Triefenstein (Lower Franconia), Germany September 2023

Our next overnight stop was Camping Main Spessart Park in the small town of Triefenstein in the Lower Franconia area of Bayern Region. Following the model in Saarburg we intended using Triefenstein as a base from which to visit a couple of places in the Lower Franconia area namely Miltenberg and Burgstadt.

Starting with Triefenstein itself, there’s not a great deal to see in the immediate area. Yes, there’s the 12th century Kloster Triefenstein Monastery just outside the town but it is not generally open to the public and I wasn’t going to walk up there from the campsite just to wander it’s grounds (always assuming the public are allowed entrance into the grounds). There is also a small market square containing an obelisk dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Dreifaltigkeutssaule, (which was inspired by similar monuments in Austria at Wien and Bayern) and; there is the Parish Church of Sankt Jacobus to see. Perhaps most interesting, there is a fresco on a nearby house commemorating Napoleon’s crossing of the Main on his way to Russia in 1812. It seems Napoleon’s army built a pontoon bridge nearby and he stayed overnight in the town.

Except for it’s impressive little Edeka supermarket, that is about it so far as Triefenstein is concerned but we didn’t expect a great deal and, as I said earlier, we intended using the town as a base from which to explore other parts of Lower Franconia. We would start the next day with Miltenberg and possibly Burgstadt.

Wolf an der Mosel (Rhein Pfalz), Germany September 2023

Unable to move on because of the wine fest we elected to use Saarburg as a base from which to visit nearby towns.

We had enjoyed a short boat trip up and down the River Saar when later in the day during an impromptu wine tasting session in the ‘Bonsai & Wine’ off- licence on Kunhof, the very friendly and knowledgeable chap running the place suggested we visit Trier and the much smaller town of Traban-Trabarch. So off we went.

Vanya wasn’t keen on our visiting Trier (her hip was causing her some considerable pain and she wouldn’t be able to walk both Trier and Traban-Trabarch in the same day) and so we headed directly for the much smaller town of Traban-Trabarch some 50 miles north east of Saarburg on the River Moselle.

Traban-Trarbach (Traben is on one bank of the Moselle and Trarbach is on the other) is a charming little town of about 6,000 people famous for it’s castle and it’s wine. Unfortunately, there must have been nearer 26,000 people in the town as we arrived (I’d forgotten all about the wine-fest) and even after driving an almost complete circuit of both Traban and Trarbach we couldn’t find a parking space anywhere near the old town centre. Vanya simply wouldn’t cope with the walking. Once again we were required to improvise but this time it was easy. All the work was done for us. As we drove in ever widening circles in search of somewhere to park (that’s a bit of an exaggeration), we stumbled upon the small village of Wolf an der Mosel.

Surrounded by meadows and vineyards Wolf, is just 3 kilometres up the Moselle from Traban-Trabarch and not far from the beautiful little castle at Bernkastel-Kues. It’s a winegrowing village almost completely surrounded by a loop in the river and it even has it’s own municipal campsite. Perhaps most important one of the Wolf wineries, Weingut Comes, was open and serving. After a good walk around the village, that was to be our destination.

The family in Weingut Comes were very welcoming and the wine was good. We enjoyed glasses of a 1921 Rivaner Trocken (a dry Riesling) and a younger 1922 Schieferlay (another dry Riesling with a stronger flavour) with Vanya favouring the Rivaner and me opting for the Schieferlay. We drank them with a shared breaded cheese which was fantastic and left with more than a few bottles in the back of the Van.

It’s odd but sometimes the simple little stops such as in Wolf can make for as good a day as any in a historically rich and interesting city.

