Sunday, April 10, 2011

My first châteaux

On this, my fourth trip to France, I finally took a trip outside of Paris: to the Loire valley, where I found out that fairy-tale castles do indeed exist. We hopped on TGV and an hour later were in a dingy suburb of Tours, where we picked up a rental minivan (my first time driving in Europe!) called, incongruously enough, Le Picasso and headed to Amboise. Just the day before, when we still had not made any concrete plans for our three-day excursion, a friend excited said, "You have to go to where we were married! You have to stay in the château!" No complaints from me — I've always felt, on some level, that I belonged in a château, and this one fit the bill: not too big, as châteaux go, quiet, unpretentious (no cheesy certification from some random corrupt hotel association, no ostentatious "luxury" items), on the most beautiful grounds, and with a staff of invisible workers who we never, ever saw. Our only contact was with Olivier, the manager, who nonchalantly chose a room for us when we arrived, not even asking for a credit card.

The Loire is magical. We visited one château on Monday — Chenonceau, which is privately owned and in excellent condition. It's built over a river — Catherine de Medici's idea — and the rooms are filled with objets and paintings and furniture and so forth, as well as piles of fresh flowers from the gardens.

You approach the château by walking down a long allée of tall trees, with just a glimmer of the castle in the distance: exactly like New York City Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. I just could not get over it. Oh, and you pass an ancient keep, then cross a drawbridge. I mean, come on.

We spent hours there, checking out every room, wandering the gardens, trying unsuccessfully to get lost in the maze. The sun came out (finally!) in the late afternoon, just before we discovered the tulip garden, which was positively aglow. I took about six hundred pictures of the flowers (like I've said, it's been a loooooong winter), and bored R. silly going on about the ancient wisteria.

Then we had possibly the best meal of the whole trip: dinner at Le Bon Laboreur, an auberge right by Chenonceau. Highlights were the amuse-bouche of carrot velouté with cumin cream, the local chèvres, and the roasted pineapple with chantilly cream and sponge cake. Oh, and the local wines: Vouvray pétillant (my new favorite word from the trip, translated as "sparkling") and the Pouilly-Fumé.

Note: All the photos are of Chenonceau.