The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Which I am a Pretty Pretty Princess

Last weekend I went to Tours in the Loire Valley region to visit the Châteaux there. This had been on my Mandatory Travel Checklist for a long time, so I was really happy to finally get there. Despite being a lone voyager once again, and despite the fact that my hostel wasn't at all social, I ended up having a really good time.

I left on the first possible train Saturday morning and finally got to Tours around 2:30 in the afternoon. I went straight to the tourist office to book a mini-bus tour to the Châteaux. It was right across from the train station. One thing I really like France is their nice tourist office. Just about any town you go to that would conceivably have tourists has a tourist office, and they're always chock full of free maps, brochures and advice. I booked a full day tour for Sunday and the nice lady directed me to my hostel. She also drew a walking tour on my free map and told me where the cool stuff was. I followed the route she'd drawn me on my way to the hostel, which I found without much trouble. Unfortunately, I couldn't check in until 5pm, so I rested for a few moments, then set off to check out the cathedral.

On the way I stopped in a couple of boutiques, looking for some of those awesome pants I've been wanting for a while. I see girls wearing them in Lille and Paris, but there's really only one girl I've seen wearing them in Berck. She's in one of my classes and just recently transferred to Berck; her style is definitely more urban than most of the other students at the lycée. Anyway, the pants in question are what I would call "harem pants." They're fitted at the hips with a wide fabric panel, then they balloon out into these wide flowing legs, then cinch up again at the ankle. I've wanted some for a while but haven't had the money, so when I finally found a pair I liked in a South American shop on Rue Colbert, I bought them on the spot. It was getting pretty warm in town that day, and the pants were much breezier than my leggings and winter dress, so I decided to wear them out of the store. I instantly felt so much cooler and more confident, and it must have shown because I had barely gone five steps down the road before I got cat called by some guys smoking outside a café: "Qu'est-ce que c'est belle, aujourd'hui? Qu'est-ce que c'est ravissante?" That sort of made my day, and I went on to the cathedral with a smile on my face. I think the guy got the wrong idea from my grin, though; as I walked away he called out playfully "Il ne faut pas rire comme ça!" Sorry guy, I'm not the type of girl to respond to a pick up line from stranger. Thanks for the ego boost, though.

I found the cathedral again with very little trouble. It was definitely impressive, with a beautiful exterior and enormous stained glass windows. I poked around the cloisters as well, whose function I felt better acquainted with after having read Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett. Not exactly great literature, but I definitely know my cathedral terminology now. After imagining my possible past life as a nun, I went back to the hostel to check in. I was given a room all to myself, which was a delightfully novel experience. There were two beds in the room, but when I booked online I'd noticed that on my reservation it said "chambre individuelle." So, I paid what would be the average hostel price for a 6-10 bed room and instead got a private hotel room. I even had a sink! Talk about luxury.

The next day, I got up bright and early for my 9:30 tour departure. I shared the mini-bus with the guide, David, two couples (one Japanese, the other I'm not sure... Korean, maybe?) and a nice lady named Hiroko. She was probably in her mid-50s and traveling alone. She said she'd been to France several times, and wanted to improve her French. We ended up hanging out together for most of the tour and she was nice enough to take pictures of me pretending to be a princess.

Azay-le-Rideau was first, and I had fun peeking out the big windows and imagining I lived there. I would probably change the furnishings if I *did* live there, but all the same it had the best interior, in my opinion. It has long chains of rooms leading one into the other, small passageways, spiral staircases, huge windows, lovely views, and plenty of living space. It would definitely be my choice if someone decided to give me a Château. Since we were the first visitors of the day, and still in the low season, I was alone in many of the rooms and could easily imagine I was the sole visitor (or prospective buyer) in an empty castle.

We then went to Villandry, which is known for having the second-best gardens in France, after Versailles (which, btw, I will be visiting next Thursday). Unfortunately, it was too early int he season to have many flowers, but the hedges were still green and trimmed. I didn't like the interior of Villandry nearly as much as Azay-le-Rideau, but the views of the gardens were rather impressive.

We went back to Tours for lunch, then it was on to the afternoon section. First up was Chenonceau, which is the most famous. It's the one that spans the entire river, and is known as the Lady's Château because the most famous residents have been royal women. Chenonceau was quite fairy-tale like as well, complete with pretty princess well in front (see photos) and lovely round towers.

Next was Clos Lucé, near Amboise. Clos Lucé is where Leonardo DaVinci spent the last three years of his life and eventually died. It is near the château/town of Amboise, where François I lived while DaVinci was at Clos Lucé. The house is okay, but the real fun at Clos Lucé was the huge park, in which one could find (and often play with!) models of several of DaVinci's inventions.

Amboise was last. I didn't think the interior was all that interesting, but the view from the top was definitely breathtaking. I could see the whole town below, and the river was shimmering with the sharp white light of the late afternoon sun. After taking my fill of feeling on top of the world, I walked around the gardens a bit with Hiroko, then went down to the chapel where Leonardo DaVinci is interred. After walking through Clos Lucé, which is bedecked with glass panes bearing DaVinci quotes, I really want to read more about him. I've always found him fascinating, but his little proverbs and witticisms fascinate me even more than his inventions.

Our last stop was at a "cave" or winery. It was built right into the natural rock of the region, in the side of a hill. We went down into the storage cave for a few moments, then had a tasting. It was white wine and mostly very sweet, so I liked it a lot. All in all, I think it was a pretty perfect day. I'm glad I went during the low season, even if it means that the gardens weren't in bloom. I think crowds of other tourists would have made it difficult to enjoy the anachronistic beauty that is the real charm of the Châteaux. I never forgot that I was in the 21st century, but there were a few quite moments where I really felt like royalty.


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