Saarburg (Rhine Pfalz), Germany September 2023

This was a return to the Rheinland Palatinate but our first time in the popular tourist town of Saarburg. We expected Saarburg to be busy but were unaware the town holds it’s annual “Saarweinfest” during the first complete week of September and we arrived on Tuesday 5 September to find the place absolutely teeming. Ordinarily a wine festival is reason to celebrate but there will be wine festivals throughout all of Germany’s wine producing areas during the month of September and this will make it very difficult for us to find suitable camp sites along our intended route. And so to Plan B. We had secured the last available space in the Leukbachtal Campsite but were able to stay on beyond our planned one night (Possession is everything in camp sites across Europe). We decided therefore to stay on in Leukbachtel and use the place as a base from which to make day trips around the area until such time as something resembling normality returned. Plan B worked. Over the next three days we saw all we needed to see of Saarburg, took a boat trip up and down the River Saar and visited both the little village of Wolf and to a lesser extent Traban-Trabarch in the Van.

Saarburg old town isn’t that big but it is very picturesque. It’s most interesting features appear to be, in no particular order, the 10th century castle ruins (Burg Saarburg), it’s two primary churches (St Laurentinus and the Evangelical Church) and the very scenic cafe area bordering the tiny River Leuk and it’s town centre waterfall. This latter area has been referred to in certain blogs as Little Venice because of the number of footbridges crossing the River Leuk but that, I suspect, will have been by people who have never been to Venice. No matter, it is still very much worth seeing.

My first exploration of the town took me from the Leukbachtel, past the Parish Church of Saint Laurentinus (I wasn’t particularly impressed with this church – contrary to what I’d read about the place, it is very plain inside and the stain glass windows are not at all grand) and then on up to the highpoint of the town, Burg Saarburg. There is little left of the original castle, other than it’s keep. The castle was dynamited by a French army in 1709 and was left an almost total ruin. The focus of all the recent restoration work appears to have been towards creating a restaurant, viewing points over the town and a series of lifts and ramps for the disabled but the views are impressive and the short walking route up to the castle takes you by the pretty Evangelical Church which is made entirely out of sandstone.

I didn’t stay long in the castle because one of my primary objectives during this first walk around Saarburg was to find a decent restaurant and book a table for the evening. This search took me directly to the scenic cafe area and waterfall… and I was fortunate enough to secure a table in a pleasant spot by the river for dinner.

I’ll let the photos of the River Leuk do the talking…

Dinner that first night in Saarburg was pleasant enough, with Vanya’s dessert very much looking as if it were the main event but my apfelstrudel wasn’t bad and the local Riesling wine was fine.

Over the next couple of days we made frequent returns to the old town and were always there for dinner. Vanya has always liked ice cream and now she has discovered ‘spaghettieis’, a dessert created by Dario Fontanella in Germany during the 1960’s. Vanilla ice cream is extruded through a potato ricer, giving it the appearance of spaghetti. It is then placed over whipped cream and topped with strawberry sauce (to simulate tomato sauce) and grated almonds to represent the parmesan cheese. It is very popular across Germany and with Vanya.

No visit to Saarburg would be complete without a walk down to the Saar River where it is possible to cross the town bridge to the Saarburg suburb of Beurig and/or take short boat trips along the Saar.

We did both, starting with the short (1.5 hour) boat trip up and down the river. I wouldn’t particularly recommend this trip (there was little to see) but the weather was ideal for a short cruise; we could take the dogs with us on the boat at no extra charge and; the bar stocked bottles of the locally produced sparkling wine which we enjoyed in the company of a couple of two friendly Dutch ladies. Well, Vanya enjoyed it. I succeeded in spilling two glasses of wine and shattering one champagne flute which almost took the edge off our little cruise.

Saarburg is a lovely little town. We were perhaps unlucky arriving during a local holiday while the place was so busy but, in response to that, I recall our arriving in Colmar in France during the Covid Pandemic two or three years ago and our finding the streets, even the town centre, totally deserted. That was most disconcerting and, when all is said and done, much about these places has been created for people to enjoy.

One final bitter sweet observation about Saarburg: There are numerous stolpersteine (stumbling stones) dotted all around the town. Outside one house in the suburb of Beurig, I stumbled on ‘stones’ recognising a family of ten. These small brass blocks or ‘stones’ stand outside the homes or workplaces of people who were persecuted by the Nazis during and in the lead up to World War 2. The 10 stones in the photo below are outside what was the home of a Jewish family on Kloster Strasse in Beurig. There is a stone for each family member and the stone identifies their name and birthdate and what happened to them; being the year they were arrested and/or deported, where they were taken to and what ultimately happened to the person (where and when).

