Ian and Jill left Caen during the morning leaving Geneviève to travel separately with her mother Germaine to meet up in the evening at Germaine's holiday house here on the Loire. The drive was not particularly pleasant, passing through countless little grey towns where speed limits were frequently reduced to twenty miles an hour, reinforced by road bumps – intentional and otherwise, and traffic lights that seemed permanently set to red. We stopped for lunch and fuel in Argentan and shortly afterwards the storms started adding to the difficulty of our drive. There was nowhere to pull off and the country roads were awash with water with visibility reduced by the slashing rain and blackened skies. We were lucky it seems. Despite thunder and lightning we were okay but overhead wires were hit on the railway knocking out the electricity and leaving passengers stranded overnight in the TGV from Rennes to Paris!
We eventually arrived at Pocé around 6pm to find our hosts had taken the motorway from Le Mans and had been here for a couple of hours, having left after us! Supper was already waiting and after exploring the house with enthusiasm and delight we sat around the table with glasses of wine. As the rain continued falling outside we felt very snug.
Tuesday 17th July 2007, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Near Amboise, Loire Valley
Today, by contrast to yesterday, the sun is out and it is a beautiful day. We have discovered that the house is large and rambling with a sunny enclosed garden behind and steps leading up into cool woodland. Across the road in front, but belonging to the property, lie a neglected rose garden and an overgrown vegetable patch leading down to a tiny river where the children all used to spend hours fishing and never caught anything. The domain is far too large to maintain but this morning Ian is out in the garden with a scythe trying to restore the lawn in time for lunch. The tools are all old with worm eaten handles. Along with the garden furniture they are stored in a couple of troglodyte caves cut into the cliff face in the garden. When we opened the old wooden door the cave was cool and dry without any of the spiders' webs one might expect. This we quickly discovered is because there are several lively bats flying around inside! They seemed happy enough to skim around us as we sorted through the tools.
The house has belonged to the family since 1973 and is full of happy memories for them. Group family holidays were spent here with the children of both Yves and Geneviève, but as they have grown up and life has moved on it is visited less frequently. Germaine does not wish to be here alone without transport as there is nothing but a baker's shop in the village, so our desire to see the house we have heard so much about has been a good excuse for a shared visit. We will stay for a few days before moving on and next week Chantal will arrive to spend the school holidays here with her two girls. The house stands on the edge of the village near the privately owned château de Pocé where the grounds are open to the public without charge.
Wednesday 18th July 2007, Pocé, Near Amboise, Loire Valley
Much of yesterday was spent clearing the flower borders, hacking back the grass and scraping up the accumulation of moss. The garden is now quite transformed and we have been eating meals outside under the shade of a parasol as we admire our hard work and look at the grapes ripening on the vine that stretches along the old stone wall. This could be paradise! We are not the only British to think so. Just half a mile down the road there is a Rolling Stone who employs the village gardener and definitely does not suffer from moss in his lawn! If Mick Jagger can find satisfaction in Pocé, so too can we! He has apparently owned a château here for twenty five years and is well known in the village. This is a different château from the one mentioned above and Germaine has agreed to show us the entrance gate. It is apparently well hidden.
Apart from Sir Mick, the only other curiosity about Pocé is that it is the place where Viagra is manufactured! "Château Viagra" is almost certainly the ugliest château to be found on the Loire but it does offer employment to almost everyone in the village - except the gardener who is busy gathering moss for a Rolling Stone! Tentative discussions about a twinning link between Pocé and Pisa have so far come to nothing but if the tower inclines further it could provide a last ditch solution. The product is produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the factory is known locally as the Pfizeria!
Yesterday afternoon we left Germaine reading the newspaper and drove along the banks of the Loire to the Château de Chaumont. We parked beside the river which after the rains is in full flood, swirling around, and frequently submerging, the little sandy islands that are scattered along its length. Generally at this time of year there are sandy beaches and swimming spots all along the banks and the many campsites and hotels are packed. We found we could park anywhere and the campsites looked almost empty.
