My first vacation in France was blessed with near-perfect weather. Day after day of sunshine, white fluffy clouds and temperatures hovering just around 25 degrees. This – I am politely informed by the locals – is quite unusual for the end of autumn. More than one person has thanked me for working my Australian weather magic and bringing the sunshine with me. To this I reply that in my home country the endless sun is a terrible curse, and it has followed me here to punish my wickedness. I then make the sign of the evil eye and spit over my shoulder – an ancient Australian custom.
My aim, as I mentioned in a previous post, was to go West. If the prophecy was to be believed, this was where the skies were blue, life is peaceful and the air is open, whatever that means. I found these things to be mainly true, making me think this was a quality prophecy. My cousin also used to sing that it was where he went to relieve himself – the rhyme “where I do my poo” was inserted – but I found no obvious evidence of this part of the foretelling. Fortunately.
My first stop in this journey was the city of Tours which – spoiler alert – I found to be charming in almost every particular.
I don’t need to tell you that travelling alone is expensive – having nobody to split lodgement costs is the biggest wallet killer, and it was this that provoked me to try out Airbnb for this trip. The cost of a hotel for one person is truly preposterous, and having tried hostels on a previous trip, I can say that I really prefer a little more privacy. Renting an Airbnb apartment is a good compromise, the price is lower than a hotel and not much more than a hostel, they’re often very well situated and it’s nice to have some space of your own. You can also rent rooms in people’s houses, but my desire for privacy outweighed my desire to save money – this time.
The apartment I rented in Tours was great! It was clean and quiet, in a secure building and only five minutes away from Old Tours, the pedestrian district where a great many of the city’s best bars and restaurants are located. I spent a lot of time hanging around there. Furthermore, the owner picked me up from the railway station and took me for a drive around Tours, and provided me with a huge amount of tourism information, as well as access to a washing machine. Definitely better than a hotel.
I passed a great deal of my time in Tours walking around, as I inevitably do in any city I visit. It’s always enlightening and enjoyable to explore a little bit, get lost, get angry at the GPS for taking so long to get a fix on you, rinse, repeat. I always find something neat, and I feel like I get a better sense of the city that way. Tours is beautiful – just big enough to be a decent sized city, but small enough to still feel intimate, and cuddled up right against the Loire river. I loved it.
That said, I do like to do some things as well, and the first of these was to visit a photography exhibition at the Château de Tours – Gilles Caron, le conflit intérieur.
For those who don’t know Gilles Caron – don’t worry, I didn’t either – he was a French photojournalist who is remembered today in part for his skill as a photographer and also because of his willingness to put himself in dangerous situations to get some breathtaking (and sometimes horrible) photographs. One of the main themes of the exhibition was the increasing disillusionment he seems to have felt as his career – which was quite short at less than five years – progressed. Early photos show lots of heroism and acts of valor, while the later ones show gore, sadness and suffering. This isn’t universal – he was taking whatever photos would sell, I’m sure – but the exhibition did a good job of showing his “internal conflicts” about his profession. Hence the title.
Before his disappearance at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Caron made the observation that war photography as a discipline was coming to an end, as more and more photographers were being captured, executed or otherwise becoming part of the conflict. It was a prescient commentary, given that today, journalists and photographers are very often used as hostages, threatened with beheading, and ultimately making news, rather than reporting it. It’s perhaps no longer possible to be ‘just’ an observer – if it ever was.
As I had no desire to volunteer for the French Foreign Legion and see a war of my very own, I spent the following days in pursuit of castles. Châteaux are improbably numerous in France, and disappointingly nonexistant in Australia, so for me there are few better amusements than visiting and admiring them. One of my French colleagues remarked that she thought there were too many, and that they cost the state an absurd amount of money to maintain. She’s not wrong about the money, but about the too many castles, well… we’ll just have to agree to disagree.
The Loire Valley is one of the castliest regions of France – there are dozens – and I discovered a company that runs bus circuits between a few of the popular ones. Paying a fee in the morning gave me free reign of the network until the evening, which I found to be quite good value. So, I was able to visit four sites – the Clos Lucé, the Château d’Amboise, the Château de Chambord and the Château de Chenonceau.
The Clos Lucé isn’t, strictly speaking, a château. Rather, it’s a manor house that was the private residence of Leonardo da Vinci for a few years before his death – and ultimate burial at the Château d’Amboise, actually. This house, which is where he died, has been preserved as a monument to the greatness of his intellect. I was suitably impressed by his inventions and insights – I didn’t realise just how many war machines he had designed, for example, as well as ingenious construction methods. As it turns out, many of the most ambitious and beautiful buildings in France owe a debt to Leonardo’s ingenuity – he had a profound impact on French history, and was much beloved to the French royalty. The country is better off for it, so thank you, Leonardo. The Clos Lucé also boasts beautiful gardens and grounds.
Anxious to see the tomb of da Vinci – not really, I didn’t know it was there yet – my next stop was the Château d’Amboise. I was lucky enough to arrive just as a guided tour was starting, with a very animated and knowledgeable guide. Being able to understand French has been a huge boon at a lot of these attractions, and this was no exception. Amboise was, for a long time, the residence of the French kings and is very rich in history. One of the things I learnt during the tour is that the French royalty absolutely loved visiting Italy and bringing things home – plates, treasure, wives, eccentric geniuses, if it was Italian, they had to have it. Pity there are no French kings any more – I might have been able to convince them to pay my travel costs.
By contrast with Amboise, the Château de Chambord is fairly poor in history – it was built as a hunting lodge and almost never occupied, and as such is very empty inside. As far as architecture goes, however, it is… wow. It is something else. Climbing up to the very top and seeing all the intricate details of the construction on the way is an experience, but the outside upstages the inside like a fifteen course meal upstages a peanut you found under a lawn chair. This one was also free for me, thanks to my handy European residency permit. I like it when that happens.
The last castle I had time to visit was Chenonceau – I’d actually read a few reviews that said this one was boring, and that it wasn’t all that special, but I loved it. It has a quite interesting history, having been the possession of some very powerful ladies throughout history, including Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici, both of whom improved it immeasurably from its original state as a river fortress. The castle itself is breathtaking – and my photos don’t do it justice at all. It’s so very beautiful, like a fairytale castle in a Disney film, and its private owners are extremely conscientious about its upkeep, meaning that it is scrupulously maintained and beautifully decorated, down to displays of fresh flowers and fires burning in the hearths. What a magical place.
Do you feel as though we could all benefit from heeding the sage prophecies of the Pet Shop Boys? Then why not consult more of their songs. I am particularly anxious and fearful to see the outcome of the Prognostication of the Gentlewomen of the Western Marges. Otherwise, if wish to remain ignorant of what the future holds, you might consider looking at my photos, which can be had just here.