In many cases, stolpersteine serve as the only memorial to so many ordinary people whose lives were devastated by the Nazis and the initiator of the scheme (Gunther Demnig and his team) and the towns and villages which support his initiative (Saarburg included) are to be applauded.

Guise (Hauts de France), France September 2023

And so to Tour 8, which started somewhat inauspiciously with our discovering, the day before departure, that the refrigerator in the Van was faulty. The inside of the fridge was warm; so warm Vanya felt compelled to throw almost all of the food out. That was not good but, worse, was the thought of setting off into a hot summer in Europe with no facility for keeping our wine and beer cold… that thought kept me awake almost all of the Sunday night and resulted in me contacting Lee from Raemoir Caravans at 4.30 on the Monday morning. Bless him, he was round at our house by 06.30 trying to fix the problem. He was unable to say for sure what the fault was and suggested we might need a new fridge. Shock! Horror! The last one cost me 2,000 euros and that was pre-covid when everything was much cheaper. I preferred to think that it could just be an air block in the gas pipe caused by parking the Van on the fairly steep slope that is Balsdean Road (that’s an altogether cheaper thought) and resolved to test that theory by driving through as many large pot holes as I could find on the way to Le Folkestone Shuttle. England’s children are back at school today after the summer holidays or I would have opted for a time trial drive around the local schools with all their speed bumps – sleeping policemen we used to call them.

And so to Tour 8… Some eight hours after setting off; shaken, battered and bruised and with much of the contents of our cupboards now scattered all over the Van floor (there are a great many pot holes between Brighton and Folkestone) we reached Guise in the Hauts de France. We’d find out if we’d dislodged the hoped for air bubble the next morning.

It was late Monday afternoon when we arrived in Guise – just enough time for a brief exploration. I should have remembered that in rural France, lundi is much like another Sunday. Indeed the weekend in such places will often extend across the Monday and Tuesday. The town was very quiet and, certainly, there were no restaurants open. We settled for one of the small Turkish run cafes. We found one without too much difficulty which served a reasonable bottle of wine, a bucket of moules and a large plate of exceptionally good chips. Oh and chews for the dogs, all for 25 euros. The owners were very welcoming and it seemed we were back on track.

I didn’t notice any rail station during my brief tour of the town but there was evidence of one in the graffiti.

Guise is a small town of almost 5,000 inhabitants situated on the L’Oise River towards the south of the Hauts de France. It’s the agricultural centre of the Aisne Department but it doesn’t have a great deal going for it other than the remains of a medieval castle (which was closed when I arrived at it’s gates) and for being the birthplace of Camille Desmoulins – a prominent figure of the French Revolution who along with his close pals, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton, lost his head to the guillotine. Actually, Camille Desmoulins was executed after complaining about the excesses of the Reign of Terror. His old pal Robespierre thought he’d gone soft and in those days, that was enough to see you denounced as a traitor to the revolution.

I’ll say no more about Desmoulins or Guise except that it served as a useful place to break our journey towards Germany. We planned to start our tour in Germany in the Rhein Palatinate – a place called Saarburg. I’ll leave you with a few photos…

Veules Les Roses (Normandy), France May 2023

Two girls we were talking to at a restaurant in Yport recommended Veules Les Roses as a place to visit. Tucked away on the Alabaster Coast just south of Dieppe, it is another of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’. Dating back to the 4th century, it is also one of the oldest villages on the Normandy coast and quite charming.

Veules Les Roses can also boast of straddling the smallest river in France with the River Veules running less than 0.75 of a mile through the village from it’s source to the English Channel. The river is also one of the cleanest as may be demonstrated by the number of water cress farms surrounding the source of the river (water cress has been farmed here since the 14th century) and, most particularly, with Brown Trout returning from the sea every year to spawn.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there is a shorter river in France but it will not be running into the sea.

