Back in October, I took the long road home from a teaching day in Angers.
The day was beautiful, the onset of evening was slow coming, and no one needed to be picked up at the station in Châtellerault. Overall, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
I’d intended to document it long before this, but whatever the reason (there were likely a number of them) it didn’t happen until now.
Care to join me on an open-top drive down the Loire River Valley?
This is my longest-ever blog post (3,500 words – about a 22 minute read). If you only have a few minutes, I’d recommend saving it for a time when you can enjoy it over a big steaming mug of coffee, not a small. 🙂
Ready? Let’s go…
Pressure Cooker Release
We had to have some work done on our car and it was going to take several days to finish, so we got a week-long rental (at only 6€/day + mileage, it was a good deal). Our rental car was a fun one… a Fiat 500 convertible.
After a long Spring in confinement, school had just recently begun again and we were not yet under the second lockdown, so in-class learning was still happening. That meant wearing a mask for 6h/day, teaching classes where 1/2 the students were present in the classroom and the other were watching via video-conference.
What a hassle, juggling Covid precautions as well as technology!
Add to that that I’d turned 50 in the summer and was still dealing with a lot of the feelings surrounding that.
The pressure cooker was well & truly stoked and the pressure regulator was dancing with that whistling-whooshing noise that they made (at least the old ones, like we had at home growing up). I needed to let off a bit of steam, so I took the long road home.
Normally, the road I take to and from Angers is pretty much a straight line (you can easily imagine it on the map – from Doué-la-Fontaine, it goes through Montreuil-Bellay and Loudun before landing me in Châtellerault). It’s not highway and boasts a fair share of truck & local traffic. Since the day was sunny and I had a fun set of wheels, I opted to eventually leave the trucking route and head over to the road less travelled (at least by truck traffic).
The first 1/2-hour or so of my drive was the same as usual. I left the south-bound highway and got onto the D748 that takes me past Brissac-Quincé and its castle, the gentle giant of the Loire Valley Castles at seven stories tall.
The vineyards surrounding the town of Brissac were still lush green and heavy laden with grapes awaiting the fall harvest.
If Brissac sounds familiar, you must be a long-time reader. In January 2018 I did a walk through the village of Brissac-Quincé and in March of the same year I did a two part series on the Brissac castle itself. It’s a lovely, lovely castle, still inhabited by the Duke of Brissac and his family.
From Brissac, I continued on my normal route as far as Doué-la-Fontaine, only about 20 minutes from Brissac. (see map above).
If Doué is known for anything, it’s known for its roses. It’s not uncommon, at all, to drive by an entire field of field-grown roses in bloom. Case in point, the photo here shows a plot of standard-trained roses at the height of their beauty. These roses are destined for flower shops and community markets around western France. Some of them even make their way to the annual community fair & flea market, just two streets down from our house each Spring.
Across the road, you can see the car parked in front of a field of faded sunflowers. Past their floral prime, they’re awaiting the time when their seed heads are sufficiently dry for harvest. From there, they’ll either go for processing as sunflower oil, or as seed for various bird feed mixes.
Doué is where I’ll leave the road I usually take, and make my way to the river.
In Good Company
I was not entirely alone on this drive. Starting earlier that morning, I’d begun listening to a series of podcasts from a respected medical doctor and pastor friend from Tennessee, Dr. Clay Jackson. He and his wife Jana have planted and are leading a new church with class and grace. He’s likely forgotten more things that I’ve ever known and has some great teaching from the Bible available for listen on the podcast.
This was part of the pressure-release that I was talking about. My gracious it was good to be taught by someone else. As a pastoral couple, we’re constantly giving out to others and, for the most part, given the distance between churches here, it’s rare that we get to be taught in-person (particularly with Covid scuttling all conferences in France this year).
I was able to go through several episodes of the podcast and find strength and renewal thanks to the good folks at Arlington United.
Riverbound… to Chênehutte
It’s the D69 that takes you from Doué-la-Fontaine out to the Loire. You ‘land’ in the community of Gennes, just up river from Trèves, where Liz & spent a few nights in July, celebrating our anniversary at the Manoir de Montecler.
