Some years ago Ed and I were invited to visit a young friend Christian Cado, who lived in Tours and we set about planning an exciting adventure. Eurostar tickets were booked, arrangements made and when the time came to start our journey we were impatient to be on our way. In great excitement we set off to Waterloo station.
My suitcase was adequate for ten days travel but Ed had a revolting little bag on wheels which kept toppling over when we walked too quickly. It was irritating to be with him because he was always a good 10- 20 yards behind me. As we made our way through London he struggled with his stupid case muttering obscenities to voice his displeasure.
Our train at Waterloo was delayed and THREE trainloads of people had to be squashed into the carriages. Although a tight squeeze, the 2 hour train journey travelling at a speed of 200 km per hour passed pleasantly enough and we arrived at Lille at 10.30pm.
I had been practising my French to the extent where I could say – Je Anglais! Ou taxi? However the information clerk spoke perfect English and explained where we could find transport. Ed and I were not impressed with having to pay E12 for a 2 minute drive to our hotel. Our en suite accommodation was austere but adequate.
We had a very early start the next day as our train left for Saint Pierre des Corps at 7.45 am. It was incredible that the 400 km journey only took 2 ½ hours.
Christian met us at the station with his son Erwan who was a dear little boy and a replica of Harry Potter. While we were guests at his house he laboriously tried to teach us French, but we were very poor students.
After a short trip to the local market we arrived at Christian’s house and met his partner Maria, a delightful girl who promised to take us on some exciting tours.
We shared an excellent Easter lunch with Maria’s family. Wow – what a lunch. We started off with an aperitif of pastis – then the wine flowed freely through the afternoon. First course was crudités with French bread.
This was followed by delicious roast lamb with veges. Dessert consisted of coffee with raspberry ice-cream cake and homemade rice pudding with a final course of salads and cheese.
The bread is a very important part of dining as it is used to mop up the sauces and gravies so you virtually lick the platter clean. I relished every morsel of this sumptuous meal and didn’t suffer any ill-effects of over-indulgence, which just goes to show that if you spread your banquet over many hours your tummy can cope with the rich delights of a feast.
The next day we explored Tours. The old part of the city is intriguing with buildings dating back to Gothic times. How wonderful that history has been so carefully preserved by the city fathers.
The most exciting adventure for me that afternoon was to learn all about Martin of Tours. He was born in AD 316. As a young man he followed in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Roman army.
His regiment had been sent to Gaul and at the gates of Amiens he compassionately tore his cloak in half to share with a naked beggar. He was later baptised and left his military life. As a holy man he rose in esteem and eventually became the Bishop of Tours.
He died in 397 AD but sadly his basilica was twice burned down and destroyed on three occasions. It was excavated in 1860 and his remains have now been consecrated in the Basilque- Saint-Martin. Our very own Saint-Martins-in-the-Fields in London is dedicated to Martin of Tours.
Tuesday was a very special day. Another early start enabled Maria to take us to Amboise, where she works, and gave us the morning to explore the Château.
This beautiful building boasts 2000 years of history. It was founded upon wooden and stone fortifications of ancient times and added to in the Middle Ages.
The chateau was enlarged and beautified through the centuries and patronised by the royalty of France. The town itself is full of quaint charm and accommodates a number of boutiques, tourist shops and restaurants and Ed and I were thoroughly entertained walking through the streets of a little town from the pages of history.
However, what most fascinated me about Amboise was the story of Francois I. He became king at the age of 20 and as a true Renaissance man worked tirelessly to bring men of learning and the arts to his court. He was intelligent, affable, courteous and a man of generous impulses. He was not, however, an astute politician.
Francois I was obviously greatly impressed with the achievements of the Italian Renaissance and it was he who was responsible for bringing Leonardo da Vinci to France, in possession I might say, of his Mona Lisa, Sainte Anne and Saint Jean Baptiste.
Francois set up a villa for da Vinci, Le Close Luce, and granted him a pension for life.
Francois spent many hours conversing with his protégé and he was even there at his deathbed where the famous man is said to have bemoaned the fact that he had achieved so little in his life.
