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Land Of Legend, Fairy Tale Castles and Contrasting Wines
May 8 is Liberation Day and Joan of Arc Festival
By Linda Watten
Meandering through apple orchards and vineyards on a green May morning, you crest a hill and behold! Floating like a galleon on the high seas: a castle. Time shifts, and you are: Joan of Arc triumphant in Orleans, or Leonardo da Vinci, designing a flying machine, or St Martin of Tours' donkey "pruning" the vines from Orleans west to Chinon, along the Loire -- France's longest river.
The Loire begins tempestuously but eases up after the Sologne, and becomes sinuous, flirty and languorous: very female, appropriately, for women are prominent throughout the valley's history. We might as well start with the Star: Joan of Arc. Her dramatic recapture of Orleans from the English changed the course of the Hundred Year War.
This May, the ceremony honoring Joan's entry into Orleans will be celebrated for the 575th time, minus bloodshed, but with sound and light shows, concerts, and medieval fairs. The festivities culminate on May 8th , Liberation Day, so you may get time travel whiplash watching Joan in armor on her steed flanked by courtiers, followed by tanks with mirage jets flying in formation. The parade with presentation of colors takes place in front of the Cathedral Sainte Croix; nearby is the Campo Santo where a medieval fair is in full swing with dancing bears, food stalls under colorful tents, with crafts and artisan exhibitions. Go into a bakery and pick up a local specialty: the pithiviers, an almond paste pastry.
Orleans was already an important gathering place in 52BC, when Celtic leaders decided to unite for an all out offensive against Julius Caesar. A hundred years later, Gallo-roman settlers were planting orchards and vineyards, as we know from the discovery of a stone winepress near Azay le Rideau. The valley has been known ever since as "The Garden of France."
Orleans is a thriving university town now, with a wonderful market on the quays, a vibrant flower market on Place de la Republique, and the Musee des Beaux Arts where you can see Velasquez' St Thomas. In from the river is the highly regarded Les Antiquaires restaurant, featuring seasonal fare from the Sologne forest. The cathedral Sainte Croix has a stately west front with three large doorways, rose windows, and exquisite stone tracery. The Campo Santo is home to the medieval fair, the fall Feast of the Pig, and a jazz festival in late June. The Rue de Bourgogne, formerly the main street of the Gallo-Roman city, is now principally for pedestrians and is great for window shopping, and casual meals, at Les Chineurs, or Le Viking, or Le Petit Marmite.
Follow the river south for a short side trip, to the little church of Germigny-des-Pres, a Carolingian gem built for Charlemagne. The east apse is all that remains of the original building: but you can travel back and marvel, when the whole church was covered with gold and silver mosaics, and the floor with inlaid marble. The ceiling has a mosaic depicting the Ark of the Covenant as splendid as Byzantine mosaics.
Close by is St Benoit sur Loire's Fleury Abbey, one of the most famous Romanesque buildings in France, where the remains of St Benedict (founder of the Benedictines) are buried. Note the beautifully carved capitols on the belfry porch and the elegant long nave. Further south is the chateau at Sully sur Loire, becalmed on the banks of the Loire, pale and serene. This is a great place for a picnic with the local crottin de chavignol goat cheeses, washed down with Sancerre. There is a music festival here in June
Leave Orleans, driving along the Loire west through chateau country, into the Touraine wine region, which stretches from here to Bourgeuil. Blois appears next, perched on the cliffs, commanding the river. The chateau hosts summer historical sound and light shows and has the famous Fran�ois 1er central staircase.
Medieval streets twist up to the center, where there are buildings from the golden age of the Renaissance. Eat at L'Orangerie du chateau in 15th century splendor. The terrace has a superb view of the chateau. The restaurant features classic cuisine and Chinon wines.
Chaumont sur Loire is on the south side of the river, and hosts the international garden festival every year. A central theme is established, and leading landscape architects and gardeners create plots of land exploring the theme. One year it was "chaos", another year, "peace".