Until recently this was a flourishing fishing and agricultural area but, for the most part, these industries have given way to tourism and; the many mills which once dominated this district have closed one after the other as the number of tea rooms has increased. There are now 2 dozen tea rooms in the village.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the beach area but…

For all that, one water mill continues to grind grain, the water cress farms are thriving and the local oysters which are farmed offshore (the veulaise oyster) remain popular. More than that, the real beauty in the village is not so much to be found on the beach in the tea rooms and restaurants where the tourists congregate but in following the track of the little river (which track is known as the Champs Elysee) as it winds it’s way around a wonderful mix of houses – the tall stone houses of flint and brick so typical of Normandy; medieval pastel coloured half timbered houses and delightful thatched cottages.

… following the river…

… and seeing so many delightful houses made the visit well worthwhile.

Veules Les Roses was to be the last explore of this, our brief seventh, tour. Yes we returned to the vet (Veto Coeur de Caux) in Fecamp so that the dogs could get the tapeworm tablets necessary for them to return to the UK and we spent our last night at the municipal campsite in Montreuil sur Mer (to facilitate a short journey to the Eurotunnel on our last day) but we didn’t stay long in either place. I’m certain we will return to both at some time in the future (for the same purposes) but on this occasion there was no need for an explore. Until next time… au revoir.

Yport (Normandy), France May 2023

One of my favourite small towns in Normandy. I first visited Yport in 2018 (Tour 2) and it hasn’t changed a bit since then.

Nestled in between steep chalk cliffs on the Alabaster Coast, Yport was a tiny fishing village until beach holidays became fashionable in Europe in the late 19th century. It has since become a little a gem of a beach resort with a couple of very good restaurants and it’s own casino (casinos are rare in France). The village is one of the smaller resorts in the region and contains a mix of tiny fishing houses and larger 19th century properties built at the time Yport was becoming established as a seaside resort and it’s a fine place to while away a day or two while we wait for the vet in Fecamp to open after the bank holiday.

The view east along the coast towards Fecamp.

One thing about Yport which stirs me every time I walk into the town is that almost breathtaking moment when, as you turn on to the beach from Rue Emmanuel Foy, you get hit by a rush of fresh salty sea air being channeled through the town by the chalk cliffs. Refreshing is an understatement; it’s almost energising.

The view west and east from Yport’s pebble beach

Yport’s church, L’Eglise Saint Martin dates back to 1838. Apparently, it was erected in just 6 months by the town’s inhabitants who themselves gathered much of the flint and pebbles that was used in it’s construction from the local beach. The last time I visited Yport the church was closed. This time I was more fortunate.

L’Eglise Saint Martin

The inside of the church is fascinating, not least because of the numerous votive offerings on display which reflect the village’s earlier association with fishing.

We used Yport as a base on this occasion to visit both Fecamp (I mentioned already that we were taking the dogs to the vet there) and the small village of Veules Les Roses (which was recommended as a place to visit by two local girls we got talking to and I will write a separate blog on Veules Les Roses) but we invariably took our meals in Yport. The mussels here are the best I’ve ever tasted and Vanya was keen to try them. Previously, I had eaten at the Hotel Normand and one of the open air restaurants on the beach. This time we tried Le Cabestan et sa Plume and, best of all, Le Nautique.

The food (and the ambience and the welcome) at La Nautique was such that I would return again and again. The place was packed but they found a table for us (and the dogs) in the outside seating area at the back of the restaurant. Their oysters were great; the Moules Normande were truly exceptional and; their apple tart (if that is what it was) was delicious. All washed down with the local cider and a bottle of Muscadet.

… and there’s always time to take in a lovely sunset. These next two photos were taken from just outside Le Cabestan et sa Plume.

Le Bec-Hellouin (Normandy), France May 2023

Vanya suggested Le Bec-Hellouin as a place to stop at for lunch on our way north from Alencon to Yport. Le Bec-Hellouin was recently voted a “plus beau village de France” (and is fully deserving of the title) but, otherwise, it is most famous for it’s large abbey complex.

