Charming Chinon

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – attr. Saint Augustine

 

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We left Bayeux after breakfast and began our drive south.  For most people, I’m sure that a 3 hour drive is probably not so bad.  However, for me, 3 hours might as well be 10 hours.  Living in New York City, we don’t own a car and only occasionally rent a car to go somewhere that a train can’t take us.   We ride our bikes to work…which is about a 10 minute commute.  So sitting in a car for 3 hours with my eyes glued to the road is not something I’m used to doing.

Some people (mainly of my gender) like to brag that they “made good time” when traveling…but I prefer to see how many times we can stop to eat, use the rest room, stretch our legs, take a picture of some sunflowers in a field.  Literally anything to avoid the drive.  I don’t like long drives.  I get bored, my legs get fidgety and I get sleepy.

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Which is why I love the “Aires” on French highways.   My heart actually skips a beat when I see one of those beautiful blue signs with the little coffee cup.  Sure, we have the same blue signs and great rest stops and road side gas stations in America.  You can get sandwiches, hot dogs, pretzels, cinnabons, coffee, soft drinks, chips, beef jerky, ice cream, cigarettes, donuts, Starbucks coffee….pretty much whatever you might want or need.   But in France, they somehow elevate roadside food options to be a bit more quaint and civilized.  Aires can be anything from a simple parking area with picnic tables, or a stop with restrooms and even showering facilities….to my favorite type of Aire…the ones with a Paul or some other similar dining option.   You don’t just pull over and grab a cup of coffee and get back behind the wheel….no….in France you can get a baguette sandwich…a chocolate eclair…and you take your café (espresso) and sit down and enjoy it as long as you like.   And even out in the middle of nowhere…the employees at Paul where those white chef hats…just one of the thousands of reasons I love France.

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So…after an hour of driving (yes, as in 60 minutes), we stopped at an aire to get a café (and I say café and not coffee, because you get a café–an espresso–not a big cup of American style coffee) and I think I bought a few Normandy items like apple cider vinegar and some chocolate biscuits.  And then we drove for about another hour.  Josette, my navigatrix, was busy on her cell phone looking something up.  She said that we could make a pit stop that wouldn’t put us too far off course.  All I had to hear was “pit stop” and I was game…but then she told me what the pit stop was….the Bouvet-Ladubay champagne caves!!!  I mean, come on!  As if the stop at Paul wasn’t enough, now we were getting to tour a champagne cave!

Note: Technically, Bouvet-Ladubay does not make champagne because  it is illegal to label any product Champagne unless it both comes from the Champagne region and is produced under the rules of the appellation.  But I’m American, and we tend to interchange the terms sparkling wine and champagne… and I prefer to say champagne.

 

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Because this champagne pit stop was not planned ahead, we didn’t know much about the tour times.  When we arrived, the next tour in English wasn’t for several hours….but they invited us to take the French-speaking tour.  We figured it would be interesting regardless of how much we understood.  There were only 2 other people on our tour and they were kind enough to tell the tour guide to do the tour in both English and French!  As I’ve said many times before…I don’t know where the French get that “rude” reputation because it is so far from the truth.

 

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I didn’t 100% understand this map (see above), we saw this before the 2 women told the tour guide to speak in English to us, but basically, the blue shows the extent of the caves which go on for several miles under the town.   Actually, the caves sit under the ruins of an abbey from the Middle Ages called St. Florent Abbey, built in the 1100’s.   The abbey was abandoned after the French Revolution and eventually collapsed into ruins.  The day we were there, it was very hot, so I was happy to learn that the wine caves are always a crisp, cool 53 degrees–it was like the perfect AC.

 

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It was a very interesting tour in a unique setting, and we learned all about how they make the champagne…how long it sits to age, what is added to it, how they bottle it, where the fizz comes from, etc.  I would have to write an entire blog post to explain all of that, which I’m not going to do…so you can go to their website and watch a video.  And if you plan a visit ahead, they also offer tours where you get to ride a bike around the caves…and given the size of this place, it sounds like a great way to see everything.