Today though, I would by-pass the manoir and not stop until I got to Chênehutte.
Here you can get a good view of the Loire, the longest river in France at just over 1,000km (620 miles) long.
The river basin is extremely wide and for most of the summer months, there are a good number of exposed sand-bars and grazing meadows for sheep and goats. Come Winter and early Spring however… things change and water runs swiftly down toward the Atlantic Ocean, licking the banks as they go.
Just off the parking lot where I stopped, there were a few recycling bins. You might know you’re in France when the bottle recycling container is far from big enough to hold all the wine bottles dropped off by locals.
Notice anything about this picture?
How about the fact that the road (the D751 heading toward Saumur) passes within just inches of the Saint Hilaire Church, one of the oldest in the area.
This kind of ‘close proximity’ is perhaps what one expects of country-side drives in Europe. It’s part of what makes the descriptor ‘quaint’ work so well to describe these roads that wind their way along riverbanks and through hamlets one after another.
It’s one of the reasons that driving this route in a Fiat 500 was so appropriate…. small car for tight quarters!
It takes a few twists and turns, but the D751 eventually gives way to the D347E and the D947 before it essentially continues the same riverside route.
On your left… the mightly Loire River, backdrop for dozens of royal castles built up by the French monarchy and nobility through the years. On your right, yellow sandstone ridges at the foot of which, in which and atop which are cities, homes and yes… castles.
The road whisked me past the foot of the Château de Saumur, here seen perched atop the ridge. The second picture is one that I took from across the river back in January 2020. You can see in the first picture the extent to which the castle is almost literally perched on top of the houses built at the base of the wall, the drop is so steep.
I’ve not yet visited this castle, but somehow today, driving by it was just enough..
On my way out of Saumur and just beyond the castle is the Royal Chapel, Notre-Dame des Ardilliers. It is located only meters from the banks of the Loire and the Cardinal Richelieu was involved in the early planning and construction of this church.
Because it was an important pilgrimage stop, for those who worshiped Mary, there also arose a well developed manufacture and trade of rosaries and other religious articles in the immediate vicinity, although that is no longer present today.
Saumur to Montsoreau
It’s pretty much a straight line from Saumur to Montsoreau, proud member of an elite club as it ranks among those who share the official designation: one of the Loveliest Villages of France.
The thing about driving in France though, is that it’s never just a straight line from point A to point B with nothing to see in between. Let me give you a couple of glimpses of the everyday splendour that you’ll encounter along this stretch of the Loire Valley.
Château de la Vignole
Within just a couple meters of the road, the Château de la Vignole looks down on passers by, beckoning them safe travel, and, if needed, an invitation to rest their weary traveler’s bones.
The photos show you two things: First… I literally just pointed my iPhone out the sunroof and took them as I drove by. That’s how close it is to the roadway. Secondly… in the lower picture, you can clearly see how the buildings are almost built right into the yellow limestone ridge in the background. This is common throughout the Loire Valley. Caves were dug into the hillsides to extract stone for construction, then were used for storage – often as wine cellars.
In fact, this little castle is also a Bed & Breakfast, with all the charm that you’d expect from a small 15th century manor house. What you may not expect, however, is that the wider complex even boasts an in-cave swimming pool for use by guests (several images are presented in sequence when you click).
I know that people coming to France want to see Paris, but dollar-for-dollar, the price of accommodations in the Loire Valley compared to Paris, gives you much more characteristic lodging in beautifully scenic surroundings.
Small Scale & Totally Unique
One of the things I always enjoy seeing, are the various city halls, totally unique from village to village. Some ornate, some very modest, but all sporting the French flag and prominently placed.
This Mairie (city hall) is from the town of Souzay.
There are two words in French to designate city halls. In Canada, I always learned that the correct equivalent was ‘Hôtel de ville’. It’s not uncommon to see the term ‘hôtel de ville’ here in the bigger cities like Paris, or, more close to us, in Tours or Poitiers. A second word exists however: ‘Mairie’. In theory and according to the Larousse dictionary, the terms are synonymous. In practice, however, their usage is not quite the same. Typically ‘Mairie’ is used to designate the city hall of a small town or village while ‘Hôtel de Ville’ refers to the seat of municipal government in a large town or city.