The Bec-Hellouin Abbey was founded in 1034 by a former Norman knight by the name of Herluin who had renounced violence and become a Benedictine monk. Sometimes referred to as Saint Herluin (despite not being canonised) Herluin was a fascinating character who inspired various distinguished ecclesiastics (including two early Archbishops of Canterbury; Lanfranc de Pavia and Anselm d’Aostein) and created one of the most influential abbeys in the Christian World. Herluin died in 1078 and his remains can be seen in the new Abbey Church.

The Abbey complex is now wholly owned by the French State and the Abbey is better known these days for the pottery it produces but a community of Benedictine monks do still practise monasticism there.

Left: The primary entrance into the abbey complex from Place de L’Abbe Herluin and Right: The 15th century Bell Tower of St Nicolas.

The 15th century Tour St Nicolas (the Bell Tower of St Nicholas) is the oldest part of the abbey still standing. Some considerable damage was caused to the original Abbey throughout the 100 years war between the English and the French (the village of Bec-Hellouin changed hands many times during that period) and again during both the French Religious Wars and the French Revolution.

In 1948 the surviving buildings were occupied by a community of Olivetan Benedictine monks who with government money have since restored them. In 1959, the remains of Herluin were reburied in the new Abbey Church.

Much of the existing complex was rebuilt in a Regency style. The old refectory (the wing on the left of the photo) is now home to the Abbey Church.

The inside of the abbey church, best described as ‘simply beautiful’, holds Heluin’s relics.

The village of Bec-Hellouin is tiny (just 402 inhabitants) but, it comprises a number of very pretty rows of pastel coloured half timbered houses, all in fine condition. For the most part these houses are gathered around two main squares, the Place de L’Abbe Herluin and the Place Mathilde where the village Church of Saint Andrew (Eglise Saint Andre) is located. The Place Mathilde is so named because William the Conqueror’s wife, Mathilde, was initially buried in the grounds of this particular St Andrew’s (until moved to the Abbey in Caen).

It didn’t take long to wander the village and we soon found a table outside ‘La Crepe dans Le Bec’ where we each enjoyed a buckwheat galette and I was able to sup an ice cold glass of the local cider. There’s nothing like a local cider on a warm sunny day in Normandy.

Awaiting galettes outside a creperie on the Place de l’Abbe Herluin.

Just one piece of interesting news I learned while in Le Bec Hellouin. The London suburb of Tooting Bec (where Del & Rodney Trotter lived before they became millionaires) was so named because the Abbey owned all the land on which the original village of Tooting stood. Now, not many people know that.

On to Yport.

Alencon (Normandy), France May 2023

Alencon, in the south of Normandy, was simply a staging post on our way back to the UK. Our timetable required that we head for Yport on the Normandy coast and we had 36 hours to get there. This allowed sufficient time for us to overnight at Alencon and take a short wander around the town centre (and perhaps even take lunch the following day at yet another of Normandy’s ‘plus beau villages’) and; if I could also find a decent restaurant for the evening… well, that would be a bonus.

I knew very little about Alencon and decided to head first to the local tourist office for their advice. The tourist office is housed in an impressive 15th century turreted mansion, known as the Maison d’Oze, which was built for the town’s alderman but some time during the 16th century became home to Charles de Valois (Duke of Alencon). More about him later. It will suffice to say here that visitors can tour the mansion for free.

First impressions as I made my way to the tourist office was that Alencon is neither the prettiest nor the most interesting of Normandy’s towns but, on the plus side, it is not plagued with lots of tourist tack. The tourist office staff were keen to help, producing a decent map and taking time to point out the town’s principal points of interest but when a google search of the best things to see and do in Alencon recommended a visit to an Escape Room… well, my interest in the town began to pale. Honestly, an escape room. Give me strength.

That’s the Maison d’Oze in the centre of the photo with, slightly behind it and to the left, the town’s principal place of worship – the Basilique Notre Dame d’Alencon.

Anyway, armed with the tourist office map I set off to explore the town, starting with the Basilique de Notre Dame d’Alencon which almost adjoins the Maison d’Oze.