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At the end, we were led to the tasting room where we got to sample several of their bottles.  Obviously, as we still had an hours drive to our destination, we took very tiny little sips of the samples.  We both really liked 2 of the dryer champagnes and they also bottle still wine, as well.  We found a rosé and a white wine that were delicious.  One of the other great things about France is that wine is relatively very inexpensive!  You can get really good wine for under $15…often more like $7 or $8.   We walked away with a case of champagne and wine and we were back on the road.

 

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From Normandy all the way down to the Loire, you see these GIANT wind mills all over the hillsides.  Very cool.

 

Our final stop for the day was Chinon, in the Loire Valley.  This was essentially a pit stop to break up an otherwise 7 hour drive down to the Dordogne/Perigord.  We didn’t know anything about Chinon other than the fact that it was a good place to stop…we had not done any research about it.  Which is exactly what happened a few years back when we stopped in Bologna on a journey from Venice to Florence.  Bologna was never one of our chosen destinations, just a place to stop and sleep for the night, but it turned out to be one of our favorite places on the trip.  Well…the same thing happened with Chinon.

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We stayed in the historic core of Chinon right above the Vienne River at a little hotel/ B&B called Au Relais Saint Maurice.  From the minute we parked our car and dragged our bags up the steep hill through the narrow little lanes, we knew Chinon was special.  We have visited a lot of charming little towns, but this one has to be high up on the list.   Besides excessive quaintness, with the ruins of a castle perched on top of the hill, it was noticeably quiet and seemed to be lazily trapped in another time–when life was lived at a different pace.  As we approached the hotel, the owner was chatting with the woman that runs the restaurant across the street…a cat was lounging in the sun….an elderly lady was looking down from her centuries old window.  There were no cars…just the sound of two young girls pushing a shopping cart down a cobbled street.

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I will save my outstanding review of Au Relais Saint Maurice for Trip Advisor, but I really can’t say enough about this hotel/B & B/townhouse…it is really quite perfect.  Parts of the house date back to the 12th century, and there is a huge Renaissance fireplace (from the 15th century) in a hidden room (the owner showed me after I told him we were architects) and every little corner of the house is charming, including the ancient front doors that required us to carry around a huge old key.

 

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The Owner, who goes by Maurice, brought us up 3 flights of stairs– stone, circular stairs– to our cute little room on the top floor.  Out of the window, you could see the towers of the old castle and the street below.  Maurice left us alone and we relaxed for a while, trying to decide what we should do with the rest of the afternoon.  As I mentioned in another post, it is very important to make a dinner reservation in France, so we decided to make a reservation at the restaurant across the street (Maurice made the call for us) and we headed out to explore the town.

 

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Chinon, as with many places in France was first inhabited back in pre-historic times, and was also the site of a Roman settlement.  But most of what is present today was built in the Middle Ages.  Chinon’s history is both French and English, and it was Henry II, King of England (crowned in 1154) that had the Castle rebuilt and expanded.  Throughout his reign, it remained one of his favorite residences.

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King Henry II, King of England who loved his Castle at Chinon

 

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After Henry II died in 1189, the Castle went to his son Richard I, the Lionheart, followed by his son King John.  Around 1202, King John began losing his land holdings in France and was under threat by the French King, Phillip II.  In the months leading up to Easter in 1205, the Castle at Chinon was under siege by the French and the English King lost the Castle soon after.  Besides taking Chinon for France, King Phillip II went on to take back Normandy from the English.

 

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King John of England

 

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French King Phillip II, who captured Chinon’s Castle from the English King John

 

Fast forward many years to the height of the Hundred Years War.  French King Charles VII sought refuge in Chinon’s Castle in 1425. Charles would intermittently hold Court in Chinon and nearby Bourges.  Besides the stresses of an ongoing War with the English, Charles VII had very shaky claims to the throne and wasn’t considered the legitimate King by many in France.   In the year 1429, the 19-year-old Joan of Arc went to the Castle at Chinon to meet Charles VII.  Joan had received visions from the Heavens that instructed and inspired her….one of her visions told her that Charles VII was, in fact, the rightful King of France.  She felt compelled to go and meet with King Charles and let him know that God wanted him on the throne–essentially a pep talk from a kid.