Touraine vines grow mostly in flinty clay. They say that in the 4th century, St Martin of Tours' donkey, by "pruning" the vines, improved the taste of wine. Thus started the art of viticulture. The Touraines are fun and affordable. They can be delicate, or heady and sweet, or dark and rich, and others taste of languorous summer days. There are still, or sparkling wines, and liqueurs.
Most reds are Cabernet Franc; the whites are Chenin Blanc, or Pineau de la Loire. Between Blois and Tours, the Montlouis and Vouvrays are the best known. On your way to the vineyards, visit the ruins of the Amboise chateau, nestled on a hill overlooking the town. Francois 1er brought Leonardo da Vinci to live here, and gave him a lovely manor house, Le Clos-Luce --although he is buried in the Chapel of St Hubert on the chateau grounds - which houses reproductions of Leonardo's inventions, built from an IBM program that rendered his blueprints into modern schematics.
Vouvray and Montlouis produce both still and sparkling whites tasting of peach, quince, and honey. The wines are heady and fruity; the still Vouvrays should be aged, and both make liqueurs that last forever. The older vintages are smooth and fruity and work very well as aperitifs. Vouvrays tend to bubble naturally, and are light and lively as aperitifs. The dry Vouvrays go well with seafood, the demi-sec with fish in sauces, and pork. Try the sparkling wines with foie gras, strong cheeses and fruit desserts, such as the Tarte Tatin. The dry whites go very well with the local goat cheeses.
Chenonceaux: haven for the king's mistresses
South of Montlouis is the dreamiest chateau of all: Chenonceaux. Floating gently mid-river, surrounded by gracious parkland and gardens, Chenonceaux was the home of Queens and mistresses. Its design and layout were the work of the architect's wife, who supervised the construction while her husband was off collecting taxes for Charles VIII. Then, Henri II gave it to Diane de Poitiers, his mistress. The minute he died, his wife, Catherine de Medicis, threw Diane out and moved in. She made many extravagant improvements and threw lavish parties where young women dressed as mermaids would serenade arriving guests from the moat, in harmony with nymphs hiding in the bushes.
Visit Chenonceaux off-season (between late September and early June) to avoid the zillions of tourist buses.
Villandry: is the last important Loire Renaissance chateau, but go to stroll through the famous gardens. There are three terraces, water gardens, greenhouses, canals, cascades, and a patchwork kitchen garden, multi-hued and laid out in squares.
Azay le Rideau: is next on our way west. It was razed to the ground by Charles VII, and rebuilt in the 16th century by Gilles Berthelot, but his wife oversaw the construction. The chateau sits on the Indre River, ideally situated, with pleasing proportions. There is a grand staircase and museum quality furnishings. There are chenin Blancs and roses bottled here under the name of the chateau.
Usse: Following the D17, we come to the chateau of Usse on the edge of the Chinon forest. When Charles Perrault wrote Sleeping Beauty, this was his model and it's no wonder: towers, turrets, and a castle keep. The choir stalls in the chapel are very fine, and there are Flemish tapestries in the great hall.
Chinon: Just south of Usse is Chinon, the chateau and surrounding vineyards. The chateau was a Plantagenet stronghold, and is still formidable. We have come full circle, for it was here in 1429, that Joan of Arc met Charles VII and subsequently started her march to Orleans. The castle ruins are worth exploring, and you can then lunch at l'Oceanic in the center of town if want fresh fish, or more formally at le Plaisir Gourmand on the quay Charles VII.
The Chinon reds are made from Cabernet Franc grapes and must be laid down for quite a while, and then they become smooth, redolent of violets and red fruit. There are a few rose and white Chinons, which are drunk young. Look for wines using vieilles vignes, as the gout de terroir will be more intense, the color verging on deep purple. There is a vintners' syndicat in Chinon that can help with tours and information, located on Impasse des Caves Peintes. There is a medieval festival in August.
Our final stop is Bourgeuil, north of Chinon, which produces a very rich tannic red wine. These wines like to be aged. The Domaine du Chene Arrault in Benais is worth visiting for their 18th century buildings and large cellars in tufa rock