Ed and I were fascinated with the Leonardo’s villa. Wikipedia informs us that, ‘Leonardo is considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived.’ It was eerie to walk around the house. Very few visitors were at his villa that day and there was a strange sense of being in another world, a haunting magnetism emanating from every facet of a time distortion. It was uncanny; both Ed and I could feel his presence in the house, probably because of his many sketches and replicas of inventions which were on display in the building. There was much to think about on our way home and many questions to be pondered before our curiosity could be resolved.
Wednesday was our Paris day. It was incredibly exciting, especially as this was my first visit to the famous city. A 6 o’clock rising was necessary so that we could catch the 7:45 train to Paris. On arrival, our first stop would be the Eiffel Tower.
What an amazing structure it is! Standing beneath the mighty metal frame and looking upwards, it seemed to vanish into the clouds. With having to queue for tickets and waiting for the lift, it was a little while before we found ourselves at the top of the tower. The ascent was rather scary because the ground, which is visible from the lift, seems to recede at an incredible speed and you feel yourself airborne without any control of your situation. However, the view of Paris was breath taking and worth the reeling experience of being in a flight into eternity.
Later Ed and I walked along the banks of the River Seine with our destination being the Louvre. It was a beautiful day and I tried to embrace every little pleasure of a walk along this famous route, but the exercise began to weary me and I longed for a place to sit and just enjoy the view.
The tour guide suggests – ‘as with French food, the river is best enjoyed in small bites and slowly savoured’. In determined spirit and full of expectations we eventually made it to the Louvre. Of course I had seen pictures of the famous museum, but being so close filled me with awe and I couldn’t wait to be part of the milling crowd and propel my way through the throng.
At ground level it is a magnificent building, but entering its environs was like being part of a whole new world. The guide book explains that the Louvre is the world’s largest museum and houses one of the most impressive art collections in history. We are also informed that in 2016 there were 7.3 million visitors. That is a substantial number of people for authorities to guide through the galleries and refresh them after their sojourn.
The level below ground is quite phenomenal. The whole museum has been built to accommodate galleries of archaeology, sculptures, paintings, drawings, and at a later stage, restaurants, boutiques and tourist shops for thousands of visitors. The Carrousel du Louvre is the shopping component and can be visited without access to the museum area. Gourmet food stalls offer delicacies for French, Moroccan, Japanese and Mexican meals along with many other international offerings. I selected a huge salad meal while Ed found some good German beer and finished off what I couldn’t eat.
What happens if you are not prepared and haven’t purchased an online ticket to view the beautiful galleries? Well, you queue for 1 ½ hours. When I was finally at the ticket booth and ready to buy a ticket to enjoy untold pleasures – my card didn’t work!!!
Getting help from Ed and queuing for another hour or two was not going to work. By then closing time would not be far off; so I decided that I would have to return to Paris on another day! Two tired and rather disappointed travellers made their way back to the station and returned to Tours.
There was no travelling on Thursday, but we had an opportunity to do some shopping in Tours. Ed and I enjoyed walking around the supermarket and looking at the range of different foods and drinks available to French consumers. We quickly realised that French wines and cheese are very much cheaper than those available in the UK.
Our planned excursion to Pornic, a holiday resort on the Atlantic coast, meant another early rising, because the rail journey would be on the regular network with speed limits of 140km an hour. Travelling from St Pier des Corps to Nantes took two hours with an hour to wait for the coastal connection.
We didn’t have time to see much of Nantes, except to enjoy a little picnic in the park on our way home. Ed had bought some ham, rolls and wine and we admired the beautiful surrounds while we waited for our train to take us back to Tours.
I found this stunning Wikipedia aerial view of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and if there was time I would return to see the whole city. What I did find interesting was that it is the birth place of Jules Verne whose famous works of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days, as well as many others, are loved by all.
We were delighted to be in Pornic, and blessed with beautiful sunny weather that day; walking around the curious little town was a real treat. Even Ed enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the narrow path of the Promenade, wooden bridges and harbour wall. Knowing that I could not or would not be able to sustain the good fortunes of having Ed as a hiking companion, I allowed him to locate to a little French pub filled with jovial elderly locals.