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King Charles VII was very skeptical of the whole thing, and before Joan arrived at Court, he disguised himself as one of his courtiers…he figured that if she really received divine messages, she would be able to pick out the King.   Upon entering the room, Joan knew right away which one was the King.  But King Charles, still not convinced that Joan was legit, kept denying that he was King.  However, Joan’s unrelenting conviction finally provided him with enough proof that she was genuine.  But the King’s advisers were not so sure, and they were concerned that her visions were actually from a dark source…maybe she was a sorceress or in league with the devil.   So the advisers persuaded King Charles to send her to Poitier to be vetted by experts to be assured that she was doing God’s will.   She passed their tests, went back to Chinon, and King Charles gave Joan an army to go and attack the besieged City of Orleans.

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King Charles VII of France

 

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Joan of Arc meeting Charles VII at Chinon’s Castle

 

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When visiting the Castle today, there is much more to see than a decade ago.  A major restoration and re-building of many of the key structures and towers has taken place.  Last year, we visited the chateau/castle at Les Baux de Provence, and at one time they had a similar castle with towers and a Keep, etc….but it is essentially in ruins today, which is what you visit.  It was fascinating…but it’s rubble and it is hard (even as an architect) to visualize what things would have looked like.   However, what they’ve done at Chinon is on the opposite side of the scale and could arguably be called heavy-handed restoration.   Regardless, it is fascinating to roam around the grounds of a Castle that date back 850 years.

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That’s me in the center

 

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After our tour of the Castle, we headed back to our hotel to get ready for dinner.  As I’ve mentioned before, in Paris, one might get dressed up for dinner, but in this particular region, there seems to be no dress code for dining out.  A simple summer dress for a lady, and trousers and a polo shirt are appropriate for a man.  To be honest, we saw many folks in shorts, as well, but it’s really not hard to look a little nice for a lovely dinner.

Dinner was literally across the street at Les Années 30.  I chose one of the menu options (where you choose from 2 choices for your entree, plat and dessert).  I had monkfish carpaccio with a citrus dressing, a grilled sea bass and sorbet.  Mine was so good, and I was so hungry that I didn’t photograph Josette’s choices, but I tasted them and they were equally as good!

I wrote an entire blog post with tips about eating out in France, but I’m not sure that I mentioned the fact that outside of Paris, dinner is typically served between 7 and 9PM.  I think there is an assumption that the French eat late, like in Spain.  But outside of big cities, 7 to 9 is the norm….and restaurants typically only do one round of service.  In other words, if you reserve a table for dinner, that table is yours for the evening…they aren’t expecting to use it more than once for dinner.   My assumption is that because of the way that dinner is eaten in France….an appertif, the 3 or more courses, cheese, dessert and coffee…the experience can last several hours.  And since most places close by 10PM…they can really only do one round of service.  Which leads me to my last tip….don’t show up to a restaurant at 8:30 or 9 without a reservation and think that you will be seated…even if the place is empty.  They will turn you away.  We saw it in almost every place that we ate.

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Sadly, we were only in Chinon for one day.  Had we known how lovely it was, we would have extended our stay by a few days.   After dinner, we sat out in one of the gardens at the hotel and watched the bats fly around the fading sky.

The next morning, we went down for a lovely breakfast.  We were served what is typical for the French….an assortment of pastries, baguette with butter and jam, crepes, yogurt, fruit, and granola (and coffee or tea, of course).

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Afterwards, I took the time to explore the rest of Maurice’s lovely home and hotel.  It’s done in a very elegant, yet relaxed style.   As I walked around with admiration, Maurice came over and invited me to look around some of the non-occupied rooms upstairs.  You could tell he truly loves his home.  This is when I told him, in very broken French, that we were architects and he insisted on taking me to a yet-to-be-restored part of the house that contains a massive Renaissance era fireplace (I didn’t get a picture of it).

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And we end where we began….back in the car behind the wheel for another 3 1/2 hour drive south.  We said goodbye to the lovely little town of Chinon and off we were…in search of the closest Aire for a pit stop!

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