We walked up through the park to the château with its creamy stone walls and high pointed slate roofs. Inside we found a wide stone courtyard with lovely views of the wide valley of the Loire. On the wall was a carved porcupine, the symbol of Louis XII. It was to be seen again as a theme throughout the château, carved over fireplaces and doorways. There was much restoration work going on but we were free to wander the rooms at leisure and wonder at the luxurious lifestyle that must have been lived there. It had been greatly changed of course over the generations of ownership. Our ticket also gave access to the 19th century stables. Life looked pretty luxurious too for the horses, and the hunting and riding equipment, along with the collection of different carriages, were a reflection of the wealth of the owners.
We drove back along the opposite bank of the Loire, stopping for a stroll around Amboise on the way. Here the picturesque streets, huddled beneath the heavy defensive walls of the château, were crowded with visitors. Situated on top of the castle wall, very much in contrast, stood the delicate chapel dedicated to St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters. We did not spend long in Amboise. We have seen it before many years ago but it would be nice during a future visit to explore it in more detail. We would also particularly like to see the nearby home of Leonardo da Vinci at Clos Lucé.
This morning we left Germaine to walk down to the village for some postcards and to chat with her neighbour. We drove off after breakfast along the bank of the Loire, passing Blois, to the château of Chambord which none of us have ever visited before. It is one of the largest and most magnificent of the Loire châteaux and was started in 1519 by François I, successor to Louis XII whose château we visited yesterday. François constructed Chambord within a huge parkland, surrounding it with a wide moat. The building is heavily influenced by the Italian style of architecture and is typical of the splendour of the French Renaissance. It has an overall symmetry, with four linked towers forming a square around a central staircase constructed as a double helix. It is actually two circular staircases superimposed upon each other. Up at roof level fantasy takes over with belfries, towers and turrets that are never quite symmetrical. It is claimed that in silhouette it has the appearance of a mediaeval city. François I had as his symbol a salamander, believed to be capable of living through fire. It was to be seen throughout the castle, carved into the stonework.
There was much to see, many of the rooms were furnished and our visit took most of the day. There was also a curious exhibition "Made in Chambord" illustrating the use made commercially of the name Chambord to identify, particularly in America, with quality and beauty. Branded products ranged from ships, cars, kitchen cabinets and armchairs to restaurants, perfumes, coffee percolators, bedspreads, spirits and even a coffin!
In the 19th century, after the Revolution and the end of the Empire, Henri Duc de Chambord and last of the Bourbons was in direct line to the throne of France. It was accepted that the monarchy should return under the tricolour flag of the people of France. In 1871 carriages were made to carry the new monarch Henri V into Paris. But it was not to be. Henri refused to accept the monarchy under the French flag, insisting on a return to the white flag of the Bourbons. His intractability cost him his kingdom and he left for a life of exile, the Third Republic was declared and the new carriages mouldered at Chambord where they are currently being restored.
We were all weary after a day on our feet and poor Geneviève was exhausted with trying to explain the intricacies of French history to us. So after a brief rest we took a refreshing stroll through the surrounding formal gardens and looked at the stables and the little parish church. We had already wondered about the shrapnel marks scarring the beautiful white stone walls of the château. In the chapel we found a plaque commemorating the bravery of the priest who, during heavy fighting here in August 1944 as the Allies advanced through France, had interceded on behalf of hostages held by the Germans, saving not only their lives, but also preventing the destruction of many of the treasures from the Louvre which had been moved to Chambord for safe keeping during the war.
We sought out a different route for our return journey home, following the opposite bank through the sunny, green countryside of the Loire Valley. Near Amboise we stopped to investigate a wine cellar built into the cliffs. Inside it was dark and very cool. We were offered tastings of several Touraine wines to make our selection of a suitable gift for our hosts. For once Jill wasn't driving so could thoroughly enjoy the experience. During the conversation we were rather disappointed to hear that rumour is rife amongst the local businesses supplying his château, that Mick Jagger is actually selling up in Pocé! It seems that after all he "can't get no satisfaction" even in this tranquil corner of France!
Thursday 19th July 2007, Pocé, Near Amboise, Loire Valley
Today has been one of the laziest we have spent while travelling. This morning Ian pottered in the garden, Germaine did the crossword, Geneviève read her crime thriller and Jill prepared the blog, enjoying having a cool house and space to work. At lunch time we walked down to the village through the grounds of the château for yet another lunch to celebrate Geneviève's retirement and us all being together at Pocé after so many years dreaming of it.
