November 13, 2016
The sky is far from blue. Instead it’s a beautiful combination of grays and wispy fog banks that stretch over the seemingly endless fields that flank our journey. With Le Mans behind us we’re now very much in the middle of the country and plan to stay here for this days riding. The roads we travel on are far from the wide, well-paved A and N roads that make travelling quickly through France possible. Rather we spend most of our time on D roads and the incredibly fun lieu-dit roads that wind through the spaces between fields, towns and homes. Barely wider than a walking path and often in varying states of repair, they’re a magnificent way to travel through rural France.
We’re heading into the Loire Valley and a small place called Les Frippières near the town of Chaumussay. It’s getting too cold to camp and rather than spending money at hotels, we’ve decided to rent a gîte for a few days to use as a base while we head out into the surrounding areas. Gîtes are far more affordable than a hotel with a typical nightly rate coming in at less than half of what we’d spend at a dingy motel in Canada. There’s also the added bonus of having a kitchen which removes the cost of constantly eating out. All important benefits during the winter until we can start camping again in the spring. Also, many of them seem to be owned by British ex-pats so speaking French isn’t required, though we think that’s kind of missing the point!
As we enter the Loire Valley, we’re immediately taken aback by it’s incredible beauty. It’s one of the most popular places to visit in France and we can see why; the roads rise and fall effortlessly over rolling green hills and are often lined by miles of trees blazing with autumns fire. It’s truly breathtaking. The sky opens for a moment to hint at the blue behind the clouds, but it quickly hides the sun again and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Loire is so beautiful.
Before arriving at our gîte, we stop in Le Grand-Pressigny to pick up some groceries for the next five days. Winding our way out of town, we duck onto a road that, according to our GPS, doesn’t exist. It’s not the first time. While our GPS’s can usually get us most of the way to our destination it seems as though the last few miles are where paper maps truly win. Many of the gîtes and chambres d’hôtes that we visit are not easily findable with a GPS alone. In fact, some of their owners give their location in coordinates – though that can prove troublesome as well depending on which format they choose to use. Still, it’s a lovely little road and soon we see a tiny sign at about road-level that says Les Frippières.
We pass a collection of old stone houses and head down a gnarly gravel road comprised mostly of fist-sized jagged rocks. “This isn’t right.” We turn around and head back the way we came and see the gîtes owner, Ken, waving as we round the first corner. Down a fairly steep gravel driveway we park our bikes, make our introductions and love Kens energy immediately.
Our gîte for the next five days is a lovely stone cabin, warmed by a wood stove, and without the trappings of television, phones and the like. Naming a home is something we’ve seen a lot of in Europe and it’s no different here; our cabin is named La Lune, and it’s a place Nita and I fall in love with instantly. Set alongside a farmers field and nestled far enough away from anything remotely resembling a city, the closest hamlet is Chaumussay – a small community that offers only basic supplies. One of the things we love the most about this place is how much it reminds us of our mindset when we’re camping; the reduction of concern to the most important pieces. Shelter, food and warmth.
There’s a hospitality with gîtes that makes it a beautiful way to see the country. The owners are excellent sources of local information and Ken’s no exception. Our gîte comes furnished with milk, tea, coffee, cookies and a bottle of bubbly! On a shelf, next to rows of books and board games, are brochures and maps for the area which are invaluable to helping us plan our daily rides. Every owner offers something unique to the travellers experience and we always appreciate the effort. La Lune is one of three buildings that are available for rent at Les Frippières, though this late in the season it’s very quiet here.
The surroundings here are also stellar. We feel so fortunate to spend time in this tiny stone cabin, to step back both in time and pace, and refocus on what inspired this trip in the first place. After gathering some wood and feeding the fire, we spend our first night here with a glass of wine, a pipe and our necks strained upwards hoping to see the stars peeking through the clouds. Throwing one last large log onto the stove, I shut down the vents and hope for a slow-burning fire that will keep us warm through the night.
The attempt at creating an all-night fire isn’t a complete failure. In the morning, the cabin is chilly but there’s a single brightly burning ember in the stove. A new piece of wood and some TLC brings the fire slowly back to life and we have our first victory of the day! As happy as I am for the fire, Nita is even more-so. Her cold is thick and she’s feeling quite weak. Riding today – and perhaps the next few days – is definitely out.
But it’s not a total loss since, in a cave under Kens home is a laundry area which always makes for a good day. We spend the day fetching wood, writing and tending the fire which is a very good way to spend any day. Bumping into Ken at the woodpile, he and his clothes are covered in splashes of paint. “While I’m here I’m tending to some walls.” With Nita resting, part of me wants to help – I love painting. Projects with a definite end and a tangible result are intensely satisfying to me.
We awake the next morning to crisp air, an amazing blue sky and, despite Nita’s cold, we plan a loop that will take us around the valley to explore the region. With the fire dwindling, we’re soon twisting our way through the countryside towards our first stop of the day: Chateau Azay le Ferron.