The first stone of the Basilica Notre Dame was laid in 1356 but most of the current building dates from between the 15th and 17th centuries and, actually, the building wasn’t elevated to Basilica status until 2009. There’s an imposing main door and it is light and airy inside the Basilica but, best of all, are the splendid stained glass windows in the nave which date from 1530. Odd, isn’t it? We’ve completed almost seven tours over the last few years and it wasn’t until the start of this particular tour that I took any real interest in stained glass windows. It was the trip to Troyes earlier in May that did it. Now that was stained glass.

Inside the Basilica.

The Basilica Notre Dame is famous for being the place where Saint Therese de Lisieux was baptised. Not being a Catholic I know next to nothing about Saint Therese but she is sometimes referred to as “The Little Flower of Jesus” and is revered by many (including Pope Pius X) as the greatest saint of modern times. She was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1925. That is no small feat given she died from tuberculosis in 1897 aged just 24 years. She was born in Alencon and it is possible to visit the house where she was born (Maison de la Famille Martin on Rue Saint Blaise) which has become something of a shrine to the Saint but, I chose to give that a miss.

The tourist office map took me next, past the memorial to the French General Philippe Leclerc (his forces liberated Alencon from the Germans during WWII), to the 15th century Chateau des Ducs.

The Leclerc Memorial and the imposing entrance to the Chateau des Ducs

There’s not much left of the original Chateau des Ducs, although part of it was still in use as a prison until as recently as 2010, but at one time the castle was the primary abode of the aforementioned Francois de Valois, Duke of Anjou. Francois de Valois was perhaps the only serious foreign contender for the hand of Elizabeth I of England. He was 22 years younger than Elizabeth but they exchanged many affectionate letters over a four year period before Elizabeth finally sent him a ‘Dear John’ in 1581. Vanya maintains that she was stringing him along as part of a strategy to make Robert Dudley jealous and who am I to argue with her about the Tudors?

Chateau des Ducs

The rest of the afternoon saw me visit most of the remaining sights listed on my tourist office map – the Merchant’s House known as La Maison a L’Etal, the Eglise Saint Leonard and Le Parc des Promenades. I gave the Corn Exchange a miss.

La Maison a L’Etal and a portrait of Francois de Valois.Is it me or is there a slight resemblance to Rowan Atkinson appearing as Lord Edmund Blackadder?

Given the similarities in appearance of Francois de Valois and Rowan Atkinson (when he appeared as Lord Edmund Blackadder in the 2nd Series of Blackadder) and having regard to the correspondence between Francois de Valois and Queen Elizabeth I, it seems appropriate to quote a love poem created by Queenie (Elizabeth I) which featured in a Series 2 episode of Blackadder:-

When the night is dark and the dogs go ‘bark’; When the clouds go black and the ducks go ‘quack’; When the sky goes blue and the cows go ‘moo’; Think of lovely Queenie, she’ll be thinking of you.

That’s it settled. We’ll be stopping at Le Bec-Hellouin tomorrow on our way to the coast.

Fresnay Sur Sarthe (Pays de la Loire), France May 2023

Fresnay sur Sarthe is a charming little town of some 3,000 inhabitants which straddles the River Sarthe in an area known as the Mancelles Alpes (which, despite the grandiose name, are little more than a series of pretty green grassy valleys). We were heading north to Alencon and, just after Le Mans, we decided to stop for a spot of lunch and to stretch our legs. Fresnay sur Sarthe looked like the perfect spot.

Having parked the Van, we ambled across the bridge over the River Sarthe and up to the medieval centre of the town. It sits on a rocky outcrop above the river alongside the ruins of a small 14th century castle.

The Fresnay sur Sarthe town bridge with what remains of the old castle walls behind it.

There is little left of the old castle but it’s grounds have been transformed into a very pretty public garden which offers pleasant views over the lower part of the town.

Since at least the time of William the Conqueror the castle has been the scene of many battles and, certainly, the castle (and the town) changed hands between the English and the French numerous times during both the 100 Years War and the 30 Years War but, it was during France’s Religious Wars in 1562, that it was almost totally destroyed by the Huegenots.

Looking down from the castle walls to the River Sarthe.