Lunch was in a troglodyte restaurant inside the white chalk cliffs. While the sun was glaring and hot outside, we sat in cool comfort at pretty tables with flowers, deep within a cave! Any similarity with our stone-age ancestors ended there. The cave was well lit with electricity and the Flintstones surely never enjoyed chilled kir aperitifs as they waited to be served with pâté maison or saumon fumé served with prawns and salad. To follow we variously selected duck, steak or trout with gratin dauphinois and fresh vegetables accompanied by a bottle of the local Touraine wine. French menus always have at least four courses so next we struggled manfully through plates of cheeses and salad. Just as we thought it was all over Mme Flintstone exited from the adjacent kitchen cave carrying dishes of nouvelle cuisine chocolate gateau decorated with melon, grapes and crème anglaise. As we staggered back into the glaring sunshine we positively ached with over indulging! We just hope Geneviève doesn't continue celebrating her retirement indefinitely!
Germaine, at eighty-six is amazing. Not only did she cope very elegantly with lunch, she strode ahead of us back through the village, and deciding we now needed a good walk, she lead us to the entrance to Château Jagger. There was little to see from the gate. It looks very unassuming and masked by trees. The photos we have seen from the air however show it to be quite splendid.
Along footpaths, through woodland, across exposed grassy meadows, Germaine lead us on a relentless ramble. She does not get to visit Pocé very often and she was revelling in showing us around. The sun was as bright as she was and we were all feeling uncomfortably hot. Eventually we reached home and with one accord, we disappeared to our cool bedrooms and fell asleep for two hours despite feeling uncomfortably tight around the middle!
We were roused from our slumbers by a neighbour turning up to show us her latest grandchild who sat grinning at us from his push chair as we drank tea in a patch of shade in the garden. As the day turned cooler Ian returned to his gardening and Jill and Geneviève went off for yet another walk through the surrounding countryside.
Friday 20th July 2007, Pocé, Near Amboise, Loire Valley
We went our own way today, leaving Geneviève and Germaine to visit an elderly relative in a nursing home nearby before Germaine caught the evening train back to Caen. Meanwhile we spent the morning in Amboise, mainly at a cybercafé sorting out emails, blogs and internet banking.
We turned up at lunchtime at the home of Susan and Ray whom we first met in the Languedoc when we were staying at Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. They moved to the Loire last year and shortly afterwards recognised Modestine parked in the centre of Loches during several days of very heavy rain. On that occasion they made us welcome to their home and offered us accommodation for the night. Since then we have stayed in touch and as Pocé is not far from their village we have spent a very happy day together in their garden, eating slightly singed barbequed chicken and mirabelle crumble. Their garden is loaded with more fruit trees than they know what to do with so when we left it was with a box full of fresh mirabelles. Later we strolled around the village of sunny, white stone houses, surely a candidate for one of France's most beautiful villages, where every corner of the streets and gardens are filled with roses, dahlias, hollyhocks and various flowering shrubs. It was good to see their home now they have had time to settle. They have certainly found themselves a very enviable location and have begun to make friends locally and join in various activities.
It was already 7pm when we returned to Pocé to find Genevieve reading an article in Le Monde about the spiralling number of British buying second homes in France or moving here permanently. There are particular areas that they choose, mainly towards the west. Fortunately for us they have yet to discover the Jura, which will always have a very special place in our affections.
We would be hard pressed to find an area of France to put down roots. Each region has its own attractions and charms. That is what makes the country so special. We have rosy memories of Nancy, the vineyards of Champagne and the Meuse. Just at the moment we really do no want to leave the Loire. Last week we were singing the praises of Calvados and before that we were captivated by the Cotentin. Next week we will be in Brittany with our friends there and we will most definitely not wish to leave to return to England. We are already planning our return to France to areas as diverse as Bordeaux, the Jura and the Languedoc, each so very different yet quite irresistible, full of happy memories and friends we have made over the years.