The roads are empty, as is the town of Azay le Ferron. At first glance the chateau looks to be closed but we find a place to park across from it’s main wall and a door that’s been left slightly ajar. Through the door, we can clearly see that access to the building itself is indeed closed as construction is currently underway. However the amazing park that stretches from the rear of the chateau is open and breathtaking. Dotted with topiaries, lined with tall, golden trees, the center of the park is home to a tiny labyrinth that a soaking wet dog has made home. While we’re not allowed to walk through it, the pup has different ideas and, after a quick sniff of our boots, he heads back into the maze taking out bushes everywhere.
A lone gardener looks at us with a pained expression on his face as he attempts to clear the leaves that have fallen from the trees. Bright reds and yellows lay a carpet along the garden that easily cover my boots. I certainly don’t envy the gardener but definitely feel as though the grounds are even more beautiful with the leaves right where they are. I smile and he attempts a weak reply, slightly raising a hand before dropping it in defeat onto his rake. I feel for him, but he’s surrounded by something that’s just so beautiful.
Nita and I walk around the outside of the chateau and marvel at it’s size. It’s so grand in every way it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of a project like this in the fifteeth century.
Back into the French countryside we stop for lunch in Le Blanc for lunch, though Nita’s favourite joke is that we were stopping in (Matt) Le Blanc. Ew. With my appetite somewhat smaller (thanks Matt) we stop into Café du Centre for a coffee and crêpe in what is an English-free zone. Mild conversation and ordering all go very well, and a lovely gentleman welcomes us to the town. Unfortunately by the time we figure out what he’s saying, he’s moved on to a table of older gents who are drinking red wine and talking heatedly. Instead, we smile at him from afar and he returns the gesture.
Meanwhile, Nita’s hunt for a crêpe with an egg on it has descended into a series of ape-like grunts. “Oof. Oof. Ooooof.” She keeps repeating this while pointing at a picture on the menu. “Ah! Oui! Oeuf” is the waitresses reply which has us all thinking that the message has been received loud and clear. It isn’t, and when the crêpes arrive eggless we look at each other and wonder where it all went wrong! Even without eggs the lunch is lovely and we continue to have spotty conversations with folks in the café.
Eventually we say our goodbyes and make our way to Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, a small town that is host to an eleventh century Abbey which and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When we enter the Abbey we’re met with a beautiful sight; the entire interior is covered in murals, hand painted in the eleventh and twelfth century. Even the brick that lines the wall is an illusion; the plaster has been painted to give the impression of brickwork. While less physically imposing than the Cathédrale Saint-Julien in Le Mans, the structure itself is magnificent, and with every column, beam and tile covered by an artists brush, there is a joy about this place that’s rarely seen inside these types of buildings.
Leaving the abbey, we feel somehow lighter. The experience of being in a place like Abbey Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is magical; to be wrapped in a building that is both spiritual and artful.
Back on the bikes we make our way to Chauvigny and yet another medieval city. Perched above the newer townsite, the walled city looks over the inhabitants – as do many of these places it seems. Defensively, it mades sense to build these cities in a way that allowed lookouts to see who was coming.
We park in a lot that’s made more for skiing than parking. Done dealing with the angles of the lot, we walk up into the heart of this ancient city and enjoy the view. To our left is the dungeon, a feature of these towns that far more common than I’d have thought. In front of us, two men who appear to own the Creperie are having a wonderfully animated talk pausing only to look at us and comment “Canadienne!” with a look of genuine surprise. Surprise over, they quickly get back into the conversation with a smoke hanging precariously off of one mans mouth. I love France.
We spend some time walking through the narrow streets and emerge onto a wall with a spectacular view of Chauvigny. We both take a moment to breathe it in and then, with the sun low in the sky we decide to make our way towards home.
Our plan is to stop in La Roche Posay for some groceries at the local Super-U but we’ve had an ongoing dilemma with this particular super-market; there are signs for these stores everywhere but we’ve yet to actually find one! Today’s no different. Paying close attention to the signs, we somehow still fail to find it and are guided down a steep, narrow road that exits onto a boat launch. A lone fisherman turns to stare as I gracefully pull a u-turn right beside him. Okay, perhaps a little less than graceful. After a few more attempts to find it, we make our way to an Intermarché which is always easy to find.
With the panniers full of groceries, we head home to La Lune for dinner. Back to basics, we spend our time getting the fire going again and get down to cooking our meal. Once again at the woodpile, Ken asks how the day went and I draw a complete blank – and I mean complete. I can’t name a single place we’ve visited. Ken laughs at my venture into forgetfulness and I notice he’s covered in even more paint; his arms are quite white and his dress pants are now unrecoverable – a condition that will get worse over the course of our stay. It only serves to make us like him more. After a cloudless day, the night sky is a deep black and reveals the stars eagerly. This truly is a beautiful spot.
