Chateauneuf sur Loire (Centre Val du Loire), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

Continuing north towards Calais and the UK, we paused for brunch at Jargeau in the Loiret Department of the Centre Val du Loire. Jargeau is where, in 1429, Joan of Arc won her first offensive battle against the English on behalf of the French King, Charles VII. It wasn’t a major battle but it proved costly to the English. Approximately 1,200 French troops laid siege to Jargeau which was defended by some 700 English troops. Inspired by Joan of Arc the French troops breached the town’s defences and the English surrendered after suffering some 300 casualties. The English might as well have carried on fighting because all of those who surrendered, together with several hundred townsfolk, were summarily executed. That’s all I know about Jargeau.

We took a leisurely lunch in Jargeau and then made our way to a campsite in nearby Chateauneuf sur Loire (not to be confused with Chateauneuf du Pape in Provence), entering the town via it’s imposing suspension bridge over the Loire.

There’s not much to see or do in Chateauneuf sur Loire but the chateau and it’s grounds are worth visiting, as is the Saint Martial Church.

The original 17th century chateau was seized and sold at the time of the French Revolution (we can only speculate as to what happened to the original owner) but the new owner Benoit Lebrun demolished much of the original chateau leaving just the existing living accommodation, the large stable block, the orangery and extensive gardens. In 1926 the chateau was acquired by local government and became the town hall. It has to be one of the most beautiful town halls in France. The stables are now a museum and the gardens serve as the town park. They are still considering options for the Orangery. I visited the museum during our short stay but wasn’t too impressed. It’s focus is directed almost entirely towards boats and trade on the River Loire and, I regret that subject does nothing for me.

Also impressive and well worth a visit is the Saint Martial church on Rue Migneron. This church dates back to the 12th century but little if anything remains of the original building. It was significantly altered during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and if that wasn’t enough it was hit by German bombers during WWII. Indeed, the bombing in June 1940 took out almost the whole of the original nave which is now a porch at the new entrance to the church. I particularly like the modern stained glass windows in the current building but another interesting feature of the church is the marble mausoleum erected for the Marquis Louis de Phelypeaux Vrilliere by his son in 1686. The mausoleum survived the bombing.

Well, that entry is short and sweet. We drive further north in the morning, to Normandy, where we will be staying on a campsite in the grounds of Chateau Bouafles and I hope to see something of nearby Les Andelys.

Blois (Centre-Val de Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

There are a multitude of magnificent castles in the Central Loire Valley. During Tour Three we visited two of them, the Chateau d’Amboise and the 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 down to Vanya’s current interest in all things Tudor.

We‘ve already visited Chateau d’Amboise (left) and Chateau Chenonceau (right)

The Chateau Royal de Blois 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 Count 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 via 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 our dogs, Nala and Beanie, to get some breakfast. The stroll took me through Place Victor Hugo, 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 but it was renamed and transformed into 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 served to get me to the city’s cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Louise) and offered 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, 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 cathedral’s 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 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 minute spell I enjoyed what little I saw of Blois.

Montrichard (Centre-Val de Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

We love this little market town which sits within easy reach of some of the most beautiful castles in France. We used it once before as a base from which I could visit both the Chateau de Chenonceau and the Chateau Amboise and Vanya wanted to use it this time as a base to visit the Chateau Royal de Blois. Leaving the castles aside for a moment, we would have returned to Montrichard anyway because it is such a friendly, lazy little town which simply begs you to sit outside a cafe with a glass of wine and watch the world go by. We intended staying a couple of days at least.

We checked in to Camping Couleurs du Monde, which we had used before and knew to be good. Situated adjacent to a decent sized Carrefour and within easy walking distance of Montrichard, it has fair sized pitches, a half decent bar and a heated swimming pool. It would prove a perfect base from which to visit Blois and perhaps even Fresnay sur Sarthe. We’d made good time across the south of France; we’d arranged to get the dogs seen by a vet in Fecamp early the following week and the weather forecast for the next days was excellent. In these circumstances we could afford to relax for a few days.

That’s the town bridge over the River Cher. The original medieval bridge was built by the English but was demolished in the 19th century. The current bridge is a replica.

Staying over in Montrichard for two or three days meant we could once again attend the weekly farmers market. It’s a great little market.

I love these photos both of which I took during our last visit and couldn’t improve upon this trip. The photo on the left is of the Town Hall (taken at night it looks like something out of a Disney movie). The photo on the right is of a small restaurant owned and operated by some expat English. We took dinner there one evening.

Looking west along the Cher from the town bridge.

I took time during this our second stay in Montrichard to revisit the town’s church, L’Eglise de Sainte-Croix (the Church of the Holy Cross). I hadn’t been able to get inside during our first visit.

It’s a pretty little church which is believed to date back to the 11th century although, it’s finest moment came in 1476 when a 12 year old Princess Joan of France was married to her 14 year old cousin, Louis Duc d’Orleans (later to become King Louis XII of France). The marriage had been arranged almost 12 years earlier and was anything but a success.