Apart from having financial capital tied up in a property, buying commits you to one region. It seems better perhaps to rent in different regions for several months at a time, exploring the surroundings in depth. Modestine has been a joy to us since we retired and we hope we will continue to have happy travels together long into the future. It would be unrealistic though to continue living in such a tiny vehicle for long periods in all weathers, and travelling permanently can be very exhausting, as well as addictive. We would not have missed anything (except the trouble with our bank card) as we travelled through nine or ten countries over the past four months, but it has been wonderful recently to have Geneviève as a base to return to while we have been back in France. There is a lot to be said for a clean bathroom, a roof when it is raining, a washing machine, a table to leave the computer on for days on end, internet access from the next room, a telephone, a garage to dump our bikes in, and the conviviality of friends around a table with a bottle of wine by candlelight. It would be so nice too to be sufficiently long in a location to return the boundless hospitality so readily offered by all our fantastic friends across Europe. We are very aware of just how fortunate we have been over the past couple of years.
Saturday 21st July 2007, Pocé, Near Amboise, Loire Valley
Today has been our last full day together here and the sun has continued to shine for us. This morning the three of us drove into Amboise to invade the cybercafé and sort through emails before settling at a sunny table overlooked by the castle walls for croissants and a jug of coffee. Nearby, in a little street lined with boutiques, coffee shops and charcuteries, we could hear the authentic, brilliant playing of a couple of itinerant Hungarian gypsies with a violin and an accordion.
We drove out of Amboise, intending to stop for a picnic lunch at the curious Chinese pagoda of Chanteloup overlooking the valley of the Loire just outside Amboise. However, as that and the grounds is all that remains of the original château we thought the admission charge disproportionately high so continued to Chenonceau on the river Cher for our picnic. Entry here was hardly any more expensive and there was so much to see we were there the entire afternoon. It was inevitably crowded inside the château but with an excellent printed leaflet to guide us round we could move through the château at our own pace.
Chenonceau is one of the most well known and most beautiful of the châteaux. It is built in the river Cher linked to either bank by a delicate arched bridge. It is a very feminine castle and has generally belonged to women throughout its history. The 16th century château was given to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, by King Henri II. Many years his senior she retained her charms and influence over him until his accidental death in a tournament. His vengeful Queen, Cathérine de Medici, ordered Diane de Poitiers to leave her beloved home and she in turn then continued to develop Chenonceau. In particular she developed the grounds and setting up a beautiful garden on a raised terrace beside the house to protect it from possible flooding of the Cher and also built the galleries on top of the bridge. Since then Chenonceau has belonged to various women, notably Mme. Dupin, grandmother by marriage to the writer George Sand. It is due to her lifestyle and generosity towards her staff and tenants that Chenonceau was spared from the excesses of the French Revolution.
During the First World War the castle was used as a hospital while during the Second it found itself situated literally on the demarcation line between the free and occupied zones of France. Its main hall, constructed across the river Cher, provided a useful way of smuggling people across from one zone to the other.
The surrounding formal gardens are a joy to walk through while the interior of the house is furnished with tapestries, beds, upholstered chairs, cupboards, chests, paintings, carvings and ornaments. They are not all contemporary and few originate from the château but generally the fireplaces and ceilings of the rooms have been preserved despite considerable restoration during the 19th century. On the lower floor, level with the river in which it stands, are the kitchens, furnished with mainly 19th century copper pans, meat hooks, cake moulds and cutlery.
We spent far longer than expected looking around the castle and the grounds. On our way back to the car we discovered a 17th century restored farm complex and a huge fruit and vegetable garden. This was surrounded by walls and laid out very formally with low espalier apple trees lining the paths, pergolas hung with gourds, melons and pumpkins, individual beds of dahlias, marigolds, antirrhinums and sunflowers, with masses of sweet smelling roses in full bloom. Nearby we also discovered a formal maze laid out according to an Italian plan of 1720 and formed from two thousand yew trees. It wasn't very effective as a maze as we discovered the quickest way to the far side was to walk through it rather than round it but it was great fun for all the children.
We returned to Pocé through spattering rain beneath threatening skies. Nothing daunted we lit the barbeque in the garden under the roof protecting the entrance to the caves. We spent a very cheerful evening annoying the bats with the smell of sizzling meat until the rain eased and it was dark enough for them to come out and flutter around our heads as they skimmed the garden enjoying their own supper.