Nita’s cold doesn’t appreciate the previous days tour and shows it’s displeasure by making her feel twice as bad today. In fact, for two days we’re grounded by the bug that’s taken hold in Nita’s chest. She sounds thick and a nasty cough is making a good nights sleep difficult. We fill our time writing and watching movies on the laptops, and venture out for a walk through the neighboring town of Chaumussay. It’s the quietest of towns and our only visitors are a farmer in his tractor, two men playfully arguing and a barking dog that follows us for a while down the street. Soon enough Nita’s back in front of the fire, wrapped in a blanket and hoping that we can get out for another day before we leave.
The next days beautiful blue sky is enough to coax Nita out of the house despite her cold. After what’s become our normal breakfast of eggs and chopped bacon on a bed of greens, we load a route into our GPS’s and make our way out of Les Frippières – up the steep gravel driveway and right onto an equally steep hairpin turn. Our first stop of the day is Loches and yet another medieval city.
Parking at it’s base, we climb a long, stone staircase before meeting the arch that marks the entrance to the walled city. Walking the stone streets, we start playing a game that involves avoiding the dozers that are actively hauling concrete from the entrance of the city to the chateau. Up and down the streets they go with lights flashing and beepers beeping. With repairs underway, the constant noise from the construction definitely takes us out of the period, but the medieval city in Loches feels much more alive than some of the others we’ve visited. This is also the hilliest city we’ve visited and, in full gear, the walk makes for some much needed exercise.
At one point we notice a dedication marking the spot where Jeanne d’Arc met the king in 1429 after her victory in Orleans. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that a spot we’re standing in is the same spot that was once occupied by someone like her – albeit in a different moment in time. Continuing up the hill we pass a rather grand chateau before arriving at the public gardens. Whereas the grounds on the chateau require an entry fee, these gardens don’t and the views are simply breathtaking. Heading down past another dungeon (how bad were these people?!?), we join a hoard of school-kids leaving the site and walk back towards the bikes.
Our next stop is the magnificent Chenonceau. It’s one of those feats of human ingenuity that requires the observer to suspend disbelief as the chateau isn’t built next to the Cher River, it’s built on the Cher River. Surrounded by acres of land that have been carefully manicured into wondrous gardens, there’s no shortage of space to build the chateau on solid ground. But we’re so glad they didn’t. To see the massive building suspended above the water seems to remove any sense of reality for the visitor and perhaps that was the point when Chenonceau was built in the sixteenth century. It’s dreamlike.
After parking and grabbing a coffee, we pay our entry fee and walk the long pathway to the gardens. For some reason, jumping feels like the thing to do and, camera in hand, Nita and I take turns pulling our best David Lee Roth impressions in front of the chateau much to the amusement of visitors and groundskeepers alike. We’re having fun! Chenonceau is, by far, the most touristy place we’ve visited in France. Buses flock into the parking lot with a solid regularity bringing folks from all walks of life in through it’s massive doors.
In the gardens a lovely man from Australia asks if we can take a picture of he and his wife and we happily oblige. We talk for a while with the arches of the chateau straddling the Cher River as a backdrop. They’ve been travelling through Italy and France for the past three months and this is their last two weeks before returning to life at home.
The inside of the chateau is equally as grand as it’s outside. Chenonceau is one of the only public chateaux that remains furnished, and with the giant fireplaces burning small trees it’s easy to understand what living here would be like. Rooms are decorated with intricate designs adorning the beds, tables and chairs that inhabit them. The walls are lined with tapestries and paintings which are worthy of the attention they seem to draw. Personally, a favorite feature is found in the kitchen where buckets are drawn in the river below for water, a system of weights powers the rotisserie without manual intervention and a legion of copper pots line the walls. Just fantastic.
The surroundings pull us in and we spend much longer at Chenonceau than we plan too. The next town we’re to visit, Mont Richard, is bumped from the list and instead Nita and I enjoy a coffee and croissant in the gardens still feeling a little overwhelmed with the beauty of this place. It’s a masterpiece. The golden light drops behind the ridge and it’s time to head home to Les Frippières. We collect our thoughts quietly under another starry sky, pipe in hand, and say goodnight to another remarkable day.
Nita’s cold is a rough one. The days out are probably not doing her any good but to miss this area would be a real shame. We spend our last day in Loire resting, writing and managing the fire. We’ve become pretty good at keeping it going all night now; the original strategy of throwing a log on every few hours while we slept lasted only one night. Now, the right combination of getting the coals to a nice temperature and boxing them with fresh logs before closing down the air has meant warm mornings and sleep-filled nights. Still, this is our last night at Les Frippières and we’re feeling a little sad to be leaving it.
This is a quiet little slice of heaven nestled in the valley of chateaux.