A small square adjacent to the castle, the Place de Bassum with it’s traditional stone market hall and an unusual fountain featuring a lion and an ash tree with three crowns, is the accepted centre of the town. We ate a light brunch outside one of the cafe bars in the centre and then just soaked up the sun for a while over a couple of glasses of coffee.

Left: The approach to the medieval centre of Fresnay from the lower town. Centre: Place de Bassum with it’s unusual fountain. Right: A closer view of the fountain.

The castle entrance and the view down towards the bridge from the castle walls.

Whilst wandering Place de Bessum, we couldn’t help but notice various motor racing paraphernalia, particularly black and white chequered flags, displayed in almost every shop window. Moreover, there was an open air art exhibition in the castle grounds which again featured motor racing – some rather good paintings. And then, most impressive of all, nearly all of the streets fanning out from Place de Bessum were bedecked with literally hundreds of black and white umbrellas. Curioser and curioser! With a little help from Google we discovered that the town was one of many in the immediate area which, on 10 and 11 June, would be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Le Mans 24 Hour Sports Car Endurance Race – Just two weeks hence. Now that would be something to witness but… we have a wedding to attend in the UK.

Almost every street surrounding Place de Bessum looked like these (and it was nothing to do with Newcastle United qualifying for the European Champions League Tournament for the first time in their history).

It was almost time to get back on the road. We’d missed the weekly farmers market up on the square near the Church of Notre Dame but there was still time to wander that remaining part of the town. I’ll leave you with just a few more photos…

Two rather poor photos of the 12th century Notre Dame (the narrow lanes and alleys precluded any decent photos) and a photo of a very nervous Beanie who has never before seen such a large amount of strange smelling ice. This ice was dumped by the fishmonger at the farmers weekly market.

… and back down to the lower town and the River Sarthe.

We’d have liked to stay on. The town appeared full of character and there were at least two nice looking restaurants. A half decent looking municipal campsite too.

obiter dicta: I’ve mentioned already that I am well behind with this blog. It is now 11 July and we visited Fresnay sur Sarthe on 27 May. Sorry about that but there is so much going on at the moment back in the UK. I will soon catch up but, meanwhile, in case you are interested, Ferrari won the 2023 Le Mans race for the first time since 1964 and with a British driver at the wheel – James Calado. The favourites, Toyota, were a close second.

Blois (Centre-Val de Loire), France May 2023

There are a multitude of magnificent castles in the Central Loire Valley. During Tour Three we visited two of them, Chateau d’Amboise and Chateau Chenonceau, but that still left Chateau Royal de Blois, Chateau Chambord, Chateau de Chaumont, Chateau Cheverney and Chateau de Fougeres sur Bievre , to name but a few. This time it was to be the Chateau Royal de Blois and it was because of Vanya’s interest in all things Tudor.

We had previously visited Chateau d’Amboise (left) and Chateau Chenonceau (right)

The Chateau Royal is not the prettiest of the Loire Valley castles but there’s enough about it to interest most anyone. It’s a prestigious ‘must see’ castle which was home to no less than 7 French Kings and 10 Queens, as well as being where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Rheims on her way to fight the English at Orleans. More important, from Vanya’s perspective, it was the place where in 1515 Anne Boleyn (later Henry VIII’s second wife) came to be Lady in Waiting to Queen Claude (wife of Francois I) and so shared her time for the next seven years between Blois and Amboise.

Although there was a fortress on the site as long ago as the 9th century, the existing chateau started to take shape in the 13th century under the aegis of the Counts of Blois. Louis XII added a Gothic wing between 1498 and 1500 and Francis I added a Renaissance wing, including the majestic spiral staircase, between 1515 and 1518. Gaston of Orleans added a Classical wing between 1635 and 1638.

The main entrance into the chateau is through the Gothic wing added by Louis XII and is from the Place du Chateau.

The main entrance is surmounted by an intricate statue of Louis XII and (lower and to the right of his statue) a carving of a porcupine, the emblem of the Royal Order of the Porcupine inherited from his grandfather.

The Renaissance wing added by Francis I between 1515 and 1518.

Closer views of the spiral staircase.