Above the Mairie de Souzay, you can see more cave-homes. They’re referred to here using the descriptor ‘troglodyte‘, a word that traces its origins back to Greek and means ‘to dive into a cave’… from whence we get ‘cave dweller’. If you click on the image, you’ll see even more clearly that there are door & window frames embedded in the rock and even a chimney emerging from the rock at the far right.
For sure, such dwellings require a bit more ventilation and heating in the winter, but not perhaps as much as one might think. Once the bedrock reaches a certain temperature, it doesn’ take as much heat to maintain it. The advantage in summer of course, is that they benefit from natural air conditioning.
Souzay and its troglodyte dwellings are really the ‘front door’ of Montsoreau when you’re coming from Saumur. This is one of the towns bearing the designation Loveliest Villages in France.
On the day in question, I was just driving through so I didn’t really leave the ‘main drag’ as we’d say back in Eastern Canada. I simply parked the car on the ‘quai’, what would have, in days past, been the dock for loading and unloading river-transported cargo but which is ultra convenient river-side parking.
The extremity of the parking lot is almost right at the foot of Monstoreau Castle, the foundations of which are built practically on the riverbed of the Loire, with nothing but the departmental road in between. The castle is not a private dwelling but is on a 25 year lease as a contemporary art museum, housing the private collection of French collector Philippe Méaille.
The castle was built in the 15th century by John II of Chambes, first adviser to the Kings of France Charles VII and Louis XI. It overlooks the point where the Vienne River (the river that flows through our city of Châtellerault) meets the Loire.
Also located at the foot of the castle, the mooring and dock for ‘Le Bateau Amarante’ a floating restaurant, originallly built by a local woodworking family and inspired by the ‘coche d’eau’ of days gone by. A coche d’eau is rendered, in English, as a ‘horse-drawn barge’ or a ‘track barge’… keeping in mind that coche is also akin to coach (ie. horse-drawn carriage). This harkens back to a time when it was not uncommon to see a well-worn path following the river’s edge. Horses drew the barges forward, attached with a rope and guided by the owner of the barge or a young boy who could be employed inexpensively, hauling people or cargo.
You could almost consider Montsoreau and Candes as something akin to twin sisters. They are only separated by about 2.5km (1.5 miles) and like Montsoreau, Candes is also designated at one of the Loveliest Villages of France. What’s more, a pair of delightful walking paths connect the two, one following the river, the other following trails in the hills behind the two villages and through the small valley that separates them.
If Montsoreau is within sight of the point at which the Vienne and Loire rivers meet, Candes is the guardian of the confluence. It’s at this meeting point that the river widens and has earned the Loire the title of ‘widest river in France’, in addition to being the longest.
This history of the Loire Valley is intimately tied to the river and a number of traditional river boats can still be found along the banks. The fûtreau is a traditional river boat and closely identified with the Loire and the smallest of the river boats. It’s flat bottom made it perfect for transporting goods on the wide and relatively shallow river, easily given to ‘changing channels’, punctuated by ever shifting sandbars. You’ll see them both with and without rigging, depending on whether it was used simply for crossing the river or going further distances (in which case there was a small cabin in the stern, as in the top photo). Other boats closely associated with the Loire are the toue and the gabare, both of which are bigger than the fûtreau.
With the car parked down by the river, I did stroll up into the center of the village (a two minute walk at best). There’s one main street, still the D751, that transverses the center from west to east and at the heart, a small town square, dwarfed by the towering collegiate church of Saint-Martin.
I don’t have a photo of this grand structure. It’s so big, and the town square so small that it’s difficult to do it justice using only an iPhone. If you google it however, you’ll get an idea.
What I have included, however, is a photo of the Auberge de la Route d’Or, a typical-looking village inn which, I believe, only functions as a café at present. The tower-like circular stairwell is of note and if you were to be there in summer, that climbing rose would be awash in tones of cream and pink. It’s a Pierre de Ronsard (Eden Rose in the US), perhaps one of the most beautiful French roses and certainly my favourite.