L’Eglise de Sainte-Croix. Outside, Inside and Window Detail.

On their wedding day, Louis Duc d’Orleans said he would rather die than marry Joan but he was compelled by his father to go through with the ceremony. Louis later had the marriage annulled (so that he could marry the much richer Anne of Brittany) on the grounds that Joan was sterile and hunchbacked. He further claimed he had been forced to marry against his will and never consummated the marriage although Joan took issue with this latter point. Joan subsequently found solace in religion but when she died, Louis did not even attend her funeral.

The Chateau de Montrichard in the centre of the town is very much a ruin (and has been since it was invested in 1188 by the then King of France who wanted the English occupants gone) but, it was good to see during this visit that the local authorities are endeavouring to restore parts of it or at least make it safe for visitors. Watch this space.

From Montrichard we were able to visit Blois and Fresnay sur Sarthe (and we enjoyed both those places – see below) but, we thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Montrichard and, the nice thing is, we’re both keen to return yet again.

I said we’d find time to relax in Montrichard and we did. The weather remained kind enough for us to enjoy the both campsite’s swimming pool and a picnic.

St Aignan (Loire Valley), France – August 2020 (Tour 3)

It is just 33 kms from Amboise to St Aignan where we had booked into a small campsite no more than a few minutes walk from the town. We approached from the north and the view as we crossed the River Cher into the town was of the Chateau de St Aignan. It towered over a line of riverfront properties and filled the van’s windscreen. That would be somewhere to visit in the morning.

Our first view of Saint Aignan as we approached from the north

We’d done very little research into St Aignan. We simply wanted somewhere to stay overnight that took us further south and was not too much of a drive from Amboise and Vanya reported that the local camp site read well. Having said all that and in hindsight, I think Vanya knew the ZooParc de Beauval, Europe’s fifth largest zoo with more than 35,000 animals, is close by and that will have influenced her thinking as she searched for somewhere to park up for the night. Ever felt had?

St Aignan is a small town in the Loir et Cher Department of the Centre-Val de Loire with a population of less than 3,000 and we weren’t expecting great things of the place; well, I wasn’t. The next two days saw us disappointed on two counts and well pleased on one. The disappointments: (a) we couldn’t visit the zoo because we had the dogs with us (and we weren’t going to leave them for the time it would take to properly explore the place) and (b) it was the final weekend of the school holidays in France and the camp site was packed with kids and far too busy for us. The one positive was that the beauty and character of St Aignan, and especially the Chateau, more than compensated for both disappointments. We each enjoyed St Aignan as much as Amboise.

My initial thoughts as we approached the Chateau early the next morning were that it looked a little tired and somewhat average (especially after Chenonceau) but when you get up close it oozes elegance and style and looks and feels so full of history – I was wholly thrilled by the place and I wanted to know everything about it. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The place is owned and lived in by the de la Roche Aymon family and for that reason we were allowed access only to the main courtyard and terraces but, hey, bless them for allowing that. The place blew me away.

I can’t tell you much about the Chateau except that there are three aspects to it. There’s the derelict Hagard Tower which is all that remains of the original 9th century fortress. Then there’s the Renaissance Chateau decorated with scallop shells and the salamander device of Francis I and it is this part of the Chateau which is most visible from the north and which towers over the town. This was home to the Dukes of Beauvilliers. The third aspect, which sits at the end of the stables, is the Octagonal Tower erected around 1830 by the Prince de Chalais.

Such a wonderful entrance – That’s the gate and courtyard in front of the Renaissance building
A better view of the Courtyard
A view from the Chateau Terraces over the River Cher
That’s the Octagonal Tower built on to the stables. Part of the original Hagard Tower is to the right.

Alongside the Chateau is an 11th/12th century Romanesque collegiate church dedicated to St Aignan. I am told it has a magnificent crypt containing 10th century murals but I was unable to gain access because the Sunday morning service was in full swing – next time.

Actually, Vanya and I had forgotten it was Sunday. This is a bad mistake to make in France because most cafes and restaurants seem to shut on Sundays and you generally need to book in advance; this is especially true in August. We could sit outside a bar and enjoy a couple of glasses of wine (which we did) but it would have been something like a two hour wait for food. We made do with cheese and biscuits back at the Boomobile.

It was a just short walk along the banks of the River Cher to St Aignan town centre from the Van

On to Cognac-la-Foret

Amboise (Loire Valley), France – August 2020 (Tour 3)

We both like Amboise. It is a bit touristy and it was quite busy while we were there but it is steeped in history and well worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Because of the Chateau Royal d’Amboise and what remains of the old town it retains, I think, something of a medieval feel.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see as much of the town as we would have liked. I have long wanted to explore the Chateau Royal and what with doing that and then taking lunch at a small bistro alongside the Loire the time just flew.