Leaving Vanya to her history for a couple of hours, I strolled off behind the chateau with Nala and Beanie to get some breakfast. My stroll took me through Place Victor Hugo, just to the north of the chateau, and past the very elaborate facade of the Eglise Saint Vincent de Paul. The church was locked but, for once, I couldn’t have cared less. I’d seen a poster advertising a small cafe on the Rue Porte Cote and I was ready for a cup of coffee and a Croque Monsieur (a posh name for a cheese and ham toastie).

The Baroque style Eglise Saint Vincent de Paul was a 17th century Jesuit College which was renamed and became a church some time during the 19th century.

Breakfast over, it was time to wander Blois. Rue Porte Cote led me on to Rue Denis Papin and then up the Escalier Denis Papin. This impressive 120 step staircase, with it’s statue of Denis Papin (inventor of a prototype pressure cooker), has long been a pedestrian link between the upper and lower town of Blois. It would serve to get me to the city’s cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Louise) and perhaps provide a fine view back down over the city.

Escalier Denis Papin led me to the cathedral and, even if the views over the city weren’t of the standard I expected, there was a pretty good view towards the south.

Every summer, for a period, the risers on the staircase are covered and transformed into an optical illusion by the French photographer, Nicolas Wietrich. Left: The 2017 illusion. Right: The 2019 illusion.

And on to the cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Louis) with it’s tall Renaissance style tower. This church was elevated to cathedral status in 1697 and is the seat of the Bishop of Blois. It was built on the site of a 10th century church and what is left of the original church can be seen in the crypt. This cathedral isn’t particularly striking (inside or outside) when compared with many of those I have seen in the past but, hey, it is still an impressive structure (aren’t all cathedrals?!?) and this one is certainly worth the walk up the Escalier Denis Papin.

From the cathedral, I made my way down into the main medieval part of city with it’s stone and half timbered houses and cobbled streets. I never tire of such places. There are a number of scenic walks through this part of the town each identified by different bronze dials embedded in the pavement (the Porcupine Route, the Fleur de Lys, Saint Nicolas Steeples and the Sailing Boat – full details of which can be obtained from the local tourist office, I expect) but I had just enough time to find my way back to the Place du Chateau for a quiet beer before Vanya finished her tour of the Chateau Royal.

I took a great many more photos of the old town but these are fairly representative.

I found a small cafe bar on the Place du Chateau and sat outside in the sunshine with a small beer (and the two dogs). The square was surprisingly quiet; May is off season in France. To my left was La Maison de la Magie which appeared a fairly ordinary looking museum dedicated to the 19th century conjuror, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin and to my right was the main entrance to the Chateau. I’d have no problem seeing Vanya the moment she emerged from the Chateau. Indeed, she would probably see me first.

And then the place erupted! The shuttered windows to that ‘fairly ordinary looking museum’ sprung open and very loud (horrible) music issued forth and; then, a number of roaring (more like screeching) automated mechanical dragons appeared one after the other to hang outside of the windows. The two dogs, which until then had been stretched out peacefully in the shade under the slatted wooden table upon which my beer rested, charged out (knocking both the table and my beer flying) and started barking furiously (Nala) and/or whining hysterically (Beanie) at the lurid monsters which continued groaning and screeching and rolling their necks in the windows for the longest ever 10 minutes. Ordinarily I’d have immediately dragged the dogs away but my beer glass had shattered on the cobblestones and I couldn’t just leave broken glass scattered all over the place. That was one of the longest 10 minutes of my life.

Also on Place du Chateau, opposite the Chateau Royal is Maison de la Magie. I think there were nine of those dragon heads appeared before the thing finished.

Not long after that, Vanya arrived. I left my replacement beer and we quickly exited the square. I really didn’t want to be there with the dogs any longer than absolutely necessary. What if it started up again? Moreover, Vanya was tired after walking almost every inch of the Chateau Royal and she fancied, would you believe it, a Croque Monsieur.

The bridge across the Loire with the many spires of the Eglise Saint Nicolas in the background.

Croque Messieurs later, we crossed the Loire to where our Van was parked and made our way back to our temporary base at Montrichard. Except for a certain 10 minutes I enjoyed what little I saw of Blois.