The Home Stretch
As you can tell from the photos, I was beginning to lose light.
The sun hadn’t completely set yet, that’s evident in the photos, however Candes backs onto a hill and is down at water’s edge. Once I got back on the ‘open road’ there was once again a bit more light.
The road wound me past the city of Chinon where Joan of Arc met Charles VII in 1429 and eventually convinced him that God had ordained his victory over the English, reclaiming French sovereignty over the nation.
We’ve visited there before, but I didn’t stop this time. Time was beginning to be of the essence and it would’ve required a small detour, parking the car and strolling for a bit at the very least.
It’s at Chinon though, that the D751 gave way to the D749. It’s that road that would take me through…
Louis I de Bourbon built up the castle at Champigny-sur-Veude and because he was a descendant of King Saint Louis, he had the rare privilege of establishing a royal chapel on the grounds (1507-1549), it was said to house relics of Christ’s passion.
The eleven stained glass windows in the chapel, a gift from the Cardinal de Givry are reported to be absolutely splendid (I’ve not been inside), and exquisite examples of French Renaissance period stained glass.
Little remains of the castle today however. Cardinal Richelieu, who built up his own castle just a few kilometers down the road, was said to have been so jealous of the castle’s beauty, that he had much of it destroyed. Today, all that remains are the Sainte Chapelle, the governor’s quarters and the commons area.
Speaking of Richelieu, that’s where the road out of town is taking us now, for our final stop.
If many have heard of the Cardinal de Richelieu, it’s likely thanks to Alexandre Dumas’ novels about Dartagnan and his boon companions Porthos, Athos and Aramis… The Three Musketeers.
Richelieu was more than just a cardinal. He was a toxic mix of religious cleric, politician and idealist. That sense of idealism is reflected in the city that was built entirely from ground up, adjacent to his own castle (which I discuss briefly in this post).
His castle is no more, barely a trace remains save the foundation outline and the few narrow canals that would’ve irrigated his gardens. What does remain however is the small city of Richelieu, a perfectly symmetrical walled city with six gates and a long central avenue, bisecting the city.
It’s a lovely example of architectural cohesion and civic design, but there’s not a lot there. The few essentials… a pharmacy, a news-stand, a hotel, a restaurant and a few other shops. They are largely dependent on tourism and ‘Sunday strollers’ who come to walk in the large park that once constituted the castle grounds.
Still, I love Richelieu and it’s well worth a stop. Stroll through the few streets, discover the antique dealer / tea-room and see if you can find the hidden chapel in the inner courtyard, it has a lovely tiled floor featuring the ever present fleur de lys, so closely associated with the French royalty. Finish off with a picnic in the park and go off in search of the castle’s footprint.
I didn’t do any of that today… as you can see, light was now fading fast, so I just stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and headed home.
End of a Lovely Trip
Can you believe that this drive only represented a meager 141km (88 miles)? That’s like driving from Saint John to Moncton back home in New Brunswick, eastern Canada: a short drive that was long on history and rich in beauty.
By the time I was leaving Richelieu the top was back up, the air was cooler and I was through my third or fourth Arlington United podcast.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fed by beauty. The stress of the hustle, bustle and noise – not to mention the confinement, teaching in a mask and via a strange combination of in-class and technology – sucks the life out of me. Country drives on winding roads with open windows and spiritual food help restore some of what the rest sucks out.
….and I’m thankful.
Good and Perfect Gifts
Paul talks about where all good gifts come from…
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
(New Testament, the Bible)
We all have different things that feed our souls… things that relax us and help us get back to a point of balance. Today, I’ve shared some of the simple daily things that help ‘right my ship’… but the Lord created all this beauty and lent me a little convertible Fiat 500 (via an inconvenient car repair), without which, I likely would’ve taken the trucking road home, as usual.
Thanks for taking this drive with me.
I hope it’s breathed a bit of life into your day as it did mine.