viveur and humanist François Rabelais who also has a statue in his honour, to the heroes of his books Gargantua and Pantagruel and to Rabelaisian gourmandise and love of wine and of life in general. There are wine vaults disappearing into the murky black of the chalk cliffs, including the Caves Paincts (Painted Caves) which Rabelais praised. We looked out Lamprey Street where, according to some authorities Rabelais was born or lived or ate chitterlings or drank wine or did something else of a Rabelaisian nature. There are good views of the castle from the banks of the River Vienne along the Quai Charles VII. As we walked along we were accompanied by the sounds of frogs.
The heat was becoming rather oppressive, so we were relieved that a free lift had been installed sometime during the past thirty years since our last visit which whisked us back up to the level of the fortress and the car park. Leaving Chinon, we crossed to the north bank of the Loire and drove along the top of the embankment, enjoying good views of the wide river, which was fuller of water than on some previous visits. The castle of Saumur rose into view several miles before we reached the town.
We crossed back over the bridge to a large campsite on the Ile d'Offard in the middle of the Loire just below the castle of Saumur, It was full of yapping dogs owned by Dutch campers. Some other Dutch campers complained and asked for their pitch to be moved next to ours. Yet other Dutch campers told us the Dutch always complain about each other on campsites! There were noisy French people in the showers and a very confusing layout which should see us wandering around outside getting lost in the gloom that has now descended.
Tuesday 3rd June 2014, Bouchemaine, near Angers
This morning we continued from the island across the bridge into Saumur which is dominated by the castle, one of the last of the palaces built by the Dukes of Anjou. Completed in the 14th and 15th centuries it served successively as the residence of the local governors, a prison and an ammunition store. In 1906 it was finally acquired by the town to house the municipal museum. Of course we had to climb up to the castle, not least for the view down onto the roofs of the old town and along the Loire. The old town has many medieval and Renaissance houses, most of them in the bright white stone that is quarried locally. The town hall is very impressive, a row of three buildings: a fortress-like structure with turrets at each corner, an elaborate late gothic facade and a modern wing. The town, which has a population of only 30,000 has at least three major restoration projects on its hands: the castle, the church of Saint Peter and the massive neo-classical theatre which occupies a prominent position on the waterfront just by the bridge. We also spent some time watching a less prestigious reconstruction project – a power hammer demolishing part of a hideous concrete and metal warehouse which is due to reopen shortly as a supermarket. Watching the driver manoeuvre the hammer and clear the broken fragments out of the way made us realise why “Diggerland” is popular as a tourist attraction!
It was not until well after leaving Saumur that we recalled the main reason for our visit to the town. We had visited the bell foundry of the Mabillon family when we were in Saarburg. They originated from Saumur and we intended seeing what evidence there may have been in Saumur of their earlier existence. The Mabion family had been casting bells since1590. We speculate they were Huguenots escaping persecution, travelling around and casting bells in front of commissioning churches. However we forgot completely about them!
It was about lunchtime when we drove on from Saumur and, looking for somewhere to consume our own snack and coffee, chanced upon Beaufort-en-Vallée which looked little more than a village on our Michelin map, indeed its population is little more than 6,000. It proved to be a remarkable little place with very impressive public buildings. The medieval castle was in ruins, destroyed during the wars of religion, but bore witness to its first period of grandeur when it was the capital of a county belonging to the Duchy of Anjou. A local heroine from this period is Jeanne de Laval (1433-1498) the second wife of Duke René of Anjou. Jeanne took care of her own estate in Beaufort and also cared for the sick and poor. She is remembered by a monumental column in the middle of the main square, one side of which is closed by a massive gothic church, now in very serious need of major restoration.
The town had a later period of prosperity due to the manufacture of canvas for sailcloth and from this period date some of the public buildings, the impressive covered market where there was much dealing in chanvre (hemp?) and the elegant town hall, which dates from 1860. The little town also has a splendid museum, the gift of a much-travelled journalist Joseph Denis which shared a colourfully decorated building with the savings bank. His stated aim was to allow people to see the world without having to leave Beaufort. However the prosperity seems to have diminished before they got round to thinking about a public convenience – the only one we found, beside the elegant town hall, was a disgrace.
And so to Angers, the heart of the Anjou, a county that at one time belonged to England, and a large busy town with a population of about 220,000, cut about by four-lane highways along which the traffic raced uninterruptedly. We braved it and found a paying carpark not too far from the centre. All we vaguely remembered about Angers from our previous visit perhaps thirty years ago was the forbidding castle. And we found it easily enough, its seventeen round towers looming over the river Maine. The grimness of its dark stonework was somewhat mitigated by the green of the ditches. The moat had always been dry, having successively housed the menagerie of the Dukes of Anjou, a vegetable garden, a pasture for sheep and, for the past century a wonderful formal garden. The gardeners also maintain the attractive Jardin des Plantes, where we enjoyed watching children playing or being read to by grandparents.
The cathedral, perched high on the hill and approached from the river by a ramp, is an early example of Angevin gothic, the first phase of construction dating from the 12th century with several stained glass windows from that period.
It is surrounded by the historic core of the city, a maze of cobbled streets in an area that has been occupied since Roman times. Beside the gleaming white buildings there are a number of half-timbered merchants' dwellings, often with elaborate carvings, the best known being the House of Adam, so-called from the carvings of the Garden of Eden that adorn it. The main street which runs south from that house is largely pedestrianised and also has a number of half-timbered buildings, as well as a fine example of Art Nouveau – a building now used as a "private club". The street was lined with cafés and restaurants where young people had met to put the world to rights over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It had a very lively feel.
We had eventually to plunge into the maelstrom of traffic and found our way to a pleasant campsite a few miles outside Anger at Bouchemaine where, as the name suggests the river Maine flows into the Loire.