He longed to participate in the repartee but, with no knowledge of the language, he had to content himself with his beer and his books. I went off on my own and explored the many little cobbled streets which meandered through the pristine, historic town. I also followed the shoreline to the beach, a holiday area which compared very favourably with South African resorts. Our return journey later that afternoon was very comfortable as we had first class tickets, but the day’s adventure had included 6 hours of travel and when we finally got home we were ‘dog-tired’!
My second visit to Paris was on my own. As I had not pre-booked my ticket, I couldn’t get on to the T G V (fast train) to Paris. However, the alternative longer route was extremely pleasurable. Instead of viewing the rather austere countryside of the direct route, I was able to enjoy the beautiful historic towns of the Loire Valley.
Especially remarkable one was Blois with its impressive château and broad expanses of river which, at times, almost blinded me with the brilliant reflection from the sun.
Train travel in France is certainly a comfortable experience; the beauty of the countryside is quite enchanting. The incredible speed, the cleanliness, comfort and sophistication of the rail network make the U.K.’s train system look like rolling stock from a bygone era. As bad luck would have it, I found I had left my glasses behind in St Pier and couldn’t read any of the Metro directions. After a frustrating half hour of wrong routes, I finally sought help and was quickly given simple directions to the Louvre. Once in the museum, I was soon in possession of a ticket and made my way to one of the many entrances.
Now, if you have any knowledge of the Louvre, you will appreciate the vast distances which must be covered to view all the exhibits, so I had to be selective in what I wanted to see. I treated myself to an audio-guide and filled with expectations of an informative and enriching tour, I set off to explore. However, I was bitterly disappointed with the audio guide, which covered only a small section of the exhibits and gave superficial information.
Without my glasses I was not able to read the blue printed material available in each room. In spite of this there was still much to enjoy.
I was particularly impressed with the Greek sculpture and the Egyptian artefacts.
The visitor to the Louvre cannot help but be overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty of these wonderful exhibits.
I would like to have spent more time looking at the Renaissance art but there was just too much to see at onc e; I must confess that my greatest disappointment was viewing the Mona Lisa. It might be a famous work of art, but it seemed to be lost amongst the magnificent paintings which graced the galleries in the museum. At the end of the afternoon, I bought my postcards and went into a comfortable little café on the Rue des Rivoli where I had an ice cold beer. A routine trip home brought me back into the happy company of the Cado family.
I learned that, during my absence, Ed had joined company with some French men in a nearby pub and watched the television rugby match between France and Ireland. France annihilated Ireland to great roars of approval from the clientele. By the end of the afternoon Ed was talking ‘fluent French’ and had become ‘Mon Ami’ with the best of them.
Sunday was our last day, and on being the kind of people they are, Christian and Maria took me to the Château of Chenonceau. It is another fairy tale building! What interested me most was the fact that it had been donated by Henry II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. When he was killed in a tournament, his wife Catherine de Medici (of the famous Italian de Medici family) kicked Diane de Poitiers out and forced her to take up residence in another château
From her portrait she must have been a real ‘iron ‘lady. However she did much to transfer a plain château to one filled with Italian art. It is also interesting that, of the numerous Queens who stayed there, Mary Queen of Scots, who was married to François II, was also a guest at the château.
We were too late to go into the Chateau of Cheverny but it is open to the public as many of our National Trust houses are and its interior tells a beautiful story of lush furnishings and brilliant art work.
Once again, we were too late to enter the Chateau of Chambord but we admired its fairy-tale appearance.
It is home to the tasty Chambord Liquor made from red and black raspberries, Madagascar vanilla, Moroccan citrus peel, honey and cognac and is said to have been introduced by Louis XIV on one of his visits to the chateau. Of course I bought myself a bottle – it is delicious!
The Chateau is the largest in the Loire Valley and was built to serve as a hunting lodge for Francis I. It is possible that his protégée, Leonardo, might have had some influence in its design.
What a feast of wonderful culture and incredible pleasure. What insight into a whole world of history and art! I still couldn’t believe that I had seen and done so much. When Ed and I arrived back home in the UK, we both collapsed, and slept like the dead. It was a wonderful visit and it certainly won’t be my last. I am incredibly grateful that all these thrilling adventures are so accessible and, with planning, can be done on a limited budget.