People have been living on the site that is now Amboise for well over 2,000 years and there has been a fortress of some sort there for most of that time – certainly, there has been one since Roman times. It was in 1498, however, after fighting his wars in Italy and returning with a love of all things Italian, that the French King Charles VIII began to transform the typically dark defensive medieval fortress where he had been raised into a Renaissance masterpiece. This start was continued by others (notably Louis II and Francis I with Francis in particular excelling as he brought in various Renaissance Masters including Leonardo da Vinci to build on the earlier works) until the Chateau became a worthy palace for numerous Vallois and Bourbon kings. It is sad but, magnificent as it still seems, the Chateau is only a shadow of what it once was (because of destruction caused during the French Revolution and then again under German occupation in the Second World War).

Upon entering the Chateau one of the first sights to be seen is the Chapel of Saint Hubert which sits almost directly above the main entrance and has been described as “an absolute jewel” – it is! This is supposedly the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci who spent the last years of his life and died in Amboise in 1519.

Put me on the walls of a castle and I am normally looking outwards for the best views. Not so in this case. The views along and inside the Chateau walls are truly superb and the restored gardens certainly do the place justice…

Although this is not to say that there aren’t some views outside the castle wall that are not also worth taking in…

I did a quick run around inside the Chateau (and I could talk for ages about some of the rooms which are in fitted and furnished in late Gothic style as well as Renaissance and; of course, I have made no mention yet of Francis II and his time at the Chateau with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots – Vanya and I are almost obsessed with the Tudors & Stuarts) but I had to drag myself away to rejoin Vanya who was patiently waiting outside with our dogs.

There was just time left for us to take a short stroll around the pedestrian old town (well worth visiting with plenty of fine old houses and lovely cafes) and stop for lunch in a small bistro along the banks of the River Loire (which in case you don’t know officially separates the north and south of France and also marks the furthest point north reached by the Moors as they pushed up from Morocco into Europe) before we set off for our next port of call – Saint Aignan.

Montrichard sur Cher (Centre Val de Loire), France – August 2020 (Tour 3)

Drove south today, passing through Tours, to the small town of Montrichard sur Cher in the Centre-Val de Loire. We weren’t aiming for Montrichard; it was just that Vanya found a reasonable looking stopover in “Camping Couleurs du Monde” (next to a fair sized Carrefours, which provided an opportunity to stock up on a few luxury items such as basic foodstuffs and essentials such as Vanya’s newly found Cremont wine) and we elected to settle there for a couple of days and “just chill'”. What a great find!

I went exploring that first afternoon in Montrichard and two of the first places I stumbled upon were wineries, Domaine Merleau and Domaine Monmousseau. Time for some wine tasting but which to choose? Because it was 10 metres closer I did what any thirsty Englishman would do and chose the Domaine Merleau and… I did okay. Vanya would get her turn the next day.

That first evening in Montrichard was lazy. I ambled back to the Van – sorry the Boomobile – where Vanya had produced just the right meal to follow white wine tasting – a prawn starter with a chicken salad to follow. Then we sat and drank wine and put the world back into perspective.

The following morning was about properly checking out Montrichard and, especially, the local market which was in full swing that day. It isn’t a big market but you can get just about anything you want up to and including a double bed. The charcuterie stall was particularly appealing – loads of pork and boar! We took the dogs with us (the French seem to love dogs; witness the Michelin experience back in Normandy) and this time even Beanie was sufficiently well behaved that we were able to sit and enjoy coffee at the edge of the market and just watch the world go by.

A duo played a medley of songs while we sat drinking our coffee / tea and a group of ladies got up to dance – all dressed in the height of 2020 fashion

One thing worth mentioning – As we sat down to enjoy the morning coffee in the market place, I ordered a cafe au lait while Vanya (forgetting that she is in France and not Italy) ordered a Latte and yet; when the waitress returns with our drinks, Vanya swears blind that the cafe au lait is hers and that it was me who ordered La The! To make matters worse La The was Earl Grey and I cannot stand the stuff!!

Vanya went for a short sleep that afternoon and I took the time to walk to and from the Chateau de Chenonceau (that’s about a 20 kilometre round trip) but because we had more wine tasting scheduled for that evening I didn’t have time to enter the Chateau itself.

The wine tasting was fun (we went back to the same place I visited the previous afternoon ) and we came away with another couple of cases of white wine. Then it was off to find a restaurant in the centre of the town for dinner. Sod’s law, the wine served with our dinner that evening was a Monmousseau and Vanya hasn’t yet stopped telling me how much more she prefers it than the stuff I made her try earlier in the day at the Domaine Merleau. No matter, we had a great time sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening, eating huge buckets of Moules and listening to old music covers by a local combo (and, yes, drinking the finest wine I have experienced on the tour so far including the Pouilly Fume).

She likes her wine does Vanya and credit where it’s due she’ll try most anything

Montrichard in the evening is enchanting…

Amboise tomorrow.