ATTENTION READERS: This is a very long entry. Bonne Chance…
Vacation! One of the amazing things about being an assistant in France is that I am entitled to eight weeks of vacation. That is, eight weeks of paid vacation. After merely one month of teaching at twelve hours a week, I hardly felt I deserved a two-week vacation for the Toussaint holiday. However, as someone who is rather fond of vacations, I am not complaining.
There are certain American traditions that I certainly miss living in France. So, to start off my break in true American style, Kévin and I decided to carve pumpkins and celebrate Halloween – a holiday that is underrated in French society (although it is slowly gaining popularity due to its market potential). Halloween happens to be my favorite American holiday so it was nice for me to be able to carve pumpkins, bake pumpkin seeds, and make pumpkin bread just like I do when I am at home in the US. When I suggested dressing up for the evening, Kévin looked at me as if I was crazy. We decided to forgo the costumes. We did however make the trek into Nantes to watch “Frankenweenie” in 3D and stop by an Irish pub where a soccer game was being aired. It wasn’t until after we left that I realized what a funny spectacle it was – an Irish pub, airing an English soccer game, in a French city, decorated in American style for Halloween. While I certainly missed giving out candy to trick-or-treaters (or trick-or-treating myself) I can’t say we didn’t have a good time discovering an American holiday in French fashion.
With two weeks to kill and absolutely nothing planned after Halloween, I decided to take the opportunity to reserve four nights in a Bed and Breakfast in the Loire Valley. Kévin had never visited the area and so it was up to me to play the tour guide during our stay – rather ironic considering that he is French. This trip marked my third visit to the Loire valley, an area that I never seem to tire of no matter how often I go. Perhaps this is because there are around 300 castles in the region.While many of these are small and closed to the public, there are an overwhelming number of chateaux that are available for visits. This time around, Kévin and I visited six castles in a three-day period. On the first day, we started our tour with the castle in Blois, whose architecture is broken into three distinct styles – Classic, Renaissance, and Gothic – to mirror the tastes of the various monarchs who lived there over the centuries. Next, we made our way to Chambord, the largest chateau in the Loire valley. The first time I visited, our group had a guide which made the castle absolutely fascinating. While the chateau may be enormous, it is also rather empty, so knowing the history behind the architecture is essential to appreciating the castle. I recounted what I could remember to Kévin during our visit as we wandered through the cavernous, empty rooms. At one point, we happened upon a door that was half-way open and decided to explore the spiral staircase beyond. Upon reflection, it seems that someone forgot to lock that part of the castle because we soon found ourselves among a labyrinth of small, dusty rooms, some with WWII era medical equipment in them and others completely empty except for the occasional gargoyle. On the one hand, it was really interesting to see a part of the castle that is normally (I am assuming) closed to visitors, but after twenty minutes of searching for the way back out, I was relieved to find the ground floor once more. Images of the castle’s “oubliettes”, or dungeons, kept flashing in my head as we wound down tight spiral staircases. “Oublier” which means “to forget” is an apt description for these hidden dungeons, accessible only by a hatch in a high ceiling, where prisoners where quite literally forgotten and left to die of starvation or dehydration in the dark. Needless to say, I was happy when we re-entered a well-lit room filled with the din of tourists snapping photos.
After our rather interesting experience at Chambord, the rest of our visits were without incident. On our second day, we visited Chaumont-sur-Loire and one of my personal favorites, the under-appreciated Fougères sur Bièvre. Chaumont often hosts expositions through-out the year and their highly acclaimed garden festival is an event worth seeing. This time around, there was a stained-glass exhibit in the castle and an autumn festival in the surrounding gardens.The stained-glass exhibit was one that I had seen last summer when I visited with my mom. I was extremely happy that it was still being shown however because the artist set up his pieces in rooms that have not been touched or modified for centuries. Kévin and I wandered (this time with permission) through unheated hallways and rooms full of rusted armor, broken chandeliers, ancient paintings, and old furniture where the images on stained glass were the only reminders of the present. At one point, we entered a large room that was completely filled with rows upon rows of doors. It struck me as more than a little bizarre but also fascinating. On the whole, the visit was incredible. After our initial visit of the castle, we explored the stables, gardens, and tea shop before making our way to Fougères.
Fougères, in stark contrast to Chaumont, is a small castle with modest gardens. Perhaps it is this small, authentic feel that I like so much. Our visit of Fougères was rather relaxed and uneventful, though there is something I find deeply intriguing about this medieval castle. It is one of the chateau that I will make a point to return to on every visit.
For our last day in the Loire, we visited the chateaux of Amboise and Chenonceau, with a fortuitous stopover in the “Mini-Chateaux” park just outside of Amboise. I had never visited Amboise before so I was excited to see what was in store. I was even more excited when I discovered that Leonardo da Vinci was buried in the cathedral on the domain.
When I first saw the plaque on the floor with “Leonardo de Vinci” engraved below it, I thought it was a replica. But no, I paid homage to the great scientist himself in the small, rather unassuming cathedral that sits on top of the hill next to the chateau d’Amboise. Pretty cool. After a tour of Amboise, we headed off toward Chenonceau for our last visit but were distracted 10 km outside of Amboise by a sign advertising “Mini-Chateaux”. So, instead of visiting Chenonceau directly, we instead dressed up as a knight and princess and paraded through the park, which featured 45 miniature reproductions of the Chateaux de la Loire. It was an amazing experience (though slightly pricey) and we thoroughly enjoyed running around like children for an hour. Not only were the castles beautifully sculpted, they also gave us a great idea for what we might like to see on our next visit! Once our childish streak had run its course, we got back in the car and headed over to the big-kid castle of Chenonceau. Our timing at the park was absolutely perfect. We got there about thirty minutes before sunset which gave us amazing views from both the interior and exterior of the castle. After completing a tour of the castle, we watched the last rays of the sun disappear over the river before heading back to our Bed and Breakfast. Our last night with our hosts at the B&B presents one of the perfect examples of why I love being in France so much. On our way back to the house, they texted us to invite us to play pool and share a few drinks with them before leaving the next day. We decided to eat dinner in our room that night anyways so the timing was perfect. When I realized that we didn’t have any plates or a corkscrew, Nadine and Marc welcomed us into their kitchen and invited us to dine at their table. Marc demonstrated how to make the perfect salad dressing while Nadine offered us a selection of French cheeses. After our dinner of homemade sandwiches, wine, and salad, we met our hosts in the living room for a game of pool. One game turned into three and before I knew it we had been there for five hours discussing politics, philosophy, architecture, anthropology, and psychology. After learning that I was an anthropology major, Nadine put me in contact with one of her close friends in Paris who happens to be a renowned anthropologist. To say that it was the perfect end to the perfect stay is somewhat of an understatement. And so, I will finish here, saying only that vacations in France are a magical occasion.